The race for the Scudetto between the Neapolitans and the Turin giants is one of pragmatism versus style, modernism versus idealism, and yet both sides offer conviction, aggression and consistency.
The simple fact is these characteristics mean any club outside the top two is irrelevant when it comes to Italy’s domestic campaign. This leaves the likes of Internazionale, Roma and Lazio to fight for the Champions League places.
This is a race that is polar opposite from the aforementioned as mistakes, inconsistency and frustration have brought about a psychological battle that is about not losing, rather than winning.
The first to enter the doctor’s office and lie on the couch are Inter. They have always been known for being pazza, or crazy, but this year all this was meant to have changed. Firstly, they have a new coach mentoring them, Luciano Spalletti. He was well drilled in dealing with unstable clubs and had looked after another basket case club, Roma, on two occasions with some success.
It was thought that with an arguably easier task, he would be able to help Inter’s talented squad reach the Champions League, a goal that has been slowly turning into an obsession in recent years.
All went well, initially, as a full pre-season and a solid plan saw a defence of João Miranda and Milan Škriniar complemented by a new three-man midfield with a Florentine connection. Manchester United transfer target Mauro Icardi was scoring as usual and Ivan Perišić and Antonio Candreva look dangerous offensively.
The coach had all the moving parts performing, and by December they headed up the table, not only ahead of Napoli and Juventus but also undefeated. The biggest issue during this was that even when they were winning they didn’t look terribly convincing, and the first time they did, in a 5-0 demolition of Chievo, then it all went wrong.
Since then Inter have won one against Bologna and, considering it is nearly the end of February, that is a statistic which makes little sense. Despite this their early-season form still means they sit of 48 points in fifth place and are only three behind Roma in third.
The problem is they are devoid of confidence and have the Milan derby on the horizon. Despite still having only been defeated three times, they will have to capture some form soon if they are to keep any hope of Champions League qualification alive.
Next on the couch are Lazio, a team with an insecurity issue. Perhaps the fact they have the smallest budget and a hugely emotional fan base – so obsessed and passionate about the team they often abuse them – doesn’t help.
In what often turns into a turbulent campaign, this year has been different. Coach Simone Inzaghi has found a balance with a group of players that is not only paying dividends it is also attractive.
After a 0-0 draw with SPAL on the opening day, Lazio went on to win an astonishing nine games out of ten in Serie A. They also have Ciro Immobile in blistering form, and he is on track to be the league’s top scorer. Despite a blip where they suffered two defeats and a draw, they were back at it, winning six and drawing two, but then they hit a speed bump.
After losing to Milan they went on to suffer defeats to Genoa and then were demolished by Napoli, even the performances from Real Madrid transfer target Sergej Milinković-Savić rose to superlative from “quite good” in this time.
A win this week against lowly Hellas Verona has steadied the ship, but the worry is once they lose again they may hit another blip, and Juventus are around the corner. They certainly look best placed to finish in the Champions League spots but will need the doctor to prescribe something for nerves.
Last on the couch are Roma. They have been here before, a lot. Like Inter, their issues often transcend coaches, ownership and instead seem to be heavily linked to their incredibly expectant fan base.
The Giallorossi can, at times, fly high and excel in the role of the underdog. When they hit a certain height they panic and this is where the cracks can set in. They are suddenly no longer the plucky underdog and must lead from the front.
This was again the situation this campaign and they seemed almost pragmatic at the beginning of the season as new coach Eusebio di Francesco was still trying to figure out how best to get them playing.
Five wins and a defeat to Inter saw their campaign start well, and after a defeat to Napoli they managed to win another five in succession. This suited them as they were losing to the big clubs in Serie A and beating the rest. But after they bested Chelsea in the Champions League and then beat Lazio in the Derby Della Capitale it all went wrong.
One win, three draws and three defeats followed, conveniently making them underdogs again and, since being back in that that position, they have won three on the bounce.
Serie A may have a title race where it will be he who blinks first loses. But the race for the Champions League will be won by he who implodes the least.