Champions League fight gets fierce

Approaching the final two months of the Serie A season, Football Italia’s Chief Correspondent Richard Hall looks at some of the key games in the Champions League race.

When the smoke dissipated from San Siro and the Derby Della Madonnina had been completely digested by the morning papers, the attention turned to the race for the Champions League. With Inter, Napoli and Lazio, remarkably being the only two teams to win out of the top eight that weekend, the league table offered up a vision of things to come. The top four places certainly look like they will be fought over until the last and the battle to get there will be forged by some key moments.

Inter will be riding the wave of the Derby victory and hoping that this will serve them well, as Lazio are up next after the international break. They beat them 3-0 in Rome at the start of the campaign with Mauro Icardi netting twice. It looks like their want away striker maybe back for this tie and they will need all the fire power they can get as Lazio have been capturing some form of late.

After winning the Derby Della Capitale 3-0, the Romans have also drawn with Milan and Fiorentina, before thrashing Parma last weekend. This match could be crucial in either allowing Inter to gain more momentum, or instead keeping the pack locked together.

The start of April will be key for the Rossoneri, as they have two tough ties on April 6 and 13. If they can get results against Sampdoria and Udinese beforehand, they will have to take on Juventus and then Lazio back to back. Perhaps the fact that ‘The Old Lady’ will be playing Ajax in the  just four days after they face Milan will have some effect.

The Turin giants have all but tied up Serie A and may choose to rest players in the build up to the crucial first leg. Facing the Aquile after this will really show if the Milanese have the ability to keep pace with the group and if they can navigate this period, they could come out in an excellent position towards the end of the campaign.

Roma sit in fifth spot currently and it is fair to see that the ‘new Coach bounce’ is well and truly over. They have struggled for form, lost the Derby, been ejected from the Champions League and been defeated by SPAL last weekend. The run in they have will cause concern, as they have Napoli, Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Inter and Juventus still to face.

Perhaps the game against the Nerazzurri at the back in late April will be one of the most interesting, as it will come at a critical point of the season. Perhaps the only team with a tendency to be more ‘Pazza’ than Inter is the Giallorossi and if results don’t go their way, this could end the Romans’ hopes of reaching Europe’s premier competition.

Whilst it is widely accepted that Napoli have all but made their place in the Champions League secure, they will have an influence on the race all the same. In late April they will play Atalanta, who have offered up enough to genuinely pitch for one of the spots. Napoli will test them in April before ‘welcoming Inter’ to the San Paolo in May, which is always an epic showdown.

Atalanta are six points from fourth placed Milan and will have one eye on May 4. They travel to Rome to face Lazio, a match they won 1-0 earlier in the season. The side from Bergamo have been superb under Gian Piero Gasperini this campaign and it would not be too much of a surprise if they managed to make the most of any slip ups from the Roman and Milanese teams.

Perhaps Torino should also get an outside mention, as their form has been good of late, that is until they fell foul of Bologna. They have the opportunity to gather momentum, but even if they can get themselves in a position to surprise the world of Italian Football, an immensely tough run, including the Derby Della Mole and a visiting Milan side, may put to one side any thoughts of a miracle.

The Scudetto may already been decided, albeit not yet mathematically, but that does not mean that the race for the Champions League cannot provide ample entertainment. Perhaps there is an argument that Juventus, Napoli and the two Milan sides would provide Italy with the best possible chance of performing in the most elite of stages but Roma would certainly and justifiably have something to say about that. As the final two months of the campaign come into view, any mistakes in these crucial games will certainly prove costly.

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