While Milan chase Juventus for the Scudetto, the public eye is distracted by a more exciting battle currently underway in Serie A. It’s the race for the 3rd position – the last Champions League qualification spot, and the Europa League spots.
This is the first season where Italy are officially the 4th ranked league as per UEFA co-efficient rankings, which means that from next season onwards, Italy will have only 3 representatives in the UEFA Champions League. Currently, there are 5 teams in with a chance to make this 3rd place, but before we analyse this any further, let me briefly go back a week ago to an analysis I had done about this situation.
Last week, 6 games to go
Lazio were sitting pretty, with an easier schedule and key head to heads to play. The 3rd spot was within their hands. However, they have been on a free fall, and were expected to drop some points.
Udinese, Napoli and Roma were also off-colour, dropping easy points in recent weeks, while Inter seemed to come back from nowhere into the fringes of contention, due to the new found enthusiasm under new coach Stramaccioni. Looking at the run-ins, it was clear that Roma would struggle, while Napoli had the easiest run in of all teams. If they stuck any kind of form, they were the horse to bet on.
Inter’s task still looked herculean, too many tough away games and a derby to play. But it wasn’t impossible, as there were too many head-to-heads to play for between all the teams. And mostly because of the terrible form of the pack leaders, Udinese & Lazio, who were dropping unnecessary points.
My money was on Napoli.
Today, 4 games to go
How things have changed. Lazio & Udinese have managed only 1 point each from the 2 games, opening the race up very nicely for the rest.
Lazio still lead the table, but now they have a resurgent Napoli on their heels. Inter have managed 4 points from two tough away games, and are right back in it with just 3 points separating them from Lazio. So lets analyse each teams run-in in a little more detail.
Form guide: LDLWL
Still leading the pack, but their form has been abysmal in recent weeks with just 4 points from the last 5 games. A critical away game to Udinese beckons, and another loss might give the opportunity for the chasing pack to go past them. Siena should be a simpler proposition, but then they go away to tricky Atalanta, followed by a potential decider with Inter on last day. I expect Lazio to drop at least 6 points, so unless we see a great come back to form starting from this weekend, I will not bank on their chances. A win at Udinese though will put them in the drivers seat once again.
Form guide: WWLLL
They were on a free-fall, probably a fall-out from the extra workload of the Champions League. But the last 2 matchdays, Napoli have returned to their best. Not just the results, but also the way they have played. There is a tricky away game at Rome coming up this weekend, a victory there would put them as the favourites for the 3rd spot, as their run-in is relatively easier.
They remain my bet for making into the Champions League.
Form guide: WDWDW
Five weeks ago, even making the Europa League looked like a dream. Inter were experiencing one of their worst runs in history, and just got their coach sacked after a disastrous Derby d’italia, replaced by a novice who was yet to coach any senior side. But 5 games and 11 points later, Inter seem back in the race for the CL spot. Mathematically, if Roma beat Napoli this weekend, Inter will have their destiny in their own hands. Win the remaining 4 games, and they are guaranteed to finish 3rd. However, maths and football are two entirely different subjects.
Even if Inter win their next two games, which might take them up to the third position considering the head-to-heads that their rivals have to play this weekend, it’s the last two games of the season which might trip the nerazzurri. A tough derby against title chasing Milan might stumble them, which is followed by a superstitiously dangerous last game away at Lazio (Inter lost the Scudetto in 2002, the last time this fixture was on the final day). If Inter manage to go into the last game with a chance of qualifying, its going to be a very emotional night for the nerazzurri faithful.
Form guide: LDLWL
Just like Lazio, they have managed only 4 points from the last 5 games, seriously damaging their CL qualification hopes. Udinese look fatigued and plagued with many key injuries, and the lack of quality depth in their squad is starting to show. Their run-in from here is relatively easy, with the game against Lazio this weekend potentially being the toughest test of the lot. But with the form they have been showing of late, I am not very hopeful of their chances. They still look good for a Europa league spot, and in that sense they have all to play for.
Form Guide: LLWLW
You can change the philosophy of Roma, but can you change their DNA? Roma are as temperamental as always, much to the frustration of their revolutionary coach Enrique. One great performance is followed by one from the other end of the spectrum. I don’t think they stand a chance for the CL spot now, even though they are still in the running for Europa League, as their last 3 games are winnable for a squad of their quality. But if Roma won what was winnable, they would be competing for the title!
The head-to-head record
With 5 teams so close to each other, its important to look at what happens in case of a tie on the points table. Until a few years ago, it was very simple. A points tie in Serie A was decided by a play-off, if it effected the title or a European place or even relegation. But these days, ties are decided by looking at head-to-head results, so lets look at how they stand now:
agg refers to the aggregate score after 2 legs; leg refers to the first leg score
There are still 3 head-to-head games to be played, two of which are this weekend. Udinese take on Lazio, while Roma welcome Napoli. Then there is one on the final matchday, when Lazio welcome Inter. These head-to-head games are not just potential 6 pointers, but also potential tie breakers. Lazio seem to be doing well against their rivals, and critically already posses a better head-to-head against Napoli – that might end up deciding who qualifies for the CL. Napoli have the better of Inter, in case of a tie, while Inter have the better of Udinese (which could prove crucial for the Europa League spot) and also take a first leg advantage to Lazio on the final day.
Which basically means that if Napoli win all their remaining games, which is a good possibility, they just need Lazio to drop a point. If Napoli lose a game, then Inter could win the 3rd spot by winning all their remaining games. But that’s all theoretical talk.
If you put a gun to my head (or even be slightly less persuassive), here is what I think these teams will take out of the remaining 12 points:
- Lazio: 4-7 points, my guess 5 points
- Napoli: 7-10 points, my guess 9 points
- Inter: 7-10 points, my guess 8 points
- Udinese: 6-9 points, my guess 7 points
- Roma: 4-7 points, my guess 6 points
Which would make the final table look like this:
3. Napoli 63 points (61-64 points)
4. Inter 60 points (59-62 points)
5. Lazio 60 points (59-62 points)
6. Udinese 59 points (58-61 points)
7. Roma 56 points (54-57 points)
Of course, like any predictions go, I could be completely off the mark. Either way, this is going to be a very exciting photo-finish to race for Europe in Serie A this season.