Juventus dropping points against Genoa finally gives Inter a chance to put some separation between them and second place, while Lazio will try to solve their numerous issues in a big spot.
Serie A Week 16– Sunday 18 December 2023 – Stadio Olimpico | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Lazio have occasionally had some decent wins, especially in the Champions League, but they haven’t built any momentum whatsoever. While it was far-fetched to think they’d take an extra step relative to the past campaign, as competing for the title was technically the only possible improvement, after selling Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, they have fallen off a cliff and not simply regressed to the mean.
Even though they are tenth, the gap with the top four is still somewhat manageable, and they will have a shot at being in contention if they put together four or five victories in a row. They’ll have to be much better to accomplish that. Very few of their contributors have shown the necessary consistency to put together a run of that type.
Their players and Maurizio Sarri often cited a lack of attention to detail, determination, and complacency as the reasons for their woes. It’s possible, but it’s not as if they have won the Scudetto or a cup in 2022/2023, so the hunger should still be there. They have barely ever looked fiery, leaning too much on their superior technique.
Perhaps having dropped so low in the standings and the prospect of a European berth slipping away will light a fire underneath them. The squad, despite the departure of one of their aces, is still a lot better than several sides in front of them.
They have had problems on both ends and the improvements will have to come from within rather than from the transfer market. They weren’t exactly shy in reinvesting what they cashed in. A few months in, their reinforcement campaign is very hit or miss.
Matteo Guendouzi was the highlight, as he has quickly become a cornerstone. He is one of the few who never runs low on energy, which is a recurrent defect throughout the squad. It’d be better if he could contribute more in the final third, but you have to spend the big bucks to find players who combine his grit and stamina with sound offensive playmaking. He has done more than enough to repay the investment.
At least Daichi Kamada was cheap, or such a signing would look like a major blunder. Perhaps they thought he’d alternate with Guendouzi, or that they could afford to rest Luis Alberto more, but neither has been the case. A midfield with two technical wizards doesn’t hold up defensively no matter who’s anchoring it, and he hasn’t performed well enough to entice them to spare the Spaniard more often. He’s probably not even a good fit for the box-to-box role. They agreed to a very weird contract, a seasonal one with a multi-year option, and it would be least surprising if the parties decided to cut bait, perhaps in January already if another club lodges a decent offer.
Nicolò Rovella and Luca Pellegrini joined with affordable price tags and formulas too, but they probably expected a little more from them too. The former has been okay but not as superb and commanding as he was with Monza. The fullback hasn’t been able to supplant Adam Marusic, who plays all the time because he’s versatile and well-rounded but is nothing special. Sarri has managed to fit in Manuel Lazzari, but he hasn’t gotten to the point where he stomachs fielding two offensive-minded fullbacks at the same time, nor his rare appearances have proven they should make an effort to make it work balance-wise.
They have also been bitten by injuries more often than in the past, but it hasn’t been their main problem because the backups have stepped up when needed, even those that barely ever got a chance like Mario Gila. They need their top players, from Ivan Provedel to Alessio Romagnoli, from Mattia Zaccagni to Ciro Immobile, to play up to their potential to right the ship. If they need proper motivation to do that, they should just look at the table.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Provedel; Lazzari, Casale, Gila, Marusic; Guendouzi, Rovella, Alberto; Anderson, Immobile, Zaccagni.
Doubts: Gila/Romagnoli, Marusic/Hysaj, Immobile/Castellanos.
Injury Report: Romagnoli (calf strain), Patric (illness) – Probable; Isaksen (thigh strain) – Out.
Inter have been almost flawless to start the season and are in a very enviable position, but they too have had some issues, although very first-world. The main one was that they finished second in a very winnable Champions League group, and, unless they get very lucky, they’ll have to clear a very challenging obstacle right away in the knockout stage. While they went all the way last season, their road to get there wasn’t too arduous. The toughest opponent was one they were very familiar with. The mandate to prioritize Scudetto might have come from above, but that’s a miscalculation.
They went toe-to-toe with Manchester City, but finals are always very cagey and weird. Since they didn’t have the opportunity to prove it in their current configuration, it’s likely but still remains to be determined whether they really measure up with the continental crème de la crème. They didn’t need much more to grab the top spot. Rotating heavily has helped them keep key players fresh for Serie A, but dropping points this early would have been more correctible domestically than in Europe. And, if things go wrong, they’ll soon find out that disappointments stick more triumphs, and, while what they did last season was remarkable, it’ll quickly fade away in the history books.
Their second problem is that Juventus have been a more nagging thorn in their side than imagined. In hindsight, they should have had a fiercer posture in the head-to-head clash, as they could have crushed their main foes’ spirit by ransacking their stadium, as they did with Napoli. Instead, the Bianconeri will continue to ride that sense of confidence that comes with surviving a pivotal battle. Even though they do it with much less flair and dominance, their wins are still worth three points. They should have the eye of the tiger even more than usual after what happened on Friday.
It won’t be real pressure until we get to the spring, and we’ll see whether things will be this close at the top at that point too, but a full-fledged duel has already had its negative effects, forcing them to exert more energy than perhaps they needed to. Simone Inzaghi fumbled it away in a similar situation two years ago, and the ghosts of that still linger, hence the extra attention to contests where they could have skated by without necessarily going all-out.
Another small defect, which will partially correct itself on its own over time, is that their backups haven’t performed as one would expect. That has been the case both for those they splurged on and the others who joined for cheap. While they all have legitimate excuses, and the lack of consistency is detrimental to any player no matter their caliber, it has been the main reason for slightly subpar showings in the Champions League. Since most of them are more familiar with Serie A, and have been quite successful in it, they should have done the opposite of what they did in the final two Champions League fixtures, sparing the starters for those. Having a big game beforehand or afterward was a major factor in their lineup choices, but it’s not yet crunch time.
Juan Cuadrado needing surgery is suboptimal, but at least they have certainty about his status now, and the timing is almost okay if it wasn’t for Denzel Dumfries being sidelined simultaneously, as the January window is just around the corner. They probably don’t have a budget, but they have the luxury of picking and choosing which role to bolster, either center-back, moving Matteo Darmian to the wing, or the flank one. It’ll likely simply come down to price tags and formulas.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Sommer; Bisseck, Acerbi, Bastoni; Darmian, Barella, Calhanoglu, Mkhitaryan, Dimarco; Thuram, Martinez.
Doubts: Bisseck/Paard, Darmian/Carlos Augusto.
Injury Report: Pavard (patellar dislocation) – Probable; Dumfries, De Vrij (thigh injuries), Cuadrado (Achilles injury) – OUT.
Inter Win – Under 2.5 Goals