Serie A: See Naples and get beaten

ANOTHER victory for Napoli, their 17th in 20 Serie A games, has more or less handed the scudetto to Gli Azzurri so much so that even José Mourinho, hardly a defeatist, has congratulated the club on being champions. This is almost unprecedented for only 20 games have been played this season and there are still 18 to go. But 13 points is a substantial cushion for Napoli,  and althoughcan still go wrong, it is increasingly looking as though the residents of the Napoli cemeteries are going to woken from their slumbers for the first time since 1990.

There’s no denying Napoli are just about the most compelling team to watch these days, playing attack-minded football that has yielded 48 goals so far. They are also the only team to maintain consistency – just look at AC Milan, the reigning champions, and their recent form – losing heavily at home to Sassuolo and getting a thrashing from Lazio after they ridiculously travelled to Riyadh for the Super Cup, won by neighbours Inter.

Inter Milan themselves have been careless at times and were recently beaten 1-0 at home to Empoli. They bounced back with victory at Cremonese, but they are not the Inter of two years ago. They have lost too many games and may need some defensive reinforcements. They are, apparently, interested in Manchester United’s Harry Maguire and/or Victor Lindelof.

5AC Milan201154372938

It has been a strange season in Italy, though. The nation said farewell to a football legend in Gianluca Vialli and the national team was absent from their second successive World Cup in November/December. Sampdoria, the club where Vialli won the scudetto in 1991, are in serious financial trouble and could be facing bankruptcy. They are also struggling at the foot of Serie A, along with Hellas Verona and Cremonese.

Furthermore, scandal has reared its ugly head once more in Italy, with Juventus suffering a 15-point penalty and it could possibly get worse. But crowds seem to be in the ascendancy with an average of 28,400 overall and 72,000-plus attendances at both Milan clubs and over 60,000 at Roma. Napoli are getting almost 41,000 at their home games. If the Juve issue snowballs, will that affect public appetite for football?

Italian clubs have performed reasonably well in Europe in 2022-23. Of the four Serie A sides in the Champions League, only Juventus failed to win through to the knockout stage, losing five of their six group fixtures. They will face Nantes in the Europa League, alongside Roma, who have been drawn against RB Salzburg. The Champions League sees Inter versus Porto, AC Milan against Tottenham and Napoli playing Frankfurt. With the fine form of Napoli in the competition so far – 20 goals in six games and five wins – could the southern Italians be possible contenders for the most prestigious trophy in European football? Lazio and Fiorentina are in the last 16 of the Europa Conference League and will play FR Cluj and Braga respectively.

Napoli have been relentless since the first week of the campaign, and after beating Juventus 5-1, earned superlative headlines such as “the Napoli hurricane”. Their firepower comes from Victor Osimhen, who has netted 14 goals so far and is the front-runner for the Capocannoniere award for the Serie A top scorer. Osimhen has been in remarkable form and at 24, is undoubtedly on the shopping list of a lot of clubs. He’s valued at € 84 million by Football Benchmark, but he would surely go for closer to € 100 million should Napoli decide to let the Nigerian move on. He’s under contract until June 2025. Napoli’s other star man at present is the 21 year-old Georgian midfielder, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has contributed more assists than any other player in Serie A this season.

The Juventus domination of the past decade is definitely at an end. If Napoli win the title, it will be the fourth different champion in a row. That has to be good for Italian football, indeed the European game.

Conference League: Mourinho’s trophy?

THERE ARE some big names still in the Conference League, probably bigger than UEFA expected, and three of the clubs are past winners of the European Cup/Champions League: PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and Marseille. Furthermore, Leicester City and Roma are also still involved, making it a reasonable last eight.

While Leicester will fancy their chances, they face PSV, but the Foxes are less consistent this season and are currently 10th in the Premier. They probably expected better after winning the FA Cup in 2021. PSV are not the force of old, but they are second in the Eredivisie and just two points behind Ajax. Their line-up is likely to include the sought-after winger, Cody Gakpo. The 22 year-old has netted 16 goals this season and is being eyed by Premier League clubs, including Arsenal. This is a tie that could go either way. 

PSV’s stablemate, Feyenoord, face Slavia Prague for the second time after meeting them twice in the group stage.  Slavia, who have had reputational problems due to accusations of racism on the pitch, are are just one point behind Viktoria Plzen in the Czech First League and are capable of surprising a few people.

One team that could emerge as favourites for the inaugural Conference League is Marseille (OM), no strangers to European success in recent years and now second in Ligue 1 but 12 points worse off than leaders Paris Saint-Germain. OM face PAOK and should be too strong for the Greek side. Marseille have an Arsenal player on loan in the form of William Saliba, who has been in excellent form this year.

The other quarter final is between Bodo/Glimt of Norway and Roma. These two sides met earlier this season and José Mourinho’s Roma were beaten 6-1, the worst defeat in the managerial career of the “special one”. One would assume that Roma won’t get fooled again and Mourinho may just see the Conference League as an ideal way to end what has been a patchy first season in the Italian capital. Roma are considered to be favourites to win the competition.

Mourinho always sees the value of winning silverware and no matter how unimportant some people think the competition is, he will be keen to add to his haul of major prizes. Roma have spurned the chance of challenging for a Champions League place in a campaign in which Juventus have been transitioning, but they have been in good form recently and are unbeaten in nine Serie A games, including a 3-0 win against Lazio in the Rome derby. What’s more, their € 40 million signing, Tammy Abraham, who joined from Chelsea, has proved to be an excellent acquisition, scoring 23 goals.

The final is scheduled to be hosted in Tirana, but UEFA are considering a switch due to possible political interference in football. Greece has been mentioned as a possible new venue.

The quality of the Conference last eight must be something of a relief for UEFA, but three of the quarter-finalists have arrived via the Europa League. Nevertheless, a decent winner will add to the credibility of the competition.