This Football Sunday

The Basque Derby, Serie A’s fight for third and an understated, yet exciting clash in La Liga are the games to watch on Sunday.

Athletic Bilbao vs Real Sociedad

The Basques have never had it so good. Five teams from the region now play in Spain’s top division. Yet when it comes to Basque derbies, nothing comes close to the Euskal Derbia between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. San Mamés is host to the first derby this year, with Athletic sitting pretty in sixth, two points ahead of the visiting Sociedad. Goals have been hard to come by in this fixture the past two seasons, but both teams have found the net consistently in this campaign. Athletic haven’t won against their bitter rivals in eight attempts. They’ll be looking to right that record in the battle for bragging rights in Basque Country.

Chievo Verona vs AC Milan

Not many would have picked either of these teams to make a run for the top three at the beginning of the season, but nonetheless Chievo and Milan find themselves in a position to go third in the table with a win in this encounter. The Bentegodi is a fortress for Chievo and it’s never easy for any visiting team against Rolando Maran’s men. Valter Birsa continues to assist and score for the Flying Donkeys and they will rely on his guile and trickery to catch Milan’s vulnerable defence off guard. Milan have already conceded 10 goals, but thanks to the poaching instincts of Carlos Bacca, the Rossoneri continue to pick up wins and points even they have not played well. It will also be interesting to watch whether 18-year old Manuel Locatelli can dictate Milan’s rhythm from the base of midfield now that Riccardo Montolivo is out until at least March. There’s lots of intrigue around this match and the result will give us some idea as to which team can make a sustained push for a European place this season.

Villarreal vs Celta Vigo

One of three unbeaten teams in La Liga alongside Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, Villarreal have started the season in a typically understated manner. Fran Escribá has overcome a contentious pre-season by adhering to the footballing principles of the Yellow Submarines. Playing with their trademark tidiness in possession, Escribá has also got the team defending in a compact manner. El Madrigal is not the easiest of places to score, but if any team can rip up the copybook it is Eduardo Berizzo’s enterprising Celta Vigo. After a shaky start, the Galicians come into this game with three wins on the trot, including an exhilarating 4-3 win over Barcelona last time out. While Villarreal will always be favourites at home, don’t count against Celta’s ability to tear up the script.

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.
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