Serie A Matchday 26 Preview
Serie A is set to return with some interesting games in matchday 26, the last round of fixtures of February 2018. Napoli (66 points) and Juventus (65 points) are still leading the way, as they have had an identical 9-games unbeaten run since they played against each other in early December 2017. Just behind them, the race for a Champions League games is getting more and more similar to a game of “Snakes and Ladders”. Roma, Lazio and Inter, in fact, have swapped positions, and now the two teams of the Capital sit in 3rd and 4th place respectively, but they are still all packed in the space of three points (50 pts. for Roma, 49 for Lazio and 48 for Inter). Watching them from not that far there are Milan and Sampdoria (41 points), with the Rossoneri still hoping to keep their Champions Leagues hopes alive. Finally, in the bottom part of the standings, Crotone (17th with 21 points) and SPAL (18th with 17) will face each other in a decisive six-pointer to avoid relegation. Here are all the games of round 26*:
18.00 Bologna - Genoa
20.45 Inter - Benevento
12.30 Crotone - SPAL
15.00 Fiorentina - Chievo
15.00 Hellas Verona - Torino
15.00 Sampdoria – Udinese
15.00 Sassuolo - Lazio
18.00 Juventus - Atalanta
20.45 Roma - Milan
20.45 Cagliari – Napoli
*Due to bad weather conditions in Italy, some games could be postponed.
MATCHES TO WATCH
Juventus vs Atalanta (February 25th at 18:00 local time)
The match on Sunday will be the first round of a two-games duel between Juventus and Atalanta in the same week. The Bianconeri and La Dea will in fact play each other also in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final (first leg in Bergamo ended 1-0 to Allegri’s team) on Wednesday at the Allianz Stadium. It will be a tough match for Juventus, as Atalanta will want to put the disappointment of the elimination from the Europa League behind the as soon as possible. Allegri will have Dybala available again to start but he will miss his other Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain, due to an injury during last week’s derby against Torino. It will be Mario Mandzukic’s turn to lead Bianconeri’s attack, together with Dybala and Douglas Costa.
JUVENTUS (4-3-3): Buffon; Lichsteiner, Benatia, Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Marchisio, Pjanic, Matuidi; Douglas Costa, Dybala, Mandzukic.
ATALANTA (3-4-1-2): Berisha; Toloi, Palomino, Masiello; Castagne, De Roon, Freuler, Spinazzola; Cristante; Ilicic, Petagna.
Players to watch
Juventus - Douglas Costa
After a first period of inconsistent performances, the Brazilian winger has introduced himself to the Serie A with all the qualities he’s known for: dribbling, skills and pace. On the left side, together with his fellow countryman Alex Sandro, could cause mayhem in t Atalanta’s defensive right side, where physical players like Hateboer or Castagne could have a hard time trying to stop him. He will also have an aerial maestro at the centre of the attack in Mario Mandzukic, ready to collect his precise crosses.
Atalanta – Leonardo Spinazzola
After being protagonist of one of the transfers saga last summer, Leonardo Spinazzola will face the team where he is grown and where he will return at the end of the season. With his excellent performances last season, he gained also some call-ups for the Italian national teams, while this season his development has been a bit hindered by a couple of injuries. The left wing-back, anyway, now seems ready to be back to a good level and will have a huge occasion to show his qualities to his future club.
Prediction: Juventus 2 – 1 Atalanta
It won’t be easy an easy game for Juventus, as Atalanta is one of the most well-organized teams in Serie A, thanks to the tactical work of their coach Gasperini. The Bianconeri, anyway, have shown many times their strength in difficult games like this and they should be able to get a very important win and keep pace with Napoli’s run. The duels on the wings will be the key factor of the game, especially on Atalanta’s right side.
Roma vs Milan (February 25th at 20:45 local time)
The big match of this Serie A round. Just when everything seemed back to normal, Roma picked a risky 2-1 defeat in the Champions League match, after going up with the fifth goal in four games of the Turkish gem Cengiz Under. On the other side, Milan are still in an impressive unbeaten run and now they could be serious contenders for a Champions League spot. The result of this match could make the difference for both teams’ ambition, as they prepare to face a series of very tough games in the next few weeks.
ROMA (4-2-3-1): Alisson; Florenzi, Manolas, Juan Jesus, Kolarov; Pellegrini, Strootman; Cengiz Under, Nainggolan, El Shaarawy; Dzeko.
MILAN (4-3-3): Donnarumma G.; Abate, Bonucci, A. Romagnoli, Rodriguez; Kessié, Biglia, Bonaventura; Suso, Cutrone, Calhanoglu.
Players to watch
Roma – Radja Nainggolan
Di Francesco’s decision to move him further up the pitch was one of the main elements of Roma’s resurgence, together with Cengiz Under’s stunning performances. In the “trequartista” role, in which he played under Spalletti, the Belgian midfielder can press quickly the opponent defence and be in a favourable position to unleash one of his powerful thunderbolt-like long shots. It will be interesting to see how Milan’s “regista” Biglia will cope with a bulldog like Nainggolan in his zone.
Milan – Suso
The Spaniard was the player who carried Milan with his goals before Gattuso’s arrival. Despite scoring less under the new coach, Suso remains a key player for Rossoneri’s football, with his very well-known ability to cut inside from the right wing and create some magic with his left foot. On his wing will likely play the most in-form player for Roma, Cengiz Under, so he may be asked to help a bit in defence, but a player like him can change the game just with a single touch of the ball.
Prediction: Roma 2 – 2 Milan
It will be an entertaining match, in which both teams will try to get a fundamental win. In the Champions League game against Shakhtar, the Giallorossi have shown some defensive fragilities that the quality Milan offense could be ready to exploit. On the flip-side, Roma’s attack, especially on the wings with Under and El Shaarawy, could cause troubles to the Rossoneri’s attacking-minded full backs. The duel between silky left-footed players like Under and Suso will be one of the most enjoyable of the night.
Cagliari vs Napoli (February 26th at 20:45 local time)
After being eliminated by German side RB Leipzig in the Europa League, Napoli can finally focus only on their main target this season: winning the Scudetto. As Sarri said in last week’s post-match interview, “there’s only Serie A in players’ mind” and now they will have to show their motivation against an easier opponent on paper like Cagliari. It looks like the Azzurri are a more mature team than the past campaigns, but Cagliari game could hide some risks.
CAGLIARI (3-5-2): Cragno; Romagna, Ceppitelli, Castan; Faragò, Ionita, Barella, Joao Pedro, Padoin; Sau, Pavoletti.
NAPOLI (4-3-3): Reina; Hysaj, Koulibaly, Raul Albiol, Mario Rui; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik; Callejon, Mertens, Insigne.
Players to watch
Cagliari – Alessio Cragno
The young goalkeeper, who recently extended his contract with Cagliari until 2020, is enjoying a great season, putting his name on the map for a spot in the Italian national team for the post-Buffon era. Against Napoli it will be a real challenge for him, but he has already shown that he could be very well up for it, as he did against other big teams.
Napoli – Piotr Zielinski
The Polish midfielder is not one of Sarri’s starters, but he is one of the most impactful players in all Serie A nonetheless. Coming in from the bench, most of the times for Hamsik, Zielinski has the ability to change the game with his deep runs and quality plays that are one of the secrets to Napoli’s success. Should the game be tougher than expected for Napoli, the Polish 23-years old could be the difference-maker.
Prediction: Cagliari 0 – 2 Napoli
Cagliari have been struggling recently, with only one win in their last six games, while Napoli haven’t stop winning in the Serie A since the goalless draw against Fiorentina in early December. The Rossoblu, anyway, are an organised team and Sarri’s side should not be complacent if they want to win this game. The performances of both teams’ midfielder will be crucial in this game, especially the duel between two tireless box-to-box players like Barella and Allan.