With the bottom three 11 points adrift of safety and Torino struggling to keep up with Fiorentina, many remaining matches will feel meaningless
26 January ~ Something extraordinary is happening in Serie A. It is only January and yet over half the teams are already playing end-of-season matches. The top eight, from Juventus on 48 points to Fiorentina on 33, are playing for Europe. For the remainder, from Torino on 30 to Pescara on nine, the season is virtually over.
Nobody should be fooled by Fiorentina having only three more points than Torino. They have a game in hand, against Pescara, and they will surely win it. The top eight are the big seven plus one intruder, this season’s surprise packet Atalanta. (There is usually one – last season it was Sassuolo.)
The bottom three are Palermo and Crotone on ten points and Pescara on nine. As well as Pescara, Crotone also have a game in hand, but it is against Juventus. Immediately above these three in 17th place are Empoli, but they are on 21 points. So while they are only nine points behind Torino in ninth, they are 11 ahead of the last relegation place.
With the season more than half over, it is impossible to see how the bottom three can bridge this gap, especially as they have not even taken 11 points yet and Pescara have only earned six on the field. The other three were awarded to them when Sassuolo fielded an ineligible player in August.
A comparison with Europe’s other major leagues makes for startling reading. In England Southampton on 27 are 11 points clear of relegation in 11th place. In France Guingamp, fifth with 31 points, are just ten points above a clutch of clubs between 15th and 18th on 21. In Germany Bayer Leverkusen are eighth on 24 points and Hamburg 16th on 13. And finally, in Spain Alavés are 12th on 23 and Sporting Gijón 18th on 13. Clearly all these championships are currently more competitive than Serie A.
It is difficult to say whether what is happening this season in Italy is a one off or part of a trend. Last season at this stage Verona were rock bottom and doomed. Carpi and Frosinone had about half the points to make up that this season’s teams have. They failed. So it could be that this season sees the accentuation of a trend that had already begun, and if so it is very bad news. With scores of matches that will be meaningless for one or both of the teams taking part, the authorities will have to be extra vigilant.
It has long been argued by many that a 20-team Serie A is two too many, but an attempt to reduce the league to 18 was rejected on the “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas” principle (though I am happy to report that one of the small clubs in favour were Atalanta).
For the same reason, my suggestion for a way out of this impasse would almost certainly be rejected by the clubs. Increase the relegation places from three to four, though obviously not for this campaign. But using this season as a guide, it would immediately reignite interest in the championship. Alternatively, if this was too much, the teams finishing 17th and 18th could play off, perhaps with the proviso that there would need to be five points or fewer between them.
In the meantime, we must prepare for four months of possibly very strange football as coaches try to motivate players to give their best in matches which will often be little more than deluxe friendlies, possibly played in half empty stadiums. With the tension off, there might be more entertainment. But it is just as likely that players will do no more than go through the motions as they wait for their holidays. Richard Mason