Just eight matches remain for each club in the 2012-13 Serie A season as we take a look ahead to week 31 in the peninsula’s first division, and with European places on the line, a stubborn pack duking it out in the middle of the table and a brutal skirmish raging at the foot of the standings, the temperature will only continue to rise. Oh yes, tifosi, crunch time, the home stretch, or whatever moniker one would like to assign to the final act, has officially begun.
Two Italian sides took to the pitch in continental competition this week as Juventus and Lazio looked to take a step closer to realizing their dreams of glory in the Champions League and Europa League respectively, but were pegged back with matching 2-0 losses on the road in the first 90 minutes of their quarter-final ties. And so with it all to do for the pair when Bayern Munich and Fenerbahce make their way to the boot next week with a shot at silverware on the line, the storyline of the thirty-first round of Serie A becomes only more tangled, more complex, and ultimately more intriguing.
The action gets under way on Saturday night as cellar-dwellers Pescara come across the humbled first-place Bianconeri in Turin. Boss Antonio Conte and his defending champions are sure to be preoccupied with the upcoming return leg with the Bavarians on Wednesday, but will need to focus against the minnows from the Adriatic coast to regain some confidence with a win on the domestic front. Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini are each banned for the encounter with the rest of the lineup likely to be heavily rotated, whilst the Delfini ranks are decimated by injury and suspension as they will miss key players Antonio Balzano, Antonio Bocchetti, Gaetano D’Agostino, Vladimir Weiss, and Mervan Celik. The first meeting between the sides this season saw Juventus run out 6-1 winners in Pescara with Fabio Quagliarella netting a hat-trick, a result the Old Lady will be keen to repeat on home soil despite being without many members of her first eleven.
Torino travel to the Stadio Renato dall’Ara later in the evening to take on Bologna, with the visitors looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to former Granata man Blerim Dzemaili and Napoli in the game of the season last Saturday. The two clubs are separated by just one point in the table but could each be content with a draw as they are a comfortable distance away from the drop zone, nine points for Toro and 10 points for the Rossoblu. Angelo Ogbonna appears set to return from an injury layoff in central defense for Giampiero Ventura’s outfit yet Jonathas, Matteo Brighi, Walter Birsa, and Guillermo Rodriguez all will be in the stands. Holding midfielder Diego Perez is the only injury concern for the hosts, who will also be without the suspended Marco Motta.
Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off sees a crucial matchup between Fiorentina and AC Milan at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, the fourth-place Viola coming into the encounter six points adrift of the Rossoneri one peg above. A win for Max Allegri’s men would see them achieve some measure of security in their hunt bid for Champions League football next year, whilst the Tuscans could pull within just one win of the top three spots if they are able to deal the Lombards their first loss in Serie A since December. Vincenzo Montella will have to contend with the absences of star hitman Stevan Jovetic and defensive stalwart Gonzalo Rodriguez, but his touchline counterpart will have a full strength squad at his disposal, save long-term casualty Nigel De Jong. The Diavolo have a sparkling record at Fiorentina’s home ground, having drawn twice and won four times in their last six visits dating back to December 2006, and will undoubtedly be further motivated by the spectre of their 3-1 loss to the Viola at the San Siro in November.
In the afternoon Catania are set to do battle with Cagliari in Sicily as Rolando Maran’s boys attempt to keep alive their dwindling hopes of qualifying for European competition whilst their fellow island dwellers continue their hunt for a new arena in the background. Sampdoria will be keen to return to winnings ways at home to a Palermo side fresh off their first victory since November 24, but the Blucerchiati should have to be wary of a tenuous record against the Rosanero that hasn’t seen them beat the Stadio Renzo Barbera outfit for upwards of five years. Elsewhere, Siena will be eying the opportunity to finally break free of the relegation places in spite of a six point penalty with unpredictable Parma coming to town, whilst Chievo face a menacing trip to ninth-place Udinese’s Friulian fortress as they look to increase the nine point cushion between themselves and the dreaded drop zone.
Genoa will be put to the sword by Napoli Sunday night at the Stadio San Paolo, desperately needing to snatch at least a point versus to the southern giants after going five straight matches without a win to slip within one point of eighteenth place. The entire Partenopei squad will be available for Walter Mazzarri, but the Tuscan tactician’s selections may be tempered by a rash of key players being close to suspension with Milan on the docket for the week after. Napoli are currently two points in front of their rivals for direct qualification to the Champions League group stage and will want to carry such an advantage into the six-pointer with the Diavolo, so will be likely to take the initiative against a Grifone side lacking for confidence. Genoa were thrashed 6-1 in their last visit to Naples in December 2011, and could be in for another another hiding in a notoriously hostile environment if they cannot quickly regain their stride under duress.
Injury ravaged Inter welcome Atalanta to the San Siro in the day’s final encounter, and will be further hampered by having had to play a make-up match with Sampdoria on Wednesday. The recent revelation of an injury to Rodrigo Palacio in addition to Diego Milito’s troubles sees the Nerazzurri with Antonio Cassano and the aging Tommaso Rocchi as their only options in attack, whilst a bevy of others including Yuto Nagatomo, Cristian Chivu, Dejan Stankovic, and the suspended Walter Gargano have also been ruled out. The Orobici face some concerns of their own with Maxi Moralez and Igor Budan on the treatment table with Andrea Consigli and Stefano Lucchini each serving bans. Despite their struggles and decimated ranks Inter still are level with fifth-place Lazio on 50 points in the table and haven’t lost to La Dea at home since April 2002, so expect boss Andrea Stramaccioni to push his men in opposition to a club that have triumphed just three times in their past 15 games in all competitions.
Week 31 comes to a close on Monday night with one of the most hotly contested matchups in world football, none other than the unparalleled Derby della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. The heated city rivals are separated by just three points in the table with the Aquile occupying the fifth spot and the Lupi entering the weekend in seventh, meaning the game not only sees the bragging rights of the Eternal City at stake, but also carries massive implications in the race for Europe.
The Biancocelesti won the first meeting of the campaign 3-2 in a torrential downpour back in November and have now downed their crosstown adversaries three times in a row after the Giallorossi had previously won five straight editions of the fixture. Despite succumbing to defeat against lowly Palermo in round 30, Roma are the form side coming in, having won four of their last six whilst Lazio have struggled to balance their domestic commitments with a continuing continental campaign. Vladimir Petkovic’s men are be at a fitness disadvantage after exerting themselves on Thursday in their disappointing defeat to Fenerbahce in the Europa League, and will also be sans the services of Sergio Floccari, Cristian Brocchi, Abdoulay Konko, and Andre Dias, with Miroslav Klose unfit to start. On the other side Aurelio Andreazzoli has lost Pablo Osvaldo and Ivan to Piris to suspension as Nico Lopez and Federico Balzaretti could potentially miss out with injury, but wonder-teen Marquinhos returns to the lineup in defense after a thigh problem.
The match could quite possibly determine the outcome of the clubs’ seasons in Serie A, as each need to snatch both the three points and the mental boost that comes with conquering a maligned foe. Seven red cards have been shown in the last four Rome Derbies, including two in the most recent volume, a statistic indicative of the volatile nature of Italy’s most intense rivalry.
The Stadio Olimpico will surely be a boiling cauldron as Roma and Lazio take to their shared pitch under the night sky on Monday, and sparks will without question fly as the two titans once again collide in the one, the only, Derby della Capitale.