It’ll be everyone into the pool at the weekend, as Serie A returns to the soccer scene as the last of the major European leagues to play behind closed doors. It’ll come back with a very tight title race, but one possible champion that would lead to a lot of collar-tugging around the world. The other contender is trying to end an era in a blaze of glory. Other than that, there isn’t too much else. But hey, it’s more to watch. Let’s catch up on Calcio.
As much as anyone else should, whatever you gauge that to be. Certainly Italy probably has more of a right than England. After being the first western country to be completely ravaged by the coronavirus, Italy saw over 800 deaths a day and 6-7,000 new cases per day at its peak back in March, suffering more than 34,000 deaths overall so far. But thanks to a severe shutdown, Italy has seen its level of new cases substantially fall to a couple hundred a day, currently, and less than 50 deaths per day. The country is still reopening, with its tourist industry still nowhere near its usual bloom, so we’ll give it a “maybe” as to whether soccer should be played in the country. That’s about as strong as you’ll get anywhere.
When the season stopped, Serie A had just about the closest title race going in the “Big 5” of Europe. Juventus lead upstarts Lazio by just a point with both having 12 games to go. Inter Milan, should they catch fire, could yet be heard from as they have 13 games left but are eight points behind Lazio. They would essentially have to run the table or close to it.
While a lot of people in Italy won’t care, a Lazio championship in this age of recognition and rebellion against centuries of institutional and societal racism could be quite uncomfortable. That’s because Lazio might be the most racist club in a major European league. Their fans have always had an open and devoted connection to facism, and just last spring unfurled a banner reading “Honour To Mussolini” which the club itself refused to condemn. This past January, a Lazio-Brescia match was stopped due to racist chanting from the Lazio supporters at Mario Balotelli. It was only a few years ago that the Lazio ultras used pictures of Anne Frank to forward their fascist and anti-semitic views.
This is almost certainly not the team for this time. Definitely not the fanbase.
To pin Italian football’s racism problem merely on Lazio would be way wide of the mark, however. It has been a problem everywhere. In a span of just a couple weeks where we’ve seen massive actions or displays of support for Black Lives Matter in Germany and England. What exactly Serie A does and how it’s received throughout the country should make for fascinating, if not nauseating, viewing.
On the other side of this title race is Juventus, winners of the last eight Serie A titles but seriously flagging this time around, at least by their standards. Just on Wednesday they were beaten in the rearranged Coppa Italia final by Napoli on penalties, and were extremely lucky to even get the match that far. Twice-accused rapist Christiano Ronaldo is still here and still scoring, but he doesn’t do much else these days. He’s become almost strictly a finisher/poacher. His assists are way down, though he’s been let down by wayward finishing of his teammates according to the chances he’s creating. A third of his goals have been penalties as well this year, and his shot creation and conversion is dropping.
But Ronaldo is sort of a microcosm of the whole team, in that no one escapes time. He’s 35 now, and is one of five regulars on Juve that are 30 or older. Only Matthijs De Ligt and Rodrigo Betancour are regulars under 25. This is a side that has basically come to the end of its cycle, hoping to round it off with one more trophy. It will need an overhaul sharpish.
The title may come down to when the two play each other on July 20th in Turin.
Only one up for debate really, as Inter have a firm hold on the third spot. The fourth is a straight tussle between Napoli and Atalanta, and everyone should be rooting for Atalanta. They are Serie A’s version of Loyola-Marymount in the late 80s/early 90s, or the Chiefs offense if you need a more modern reference (I’m an old, and one’s Bo Kimble love never dies). They’ve scored 10 more goals than anyone in the league and their metrics suggest they should be scoring that much more than anyone else. They regularly play at a pace that would be best described as “plaid.” The world got a glimpse of what they’re capable of during their two-legged evisceration of Valencia in the Champions League. This is a team that might not last long as the giants of the game break them up, but another year in the Champions League could keep them together just a little longer.
At the bottom, SPAL and Balotelli’s Brescia are pretty much marooned in the last two relegation spots, seven and nine points from safety, respectively. The third relegation spot could whammy any one of the five of Lecce, Genoa, Sampdoria, Torino, or Udinese, as they’re all within three points of each other.
ESPN+ has you on this one, as they show every Serie A match on their app.