Serie A has been reduced. The decline in the country’s European coefficient means that only three teams instead of the usual four will be able to enter into the UEFA Champions’ League next season. Two of these spots are almost certainly secure; with eight games left, Milan and Juventus are 13 and 11 points respectively above third. Barring a catastrophic end of the season, those two will certainly qualify for entry into the group stages of the Champions’ League.
Thus it’s the remaining third place that really becomes interesting. There are at least four viable contenders for the final spot, with another two teams within an arms’ reach as well. For the sake of argument, Inter and Catania are only three and four points behind Roma respectively, but seven and eight points off that final place, with four/five teams ahead of them. Thus, while reaching that spot is not impossible, it seems far from likely given the sheer number of squads before them.
That leaves four contenders for the privilege of being able to enter into the Champions’ League qualification leg. The good news: Roma are far from out of the hunt.
Lazio, Roma’s crosstown neighbors, are currently occupying the place. Edy Reja’s side enjoyed a tremendous start to the campaign, including victory in the Roma derby, that left many wondering if a Scudetto hunt was not out of the question for the side. Their slide down the table began after the winter break, as the team went on an incredibly poor run: from January 22nd to February 23rd, Lazio lost six of the nine matches they played in all competitions and conceded nineteen goals in that span. Wins over Fiorentina and Roma seemed to illustrate that the side was on the resurgence, but the club have lost three of four matches since then to Bologna, Catania, and Parma.
Miroslav Klose has proven to be decisive for the side, notching 12 goals in 26 appearances to keep the club in contention for third. Indubitably, however, the side are only clinging onto their position due to their remarkable form in the first half of the year.
Prognosis: Given the side’s decline after the winter break, it seems unlikely that Lazio will be able to cling onto the final place. The side’s one saving grace may just be the inconsistency of the teams below them.
The Dark Horse
Just one spot below Lazio are Napoli, and it would be tough for anyone to argue that Walter Mazzarri’s men don’t deserve another shout in Europe after knocking out the likes of Villareal, Manchester City, and losing narrowly to Chelsea. The club have had nearly the opposite season that Lazio saw: a poor run in October and November, followed by a recovery around Christmas and a six game winning streak in all competitions around February and March. The loss to Chelsea in extra time clearly derailed the club’s momentum, as the side has only won once since then, drawing to Udinese and Catania and losing to Juventus while beating Siena.
With the sixth-best defense in the league and the second best offense, however, it would be foolish to write the club off. The likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik are often a handful for any side, and Edinson Cavani’s 19 goals this season prove he was not merely a one-hit wonder last year. Though Lazio may be a spot ahead of them, Napoli’s desire to return to the top flight European competition could see them overtake Roma’s direct rivals and keep hold of the precious spot.
The Question Mark
Udinese somehow continue to compete for third despite proving to be a carousel, selling their best players and replacing them with future gems. It may not be too scandalous to suggest that their gambling strategy may just be beginning to backfire; Diego Fabbrini has yet to light up the league as Alexis Sanchez once did, and the side once renowned for attacking play is only ninth in the league for goals scored (40). The side are where they are due to a stellar defense which ranks only behind Juventus and Milan for goals conceded, with a mere 28 in 30 matches.
Following the winter break, Francesco Guidolin’s side have struggled to put together a winning run of form; the side have not won two games in a row in the league since December, and only twice since have they gone more than two matches without losing. Toto Di Natale still carries the burden of attack almost entirely on his shoulders, with just less than half his team’s goals for the season. The side are by no means out of the race but sustained injury or a loss of form for their captain, as well as their inconsistent nature all season, suggests that third may be one bridge too far.
Roma have been inconsistent as well, a theme common to all four of these sides, but are picking up form at just the right time. After a very poor start to the season, Luis Enrique’s men managed to recover just before the winter break and sustained good form until the 3-0 loss to Juventus in the Coppa Italia seemed to damper morale. After the derby in early March, Roma have won three of their four matches to surge back into the race for third place and now remain just four points off the pace. Of these four teams, only Enrique’s men have won more than one of their last four matches.
The biggest test for Roma will be the run-in. The side face Udinese, Fiorentina, Napoli and Catania at home as well as Juventus away. For the side to truly stay in the hunt with such a tough run-in would be a remarkable first season for Luis Enrique to complete.
In short, it’s immensely difficult to predict who will finish in third, but Luis Enrique has Roma on track to at least compete for the spot until the end of the season.