A recurring trend of European soccer is to look for games impacting the top-four and title races.
However, this season, the major European leagues lack some of their prior vigor in terms of title races. The same cannot be said about fighting for Champions League qualification, but major leagues look all but secured.
In the Premier League, Manchester City holds a nine-point edge over Liverpool as the calendar turns into February. Furthermore, the Citizens possess a 19-point buffer from fourth-place rivals Manchester United.
Paris Saint-Germain practically wrapped up its eighth Ligue 1 crown in 10 seasons after the summer transfer window. Mauricio Pochettino’s side is 11 points clear at the top.
In Spain and Germany, the title race is somewhat closer. However, Bayern Munich looks comfortable in the Bundesliga. Meanwhile, Spain’s LaLiga is under cautious control of Real Madrid, while Atletico and Barcelona flutter in a top-four battle.
Then we have Serie A. Juventus’s domination over the past decade appears to be well in the past now. The Bianconeri sit just outside Champions League positioning, only just ahead of Roma and Fiorentina for its fifth position in the table.
Now, Inter Milan holds the throne. The Nerazzurri won Serie A last season, with eyes set for a title defense. However, the crown will not be a coast into the finish. Napoli, which blitzed out of the gate this season with a 13-game unbeaten run in the league, is just four points behind Inter.
Another challenger comes from one of Inter’s biggest rivals. AC Milan is also four points behind Inter, with a major opportunity on February 5.
On Paramount+, the two Milan sides play the 301st Derby della Madonnia, although only 230 of these are official.
Additionally, this Milan Derby bears a special importance in the Serie A title hunt.
Milan Derby in Serie A
CBS, which holds the rights to Serie A coverage in the United States, is doing something unprecedented for the Milan derby.
The significance and history of this contest warranted CBS to send not only its commentary pair, but its entire studio crew to Milan for pre- and post-match coverage. Among the analysts for coverage is Matteo Bonetti. Bonetti will also act as co-commentator alongside Andres Cordero for the contest.
Bonetti, who worked for beIN SPORTS and ESPN while they held the American rights to Serie A, understands the importance of a game like this for Serie A’s title.
“It’s not going to be your father’s Serie A where it is slow, teams defend a lead,” Bonetti previewed. “They play an exciting brand of football.”
Of course, Inter and Milan finished one and two respectively in Serie A last season. Yet, few pegged them to be maintaining form throughout the season considering the respective departures.
Inter’s leading goalscorer, Romelu Lukaku, returned to Chelsea while Acrhaf Hakimi opted for PSG. Furthermore, Antonio Conte’s dispute over transfer budgets led to his departure from San Siro.
Milan lost one of the brightest stars in the sport, let alone Italy, with Gianluigi Donnarumma also leaving for the Paris side.
Rather, Bonetti says Inter Milan embrace the winning tradition established by Juventus after a decade of dominance.
“Inter now feels like the new Juventus,” Bonetti said. “They are a team that has that winning mentality that finds ways to win even in the last minutes of games, basically what we saw from Juventus for an entire decade in the 2010s.”
Bonetti attributes some of that to Simone Inzaghi and his similarities to Conte. Despite Hakimi and Lukaku leaving gaps at either end of the field due to joining new clubs, the formation employed by Inzaghi resembles that of Conte.
Inter’s Serie A triumph in 2020/21 broke a deadlock between the two Milan sides for second-most Serie A titles in history. Of course, both sides trail Juventus.
While the 12-point gap between the two at the end of last season seems substantial on the surface, it is a sign of progress. Milan last captured a Scudetto in the 2010/11 season. A decade of frustration followed, with the club’s last top-four finish before last season coming in 2012/13.
This season, Bonetti says that Milan’s injury struggles slowed down what was a strong start to the season. Regardless, Milan boasts a lineup that is competitive, but still possesses room for development.
“It’s an interesting mix of really young players finally breaking out,” Bonetti said.
“And then, players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who have been battered by injuries, but when they still play, they carry the team.”
Unfortunately for manager Stefano Pioli and Milan fans, Bonetti added that it appears to be doubtful whether or not Ibrahimovic will play in this Milan Derby in Serie A this weekend.
Ibrahimovic is tied for the team-lead in goals. Bonetti is eyeing up the other person tied for that team-lead as a difference-maker on Saturday.
“I think a player to watch out for if you have not seen much of Milan is Rafael Leão, as an example. He’s been absolutely incredible this season. He’s flashy, elegant, super technical, super fun; just someone that you watch and you think ‘who the heck is this guy?'”
Milan must overcome the absence of its two primary center backs. Simon Kjær is out for the season, while Fikayo Tomori, who dominated with Milan for much of the season, remains out.
Previewing the game from Milan
As stated previously, CBS is flying its entire studio and in-match crew out to Milan for this fixture.
This is not Bonetti’s first time flying out to Italy this season. Earlier, San Siro hosted Bonetti and play-by-play voice Andres Cordero as Napoli strolled in for a 1-0 win against Milan.
However, that was just the pair of them and the match crew. Now, the entire studio staff, plus Christian Vieri, will be pitch-side ahead of the Milan Derby in Serie A.
For Matteo Bonetti, this commitment from CBS towards developing soccer coverage in the United States. It is all about attention to detail, rather than just throwing a game on the screen and calling it ‘coverage.’
Bonetti admits that the Premier League is, traditionally, the gold standard for club soccer coverage in the United States. Going to Italy for the Milan Derby in Serie A makes it feel like a momentous occasion, not only for the fans, but also for the crew. It allows the voices to understand the passion.
In fact, when Matteo Bonetti first called a game live back with ESPN from the Stadio Olimpico, he honestly got distracted. Remember, American commentators seldom call European soccer games live. Rather, they sit in a booth and call the game from a monitor or two.
“It was actually really difficult for me to focus on the action,” Bonetti said laughingly. “I just kept looking at the crowd. I would look to my left and there would be these Italian commentators that I grew up watching, and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Bonetti dragged himself back to reality and reminded himself that he was there to do a job.
That game years ago featured a title-contender in Juventus. Yet, the Juventus now is on the outside looking in for the Scudetto.
In Serie A, the Milan derby this weekend takes all the headlines, at least from a coverage perspective. However, one of the more compelling storylines expanding across the season is the relative struggle of Juventus.
Juventus, Atalanta, Roma, Fiorentina and Lazio are all within seven points of each other. Each club can see a legitimate possibility of finishing in the fourth spot in Serie A, currently occupied by Atalanta.
One reason for the excitement is the pool of managers in Serie A. Maurizio Sarri, Jose Mourinho Massimiliano Allegri all own a record of success. Moreover, that applies to a club like Atalanta, which has three-straight third-place finishes in Serie A entering 2021/22.
Now, most fans on the outside looking in did not expect a drop off like this from Juventus. The club scraped out a result in the final matchday a year ago to squeeze into this season’s UEFA Champions League.
Bonetti thinks the race for Champions League positioning in Italy could be the story line to follow in European soccer.
“There is going to be the tightest race not just for the Scudetto. Even though I do think Inter are the favorites now, they are not going to run away with the lead.”
“The top four race is going to be absolutely thrilling. It’s hard to say who would drop out if Juventus get into the top four. Or, could it be a surprise with a team like Roma? There are so many unknowns and so many variables.”
Also, this does not feature the battle at the bottom of the table. Clubs like Empoli are ripe for an upset of a bigger side, but remain fighting in the relegation scrap.
For World Soccer Talk’s full interview with Matteo Bonetti about Serie A and the Milan Derby, use the player below. World Soccer Talk’s Soundcloud has the full 20-minute interview between Matteo Bonetti and Kyle Fansler.
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