There comes a time when teams and players stop being surprises and start getting treated as the real deal. Lazio and Atalanta, step on up, you’ve been promoted to the status of sides you expect to fight for a top four finish. Being a traditionally ‘big’ club is fairly irrelevant at this stage, because no matter how much certain Coaches might complain or strategically cover their ambitions, money does not buy success.
Atalanta sold half their squad over the last year, even sending Roberto Gagliardini to Inter in January 2017, and still grabbed fourth place. They’ve only built on that this time around, as losing Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti mattered not a jot to Gian Piero Gasperini. La Dea made a mockery of packed fixture lists and strength in depth, topping their Europa League group and reaching the Coppa Italia Semi-Finals.
Was it really a surprise to see Atalanta beat Roma at the Stadio Olimpico? They’ve earned the right to expect that kind of result over the past 18 months and Gasperini’s men will only get stronger after this two-week break to recharge the batteries. Dominant displays away to Milan, Napoli, Everton and Roma are no fluke.
The same goes for Lazio and Ciro Immobile, who flew to the top of the Capocannoniere charts with four goals in a SPAL thriller. Alright, the Aquile will win no awards for defending, but they can out-score anyone and entertain the crowds as they go along their merry way. Luis Alberto and Immobile were forgotten men, pushed by the wayside at bigger clubs, as they just needed to find their confidence again.
Simone Inzaghi, the tactician who wasn’t meant to be in charge of Lazio for more than a few weeks, has transformed a team that is going from strength to strength. Selling Lucas Biglia to Milan for €17m plus bonuses was a work of genius, or perhaps just Massimiliano Mirabelli getting fleeced yet again. Just like Atalanta, Lazio sold off big players such as Biglia and Wesley Hoedt only to push through in the Europa League and reach the Coppa Italia Semi-Finals after beating Juventus to the Italian Super Cup in August.
Lazio and Atalanta would do well not to set limits on themselves, because whatever they’re doing, it’s working. Some clubs, on the other hand, simply cannot handle the weight of expectation.
Inter and Roma must be eternal underdogs, otherwise they just don’t deliver. When little was expected of them, these sides surprised with strong performances, shock results and talk of being Scudetto contenders. The moment they are given the role of favourites in any clash, they crumble.
At least Eusebio Di Francesco is new to this level of scrutiny, but Luciano Spalletti has been through it all before at the Olimpico and repeating the same pattern now at San Siro. Why choose to go from one club with a similar ingrained mentality issue and go straight to another? Spalletti is like that girl in a romcom who keeps choosing the wrong man over and over again.
Speaking of the wrong man: Joao Mario. If the trip to Fiorentina was meant to be his shop window, he’ll end up in the bargain basement bin with House of Cards DVDs. We can only hope he played that badly to force a January transfer, because it’s genuinely disconcerting to see someone with so little regard for his profession.
Napoli were in the same boat as Inter and Roma when it came to crumbling under pressure, of course, but Maurizio Sarri may well be changing that. I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m cheering on the Partenopei this season, as I believe they’re worthy Scudetto winners and deserve at least some recognition for the scintillating football they’re capable of producing. The fact they haven’t been playing particularly well of late and are still winning is the attitude of champions, something this club hasn’t had for decades.
It’s no surprise to see Juventus scrape wins, of course, because that is their modus operandi. Cagliari were extremely unfortunate not to get a point out of their game, not least for that Federico Bernardeschi handball. I warned pre-season that VAR would only exacerbate existing paranoia in Italian football and I’ve unfortunately been proved right. We need clear guidelines on when it is used and the parameters for handling offences, but even then we’ll never get absolute agreement. Technology can ascertain offsides and whether a challenge was inside the penalty area, the rest is inevitably subjective and therefore open to debate.
I’m cheering on Napoli this season, but also Benevento. We’ve seen Crotone make that extraordinary comeback last term to secure safety on the last day, so imagine if Le Streghe could do it after scraping all of one point in the opening 18 rounds? And their hero is Massimo Coda, a 29-year-old striker in his first top flight experience following a career of bouncing around lower leagues. Now that really would be a surprise.