Following an easy 5-1 away win to Frosinone on Sunday, Napoli are the Italian “winter champions”. There is, of course, no “winter” championship but the title of “winter champions” is a hypothetical trophy awarded each year to the side which finds itself in front at the halfway point in the season. The real significance is that in seven out of ten years, the “winter” champion goes on to lift the real thing the following May.
Napoli themselves have been winter champions three times, in 1987, 1988 and 1990, going on to win the title under the inspirational leadership of Diego Maradona in 1987 and 1990. Obviously they owe their position on top of the table after 19 of the Serie A season’s 38 games much more to the weekend defeats suffered by rivals, Inter and Fiorentina, than to what was a pretty predictable rout of relegation battlers, Frosinone.
In keeping with that consideration, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri was keeping his feet firmly on the ground, telling reporters:
“You know how much importance I attribute to the title of winter champions – None at all. It’s just a statistic and nothing else. There are teams that can count on more certainty than us…I am talking about the team that has won the last four titles, I’ve always said that Juventus were the real favourites…”
Confirming his point about Juventus, the Old Lady on Sunday night picked up her ninth consecutive league win when defeating Sampdoria 2-1 in Genoa. Ominously, the Old Lady now sits second on 39 points, two behind Napoli, ahead of third placed Inter on goal difference and one clear of fourth placed Fiorentina. We have been warned.
Despite his understandable caution, however, even Maurizio Sarri had to be pleased with the continuing, outstanding form both of his side and, above all, of his Argentine star, Gonzalo Higuain, scorer of two of Napoli’s five goals. With a strike rate of 18 goals in 19 games, Higuain not only remains top of the goalscorers’ chart but he also confirmed that, right now, he is just about the hottest property in Italian football.
When on Epiphany, January 6th, Inter had started the New Year with an effective if not necessarily impressive 1-0 defeat of Empoli in a game where their rivals had had both territorial and possession dominance, one sensed that Inter could only get better. That Empoli result was a welcome sweetner after the shock of their pre-Christmas 2-1 defeaat by Lazio.
Surprisingly, however, Inter stumbled again, this time against little Sassuolo. Forced to make the running, rather than play their favoured counter-attacking game, Inter created their chances but failed to score. In the end, they were caught out by a 94th minute penalty, converted by Domenico Berardi, who gave Sassuolo a victory they probably did not deserve (Like Inter themselves so often this season). At this point, too, 6th placed Sassuolo are beginning to look like regular contenders for the Serie A top six.
Intriguingly, Inter have now lost at home to Fiorentina, Napoli, Lazio and Sassuolo. This would suggest that when an in form, really competitive team comes along, then their one dimensional, counter attacking bluff is called. Next up for Inter is an awkward away tie with Atalanta, 2-0 home losers to Genoa last weekend.
The other, heavyweight faller over the weekend was Fiorentina, emphatically beaten 3-1 at home by Lazio, arguably the currently most in-form side in Serie A. This was a game which left us with a major conundrum. Was the result down to Lazio’s obvious good form or is there some truth in the nagging suspicion that Fiorentina, for all their good football, may be just a tad short of the very best.
Fiorentina did little wrong but got caught out by a sharp, very defensive and tightly organised Lazio which in the words of coach, Stefano Poli, played “our best game of the season”. Fiorentina now have to pick themselves up for an away tie with Milan next weekend.
For Milan coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, that game too could be yet another “do or die” affair which sees his job on the line. When his Milan faced Roma on Saturday night at the Olympic Stadium, critics suggested that the loser of this game, Mihajlovic or Roma coach Rudi Garcia, would be out of a job.
In the circumstances, a 1-1 draw was probably a perfect result since it meant that both men are still at their respective posts. In the end, too, that draw suggested that, whilst 8th placed Milan are the road to recovery, 5th placed Roma continue to look demoralised and depressed. Milan can prove the point against Fiorentina next weekend whilst, before then, they have a midweek Italian Cup quarter final tie with Carpi which earns them a place in the last 16 of the competition. Needless to say, Mihajlovic’s head is still on the line going into that one. The other ties are Spezia v Alessandria, Napoli v Inter and Lazio v Juventus
As for new leaders, Napoli, even if coach Sarri hopes to keep feet firmly on the ground, there are those around him, starting with club owner, cinema producer, Aurelio De Laurentis, who are getting just a little excited:
“We’re not that far short of the very best clubs. According to a German classification, which I have to check out, Napoli are now on the same level as Barcelona and Juventus…When I took over the club (in 2004) we were 125th in the same ranking…It certainly means we’re getting better”, said owner De Laurentis.
Getting better, yes…on the same level as Barcelona, well, not quite yet, but there is no harm in dreaming.