Italian minnows step to the plate


ROME, January 14 – While the traditional Italian giants AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus usually compete for Serie A honours, this season has been enlivened by some unexpectedly strong showings from other teams.As a result the scudetto race has an unfamiliar look about it.

Heading into this weekend’s games, Napoli sit second in the table, just ahead of third-placed Lazio, with Roma fourth and Palermo fifth.

Only Milan on top are occupying a position expected of them as arch rivals Inter languish in seventh, one place behind Juve.

And while most people are still expecting at least Inter to hit back and run Milan close, there are a growing number starting to believe in Napoli’s chances.

At times the southerners have looked the best team in terms of the football they play, although they are hamstrung by two problems: an inability to turn their good play and chances into goals and a propensity to leak a few too many at crucial times.

However coach Walter Mazzarri is trying to convince his players that they have what it takes to go all the way.

And he claimed that last week’s 3-0 defeat of Juve was proof that his team were as good as anyone in the league.

"I’m truly satisfied and proud, few sides manage to express themselves as we did," he said after that game.

"It’s a pleasure to see us play in this way. We applied our system, showed strength, mentality and organisation.

"It would be hard to play better than that. I have to compliment the players who are doing amazing things, only a great team could impose itself in that way against Juve."

The message doesn’t seem to be getting through to everyone, though, with Christian Maggio one of those players who doesn’t believe his side can upset the odds.

"We’re doing well but I don’t think we’re ready to win the league," he said.

"I would sign right now if we were offered a place in the Champions League, that would be a great achievement."

Mazzarri clearly wants more, though, and is telling his players to simply concentrate on getting better.

"I don’t look at the table, I’m just saying that we’re making great progress and that we want to continue doing so," he added.

"You can see that we’re organised and can play. We don’t just play with heart but we’ve also got good football brains.

"However we can’t stop, we can never relax our concentration if we want to stay at the top.

"We’ve already shown that when we play our best we can beat anyone but at the same time we can never lower our guard."

Napoli trail Milan by four points but the league leaders have looked vulnerable at times this season.

Their last two home games have seen them lose 1-0 to Roma and then scramble an injury-time equaliser in a 4-4 draw with Udinese.

On Sunday they travel to relegation threatened Lecce, who come into the game off the back of a surprise and morale-boosting 2-1 win at Lazio.

"The Lazio game has given us a boost," said Brazilian forward Jeda. "Sunday we’ll face another big team and we have to play without fear of making mistakes.

"They’re superior on paper but we can’t go into the game already beaten."

Inter, who have two games in hand on their rivals and could go third if they won both, host Bologna as coach Leonardo looks to maintain his 100 percent record as boss with a fourth straight win in all competitions.

Lazio will look to bounce back from their Lecce humiliation at home to Sampdoria while Juventus – coming into the game off back-to-back three-goal defeats – host Bari and Roma travel to Cesena.

Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated):


Napoli v Fiorentina (1700), Inter Milan v Bologna (1945)


Cagliari v Palermo (1130), Brescia v Parma, Catania v Chievo, Cesena v Roma, Genoa v Udinese, Juventus v Bari, Lazio v Sampdoria, Lecce v AC Milan (1945)