THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Only Napoli and Roma could come close to the eventual Double winners

23 May ~ Though we did not know it at the time, the Serie A title race was actually decided on October 28. Juventus had just lost for the fourth time in ten games, a tame 1-0 away defeat to Sassuolo, and sat in 13th place with 12 points, 11 points off the top. The senior players, led by Gianluigi Buffon, decided that enough was enough.

They explained to the new arrivals what playing for Juventus was all about. Harsh words were spoken, but the results were startling – 26 wins and 79 points out of 84 from the remaining 28 games and a final margin of nine points over second-place Napoli. And the explosion of young Argentinian striker Paulo Dybala, whose 23 goals meant that Carlos Tevez was forgotten.

No other Italian club could have effected this transformation, and if they received any favours from referees they were few and far between and had minimal impact on the outcome of the season. Once they had sorted out their teething problems, they were simply too good for their rivals. Their squad with, for instance, four top-class strikers, was able to cope with injuries and loss of form without any apparent reduction in the team’s efficiency. They have the knack of not buying useless players, and they would never tolerate a maverick such as Mario Balotelli. Rotten apples are shifted out at the earliest opportunity.

Only Napoli (who finished with a point more than Leicester) and Roma came anywhere near to matching them. But Napoli relied too much on the same players, who eventually tired. Gonzalo Higuaín, though, had a phenomenal season. His 36 goals in 35 games set a Serie A record, beating the 35 in 37 games of Milan’s Gunnar Nordahl 66 years ago. And, in his first season at a top club at the age of 57, coach Maurizio Sarri acquitted himself very well.

Third-place Roma paid for delaying the sacking of Rudi García. Once Luciano Spalletti arrived half way through the season, they were transformed, losing only once in 19 games and picking up 46 points. In the end, though, both Napoli and Roma can look back and say that they had a golden opportunity to end Juventus’s domination of Serie A and they blew it.

The Milan giants again disappointed. Inter limped home in fourth place and qualified for the unloved Europa League after starting with five wins. But even then it was clear that the quality of their play was not that of champions. Milan are out of Europe for a third successive season after losing the Coppa Italia final to Juventus and finishing seventh behind tiny Sassuolo, who take the final Europa League spot. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess.

Fiorentina took the other Europa League place but, after an excellent first half of the season, they faded badly and coach Paulo Sousa’s methods were questioned. As everybody expected complete newcomers Carpi and Frosinone went down, though Carpi finished on 38 points, only one behind Udinese and Palermo. However, they did not help themselves by breaking up the team that won Serie B so well last season, and it was only when many of those players returned that results improved dramatically, though just too late in the end.

Nobody expected Verona to prop up the table almost from start to finish but when you do not win until round 23 avoiding the drop becomes almost impossible. Their fate may have been sealed when Luca Toni suffered a long-term injury in September. Only eight points separated Empoli in tenth place and Carpi in 18th, which suggests that more or less half the teams in Serie A were united in their mediocrity and many of them were much closer to risking relegation than their final points tally might suggest. The overall standard of the league again left a lot to be desired.

Coming up are Cagliari, after just one season in Serie B, newcomers Crotone and the winners of a six-team play-off which might have to be delayed to allow definitive decisions on some points deductions to be reached. And a final point. Bookmakers here can happily quote odds of 5000-1 against about half the teams in Serie A winning the title because it will never be allowed to happen. Richard Mason

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