Assessing the credentials of Italy's Champions League chasers

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Yeah yeah yeah, we know the Serie A title race is the best in Europe this season, but can we have a shout out for the supporting cast, who are turning the top four battle into the most pulsating watch in the business?

Oh, go on then.

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Milan, Inter and Juventus are cemented into Italy’s top three spots, and it’ll take some completely mental circumstances for them to drop out. So for now, we can call them the ‘Champions League Definites’.

That brings us on nicely to the ‘Champions League Maybes’. AS Roma, SSC Napoli, SS Lazio and Atalanta are occupying places fourth to seventh respectively, all separated by three points. Behind la Dea sits Sassuolo, now nine points off I Giallorossi and dropping – well, not like a stone, but like a heavy feather?

Slowly but surely, they’re falling anyway. So it’s the ‘Champions League Maybes’ who have earned our attention on this fine afternoon, as 90min assesses their upcoming league fixtures, and just who is most likely to pinch that final European spot come the end of the season.

Let’s get stuck in, shall we?

Next five games: Udinese (H), Benevento (A), Milan (H), Fiorentina (A), Genoa (H)

Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Roma’s key man | Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images

We begin with the team currently holding onto fourth spot by their fingernails, which have been bitten to the nub through stress and clerical mishaps. It’s never boring in the Italian capital, and 2021 is no exception.

Paulo Fonseca’s job has unbelievably been on the line since the turn of the year, having lost heavily to bitter rivals Lazio in the Derby della Capitale, then making one substitution too many in the Coppa Italia and crashing out in comical circumstances.

Despite this chaos and their inability to beat any team close to them in the table, Roma still sit in fourth place. And the next five fixtures should be encouraging for Fonseca and his staff. 12 points will be expected – anything more is a bonus. Anything less…

KEY MAN: Henrikh Mkhitaryan – The Armenian is a goal and assist machine this year, and he can still carry Roma back to Champions League glory.

VERDICT: Champions League dreamers. As it stands, I Giallorossi have Champions League football in their grasp. But come the end of the season, they may just fall short, due to that soft underbelly against the big boys.

Next five games: Juventus (H), Atalanta (A), Benevento (H), Sassuolo (A), Bologna (H)

Lorenzo Insigne
Napoli’s son | Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Another manager peculiarly under heavy pressure is Gennaro Gattuso. Napoli are currently fifth with a game in hand on their direct rivals, meaning a top-four finish is a distinct possibility. That’s not enough for owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, though.

Gattuso could be out of a job by the end of February, and with huge contests against Juventus and Atalanta ahead of them, the final nails could already be in place, primed to be hammered into his coffin. There is a chance that I Partenopei come out of those matches with some positive results of course, and their season would have a much different gleam to it.

It’s a massive month for the club and their coach, no doubt about it. But they have the players, the overall quality and team spirit to do something special.

KEY MAN: Lorenzo Insigne – He may not always show up in the clutch moments, but Insigne is a top, top player. He must believe it’s his destiny to bring greatness back to Naples.

VERDICT: Champions League possibles. There is enough evidence to suggest they can get over the line when it matters. Will they? Time will tell.

Next five games: Inter (A), Sampdoria (H), Bologna (A), Torino (H), Juventus (A)

Ciro Immobile
Captain and goalscorer | Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

You’d be a brave man to rule out this Lazio team from pipping their opponents to the top four. The Eagles endured an inconsistent start to the new season, struggling to fight on both domestic and European fronts.

Simone Inzaghi’s men have got the bit firmly between their teeth now, and they are still basking in the glow of their incredible 3-0 victory over Roma in January. Lazio are on a roll, and with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Luis Alberto and Ciro Immobile all finding form at the right moment, they are a tough team to stop.

Inzaghi has built incredible mental strength and an unbreakable spirit among his players, and they’ll need to dig deep into their resources when travelling to both Milan and Turin to take on Inter and Juventus. A decisive five games coming up.

KEY MAN: Ciro Immobile – Lazio’s captain Immobile consistently leads by example. In the biggest matches, in the dying minutes, when his team needs him most, he stands up to be counted. That is an invaluable trait heading into the final knockings of the season.

VERDICT: Champions League dark horses. It won’t be easy, but Lazio wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re untouchable at the moment, and a good string of results could be enough to see them top of this mini pile.

Next five games: Cagliari (A), Napoli (H), Sampdoria (A), Crotone (H), Inter (A)

Josip Ilicic
On another level | Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

The big question surrounding Atalanta in 2021 was just how much they would miss talisman Alejandro Gomez. As it turns out, Serie A viewers miss him more than la Dea does. Gian Piero Gasperini’s side have ploughed on with their chores as if Papu never existed, and their superb form has brought them back to the brink of Champions League qualification.

Like Lazio, Atalanta are making up for lost time with their poor start to the campaign, but once they hit their stride, there are precious few scarier sights than this group of players charging towards your side’s goal.

The forward line is clicking into gear like the good old days, and if they can sort out the odd defensive calamity, they’ll be capable of beating anyone – including Napoli and Inter over the next five matches. Strap in, it’s going to be one hell of a showdown.

KEY MAN: Josip Ilicic – The winger had a slow start to the new season after being allowed compassionate leave, but he is back to his mesmerising best for Atalanta. When he’s in form, the Goddess can’t be stopped.

VERDICT: Champions League inevitables. Whenever you watch Atalanta play, you feel this unshakeable sense of dread and inevitability. That’s exactly what every team above them is experiencing right now. Don’t count them out.

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