Italian Serie A News, Results, Analysis and Features on Football Soccer

Frank Lopapa On March - 15 - 2012

The Fight for Third Place

One of the more intriguing battles in Serie A in recent years has often surrounded the fight for fourth place and a chance to play in the next season’s Champions League. Much of its intrigue stemmed from the fact that on some occasions, an unexpected team would occupy that coveted position by season’s end (see Sampdoria in 09/10 and Udinese last year). With Italy losing a Champions League spot, the battle is now centered on third place, and it is shaping up to be a tight affair with only two points separates three teams.

During the first half of the season, Udinese looked to have third place on lockdown despite the departures of Alexis Sanchez and Gokhan Inler in the summer. Lazio had been snipping at their heels as well, but never being able to surmount the Fruili; however, a long-term injury to influential midfielder Mauricio Isla put the skids on Udinese’s run towards a second consecutive Champions League qualification, and now the club have fallen to fifth in the table, having won only once in the five league matches following Isla’s injury.

Their most recent result saw the Zebrette lose 1-0 to relegation candidate Novara in a match which they dominated, as they took twice as many shots as Novara and had the majority of possession; however, they only put five of those shots on target, which equaled Novara’s effort. Isla’s replacement in the lineup, Gelson Fernandes, has struggled in his ten appearance for the club this season, a worrying sign as Udinese try to reclaim the final Champions League place, a fight that has opened up in the past few weeks thanks in part to their poor form.

Two of the main beneficiaries of Udinese’s recent slide have been Lazio and Napoli. For a large part of the season, Lazio have hovered in fourth place, just below Udinese but never being able to catch them. After a 2-1 derby victory over Roma two weeks ago, Lazio climbed above Udinese into third and remained there despite the 3-1 loss to Bologna last weekend. Lazio’s form has been patchy lately, crashing out of the Europa League and being humiliated 5-1 by Palermo, contrasting wins against Fiorentina and Roma.

Their average form has coupled with the almost-resignation of Edy Reja upon elimination from the Europa League by Atletico Madrid, marking the second time this season he has tendered his resignation; however, club owner Claudio Lotito denied his request, and after talks with the club, he has decided to stay on as manager. Reja has admitted that securing third place would be “something of a miracle considering the quality of our rivals” as well as a rash of injuries and suspensions depleting the squad. Lazio will have ten players missing for their mext match away to a Catania side that have been excellent at home all season.

The one squad looking the best bet for third right now would be Napoli, who are riding a five game winning streak in the league going into their crucial encounter against Udinese on Sunday. As usual, it is the magic trio of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi that has inspired their run of form, with the latter two scoring in a 6-3 demolition of Cagliari last Friday. Lavezzi and Cavani have both been in devastating goalscoring form, with the former scoring six in the past five and the latter scoring five in the past six matches, including four assists. In their past five league matches Napoli have outscored their opponents 13-5, three of which were shutouts, not to mentioned their impressive dismantling of Chelsea in the Champions League two weeks ago. After adjusting to the congested European schedule and a slow start to the season, Napoli are hitting their stride at exactly the right time.

Two sides that many thought would be in contention at the beginning of the season are now for the most part out of the running for third. Roma had their lingering hopes dashed after the feat to Lazio in the derby last weekend, and Inter have been a shadow of the side that won it all two seasons ago. Roma and Inter are seven and eight points behind Lazio respectively, and their sketchy form all season means that barring a miracle, a berth in the Champions League seems unlikely. For the trio mentioned above, however, the race has really only just begun, and it will most certainly last until the final few weeks of the season.

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