The Premier League is over, but fear not, there is still plenty of footballing action across the continent to fill your boots.
Of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, only the English top flight has reached its conclusion; there is still much to play for in La Liga, Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and Serie A – with the latter offering a particularly interesting top-four race.
There is little drama at the summit of Serie A as Juventus have already wrapped up an eighth successive Scudetto, but the race for Champions League qualification remains hotly contested.
Surprise package Atalanta currently occupy the coveted fourth spot, but Italy’s sleeping giant, AC Milan, are hot on their heels.
Claudio Ranieri’s Roma are also in the mix, but Rossoneri legend and current coach, Gennaro Gattuso, will be desperate to re-establish the once habitual Champions League club back among Europe’s elite.
With just two matches remaining can Atalanta hold their nerves, or will Milan pip them to fourth and once again contest in Europe’s premier tournament after a five-year absence?
Serie A run-in
After an unforgiving blip towards the end of March and early April, Milan have rediscovered their mid-season pomp, winning their previous two encounters against Bologna and Fiorentina.
Those victories have kept the San Siro club firmly in the race for a top-four finish, and with a favourable run-in for the penultimate and final matches of this whirlwind season, Gattuso could nick fourth.
The Rossoneri will contest against already-relegated Frosinone on home turf this weekend before travelling to the Stadio Paolo Mazza to face mid-table SPAL on matchweek 38.
Meanwhile, Atalanta, under the tactical genius of Gian Piero Gasperini, are confronted by a completely different outlook, with their immediate forecast a far more ominous prospect than their Milan counterparts.
An away trip to the Juventus Stadium to face the Old Lady awaits the Goddess this weekend, before finishing up against Sassuolo – a team they clinically dispatched 6-2 earlier in the campaign.
Atalanta are currently on a five-match winning run, but a slip-up against Juventus could see Milan – as well as Roma – draw level on points, leaving all three clubs on 65 points for the final match of the season.
Ranieri has already stated his intentions to bow out at the end of the campaign, but the Italian tactician would no doubt love to finish on a high note – Roma also face Sassuolo, before concluding their season against Parma in the capital.
It has been another inconsistent season of twists and turns for this once immaculate beast, with Milan at one stage flirting with mid-table mediocrity, before revitalising their season to compete in this intense top-four race.
Before the winter break set in, the Rossoneri were fifth – and Atalanta eighth – but come March the club were sitting in the fabled fourth spot, and part of the reason for this has been their shrewd business in January.
The double swoop for Geona’s goalscoring machine, Krzysztof Piatek, and Flamengo’s Kaka-esque playmaker, Lucas Paqueta, has given Gattuso’s side a new lease of life.
Before their arrivals, Milan had played 19 Serie A matches and won just eight games, while in the 17 matches following their recruitments, Milan have won nine of their contests.
Piatek, succeeding the underwhelming Gonzalo Higuain, has netted eight Serie A goals in 16 outings since pitching up, averaging a better shot conversion rate per 90 minutes (1.99), better shots on target per 90 (1.34) and games won per 90 (0.6) than his predecessor, not to mention a better shooting accuracy of 60 % to Higuain’s 51.43 %.
Paqueta has also added some much-needed creativity and zest to a physically-imposing midfield, functioning as the release valve in a trident often consisting of Tiemoue Bakayoko and Franck Kessie.
With that, Milan were looking good value to secure top four, but a downward spiral last month opened the door for Atalanta. The Rossoneri failed to win in four consecutive matches, with three defeats (3-2 Inter, 1-0 Sampdoria, 1-1 Udinese, 2-1 Juventus) stunting their aspirations.
A slight resurgence in recent weeks has kept them clinging to the coattails of Atalanta, but it will be imperative to win their final two matches, though if the Premier League has taught us anything, it’s that even fulfilling your side of the bargain to near-perfection may still not be enough to achieve your goals – just ask Jurgen Klopp.
How are the teams shaping up?
As mentioned Milan are something of an anomaly at present, Italy’s answer to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde if you will. Their squad has been a patchwork assortment of hopefuls and has-beens over the past few years, but the club finally look to have constructed a team worthy of contesting in the upper reaches of Serie A.
At the back, Gianluigi Donnarumma holds the berth between the sticks and certainly has the potential to be world class, but his distribution is often a bone of contention, and there are still one or two vulnerabilities in his game. However, at 20 years of age, there is still plenty of room for growth.
Ricardo Rodriguez has been consistent at left-back, while Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio have held the fort commendably well to concede just 34 goals at centre-back – the fifth best defensive record.
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Further forward the aforementioned midfield trio of Bakayoko, Kessie and Paqueta appears Gattuso’s preferred choice, though the latter is currently serving out a suspension while the former has been involved in a number of heated exchanges with the ex-hatchet man throughout the term.
Milan’s standout player has no doubt been former Liverpool youngster Suso, who has six goals and 10 assists, while Hakan Calhanoglu has been a trusty creator (six assists) on the other flank, and of course, Piatek leads the charge through the middle in a 4-3-3.
Atalanta have thrived thanks to the goalscoring exploits of Colombian sensation Duvan Zapata, who has netted 22 goals – second only to Fabio Quagliarella (26) – while Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler have formed an impressive and combative midfield partnership.
In Gasperini’s preferred 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2, Hans Hateboer has wreaked havoc at right wing-back, while Robin Gosens and Timothy Castagne have interchanged for the floated full-back role on the opposite flank.
In central defence Jose Luis Palomino has often lined up alongside Andrea Masiello and either one of Gianluca Mancini or Berat Djimsiti, while Alejandro Gomez and Josip Ilicic have been imperious in aiding Zapata further up the field, with a combined 34 direct contributions (17 goals, 17 assists).
Finally, Roma have a familiar feel with Edin Dzeko through the middle in a 4-3-3, often accompanied by Justin Kluivert and Stephan El Shaarawy on the wings. Further back, Italian ace Nicolo Zaniolo has flourished alongside Steven Nzonzi and Bryan Cristante, while a tight back four of Aleksandar Kolarov, Federico Fazio, Kostas Manolas and Alessandro Florenzi has been fairly consistent throughout the campaign.
It is shaping up to be an epic final few matches. Atalanta contest in the Coppa Italia final against Lazio on Wednesday so could be a little jaded for the Juve match, leading to a likely final-day blockbuster for the Italian tripartite, with all three level on points. However, Atalanta have been ruthless since the turn of the year and outrageously humbled Sassuolo earlier in the season so should have no problem getting the job done there, but with the head-to-head record coming into effect with clubs level on points, Milan could take the edge and make it back to Europe’s top tier.