For years now, Italian football has debated the wisdom of its traditional Christmas/New Year break, a two-week period when everyone packed up and headed home for the plum pude, or equivalent thereof. Fans would look enviously at other leagues, in particular the English First Division/Premiership with its Boxing Day and New Year fixtures, wondering about the desirability of a closedown.
After this year’s ground breaking Christmas/End of Year which saw two full league programmes and four Italian Cup quarter-final ties played on either side of Christmas and New Year’s Day, the fans may be tempted to conclude that they had been right all along. This was a turn of the year which underlined some seriously important issues, as it happily and unusually coincided with the exact halfway point in the league calendar.
Firstly, wins on both league days for leaders Napoli and second placed champions Juventus, just one point behind, saw both clubs open up a six-point gap between themselves and their closest pursuers. Both Inter and Roma dropped five points in an eight day period which would seem to conclude that the strongest side in the land is still Juventus, with Napoli the only possible threat to their crown.
Juve’s 1-0 defeat of Roma two days before Christmas, a subsequent 3-1 romp against Verona a week later and then a Turin Italian Cup quarter-final, derby win over Torino four days later all seemed to say something very familiar. That is, talk of a Juventus decline and fall can be put on hold, for the foreseeable future at least.
That Juventus have never been more alive and well was merely one verdict of an intriguing holiday period. In the city of Milan, for instance, we witnessed a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of cousins, Milan and Inter. For much of this autumn, Inter have been flying high, even topping the table for three days, while their great rivals seemed to go from crisis to crisis, first drawing with bottom side Benevento before losing 3-0 away to second from bottom Verona, prior to a 2-0 home defeat by in-form Atalanta.
Just when it was looking as if new Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso might be on his way out the door, after just one month in charge, along came manna from heaven in the shape of an Italian Cup quarter-final, extra-time 1-0 win over those same cousins Inter. This latter defeat, at the end of a dour and not too pretty battle, climaxed a miserable run for Inter who have picked up just two points in their last four Serie A games, losing to Sassuolo and Udinese, as well as drawing with Juventus and Lazio. Suddenly, talk of an Inter title challenge can also be put on hold, again at least for the foreseeable future.
We all know that nothing matters more in football than winning. All of a sudden, it is Inter, not Milan, who are “in crisis” notwithstanding the fact that third-placed Inter are still fully 16 points clear of eleventh-placed Milan. Inter may well get their show back on the road, even if one still suspects that they rely too much on the serpent-like, penalty box skills of Argentinian Mauro Icardi.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen how much Milan coach Gattuso can build on the huge morale boost of that derby/Cup tie win. In their last outing last weekend, Milan were by no means convincing in a 1-1 home draw with a lively Fiorentina. It could still be that, before long, the respective roles will be reversed again, with Inter having recovered ground and Milan back to struggling again.
This holiday period, too, served a timely reminder that if there is one side in Serie A that you underestimate at your peril, it is little Atalanta. Not only did they register that aforementioned 2-0 defeat of Milan at San Siro but 10 days later they eliminated league leaders Napoli from the Italian Cup when beating them 2-1 at home in a game that was wrapped up by yet another piece of inspirational finishing from their Argentinian icon, “Papu” Gomez.
Currently ninth in Serie A, Atalanta are on stand-by to provide another giant killing act when they line out against Borussia Dortmund next month in their “last 32” round of the Europa League. In the meantime, their defeat of Napoli prompts two obvious considerations. Firstly, the Napoli squad is simply not one that currently has adequate strength in depth. Secondly, maybe we were not too far wrong when we nominated Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini as the coach of the season last year.
Talk of squad strength reminds us that it is that time of year again, that of the infamous January window. Liverpool’s Turkish midfielder Emre Can, Barcelona’s French attacker, Gerard Deulofeu, Bologna’s Simone Verdi, Manchester United’s Matteo Darmian and Atalanta’s Bryan Cristante are just five of the many players currently linked with moves that could involve such as Juventus, Inter, Roma and Napoli. More of that, however, later in the month.
For now, here is wishing you “Buon Anno” in 2018.