The Serie A Season That Was – Part 2: The Mutiny And The Title Race

The Serie A Season That Was – Part 2: The Mutiny And The Title Race

Before the suspension of the league in March, fans were enjoying one of the most entertaining and dramatic Serie A campaigns in recent memory.

In the second of a two-part series (read the first here), Joe Fischetti takes a look back at the top five stories of the Serie A season that was.

5. Mutiny in Naples

Between October 27 and December 7, Napoli collected only five points in seven matches, dropping from fourth in the table to seventh.

The poor run of form led club president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, to go over manager Carlo Ancelotti’s head and order a week-long retreat at Napoli’s training centre in Castel Volturno, a decision that typically resides with the manager.

Though Ancelotti was against the decision, he reluctantly attended, but his players did not. After a 1-1 draw against RB Salzburg in the Champions League, the players boycotted the retreat and went home instead.

Club captain Lorenzo Insigne and veteran players Dries Mertens, José Callejón and Allan reportedly lead the boycott.

Frustrations boiled over after the Vice President (and son of the owner) Edo De Laurentiis entered the changing room to remind the players of the retreat.

Napoli would later fine Insigne, Mertens and Allan for their roles in the mutiny, with Allan being fined the most after an altercation with Edo.

Gennaro Gattuso Napoli

Ancelotti was fired a month later despite seeing Napoli through to the knockout phase of the Champions League, as the poor results in Serie A continued.

Ironically, the players arranged their own retreat less than a month later, after losing two out of three matches under new manager Gennaro Gattuso.


4. Matchday 23

Matchday 23 will undoubtedly go down as the most entertaining matchday of the season. The week began with fifth-placed Roma hosting 11th-placed Bologna at the Stadio Olimpico.

Musa Barrow, making his first start for the Rossoblu since being sold by Atalanta, did not disappoint. The Gambian scored a brace and assisted a Riccardo Orsollini goal as Bologna upset Roma 3-2.

Fourth-placed Atalanta capitalized on the opportunity the following afternoon, defeating Fiorentina 2-1 to move three points clear of Roma in the race for the final Champions League spot.

Later that evening, Hellas Verona hosted Juventus at the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi in the clubs’ second meeting of the season.

Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 60th minute with a brilliant solo effort. The Portuguese forward outran defender Amir Rrahmani to win possession, created space with a stepover and finished with a low strike to the far post, scoring in his tenth consecutive match.

Verona equalized in the 76th minute via a goal from January signing Fabio Borini and then, remarkably, took a 2-1 lead ten minutes later.

VAR awarded Verona a penalty kick following a Bonucci handball inside the box, allowing another ex-Milan striker, Giampaolo Pazzini, to score the eventual game-winner.

Verona were not the only newly promoted club to defeat a Serie A giant this matchday. Lecce visited the San Paolo to take on a Napoli squad that seemed to have finally found its form. Napoli had won three straight matches, defeating Lazio in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals and Juventus and Sampdoria in Serie A.

Gianluca Lapadula opened the scoring for Lecce. Napoli equalized through Arkadiusz Milik early in the second half, before Lapadula restored Lecce’s lead with his second of the match.

Only a few minutes after a questionable penalty non-call, Marco Mancosu scored one of the goals of the season with a stunning long-distance free-kick. José Callejón cut the lead to one with an acrobatic overhead kick, but Lecce hung on to defeat the Partenopei 3-2.

Meanwhile in Genova, 18th-placed Genoa upset sixth-placed Cagliari 1-0 thanks to a goal from veteran striker Goran Pandev.

In the next match, Lazio extended their unbeaten streak to 18 games, beating Parma 1-0 and pulling within one point of Juventus at the top of the table.

The evening closed with the Derby della Madonina in front of a sold-out Stadio San Siro. The match was a tale of two halves. Milan dominated the first half, taking a 2-0 lead into the break through goals from Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Inter stormed back in the second half, with goals from Marcelo Brozovic and Matias Vecino only three minutes apart to draw level. With the momentum entirely on Inter’s side, Stefan de Vrij put the Nerazzurri ahead in 70th minute.

Milan nearly equalized as Ibrahimovic watched his header from close range hit the upright. Romelu Lukaku sealed with victory in added time scoring Inter’s fourth goal of the half.

With the win, Inter took over the top spot in Serie A, tied with Juventus on 54 points but ahead on goal difference.


3. Hellas Verona – From Serie B to Europa League

In 2018/19, Verona finished fifth in Serie B, qualifying for the playoff to determine the third promotion team. They defeated Perugia in the qualifying round after scoring three goals in extra time to win 4-1, advancing to the semi-finals.

Next, they eked out a win over Pescara by a score of 1-0 on aggregate. In the finals, Verona lost the first leg 2-0 to Cittadella but secured yet another promotion back to the Serie A with a 3-0 win in the second leg.

In June 2019, Verona hired Ivan Jurić, hoping the Croatian could keep the club in the top division.  Not only has Juric secured the club’s safety, he has them competing for Europa League qualification. A remarkable feat for a club with the sixth-lowest market value in all of Serie A.

Ivan Juric Hellas Verona

The squad has gone about its business, earning points against the mid- and bottom-table teams. Prior to losing to Sampdoria on March 8th, Verona had been undefeated in their previous nine matches, highlighted by a 2-1 victory over Juventus.

The Gialloblu have become known for their staunch defense, conceding the fewest goals (26) of any Serie A club outside of the top three.

The club has been just as successful off the pitch. In January they sold defender Amir Rrahmani to Napoli for $15.4m but retained him on loan for the rest of the season. Verona acquired Rrahmani in summer 2019 for only $2.3m.

Verona also sold Sofyan Amrabat to Fiorentina for $22m and retained him for the balance of the season as well. Like Rrahmani, Amrabat was acquired in summer 2019 at an affordable price, paying only $3.85m to Club Brugge.

Verona are expected to sell Rrahmani’s defensive partner, Marash Kumbulla, in the summer as well. This would be the most profitable sale of the three, as the 20-year old was developed in Verona’s youth system before making his debut in Serie A.

With all this talent leaving the club, Verona will need to spend the proceeds wisely to ensure continued success in Serie A.


2. Atalanta – Serie A’s Sweethearts

In 2018/19, Atalanta finished third in Serie A, the highest finish in the 83-year history of the club. La Dea have continued their strong play in 2019/20, sitting comfortably in fourth place and looking set for a second consecutive Champions League qualification.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s men play an attractive style of football. Their attack-minded approach is the opposite of the traditional Italian Catenaccio. Though their open style sometimes exposes their defence, a potent attack often makes up for it.

Atalanta have already amassed 70 goals in Serie A in just 25 matches. By comparison, last season Atalanta’s 77-goal tally was the highest in the league by some margin. La Dea have scored five or more goals on five separate occasions this season and have scored seven goals on three separate occasions.

The quarterback of this attack is club legend and captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez. In addition to his six goals, the Argentinian is second in Serie A with ten assists, only two behind Lazio midfielder Luis Alberto.

Duvan Zapata’s success has carried over from last season. The striker scored six goals in seven matches before missing ten matches with an adductor injury.

The club didn’t miss a beat during Zapata’s absence. Luis Muriel filled the void, scoring seven goals while Zapata recovered.

Zapata picked up right where he left off, scoring five goals since returning to the squad. Together, the pair have combined for 24 goals in Serie A this season.

Both strikers, however, have been outdone by shining star Josip Iličić. The Slovenian has silenced critics who have accused him of being inconsistent, scoring 15 goals in the 21 Serie A matches he’s played in.

While Iličić and Atalanta are well-known to Serie A fans, the player and the club became household names across Europe with their play in this year’s Champions League.

They surprised many by finishing second in Group C to advance to the knockout phase of the tournament. Their success continued in the Round of 16 with an impressive victory over Sevilla, winning 8-4 on aggregate. Iličić scored five goals in the tie, four of which came in the second leg.

With Gasperini expected to extend his contract and Atalanta’s Zingonia academy producing star after star, this club could be competing in the Champions League for years to come.


1. Three-Horse Race for the Scudetto

Without a doubt, the top story of this Serie A campaign has been the race for the Scudetto.

Juventus entered the season looking for a ninth consecutive championship. Their era of domination began in 2011/12, when they overcame a star-studded Milan team. Since then, they have faced little to no competition… until now.

At the end of the 2018/19 season, Massimiliano Allegri announced that he would not be returning to Juventus.  Juventus hired ex-Empoli, Napoli and Chelsea coach, Maurizio Sarri in an attempt to continue their run.

Though Juventus have been at or near the top of the table throughout, the squad struggled to adapt to Sarriball.

To make matters worse, Cristiano Ronaldo looked a shadow of his former self in the first half of the season.

The Portuguese superstar managed only five goals in 10 appearances, though we later learned he was battling injury during this time. Once Ronaldo recovered he quickly found his form, scoring in 11 consecutive Serie A matches.

Ronaldo Sarri Verona Juventus

Juventus’ uncharacteristically poor play opened the door for others to compete in the race for the Scudetto, including Inter Milan.

Inter took huge strides in the offseason, beginning with the signing of manager Antonio Conte. The Nerazzuri acquired Diego Godin, Nicolo Barella, Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Biraghi and Alexis Sanchez.

Going into the season, many were uncertain how a rebuilt Inter squad playing with a new system would perform. With most of these additions being upgrades to the roster, it certainly wasn’t a shock that Inter was fighting for top spot.

In January Inter continued to extract talent from the English Premier League, adding Ashley Young, Christian Eriksen and Victor Moses.

Inter had been running neck and neck with Juventus for the majority of the season, but costly losses to Lazio and Juventus in the span of three games left them nine points behind with a game in hand, effectively eliminating them from the Scudetto race.

While many expected Inter to contend for the championship, few expected Lazio to be right up there with them.

Unlike Inter, the Biancocelesti made very few changes to their 2018/19 squad, but this strategy has served them just as well. Lazio may have the best starting 11 in all of Serie A.

Starting from the goalkeeper, Thomas Strakosha’s nine clean sheets is only one behind league leader Gianluigi Donnarumma.

The ageless Francesco Acerbi continues to lead the back line with one strong performance after another.

In the midfield, Luis Alberto has more than recovered from an injury-riddled 2018/19 season. The Spaniard leads all of Serie A with 13 assists.

Sergej Milinković-Savić has also recovered from last season and appears to be entering the prime of his career on a high note.

Luis Alberto Lazio

 

Ciro Immobile leads the way up front. The 30-year old has 27 goals, six ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for Capocanonniere. The Italian needs to score ten goals in the final 12 matches to break Gonzalo Higuain’s record for most goals in a single Serie A campaign.

For all their strengths in the starting 11, Lazio lack quality on the bench. This hasn’t hurt the club too much as they failed to advance from the group stage of the Europa League and were eliminated from the Coppa Italia in the quarterfinals. From Matchday 21 onwards, Lazio have had nothing but Serie A to focus on.

The Biancocelesti have not lost a single Serie A contest since Matchday 5, amassing 21 wins and four draws during this remarkable run. And yet, not a single matchday has ended with Lazio at the top of the table.

It took a while for Lazio to admit that the championship was the goal. For most of the season they maintained their target was a Champions League qualification. But with Juventus still alive in both the Champions League and the Coppa Italia, many believe Lazio can pull ahead in the home stretch.

One can only hope the rest of the season will be played. It would be a shame for such an extraordinary season to be thrown away.

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