Serie A’s added some much-needed uncertainty at the top of its table


For the past five years, Serie A’s been a bit of a bore. That’s not referring to the ultra-defensive, play-out-a-goalless-draw-rather-than-risk-losing-a-point perception of Italy that so many hang on to. No, the games have been fine, and high-scoring thrillers are playing out with surprising regularity. The trouble is, at the start of the season, pundits and fans alike crown Juventus the title winners, and no other team comes close to making a challenge. Juve goes on to win the scudetto.

Prior to kickoff in the 2015-16 season, Juventus lost three of their best players, yet they were still being tipped to win a fifth straight title. But they fell to Udinese in the first match. Meanwhile, Milan lost to Fiorentina, Napoli lost to Sassuolo and Roma could only draw with Verona. In need of someone, anyone, on which to hang their title hopes, analysts landed upon Inter, who’d managed a 1-0 victory over Atalanta, starting the season off right.

It wasn’t just the narrow victory — after all, a goal from Stevan Jovetić in injury time doesn’t exactly signify a rosy future — that had everyone jumping aboard the Inter train. What the nerazzurri had done over the summer played a significant part in boosting their credentials. The team was designed around the needs of Roberto Mancini, about to start his first full season since returning to the Inter bench. Out went the creativity of Mateo Kovačić and even Hernanes, but that mattered little. For a man that adores a 1-0 victory and focuses on defensive control, selling creative players didn’t count as a negative when sizing up the team. Instead, people saw the high price willing to be paid for Geoffrey Kondogbia. They saw Inter aggressively chase, and ultimately land, Ivan Perišić. The loans of Miranda, Jovetić, and Adem Ljajić were viewed as shrewd additions, and so by the time the transfer window shut, everyone believed that Inter had finally, truly, really revitalized themselves.

SEE MORE: Forget scudetto talk, Buffon tells Juventus.

The nerazzurri kept up appearances, at least for the first five rounds, when they grabbed a perfect 15 points. Mancini’s style may have been slammed in the press, but it was getting results. The players buckled down, found the goal, then sat back until they ground out the win. Even when things went wrong, as when newcomers Carpi surprisingly found an equalizer late in round two, Inter dug deep to score a last minute equalizer. It looked as though the club had finally gotten itself together and built something formidable, possibly even unstoppable.

Inter’s story is familiar, practically inescapable. Much of it even parallels what’s happening in England this season. There was little reason to anticipate that champions Chelsea would fail to defend their title, particularly in such a spectacular manner, yet there they are, sitting 15th, same as Juventus. Manchester City’s evisceration of the Blues in the second week started tongues wagging about their return to the winners’ podium, and their four straight wins, with no goals conceded, had many declaring the race all but over. A loss to West Ham was mostly shrugged away, but this week’s 4-1 defeat at Tottenham — exactly the same scoreline by which Inter fell to Fiorentina this weekend — put United on top of the table and left everyone wondering who, exactly, is going to claim that Premier League title.

Why, though, do we even need to elevate a team before the season has even kicked off, to carve their names on the trophy before five rounds have passed? It could be that we like simplification: this is the team that will win, these are the reasons why, and here’s how the other teams fall short. Or it may be that drama plays a part: if one squad is tipped for glory and fails to live up to that standard, there’s much more of a thrill when another team edges into the race. And we shouldn’t underestimate the human desire to be right: picking the champions earns fans bragging rights, increases respect for analysts and writers, and it just might earn you a bit of money in those places where sports betting is legal.

SEE MORE: Kalinic hat trick stuns title hopefuls Inter.

But this desire to single out a favorite causes other sides to be overlooked. The big names get the attention, while the sides that haven’t seen success in decades aren’t just dismissed but waved away with a condescending hand. In England, that’d be West Ham, who are attracting attention for their third place standing and their wins at City, Arsenal and Liverpool, but whose smart spending and intelligent appointment of Slaven Bilić still has them viewed as little more than a side that can disrupt the teams actually competing for the top four.

Fiorentina, meanwhile, are currently top of the Serie A table, yet barely anyone gave them a glance before they beat Inter. Considering they haven’t occupied the top spot since 1999 and haven’t lifted the scudetto since 1968-69, the viola aren’t viewed as a threat. But if people were paying attention, they would have noticed the club’s been restructuring itself more smartly than Roma or Napoli, and definitely more intelligently than Milan. They’ve even made wiser moves than Juventus and Inter.

After Vincenzo Montella got the sack in June after speaking out about a contract dispute, Fiorentina wooed Paulo Sousa, a tactician who’d impressed while leading Basel to the Swiss title last season. Still, with Mario Gómez off to Turkey, Mohamed Salah refusing to sign a permanent deal, and Giuseppe Rossi seemingly permanently broken, few expected much.

Yet Fiorentina have made the right choices at the right times. Sousa looks exactly the right coach to follow Montella, building from the base his Italian predecessor established in his three seasons, but enhancing it with greater steel in the midfield. He’s compacted Montella’s signature free-flowing style to make the viola more difficult to break down. Despite spending less than €25 million over the summer (barely more than what was received from Atlético Madrid for departing defender Stefan Savić) and regularly fielding many of the same starters we saw last season, this feels like a squad transformed. Nikola Kalinić certainly made an impression on Sunday with his hat trick, but he’s vital to the attack even when not scoring goals, with great off-the-ball movement and use of space. His partnership has helped to make Josip Iličić, a man all viola fans wanted to never again see in purple, a sudden hero in Florence.

SEE MORE: Local boy Insigne shining after Napoli’s Italian turn.

Sure, Fiorentina are benefiting both from an easy start to the season and the relative collapse of the boys that have dominated Serie A, but the viola still look like a team ready to stay in this conversation. And that should thrill calcio lovers, even those who feel their club should be claiming the title. Things may have been simpler when everyone could point to Juve for the title, and having scudetto discussions are likely to require more brainpower this season, but it’s so much more fun to have multiple teams playing well, especially when they’re using different styles and displaying various tactics. The league is a joy to watch and to talk about once more, particularly now that Inter’s repetitive 1-0 victories have been put to the test.

Forget predictions and projections. A title race is exactly what Serie A needs.

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