Crucial clashes in Serie A title race as Napoli host Roma and Juventus travel to Lazio

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In any other season, and perhaps in any other league, Napoli would be cantering to a first Serie A title since the days of Maradona some 30 years ago.

Unfortunately for the Neapolitans, despite having won 22 of their 26 league games, they have yet to shake perennial winners Juventus off their tails.

Juve have not dropped points since December 9. As for Napoli? Not since December 10. But if a weekend could throw the proverbial cat among the pigeons, this is it.

The Old Lady – four points behind Napoli with a game in hand – travel to third-placed Lazio while the league leaders entertain a Roma side also knocking on the door of the Champions League places.

WHY JUVENTUS WILL WIN

Not only have Juve managed to claim maximum points since December, they in fact haven’t lost in all competitions since November when they were soundly beaten by Sampdoria.

No team has even breached their defence this calendar year apart from Tottenham in the Champions League – which is rather handy considering no one has scored more goals than Lazio in Serie A this season (64).

Giorgio Chiellini and Mehdi Benatia are enough to give any opposing attackers second thoughts while Gonzalo Higuain has finally hit his straps, taking six goals away from February.

The simplest reason of all? Been there, done that. Juventus have title-winning experience right through their spine having won the last six on the trot. A big game is just normal business for them.

WHY JUVENTUS WILL LOSE

They are still fighting on three fronts, having emerged from an energy-sapping Coppa Italia semi-final with Atalanta on Wednesday – and there is of course a certain Wembley date to come.

Lazio’s energy reserves also took a hit, going the distance in their extra-time penalties defeat to AC Milan in the same competition.

Juve, however, cannot afford to pool their resources into this game entirely as they must mount a rescue mission in the Champions League against Tottenham on Wednesday.

Their build-up has not been helped by injuries to important cogs Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi, who had come into his own in recent weeks since his move from Fiorentina.

Back-to-back Serie A wins have restored some of Lazio’s confidence after being humbled by Napoli and watch out for Ciro Immobile – the former Juve youth product has hit six goals in his last four games.

WHY NAPOLI WILL WIN

There is always expectancy surrounding Juve’s success in Serie A and it makes Napoli’s achievements already this year so astonishing.

They have conceded the same amount of goals as their league rivals – 15 – and have shown the ability to take injuries on the chin, with left-back Mario Rui so far stepping up admirably in Faouzi Ghoulam’s absence.

That defensive record is the reason why a free-flowing Napoli have been so good this year – adding steel to their usual silk.

Ominously if there’s any particular area that Roma have struggled with this season it’s scoring goals, with a misfiring Edin Dzeko finding the back of the net only four times since October.

As for Napoli’s high-octane frontline? After proving a revelation through the middle last season, the nippy Dries Mertens has continued to flourish and has hit seven from his last nine games.

With midfielders Lorenzo Pellegrini and Maxime Gonalons, as well as right-back Rick Karsdorp sidelined, it hardly makes Roma’s day any easier.

Good things come in small packages: Dries Mertens.

Good things come in small packages: Dries Mertens.

WHY NAPOLI WILL LOSE

Napoli on paper have the easier task compared to Juventus – especially at home – but there’s enough about Roma to cause them problems.

Chief troublemaker could well prove Cengiz Under, the 20-year-old Turk who has come alive over the last month with five strikes in his last five matches.

Cutting in from the right, the tricky winger has a devilish left foot and can give Roma an unpredictable dimension in attack.

Their home defeat to AC Milan aside, the Giallorossi have been pretty good nick after an awful Christmas and January racking up draws and defeats.

Victories over Verona, Benevento and Udinese have tightened up the gap between them and fourth-placed Inter Milan to just a point.

And even throughout that dreadful run of form they have maintained a resilience, in much part thanks to Alisson.

The Brazil No1 is one of the most highly-sought goalkeepers in Europe – he is Serie A’s standard-bearer for clean sheets with 11 this season.

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Roma loan signings Patrik Schick and Gregoire Defrel have been bought outright as club reveal reduced losses

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Patrick Shick joined Roma on a loan deal in the summer.

Roma‘s half-year accounts announced on Thursday reveal the Serie A club reduced losses to €40.3 million helped by a boost to revenue from the Champions League.

The accounts revealed that Roma have also bought outright Czech Patrik Schick and Frenchman Gregoire Defrel, two forwards who arrived on loan deals last summer.

The loss of €40.3m for the period up until December 31, 2017, is an improvement on the €53.4m loss for the same period last season.

Operating revenues increased by €35m to €123.9m, with €47.8m coming from participation in the Champions League, compared to €23.7m for taking part in the Europa League last year.

Roma are through to the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition where they play their second-leg tie against Shakhtar Donetsk in Rome on March 13 having lost the first leg 2-1.

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Scouting report: Bryan Cristante misses his chance for Atalanta against Juventus

Chris Bailey 28/02/2018
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Sold off by boyhood club AC Milan and then loaned out by Benfica, Bryan Cristante has finally found a club who loves him in Atalanta.

The all-action, teak-tough midfielder reportedly has a number of suitors including Juventus, against whom he played in the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg on Wednesday, where a 1-0 defeat in Turin saw Atalanta bow out 2-0 on aggregate.

The 22-year-old is a genuine goal threat from midfield, having scored 10 goals in 34 matches so far this season, and on the basis of his performance against Juventus is not someone who shies away from a defensive shift.

But though he toiled away as Atalanta failed to breach the Juve defence, making a number of eye-catching runs in the process, the Italy international came up short in the inspiration stakes.

Here, we analyse the display of a man who is likely to be in demand this summer.

STATISTICS

Goals – 0

Assists – 0

Shots – 1

Shots on target – 1

Touches – 59

Passes – 48

Key passes – 1

Aerials won – 3

Tackles – 2

30-SECOND REPORT

Before Tottenham rocked up in Turin and took home a 2-2 draw, Juventus had kept 15 clean sheets in 16 games – so it’s no surprise that Cristante and Co had trouble breaking the black and white wall down.

Cristante did his utmost to pry open the hosts, popping up as the furthest forward beyond even No9 Alejandro Gromez, and bombed on, at times as a decoy runner, when Atalanta were operating close to Juve’s goal.

He also made a number of interceptions and was a willing extra layer of support when right wing-back Hans Hateboer was caught upfield, but in an attacking sense the game passed him by in the second half.

GOT RIGHT

STRIKING A BALANCE – The greatest sign a central midfielder can offer prospective employers is a willingness to get his hands dirty in both defence and attack.

While Cristante was subdued with the ball at his feet in the final third, he operated in pockets of space that deflected attention away from Rizzo down the right and his movement would create momentary uncertainty in the Juve defence that Atalanta did not have the accuracy to capitalise upon.

Though not a metronomic passer of the ball, Cristante knows how to play himself out of trouble in the middle of the park and ally that to a strong work-rate – he was chasing down the likes of Blaise Matuidi and Kwadwo Asamoah until the end – he is an intriguing option for Italy going forward.

GOT WRONG

TIMID ON THE BALL – While Cristante has no problem retrieving the ball and playing short, pretty passes before ploughing on up field, he spent very little time showing what he could do with it.

Compared to his midfield partner, Marten de Roon, Cristante made just 48 passes to the Dutchman’s 79 and though he was clearly the more forward-thinking option – it’s not a great look for someone who should be demanding the ball when his team is up against the ropes.

It’s true that Juve allowed little time for dawdling but even when Atalanta conceded with 20 minutes to go, there was a lack of urgency to his play.

KEY MOMENTS

9th min INTERCEPTION Cristante shuts down an attack as he makes two interceptions on Matuidi and Asamoah in quick succession, as he helped Atalanta stamp some early authority on the game.

19th min INTERCEPTION Another timely intervention and this time it sparks an Atalanta attack, though a misplaced pass by Gomez means it ultimately comes to nothing.

28th min LOSES BALL An unnecessary flick with his heel sees Juve intercept and launch a counter-attack, which resulted in a penalty shout that was turned down – thankfully for Cristante.

59th min BEATEN It has been a fine battle between Cristante and Matuidi for much of the game, but he lets the Juve man slip past him where he shouldn’t down the left-hand side, though the cross is eventually snuffed out.

VERDICT

Cristante was presented with the toughest test in Italian football – inflexible conclusions should not be drawn up based on a visit to Juventus.

His doggedness in defence helped prevent Juve claim a real foothold in the game, as Atalanta noticeably bossed the first half, and his game, particularly in movement has some subtle touches in attack.

In this instance, however, they were too subtle. Cristante needs to make sure that in clashes against the big boys, he uses the ball with more purpose. That he did not do so – especially in the second leg of a cup game that his side was losing – is disappointing.

A good season so far, but work still needs to be done.

RATING: 6/10

All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com

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