With 12 rounds in the books, Serie A is (more or less, technically less) one-third of the way through the 2019-2020 season. From Juventus at the tippy top to Brescia and the very bottom, Serie A has, in some respects, stuck to their usual script, but with clubs like Cagliari fighting for a spot in the top four and Atalanta hanging with mighty Manchester City in the Champions League, the season has thrown its fair share of surprises at us.
We'll tackle the Roma side of things in part two, but for now, come join us as we discuss the first 32% of the new season.
1) Alright, let’s start with the obvious: Good or bad, which team has been the biggest surprise of the season thus far?
Jimmy: The answer here is Cagliari, without a doubt. Of course plenty of things could (and will) change between now and the end of the season, but the fact that the Sardinian side is competing for a spot in Europe wasn’t exactly expected. I hope Radja and Olsen can find continued success at Cagliari; I don’t hold too much against them despite the fact that they left Roma.
dallagente: Yeah it’s hard to give a different answer than Cagliari. Although how well Verona are doing under Juric is just as big a surprise. In terms of surprises for the worst, I don’t think anyone saw Milan and Torino doing this bad, and both Napoli and Genoa will be privately disappointed with themselves.
Bren: Just to be different, I’ll say Napoli. Cagliari is a hell of a story no doubt, but I’m sure most of us thought Napoli would be right up there pressing Inter and Juve for the top of the table. They didn’t lose much of anything over the summer, they even got Manolas to pair with Koulibaly. They seemed like a complete and dynamic team, and yet here we are 12 weeks in and they’re stuck in seventh place. That is unbelievable! You have to wonder if Ancelotti will even make it through the year now.
ssciavillo: I agree that the biggest pleasant surprise has to be Cagliari, but since they’ve already been covered I’ll focus on the bad. As bad as some of the above mentioned teams have been, I think the two Genovese sides have been very disappointing. Clubs of that caliber should never be much worse than mid-table, let alone fighting relegation, the way these two have so far this season. It’d be a shame for Serie A to lose one or both of these teams, which right now looks entirely plausible. I really thought Genoa would be one of the surprise outfits to challenge for a Europa League spot along with Cagliari, but I was way off on the Grifoni. Poor transfer policy from both clubs has to be to blame. Now it’s up to Ranieri and Thiago Motta to salvage these two historic sides.
JonAS: Juventus are disappointing. I mean c’mon, only 32 points from 12 games? With Ronaldo and De Ligt? Clearly they are slowing down this season and Sarri needs to watch out.
2) Okay, narrow the focus: Good or bad, which player has been the biggest surprise so far?
Jimmy: The answer here is Chris Smalling. English imports don’t tend to do well in Serie A, especially at Roma, and Smalling’s probably been the best center-back in Italy so far (followed right behind by Gianluca Mancini). There’s a reason Roma is already negotiating for a permanent transfer for Smalling; you could argue that no center-back has had as good a start to playing for the Giallorossi since Mehdi Benatia.
dallagente: The English stereotype about doing badly abroad is overdone. The problem is English players have a history of not fitting into the culture long term. Guys like David Platt are the exception on that front, but there have been more than enough English players that have lit up Serie A in the short term. Beckham, Platt, Ince, Gascogne, Francis, hell, you can even go back to Jimmy Greaves. The glaring problem with all these names is their Serie A form was short-lived before most of them decided Italy wasn’t for them. Wait until the end of the season at least, before judging Chris Smalling. His form so far has been monstrous though and that’s great to see. Serie A-wise I’m going to say I didn’t expect Lautaro Martinez to be this good, this fast in both Italy and Europe.
Bren: I’ll go with one of the guys who just torched Roma, Dejan Kulusevski. He looks a bit awkward out there, but the proof is in the pudding: two goals and five assists in 12 matches while also averaging over two key passes and two dribbles per match. Yeah, he won’t be with Parma much longer. I’d also throw a few votes to Stefano Sensi at Inter; he's looking like a steal.
ssciavillo: Smalling has been such a pleasant surprise from a Roma perspective, but I’ll go away from the capital on this one. I always thought Sensi was good and even wrote a piece last season asking if Roma should bring him in. But, I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined him having such a big impact on Inter so soon. Barella was the sexier name that they brought in, but Sensi is proving to be every bit as important to Conte’s side.
JonAS: Joao Pedro from Cagliari has been a revelation so far. Six goals as an attacking midfielder and what a chemistry with Nainggolan and Simeone! His personal record is 13 goals back in 2016 but he looks set to surpass that and even guide the islanders to Europe. It will be a miracle if he stays at Cagliari after the Summer.
3) We’re a third of the way through the season and Ciro Immobile has a healthy lead in the capocannoniere race, will he take home the prize at the end of the season? Why or why not?
Jimmy: No, he won’t, because he plays for Lazio. Next question.
dallagente: He’s done it before so it’s not beyond him. Inzaghi’s Lazio have a habit of being a very streaky team though. I can see Zapata finishing ahead of him. I’m disappointed my Pinamonti pick only looks good for taking points off of Roma so far. He’s done nothing else beyond that at Genoa.
Bren: I think in the summer I said Lukaku, and at this point he’s five behind Immobile, so he’d have to get really hot in the final two-thirds of the season. Anything can happen of course, but Ciro seems like he’s got it locked down, the only question is: can he eclipse 30?
ssciavillo: With the rate he’s been scoring, I find it hard to believe anyone will catch Ciro. The fact that he takes all of Lazio’s penalties makes it even more likely that he pushes close to 30. I just wish he would score more for the Azzurri.
JonAS: It hurts to say this but Ciro Immobile is having an immense season. 14 goals and 5 assists, directly involved in 70% of Lazio’s goals. I get the feeling people look over Ciro compared to a Ronaldo, Higuain, Mertens, Lukaku or Insigne in recent years but he’s right up there with the best. I think Zapata, Ronaldo, Belotti and Dzeko are all too far away to surpass him so it’s up to Lukaku to keep Ciro focused. I think it’s gonna be tight but Ciro should clinch it in the end.
4) If we look at the top six right now (Juve, Inter, Roma, Cagliari, Atalanta and Lazio), which team will fall out of that race after the next 12 matches?
Jimmy: As much as I hyped up Cagliari as the surprise of the season, I think it’s gonna be Cagliari who drops out of the Top 6. I’m not convinced they’ll be able to hang around with the big boys for an entire season. I’d love to be proven wrong, however.
Bren: Yeah, I guess that was a fait accompli question...but, they have scored some big wins over Napoli and Atalanta, drew Roma and lost to Inter by only 1. They might have more staying power than we think.
ssciavillo: I mean gun to my head, I’d have to take Cagliari. However, the results that they’ve been able to achieve have been impressive. After what Atalanta did last year, you can’t easily dismiss any of these smaller sides.
JonAS: It can be anyone apart from Juve and Inter, even our beloved Roma. Only Cagliari has no European duties while all the others do until at least New Year so the Sardinians should hang on until January/February. Lazio have the luxury of a red hot Immobile and got a bit of momentum going in Serie A (four wins on the trot). I’m afraid it could be one of Roma and Atalanta.
5) At the very top, Inter and Juve are locked in a heated race for the title, knowing what we know now, which club hangs on?
Jimmy: I hate to admit this, but I think it’s Juve. Conte’s complaining would have an effect on any club, and I think it will add up to the point where points are lost due to his attitude. They’re an excellent side for sure, but whining about the lack of quality in your side doesn’t inspire belief in a Scudetto run among your players.
dallagente: Sarri has just as bad a track record when it comes to handling the press. He shot Napoli’s title challenge to pieces a couple of years back saying he expects nothing of his players, and that was when they were leading the title race. Neither of the two coaches get in front of a microphone to make friends with anyone, but I fancy Juve to just win it. They have too much quality, it’s impossible for any coach to mess it up that badly in Turin.
Bren: Just give me Inter for the sake of change. Serie A is becoming a joke for a variety of reasons, having one champion for an entire decade is just a bad look. We’re seeing a wacky year in Germany, which can also be a homogeneous league, and I think it’s high time Italy shakes things up. So, even though I hate Inter with every fiber of my being, I’ll be pulling for them.
ssciavillo: As much as I don’t care for the Nerazzurri, it would be nice to see Juve’s run come to an end. I would still put my money on Juve though. They’ve been doing it for so long that it’s hard to see them losing.
JonAS: Probably Juve because they simply have more experience in these kind of situations. Everyone wants Inter to finally dethrone Juve but that could have a negative impact on Conte and his players. The pressure could become too big if it’s still a tight race by March, April. Don’t forget Juve already won IN Milano and still have the home game as an advantage. Nah, I had more faith in Sarri’s Napoli but I guess that ship has sailed.
6) The officiating…. what can be done?
Jimmy: Roma just needs to try to win by bigger margins. That’s about all Roma can do; refereeing in Italy seems like it will always be the pits.
dallagente: I agree. I feel you’ve got to get yourself ahead earlier in matches, and have a good feel for the phases of the game. The top teams do that and shrug off refereeing decisions week to week. Refereeing mistakes are only brought under the microscope when it affects the top 5-6 teams in Italy. When it affects a Cagliari or Verona in a relegation fixture in May, you’re not going to hear about it on Mediaset or any of the major tv channels. Roma aren’t victims here, they’re a club with a lot of media coverage whenever they feel hard done by.
The crybaby culture around Rome can change. I’m sure I sound like Pavel Nedved saying that but life is short and you gotta do what’s in your power to enjoy it, not waste it feeling sorry for yourself. I just saw the Parma game today and there was a young girl in the crowd asking her father why two grown athletes on the pitch were flopping about on the ground. How do you explain that behaviour to your children? Let’s not be crying about referees, they get attention when they make mistakes against big clubs but they are far from the biggest problem in the game.
Bren: Well, there is clearly something rotten in VAR land across the game. Seldom a weekend goes by where it’s not creating some sort of controversy; there just seems to be no consistency or understanding of how/when/where to implement it. That is something under human control, something that can be addressed, and something that could improve the quality of officiating and the game. I don't think a challenge-based system like we see in the NFL would work, but the inconsistent application of VAR is hurting the game.
ssciavillo: After seeing the way we’ve been screwed in the Europa League, I’d still take a league with VAR over one without it any day. That being said, the league has to do a better job with coming up with a more uniformed protocol of when and how VAR is used. It just has to be more consistent. I think there’d be less controversy if the calls were just more consistent no matter who is on the end of them.
JonAS: I remember Franco Sensi once gave gold Rolex watches to referees as a ‘Christmas gift’ and to thank them for their hard work (the Giallorossi were coincidentally Serie A champions that year). Maybe it’s time to bring back these kind of gestures to motivate them? Or you know, legalize bribery so it compensates those VAR mistakes.
Bren: Haha, that's a perfect ending. Look for part two tomorrow morning where we turn our focus towards Roma.