With their victory on Sunday, Roma restored the natural order to the calcio universe by leapfrogging rivals Lazio in the standings. However, as we begin to approach the homestretch of the season, the race for third and fourth place will only heat up with the temperatures on the peninsula. The winter months have turned the once crowded Scudetto chase into a decidedly two-horse race between leaders Napoli and defending champions Juventus. That being said the contenders turned pretenders, Inter, Roma, and Lazio, along with dark horses Sampdoria, and Milan now have their sights set on the remaining coveted Champions League places.
For clubs with the ambitions of Roma, Inter, and Milan these places are essential for many reasons. For one, they present an influx of added cash that is essential to purchase players and perhaps more importantly avoid selling off too many big players. It also creates a prestige level around the club to reel in players who might only come with the intent of playing in the Champions League. Lastly, more specifically for a club like Roma, is the phrase we often hear “growing the Roma brand worldwide” because the casual fan outside of the bel paese may only see Roma play if they are in the Champions League.
With 24 weeks completed Inter and Roma are currently occupy third and fourth place but their hold is tenuous with Lazio hot on their heels, and teams like Samp and Milan lurking.
With the standings so close between third and fifth places it’s not inconceivable to think that Inter, Roma, and Lazio could flip flop places on a weekly basis. Who has the advantage in their attempt to secure a spot in next season’s Champions League? Let’s take a look at each teams’ strengths/advantages, weaknesses/disadvantages, and key players (in order of their current table positions).
Inter- 3rd Place, 48 Points
For all of the heat that Luciano Spalletti took for his handling of Francesco Totti’s swan song with Roma at the end of last season, he has proven time and again to be a quality manager. Spalletti had two successful spells in the capital and another in Russia with Zenit before finding his way to the San Siro this season. Spalletti has been there, done that when it comes to Champions League qualification. That’s something that no other manager on this list can boast.
Playing On One Front
Inter didn’t qualify for Europe last season and have already been knocked out of the Coppa Italia which means their workload is reduced compared to most of their competition. Inter and Samp are the only squads in the top 7 not playing in another competition. This might not sound like a big deal but the lack of midweek games will reduce team fatigue and allow Spalletti (who doesn’t rotate his players a ton) to play his best XI weekend after weekend in Serie A.
Inter boast one of the stronger defensive records in Serie A. The Nerazzurri have only conceded 19 goals so far this season which is tied for third best in Serie A. Defense wins games and when compared with the rest of the group that is battling it out for Champions League qualification they are far better in this area than all but Roma.
One Man Show
Inter have scored 40 goals which is nothing to scoff at through 24 matches. It’s where the goals have come from that could be a bit worrying for the Nerazzuri. Why you may wonder? Mauro Icardi has scored 18 of them which accounts for 44% of his team’s goals. This is the highest percentage of team goals scored by one player according to Who Scored. If Icardi goes cold or worse experiences an injury layoff Inter could struggle to score. Their defense is stout which means they don’t need to score a lot but you can’t win if you don’t score at all.
The first key man has to be the aforementioned Icardi. As outlined above the Argentine makes the offense go and he has to keep scoring in order for Inter to win consistently. The second key man is breakout center back Martin Skriniar. Skriniar has emerged as one of Serie A’s best at his position after entering the season as a relative unknown. He is the second highest rated center back according to Who Scored and will have to continue keeping opposing attacks at bay if Inter are going to finish in one of the Champions League spots.
Roma- 4th Place, 47 Points
Roma like Inter boast the best defensive record among this group of teams. The Giallorossi like the Nerazzurri have only conceded 19 goals this season. Only Napoli and Juve have conceded less and even during the team’s rough patch they didn’t allow more than two goals in any Serie A game. Roma’s defense has kept them in games even when the offense has been underwhelming. This will be an advantage down the stretch if they don’t get complacent against weaker teams (see below).
Roma have a team that can go two deep at most positions. Albeit not every player has played up to their true potential which negates some of the depth. However, EdF has shown a willingness and ability to rotate his players effectively, especially early in the season. For a team playing on two fronts this is especially important. EdF seems to rotate more than the other teams on the list which could play to the Giallorossi’s advantage as fatigue becomes an issue late in the season.
While Roma’s goal scoring has certainly left a lot to be desired, the attack hasn’t been statistically as bad as one would expect. The Lupi have been at times the victim of the woodwork and bad luck (think Inter week 2). In fact, Dzeko leads the league with four posts, according to Spanish site as.es. Why bring this up? Because as frustrating as the attack has been at times Roma do lead the league in chances created with nearly 14 per game. When you create chances sooner or later they start to go in like this past weekend. If more of those chances begin to go in then Roma will begin to see better results than they have the past couple months.
*Eusebio Di Francesco
Coaches can oftentimes make all the difference in how a team performs. Early in the season when Roma were flying high against Chelsea EdF looked like an absolute genius. However, when times became more turbulent the torches and pitchforks were pointed in the direction of the first year coach. The scouting report was out on EdF’s 4-3-3 formation and tactics and he took a long time adjust. In recent weeks he has shown a willingness not previously seen to adjust the formation. I’m not saying EdF is a weakness (hence the asterisk) but he needs to ensure that he doesn’t become one by reverting back to what got Roma in trouble; predictability.
As we witnessed this past weekend against Benevento, the Giallorossi are still prone to mental errors against far inferior sides. Roma were able to overcome such errors this weekend but it won’t always be so easy. Mental lapses can often lead to dropped points in games that can be won comfortably. Roma can’t afford to keep making mental errors if they hope to remain in the top four.
Champions League Commitment
For the time being Roma can’t solely focus their energy on Serie A because of their upcoming Champions League Round of 16 fixture with Shakhtar Donetsk. Milan and Lazio both have the Europa League (and a head-to-head Coppa Italia semifinal) to play as well but it can be argued that the competition in Europa is less demanding than Shakhtar. It’s a bit ironic to think that the very competition they are striving to qualify for could be seen as a disadvantage. However, if EdF doesn’t carefully balance his lineups Roma could find themselves crashing out of the UCL in a winnable match-up while at the same time dropping valuable points in Serie A and risking qualification to next year’s competition.
Allison and Aleksander Kolarov have certainly been Roma’s most consistent performers so far this season. However, the key for Roma down the stretch could be the reemergence of their best players from last season; Edin Dzeko and Radja Nainggolan. Last season on his way to winning capocannoniere, Dzeko was a goal scoring machine. This season Dzeko has 11 goals which is seventh best in the league. Not a bad number but a sharp drop-off from last season’s 29. If he were scoring anywhere near last season’s pace Roma could be comfortably in third and I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.
Meanwhile, Nainggolan hasn’t been the same all-around force in the midfield that he was under Spalletti. With EdF changing up the formation a bit to a 4-2-3-1 this weekend we may again begin to see the best of Radja. If Radja begins to play in a more advanced role like last season the offense should be more dangerous up the middle and we may begin to see less mindless crosses whipped in from the wings.
Lazio- 5th Place, 46 Points
Who’s the second best scoring team in Serie A after Juve? If your answer was Napoli like mine would be, I hate to break the news to you but you’re wrong. The answer is actually Roma’s city rivals Lazio. The Biancoceleste have scored a whopping 59 goals in just 24 games! That’s nearly 2.5 goals per game (Squawka). Lazio can score with the best of them and that became evident early in the season when they beat Juve in the Supercoppa 3-2 and then hammered Milan 4-1 a few weeks later. Every other team on this list would kill for goal scoring like that.
For all of their goal scoring prowess Lazio’s defense has been far from stellar this season. In fact, they have given up more goals (33) than any other team on this list. For all of their offensive outbursts this season Lazio have had their clunkers on D. This includes two 4-1 losses to Napoli. This can be an issue against the likes of Juve, Inter, and Roma down the stretch when the goals could be harder to come by and they may have to squeak out a 1-0 or 2-1 victory. Defense wins titles but do Lazio play enough defense to even finish Top 4?
My friend who is a Lazio fan (I know I probably shouldn’t publicize that) said, “Every year they have one player that masks all their problems. This year they have two.” This season the two he’s referring to are striker Ciro Immobile and midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. I’d add a third to the list in midfielder Luis Alberto. Those three have combined for 34 goals and 17 assists. In order for Lazio to continue winning games with a less than stellar defense this trio needs to continue scoring at this torrid pace.
Sampdoria- 6th Place, 41 Points
A club like Sampdoria doesn’t go into the season with the ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League and oftentimes even the Europa League can seem like a reach. With that being said Sampdoria have outplayed expectations so far this season. Lacking the star power of players like Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano from their last UCL appearance, not many would have tipped Samp to even sniff the top four. However, now that Samp have hung around and are only six points off the pace they can’t be counted out. The thing they have going for them that the other squads on this list don’t is the lack of expectations. The Blucerchiati can play loose knowing that there’s no pressure on them to perform as the bigger squads feel the heat when they don’t perform well.
That being said there is a reason why Samp weren’t expected to finish this high in the table. They have the least talented roster among the group on the list. With that in mind Samp could be an injury or two away from struggling. Marco Giampaolo will have to continue to maximize the talent on his roster and hope the team can remain relatively healthy in order to stay within striking distance of the European spots.
Samp have the least star power of any team on the list and coach Marco Giampaolo has gotten the most out of his players so far. However, their star man this season has clearly been 35 year old striker Fabio Quagliarella. Quagliarella has turned into an ageless wonder and is having his best statistical season to date. Quagliarella who throughout his career has been better known for wonder goals than scoring consistency has 17 goals which is good for third best in Serie A. In addition to Quagliarella, Samp seem to have a real gem in the midfield in the form of 22 year old Lucas Torreira. Torreira has completed nearly 87% of his passes and is the team’s highest rated player (on average) according to Who Scored. Samp will have to rely heavily on these two if they want to keep the heat on the heavyweights down the stretch.
Milan- 7th Place, 38 Points
Are there any advantages to having underachieved all season? Lower expectations for next season?
After their summer spending spree Milan were the most hyped team in Serie A. Rossoneri fans began dreaming of the club’s past glories with the new influx of Chinese cash. Milan were predicted to qualify for the Champions League while some asked if they could challenge Juve and Napoli for the Scudetto. However, Milan have proven that it takes more than spending power to build a winner. Milan have far from lived up to the hype. Can they finish the season strong to try and salvage some respect?
An Awful Start
In line with not living up to the hype, saying that Milan got off to a slow start would be an understatement. Milan’s awful start means that they have dug themselves a big hole to climb out of. Milan currently nine points behind Roma for the last Champions League spot. However, before they can even worry about trying to challenge the Giallorossi they would have to also make up eight points on Lazio and three on Sampdoria. That may not sound like many points but with only 14 games to play it looks like a tall task. At this point Milan may have a better chance of qualifying for the Champions League if they focus their energies on winning the Europa League. Is it something Gattuso would consider?
Milan went on a shopping spree this summer splashing the cash all over the place. However, the key man down the stretch could be 20 year old striker Patrick Cutrone. With summer signings Andre Silva and Nicola Kalinic under-performing Gattuso could look to Cutrone to lead the line after his brace against SPAL this past weekend. Cutrone keeping up his scoring could be key to Milan building on their recent form. The other key man could be center back Leo Bonucci who has been underwhelming since his much hyped summer move from Juve. If Bonucci can play more like the player we are accustomed to seeing than his early season form then Milan should win more than they lose the rest of the way.
Who Will Qualify?
Taking all factors into consideration I’d put my money on Inter and Roma qualifying for next season’s Champion League. The teams with the best defenses and most well-wounded rosters should be able to hold off the challengers. Lazio concede too much for my liking while Milan have dug themselves too much of a hole early on. Meanwhile Samp should be hard pressed to hang with the big boys over the course of 38 games. With that being said there are still 14 games to be played and plenty can happen between now and May. It should be one wild ride.