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What Will Decide Europe’s Most Fascinating ‘Big Five’ Title Race Left

The Premier League is a two-horse race, and the Bundesliga, La Liga and Ligue 1 are all but sorted. Serie A, however...

It didn’t take long for Sunday’s Derby d’Italia to descend into chaos.

Just a minute in, Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martínez’s high kick caught the face of Juventus’s Manuel Locatelli, and he became the first of eight bookings. The rivalry matchup between the biggest clubs of Italy’s largest northern cities quickly turned into a contentious affair that was ultimately decided by a missed first-half penalty, which, after a VAR review, was retaken and buried by Inter’s Hakan Çalhanoğlu. It was a bizarre winner for Inter in a game that Juventus mostly dominated, mirroring the unpredictable nature of Italy’s top flight.

Europe’s top five leagues often descend into one-team title races that feign competitive balance, but in the end, they bend to the big spenders and traditional giants. Bayern Munich will likely and comfortably win the German Bundesliga for the 10th straight year. After an epic collapse in 2020–21, Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain is cruising to its eighth league title in the last 10 seasons. Spanish giant Real Madrid has a large cushion in La Liga, and a two-team duel in England could be all but decided by Sunday’s match between Man City and Liverpool. For the most drama, the most intrigue and the most parity, Europe’s most fascinating title race belongs in Italy.

Inter Milan edged Juventus in a key Serie A match

The characters entering the final act of this 38-week-long theater are rich with both history and present significance. AC Milan and Napoli (first and second in the table) are clubs with traditions of winning that have waned—Milan has won Serie A 18 times but just once since 2003–04; Napoli had a run of trophies in the late 1980s but hasn’t won a scudetto since ’89–90. Inter, sitting in third, won the league last season for the first time since 2009–10, as the previous decade of Italian soccer had been utterly dominated by Juventus, currently in fourth place.

An offseason of turmoil foreshadowed what was certain to be a wild year. Just weeks after leading the Nerazzurri to the league title, manager Antonio Conte decided to leave the club due to a reported dispute with ownership over spending and plans for the team’s future. Star right back Achraf Hakimi was sent to Paris Saint-Germain soon after, followed by striker Romelu Lukaku’s transfer to Chelsea, as club management tried to recoup funds lost during the pandemic. Juventus began its summer window by sacking manager Andrea Pirlo and ended it by sending Cristiano Ronaldo to a homecoming with Manchester United. Milan’s back line was shaken up when goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, fresh off a win with Italy at the European Championship, left for PSG. Even Napoli decided to make a managerial change after finishing fifth, replacing Gennaro Gattuso with former Inter boss Luciano Spalletti.

The effect of the winds of change was felt immediately, particularly in Turin. The Bianconeri picked up just two points in their first four games. Meanwhile, Roman clubs Lazio and Roma shone bright in the first couple of weeks but quickly faded. Led by a Napoli squad that didn’t lose until late November, a three-man title race looked to be on in Italy, and it didn’t look like it was going to involve the team that had run the league for a decade.

Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne celebrates a goal

But a season of chaos didn’t come without some misfortune for Spalletti’s squad. Star striker Victor Osimhen suffered a gruesome facial injury in a Nov. 21 loss to Inter—Napoli’s first of the season. The team’s goalscoring form immediately suffered as well. In three losses in December, it scored two goals compared to 4.9 expected goals (xG). That was all it took for Inter to make its charge to the top of the table, winning eight matches in a row after that November clash with Napoli.

The hole left by Lukaku’s departure was filled by a rotating crew of Edin Džeko, Joaquín Correa and Alexis Sánchez next to Martínez. It worked well enough—the Nerazzurri didn’t lose a league match between mid-October and February, scoring multiple goals in 10 of 14 matches. Then came the stumble: A late Olivier Giroud brace gave Milan a 2–1 comeback win in the Derby della Madonnina in Matchweek 24. Inter has picked up 10 of a possible 21 points since, while Milan hasn’t lost and Napoli has won four of its last five.

All the while, Italian soccer’s Old Lady, la Vecchia Signora, rose from its deathbed and planted its foot firmly in the title race. Those early-season goalscoring struggles were no more. Then, the Dušan Vlahović transfer showed Juve was going all in. The highly touted 22-year-old Serbian striker seemed to have an immediate impact on the team’s fortunes in front of goal. While he’s scored just five goals in all competitions, the Bianconeri have outperformed their xG in all but two matches (the second being Sunday’s goalless defeat to Inter).

So where does this leave everything? Well, Sunday’s result at the Allianz Stadium goes a long way in deciding who’s still in this title race. Juventus now sits seven points behind Napoli, eight behind Milan and four behind Inter, which has a game in hand. Barring utter collapse, the team that defined Italian soccer for the 2010s will go a second straight year without the scudetto.

AC Milan and Inter Milan are vying for Serie A’s title

But Milan’s four-point cushion over Inter following Monday’s scoreless draw vs. mid-table side Bologna is maybe even more fragile than it appears. Yes, Simone Inzaghi’s squad is on a relatively poor run of form and just picked up a result that was probably extremely fortunate. But the home stretch favors last year’s league champions, who have a game in hand on their city rival.

Inter creates more goalscoring chances than anyone in Italy, and it’s not particularly close. Çalhanoğlu transferred from Inter’s San Siro neighbors over the summer and has been vital to the team’s league-leading 63 goals scored. Often playing opposite of Nicolò Barella, another key creator, Çalhanoğlu has posted five shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, second in Serie A to only Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini.

What’s been missing recently has simply been a finishing touch—Martínez has scored three goals in 2022, all coming in a 5–0 win over Salernitana. Monday’s result may not do much to instill confidence in that regard, as the only goal was the Çalhanoğlu penalty. But the importance of the result itself can’t be understated; the Bianconeri have the easiest remaining schedule of the top four squads in the table.

Milan will finish the season with fixtures against Lazio, Fiorentina, Hellas Verona, Atalanta and Sassuolo, all teams in the top half of the table. Napoli still has Fiorentina, Roma and Sassuolo remaining. The climactic ending this season is begging for won’t come down to a late-season tilt between two top teams. It’ll come down to which squad can get the job done against lesser opponents.

If there’s anything we’ve learned through 31 weeks, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted in this league of chaos.

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