The top of the tree in Europe’s biggest leagues has become a fairly dull affair of late. Out of the top 15 divisions, nine of those have seen the last three titles be split between two teams, while five have been monopolised with one team embarking on a three-peat (or greater in Austria, Serbia and Germany’s case).
But the only league who have seen a unique winner lift the league title come season’s end out of all of those divisions is Italy, as Juventus, Inter and crosstown rivals Milan have scooped the Scudetto in the previous three terms. But none have started this campaign as true title frontrunners.
Juventus are a mess both on and off the field, with the hierarchy seemingly unable to end the lacklustre second coming of Max Allegri due to financial constraints, as the Bianconeri sit 8th in the table and with just one win from four in the Champions League.
Inter – who won the league under Antonio Conte in 2021 – have lost four times already this season, which equals last year’s total and is one more than the entirety of 2020/21. Pressure is mounting on Simone Inzaghi, as the Nerazzurri continue to flail in their bid to win a 20th Scudetto.
The red and black side of San Siro aren’t struggling nearly as much, but are still sat 2nd in the leagues as injuries have plagued Stefano Pioli, while their dire Champions League form is also a cause for concern. Those three teams account for every Scudetto won since 2001, meaning those at the top perhaps aren’t particularly used to being there.
Napoli currently top the division unbeaten under Luciano Spalletti, with the former Roma manager meticulously stitching together a squad that now look like genuine title challengers – despite ending the summer with a positive net spend. Stadio Diego Armando Maradona said goodbye to club legend Kalidou Koulibaly in the off-season, as well as Fabián Ruiz, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and David Ospina, but their incomings have been terrific.
Kim Min-jae has filled the Koulibaly void expertly, while Georgian winger Kvicha Kvaratskhelia has been one of the best players in Serie A this term. A permanent move for Zambo Anguissa and loan arrivals of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni Simeone have rounded off a balanced and supremely talented squad.
Unlike their more illustrious Italian counterparts, they’re going great guns in the league and in Europe, topping a tricky group C with ease ahead of Liverpool, Ajax and Rangers, as one of only four European sides to be unbeaten in both so far. Napoli have not tasted Scudetto glory since Diego Maradona’s time at the club in 1990, and while nobody is getting ahead of themselves in Naples, maybe this could be their year.
Atalanta are just behind five points Napoli after a start that saw them go unbeaten through their first ten games, winning seven and drawing three before losing 2-0 to Lazio at the weekend. Gian Piero Gasperini has done a fantastic job at La Dea over the previous six seasons, firstly returning the club to the Europa League before taking them into the Champions League for the first time ever. The 2021/22 campaign resulted in a disappointing 8th-place finish, but the lack of European competition is surely only helping the Bergamo club.
Only Lazio (more on them shortly) and Juventus have conceded fewer than their eight goals this season and while they haven’t been as free-scoring as we associate with a Gasperini Atalanta side (who have topped the scoring charts in four of the previous five seasons), their 16 goals is still at a European level but with the brawn to match.
They have won three of their games this season by a goal to nil, including their game at Roma which saw the xG of the hosts better Atalanta’s 0.14 by 3.14, and they did drop points to Udinese after leading 2-0. But the longer La Dea continue their excellent form, the more belief will grow that a first-ever league title is headed to northern Italy.
But out of all the fast starters, it is Roma who top the metrics. Currently fifth in the league after losing 1-0 to Napoli at the weekend, José Mourinho’s side have accumulated the highest xPTS so far with 24, the lowest xGA with 6.14 and the second-highest xG with 24.7, but they had led that metric until their 1-0 win against Sampdoria on October 17.
Their league position is impressive then given such a wild underperformance in front of both goals this term. They have scored just once in four of their 11 league games but in three of those, their xG was closer to three and they still bettered Juventus’ in their 1-1 draw at the Allianz in August.
But you feel this underperformance will level out and the likes of Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini will start to find the net once more, while the likes of Paulo Dybala, Zeki Çelik and Gini Wijnaldum will return from injury after the World Cup. It isn’t going quite so well in Europe, but maybe the eternal city will toast a second crown in as many years under the Special One.
It isn’t just Roma representing the seven hills in Serie A, though, as Lazio currently sit third in the division, rising up the league like a freight train following five straight wins and a draw to Udinese which has propelled Maurizio Sari’s men into early season title talk – and not without good reason.
Le Aquile have conceded just five goals, but Sarri – a previous title winner in 2019 – has watched his side smash home 23 goals to place them third behind Napoli and Milan in the scoring stakes. Both metrics have been helped by back-to-back-to-back 4-0 wins over Cremonese, Spezia and Fiorentina, while a 2-0 win over Verona and an impressive 3-1 victory against Inter Milan also stick in the memory.
Ciro Immobile is, unsurprisingly, running hot in front of goal once more – netting six times so far this campaign to sit one goal behind Marko Arnautović at the top of the scoring charts, with Sergej Milinković-Savić also enjoying another monster season – laying on a league-high seven goals for teammates, while his three strikes mean no player has been involved in more goals in Italy.
The last time the blue half of the Stadio Olimpico tasted title success, Sarri was managing Sansovino in the depths of the country’s footballing pyramid, while Marcelo Salas was scoring the goals needed for Lazio to win a first Scudetto in 26 years. They’ve got as good a chance as anybody this term, but will be praying the recent Immobile injury isn’t too bad.
Just behind them – and their visitors last weekend – Udinese have been in terrific form so far this season and have shattered all pre-season expectations. A brave 4-2 defeat to Milan at San Siro on opening day was followed by a scoreless draw with Salemitana, but since then, they’ve been terrific.
They defeated Monza and Fiorentina, before a 4-0 humbling of Roma was met by back-to-back 3-1 victories over Sassuolo and Inter, and a 2-1 win away to Hellas Verona before that battling draw with Atalanta, and another with Lazio to keep them in the top six.
Andrea Sottil is doing a magnificent job with Le Zebrette since taking over in the summer, with the former Udinese player overseeing the best run of form the club have seen for almost five years with his well-structured 3-5-2 catching the eye.
Tottenham loanee Destiny Udogie has been excellent at wing-back, while Beto has already notched five goals and forwards Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu have eleven assists between them already. The latter has been particularly impressive, with only Fiorentina’s Cristiano Biraghi creating more than his 31 chances in Europe’s big five this term. It is very unlikely that Sottil will be able to bring the Scudetto to the Dacia Arena for the first time, but the dreams of European nights in Eastern Italy once more are alive and well.
You write off Juventus at your peril, but even they feel too far gone now, with the rumblings at the top unlikely to subside in the near future. Inter have lost just one game fewer than the top six combined, and also seen too far adrift already. Milan will be right up there, though, and are probably still title favourites.
And while none of the teams fighting for title glory at present are ‘small clubs’, they have won just seven titles between them (a number Juve can equal between 2011 and 2018). Perhaps that inexperience will tell, especially if the big guns rally behind them.
But even still, ‘Kvaradonna’ lighting up the San Paolo, Gasperini the God taking The Goddess to new heights, Deulofeu rolling back the years, Sarriball and the Special One conquering the capital are all great to see. And the longer the smaller sides are allowed to dream of immortality, the more likely we are to witness a stunning fairytale and late drama in the final months of the campaign. Bellissimo.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto