Straight from the dark heart of Italy
The title of ‘winter champions’ may be merely a symbolic one, but Juventus will take heart from claiming the lead at the halfway stage of the season.
In the last seven seasons, the team that have been crowned winter champions have gone on to land the title outright.
Saturday’s 2-0 victory at Atalanta left Antonio Conte’s men four points ahead of AC Milan and unbeaten so far, with a record of 11 wins and eight draws.
Milan have won 12 and drawn four, but tellingly have lost to Juventus, Napoli and most recently Inter. It could be such matches as the city derby that play their part in the outcome of the Scudetto, such is the closeness of this year’s title race.
Juve’s 19-game unbeaten run may seem impressive, but Roberto Mancini’s Inter side went 31 matches undefeated during their title-winning campaign of 2006/07. In most of the last seven years it was that dominant Nerazzurri side leading the way at the halfway stage – so this year is possibly a bigger test of the theory that the team leading in January will still be there come May.
Stephan Lichtsteiner heads Juve into the lead at Atalanta
Indeed, those looking for messages in the tea leaves will find that, ever since three points for a win was introduced into Serie A 17 years ago, only four winter champions have failed to take home the prize in May.
It will be a long hard slog for everyone through to late Spring and at present there is little likelihood of Juve or Milan suffering a major collapse in form, though the Old Lady has the kinder fixture list ahead of their meeting with the Rossoneri at the end of February.
Injuries could be a factor in the battle for the title, but Alexandre Pato succumbing to another hamstring strain and facing a month on the sidelines seems to be met with more of a sigh of relief than cries of frustration in the Milan camp.
The absence of the future Mr Berlusconi has finally afforded the Italian footballing public a glimpse of the talented Stephan El Shaarawy, who scored against Novara last week in the Italian Cup and whose entry at half-time against the same opposition at the weekend gave Massimiliano Allegri’s men the sort of zip and zest missing whenever Pato is on the pitch.
The 19-year-old will no doubt be given a clear run through the next month, and if he continues to display a keen eye for a goal then who knows he may even force his way into Cesare Prandelli’s plans for Euro 2012.
Over at Juventus, Conte can also call upon youthful vigour: Luca Marrone came on as a second-half substitute for the injured Simone Pepe at the weekend, and the 21-year-old set up Emanuele Giaccherini for the second goal of the game with a delightful flick.
If Udinese have any aspirations of remaining in the top three then they will be relying not only on their home form – having dropped only two points at the Friuli so far – but on the goalscoring form of Antonio Di Natale.
El Shaarawy, Ibrahimovic and Robinho celebrate against Novara
The Serie A capocannoniere for the past two seasons took his tally thus far this term to 14 with a thunderous volley in the 2-1 win over Catania, but the veteran striker was joined at the top by Zlatan Ibrahimovic who grabbed a brace in Milan’s 3-0 victory at Novara. His second was a dead cert for the cheekiest goal of the season – a nonchalance back-heel that even the usually stern-looking Swede could not help smiling about.
Outside the current top-three AS Roma must feel they make 2012 a year to remember, and Francesco Totti has already started on the right foot.
Vilified for missing a penalty against Juventus only a month ago, the talismanic Roman etched his name into the history books when he broke Gunnar Nordhal’s Serie A goalscoring record for one club by taking his impressive figure to 211 with a brace in the 5-1 demolition of Cesena.
Nordhal set the record some 50 years ago with Milan and it may be another 100 before we see any player surpass Totti. Suddenly now even the most sceptical critics are convinced Luis Enrique’s exciting young side will have a say in where the title ends up.
It is unlikely they will win it, but the Giallorossi are in the pack chasing Udinese and still have 26 minutes of their rain-disrupted match at Catania to play.
Another Roman enjoying a pleasing weekend was Claudio Ranieri, who saw his Inter edge past Lazio. In doing so they took their winning streak to eight matches in all competitions and leapfrogged the Romans into fourth place.
January may be considered the cruellest month for some, but for the title chasers the winter blues have already been blown away.
RESULTS Sat 28 Jan Catania 1-1 Parma; Juventus 2-1 Udinese Sun 29 Jan Fiorentina 2-1 Siena; Cesena 0
AC Milan were standing at the crossroads of their season on Saturday evening: one route led down a frozen
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