Serie A State of Play Post Round 22

Some thoughts after an exciting round of Serie A games filled with glorious goals and enterprising play.

Top two pull away
It was only a few rounds ago that everyone was claiming this to be the most exciting Serie A season in modern times as the top five were separated by just three points. However, with Roma and Inter both going through a rough patch of results recently, that merry band was whittled down to just three. Now, after Fiorentina’s goalless draw at Genoa the title race is down to the top two of Napoli and Juventus. The Viola are now six points behind second place Juventus, with Napoli a further two ahead of the champions. Paulo Sousa’s men will now focus on holding on to the all-important third place and the Champions League play-off spot that comes with it.
Meanwhile, the two best teams in the league continue to march on. Matching each other in strut, class, grit and beautiful goals, Napoli and Juve are both performing at a peerless standard. The neutral can only hope that this remains the case as we enter April. It would be a disappointing anti-climax for Serie A fans if Juve pull away in comfortable fashion as they always tend to do.
Juve were first up this weekend. The clash away to Chievo was meant to be a tough one, however the Bianconeri took to their task immediately when Alvaro Morata opened the scoring in the sixth minute. If fans of the Old Lady were worried about missing Mario Manduzkic they needn’t have been, as the underrated Spaniard once again proved his value to the team. He got his second after some excellent interplay between Juve’s midfield and attack and his chemistry with Paulo Dybala suggests that Max Allegri may well stick with the Argentinian-Spanish partnership even when Mandzukic returns. Juve romped through the second half courtesy of an excellent assist from Paul Pogba (does he do normal assists?) for Alex Sandro, before the young Frenchman finished exemplarily (does he do normal goals?) himself. Remarkably, it was the first time this season that Juve climbed atop Serie A.
With the gauntlet laid down, Napoli welcomed the excellent Empoli at the San Paolo. Maurizio Sarri’s former club came to town to face their old boss under the stewardship of Marco Giampaolo. While not many would have predicted Sarri’s positive impact at Napoli, Giampaolo’s achievements with the Azzuri this season have arguably been more impressive, guiding his men to the top half of the table.
What was always bound to be a difficult encounter seemed even harder after Leandro Paredes’ deflected free kick gave the visitors the lead. This Napoli team are a different beast however. Five minutes later, the player of the season brought the hosts level. Gonzalo Higuain finishing with a beautiful header off an equally excellent Lorenzo Insigne cross. Insigne then gave Napoli the lead with a delightful free kick. What could have been a nervous second half was anything but, as Sarri’s men put their foot on the throttle and ran out 5-1 winners courtesy of some enterprising attacking play.
While some may despair at how quickly this has become just a two-horse race, the sheer quality that Italy’s top two are demonstrating, makes this a battle to savour. The excitement is only going to ratchet up when Juve welcome Napoli in two weeks time.
Milan rivals moving in opposite directions
Compared to recent iterations, this Derby della Madonnina actually delivered on the hype. On an action-filled night at the San Siro, supporters got to see goals, attacking play, good saves, controversy and everything else that a football fan wants to see in a big game.
It seems like only yesterday that Sinisa Mihajlovic was on the verge of the sack as the Rossoneri were struggling to get results. Unless this huge win against their rivals is followed up by an unfathomable sequence of defeats, it now seems like the Serbian will at least get to see out the season.
The most encouraging signs for Mihajlovic during the derby were that some of this season’s underperforming players came to the fore. Keisuke Honda put in his best performance in a while, delivering the cross for Alex to head in Milan’s first goal and generally being a nuisance against Inter’s full backs. For once Honda outshone the excellent and understated Giacomo Bonaventura, who had another fantastic game. M’baye Niang has been showing greater maturity in recent months and the young Senegalese finally delivered in a way that Milan fans have been waiting ages for. He set up Carlos Bacca for the team’s second goal with a peach of a cross, before finishing a counterattack to secure victory with an excellent finish for the third goal.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects maintained their consistency. Carlos Bacca continues to reaffirm his pedigree with each passing game. The Colombian now has 11 goals for the season, a remarkable stat considering he gets very few chances presented to him. Then there is 16-year old Gianluigi Donnarumma. The goalkeeper made some crucial saves as Inter tore into the Milan backline for most of the second half. The momentum of the game could easily have turned but for the teenagers heroics and regardless of where they finish in the table, Donnarumma is now clearly going to be Milan’s biggest gain of the season.

Milan have now lost only one game in their last six, winning three and drawing two. Their last two home games have delivered wins against Fiorentina and Inter, both, teams above them in the table. Meanwhile their last two away games were draws against Roma and the dangerous Empoli. From a season that seemed devoid of any progression, the Rossoneri now have positive momentum that could yet result in qualification for Europe.

Meanwhile the Nerazzurri now seem to be going in the opposite direction. Four points clear at the top  at one point, Inter are now nine points behind the league leaders. Contrary to their rivals, Inter have won just one game in their last six, losing three and drawing two. To make matters worse, this sequence of results includes draws with Carpi and Atalanta and a careless loss to Sassuolo.
It’s a tricky situation judging Roberto Mancini’s team. Arguably, they were playing worse football when they were at the summit. Those results were largely achieved through the brilliance of Samir Handanovic and the centre back pairing of Miranda and Jeison Murillo. However, as good as Handanovic is, he can’t stop everything and it was only a matter of time before a few shots from opponents actually found the back of the net. Meanwhile Miranda and Murillo have also seen a slight dip in form which has coincided with Inter conceding some soft goals.
The problem is that while conceding goals is an eventuality that even the best defences have to face at some point in time, it’s at the other end that Inter aren’t doing enough to redress the balance. The creativity and pace that Adem Ljajic, Stevan Jovetic and Ivan Perisic bring to Inter’s forward play is evident, however goalscoring is clearly become a big hindrance for the team. For whatever reason, Mancini hasn’t been able to get Mauro Icardi to replicate his efforts from last season. Yet, he remains the most natural goalscorer in the team, so it was bizarre not to see him starting the game. That Mancini decided to give new signing Eder his debut at the expense of the Argentinian was even more surprising. The former Sampdoria man may well prove his worth in goals for the Nerazzurri, but Eder’s style is easily compatible with Icardi’s more approach. If Mancini wants more goals, playing Icardi and Eder while dropping one of Ljajic, Jovetic or Perisic may just be the way to go.
While the two Milan teams seemed poles apart as recently as the beginning of December, the gap between Inter and AC is now just five points. Mihajlovic has demonstrated the ability to find solutions in recent games. The onus is now on Mancini to do the same.

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1

Chelsea completed the double over Arsenal in the league with a 1-0 win at the Emirates. Here are a baker’s dozen of thoughts after the game.

  1. We have to start with that man Diego Costa. The Spaniard has taken a liking to playing the Gunners in a similar way to Didier Drogba. Its not just the goals, but the fact that he ruffles Arsenal psychologically as well. It was no surprise that the first key moment of the game came courtesy of Costa. Running on to a through ball from Willian, Costa raced past Arsenal’s back four before being brought down by Per Mertesacker. The fall may have been theatric and the decision slightly contentious, but Mark Clattenburg had little choice but to send off the German centre-back. Despite it being only the 18th minute, it was clear to many right then, that Arsenal were going to have a major struggle on their hands.
  2. While many Gunners fans are lamenting Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace in the sending-off, an honest post-mortem should reveal Mathieu Flamini’s culpability in the move. Ostensibly taking the place of Francis Coquelin in the side, Flamini has none of the positional understanding that his countryman brings to the role. Willian’s final pass was delivered from the centre circle, yet for some unknown reason Flamini was further up the field. Against most teams in the Premier League, Arsenal may not always pay the price, but against teams in the top half this has already cost the Gunners quite a lot. Flamini ran around like a headless chicken at Anfield and St. Mary’s and it is quite frustrating that Wenger has not given Calum Chambers more of an opportunity in this position. With the signing of Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal fans will be hoping to see lesser of Flamini in the starting eleven.
  3. Back to that man Diego Costa. Having played his part in the game’s turning point, Costa duly applied the decisive touch of the match. He found the perfect pocket of space in the box to head in Branislav Ivanovic’s excellent cross for the match-winning goal. At his best, Costa makes such finishes look very easy. Under the stewardship of Guus Hiddink, there are now clear signs that Chelsea’s forward is playing very close to his best level.
  4. Speaking of Ivanovic, the Serbian is another player whose confidence seems to have returned under Hiddink. For the first three months of the season, every critic and his mother advocated the dropping of the right-back. While the defensive uncertainty still exists, Ivanovic’s confidence has returned in the attacking third. There may be little left to salvage in the league, but Ivanovic has a knack for being decisive in attack in crucial moments. This trait may well come to the fore if Chelsea are to find success in the cups.
  5. With Arsenal down to ten men, chances were always going to be at a premium. Thus it must have been sheer agony for Gunners fans that when they did create an excellent chance on the stroke of half time, the man on the end of it was Flamini. In stead of heading in a beautifully floated ball, Flamini inexplicably tried a hybrid lob/volley which looped over the bar. If you are going to be positionally undisciplined, at least finish the easy chances in the box.
  6. After Mertesacker’s sending off many pundits claimed Arsene Wenger made an error in substituting Olivier Giroud. This writer’s opinion is that it was actually the right decision. Arsenal are not suited to lumping it in the box even with a full compliment of players, let alone with a man down. The idea of trying to get as much possession and release Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell with quick passes was correct in theory and with better execution, Arsenal could have created better chances to score.
  7. So how did Chelsea fare with the man advantage? Quite poor in actuality. In stead of ramming home the advantage, Chelsea’s midfield did little with the ball. There was no control exerted in the centre, they didn’t stretch Arsenal at any point and that they only had a marginal edge in possession was quite galling. Such has been the season that the Blues have suffered that three points are not to be scoffed at. However, even in this undefeated streak that Hiddink has orchestrated, there are still plenty of things that are not working on the pitch.
  8. Cesc Fabregas playing against Arsenal is now a part of the narrative surrounding this fixture. The Spaniard did make a few threatening runs in the first half, but in keeping with the nature of the game, he hardly elevated his game to heights above average. Against ten men, Fabregas would have been expected to run the game from midfield in a manner similar to how he used to at the Emirates. While he did have most possession of the ball with 102 touches, his passes neither created chances for Chelsea nor alleviated the pressure in defence.
  9. Kurt Zouma was excellent at the back for Chelsea. The 21-year old was resolute against the myriad of attacking threats that Arsenal possess. He intercepted some of Mesut Ozil’s dangerous passes, while none of Walcott, Campbell or Alexis Sanchez could get past him with the ball. He won every battle in the air, passed the ball better than the much-vaunted midfield and even saved an excellent tackle for the last minute of the match, depriving Nacho Monreal of a chance to cross in to the box. Of all the different centre backs that have been labelled as John Terry’s long-term successor, Zouma’s is the most viable claim.
  10. It was a sight for sore eyes at the Emirates. Alexis Sanchez warming up on the touchline. In an ideal situation Wenger would have loved to ease the Chilean supremo back in to action, but circumstances dictated otherwise. There were clear signs of rust, but a couple of mazy runs and jinking dribbles were on display. It is becoming clearer by the day this year’s league is not going to be decided by the big games. Arsenal’s best chance of success lies in their fantastic record against the lower half of the table. A fully fit and firing Sanchez will be key in maintaining that record.
  11. If there is any consolation for Arsenal it is that their full backs continue to be in excellent form. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal made the most interceptions with five and four respectively, while also tying for the most clearances. In a similar manner to Laurent Koscielny, one gets the sense that the two Spaniards are underrated for their defensive prowess by virtue of playing for Arsenal. That they are so solid defensively while still being so effective in attack is a testament to their versatility, skill and energy. It is hard for this writer to find a better pair of full backs in the league.
  12. Even in “this” season against “this” Chelsea, Arsene Wenger has suffered a double against the Blues. For all the talk of Arsenal banishing their big game blues in 2015, Chelsea remain a stumbling block. While being a man down in both games can be cited as a mitigating factor, the fact of the matter is that mental fragility and a lack of composure were quite evident on both occasions against their city rivals. The feeling remains that even in a campaign with so much promise, a mental switch-off is never far from the surface where Arsenal are concerned.
  13. Where do the teams go from here? Despite losing the chance to go back to the top of the table, all is not lost for the Gunners. How they respond will determine their fate in the title race. Arsenal face Leicester, Manchester United and Spurs in three of their next six games. Maximum points against Southampton, Bournemouth and Swansea in the other three games are a must. If that is achieved, even three points from the trio of difficult fixtures might suffice in this season of dropped points. For Chelsea, this season is now about small steps in the league and getting prepared for the Champions League tie against PSG. The French champions will have little to fear on the evidence of this display, but the vagaries of knockout competitions do not require a team to necessarily fire on all cylinders. The next three weeks are about fine-tuning for Hiddink. There are signs that the attack is clicking into gear. If midfield and defence can now establish the same wavelength, Chelsea have every chance of causing an upset and progressing to the quarterfinals.

Leicester City 3 Stoke City 0

Leicester moved back to the top of the Premier League after beating Stoke 3-0 at the King Power Stadium. What was meant to be a challenging game against a tricky opponent ended up being a comprehensive win. Here are three thoughts on the game.

1. Drinkwater and Kante establish base for win

The goals and assists provided by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have understandably grabbed most of the headlines during the Foxes fairytale season. Most supporters of the team however have long acknowledged the importance of Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante in their success. The midfield duo are a key cog in implementing Claudio Ranieri’s counterattacking strategy.

Stoke’s own midfield duo of Ibrahim Afellay and Glenn Whelan have played a crucial role in enabling their team to be effective in possession. Depriving them of rhythm would be necessary for Leicester to gain a foothold. It was here that Kante’s boundless energy came to the fore once again. The Frenchman had the most tackles and interceptions in the game, completely neutralizing Stoke’s threat in the attacking third while setting the base for his peers to start attacks.

Meanwhile Drinkwater was calm in possession, almost always finding the right pass. He had a team high 78 touches during the match and crucially he also scored the opening goal just before half time. The goal was a great way for Drinkwater to get the recognition he deserves and he topped off his performance with a delightful through ball to assist Vardy for Leicester’s second goal.

That Leicester have managed to stay in contention despite Vardy and Mahrez’s recent blip is a testament to the solidity that Drinkwater and Kante bring to the Foxes. With the two midfield stalwarts managing things on their end, it was time for the usual suspects to return…

2. Vardy and Mahrez back in the thick of things

It is the ultimate compliment to how far Vardy and Mahrez have come along that a stretch of four games without a goal or assist for either was considered by some to be a slump. That Vardy still remains the league’s leading scorer speaks of his prowess in the first part of the season. While this is clearly a team that is the sum of all its parts, no manager will ever say no to a hot striker who can guarantee goals.

Thus Ranieri would have been extremely happy to see Vardy find the back of the net again. The best part about the goal was that it demonstrated a sense of freshness returning to Vardy. After latching on to Drinkwater’s excellent pass, Vardy still had to run with the ball and then finish accurately. He did both calmly.

That returning freshness was also evident in a lot of Mahrez’s play. The trickery and cute passes were on full display against the Potters, culminating in a jinking dribble and a scuffed shot assisting Leonardo Ulloa for the team’s third goal.

It still seems unrealistic to expect the pair to maintain their form through to the end of the campaign. However, Ranieri doesn’t need either Vardy or Mahrez to replicate their form from the first half of the season. There are only 15 games left in the season with no cup distractions. If Mahrez and Vardy can get half the numbers they had till December, Leicester will almost certainly finish in the top four.

3. Inconsistency stifling Stoke’s upward progression

Stoke and Mark Hughes have been getting a lot of praise this season. Stoke-a-lona have outclassed both Manchester clubs at the Britannia. They have also defeated Chelsea and just last weekend Arsenal were arguably lucky to escape with a point. However, that has been mixed with home defeats to Watford and Crystal Palace, as well as away losses at Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion. This latest reversal means they have won only one of their last five games on the road.

Of course, losing to Leicester in their current guise is hardly a disgrace. Nevertheless, Mark Hughes claimed he wanted to take Stoke further up the table this season and the club have backed with him some marquee signings. In those signings lay some hints as to why Stoke’s longest winning streak this season stops at three. The likes of Shaqiri, Arnautovic, Bojan and Afellay may well belong in the end of season highlights reel, but the reason they are not at the elite clubs anymore is because they are comfortable performing to a high level on an average of once every three games. A glorious goal against City here, a mesmerizing assist against Chelsea there, but nothing in those defeats against the bottom ten clubs.

The ambition to progress while playing an entertaining style is laudable at Stoke. However, for the project to truly blossom, Mark Hughes has to get his talented bunch of former Champions League winners to perform consistently week in, week out. In this season of opportunity, the Potters have got as good a chance as any to sneak into Europe. Whether they do, comes down to a question of mentality, not talent.