The Serie A season is now halfway complete, and the name at the top of the standings is perhaps something of a surprise.
The last time Napoli were crowned “Winter Champions” was back in the 1989/1990 season, when they could claim, without argument, to have the best player in the world wearing their colors. Maradona would of course carry the team the rest of the way, securing the Scudetto at season’s end, but many observers are wondering if this year’s group, led by another Argentine, Gonzalo Higuain, can manage the same feat.
The winners of each of the past nine scudetti were also in first place at the halfway point (Juventus and Inter four times each, Milan once), however these are the big three names of Italian football, and Napoli lacks the economic resources, the experience, and the depth that each of those clubs boasted at the time. Indeed, their coach, Maurizio Sarri, is hardly a prominent figure on the world soccer scene, most of their players have never claimed a major title during their careers, and there is very little chance any big acquisitions will be made during the January transfer window. So do they really have what it takes to go the distance?
Many are calling this the most wide-open Serie A championship in recent memory, and it has most certainly been exciting to watch thus far. Looking at the points table shows the top four or five teams all within striking distance, so it just might as well be Napoli who comes out ahead. But it probably won’t. And the reason why is fairly simple. Fairly boring. Juve essentially spotted the entire league a 10 point lead to start the season, thanks to disastrously lethargic
Make no mistake, Juventus are still far and away the strongest team in the league. No other club in Seria A has a roster with anything similar to their level of talent, depth and experience. Yes, we all heard so much about the departure of Pirlo, Tevez and Vidal over the summer, but the signings of Dybala, Khedira and Mandzukic did a lot to compensate for those loses. Maybe not enough to get the team back to the Champions League final, but surely enough to win yet another Serie A crown after having won both of the last two by staggering 17 point margins over their nearest rival.
At the helm of that superior roster is Massimiliano Allegri, an extremely competent coach that certainly cannot be considered inferior to Inter’s Roberto Mancini, and who remains a notch or two above the aforementioned Sarri, as well as Fiorentina’s Paolo Sousa and Roma’s Rudi Garcia. Juve’s Champions League commitment may tire them out to a degree, but Napoli will probably be playing Europa League matches for as long, if not longer, as the team from Turino manages to advance in the top competition. Not to mention that Napoli are heavily dependent on Higuain, and if he falls out of form it will be almost impossible for them to maintain any momentum.
So yes, thus far it has been one of the most entertaining championships for quite some time, and hopefully it will stay that way. But the impression that Inter are something of an eleven man circus act every time they take the pitch, that Fiorentina’s lack of any real depth will inevitably catch up to them, that Napoli’s fun and high-powered team will eventually reveal a lack of consistency, and that Roma will be exposed to the world as the mid-level club they have always been, doesn’t bode well for the future. They call Juventus the “Old Lady” for a reason, and old ladies always end up being a bit boring, don’t they?
Sean Sedacca covers Italian soccer for Bigsoccerhead