The battle for Serie A supremacy is the closest in years but Juventus sitting nine points off the pace is not enough for the Turin giants’ potential successors.
After 12 games, only five point separate the top five teams, four of whom can harbour serious scudetto ambitions following Juve’s disastrous start to their title defence.
But like poker players knowing they could be on a winning hand, none are giving much away.
Roberto Mancini, who won seven trophies including three consecutive league titles in his previous spell with Inter Milan, was dismissive after seeing his side pull level with leaders Fiorentina after a 1-0 win at Torino on Sunday.
Fiorentina are playing some great football but Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa claims he just wants other teams to recognise the team’s “quality”.
Roma now have no excuses as they go in search of a first league trophy since 2001, but two years of being humbled by Juventus has seen coach Rudi Garcia swap a tone of defiance for one of cautious optimism.
As for Napoli? Try mentioning the word ‘scudetto’ around Maurizio Sarri and you’ll be reminded they haven’t won the title since Diego Maradona led them to the second of their two titles in 1990.
Treble winners in 2010, when Jose Mourinho led them to the league, Cup and Champions League titles, Inter are finally back in the hunt after years in the domestic wilderness.
– Quality –
Inter are the only team in the top five not involved in Europe this season, but that added bonus means little for Mancini.
“I would say the others (title challengers) have a slight advantage because they’ve been playing together for longer,” said Mancini.
“This squad has only really been together since August. We’re trying to create a quality squad that includes younger players that can develop down the line.”
Although Italian football’s 1990 heydays are long gone, this season could help rekindle a forgotten love for watchers of ‘calcio’.
Fiorentina haven’t been champions since winning a second league crown in 1969, when they finished ahead of a Cagliari side steered by Italy legend Luigi ‘Gigi’ Riva.
But under Sousa, Fiorentina are flying, with Nikola Kalinic (7) and Josip Ilicic (4) hitting 11 of the team’s 24 league goals so far.
Sousa is among a select few players to have won back-to-back Champions League titles, triumphing in 1996 with Juventus then a year later with Borussia Dortmund.
But when it comes to Fiorentina’s title chances, he is modest: “We want to challenge every side in the league, but the best prize we can have at the end of the season is for our rivals to recognise our quality.”
Roma, who have hit a league-leading 27 goals in 12 games, sit one point behind Fiorentina and Inter after Sunday’s 2-0 derby win over Lazio, but Garcia admits it’s no longer a two-horse race.
“Inter and Napoli are both very strong this year, but you can’t forget about Juventus, either,” he said.
Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri admits his side now have to go “step by step” to revive their title hopes.
If Napoli end their 25-year-wait for the league title, it would be the story of the season.
Naples-born Sarri failed to make the grade in top level football and became a banker, but regularly swapped his shirt and tie after office hours for the tracksuit that has since become his trademark to coach.
He worked his way up the ladder, led Empoli into Serie A last season and made such a good impression he hit the jackpot by replacing Rafael Benitez when he left Napoli.
After they hit a bad patch at the start of the campaign, former club legend Maradona hit out: “If we keep on playing like this, we won’t even finish in midtable.”
Napoli have since beaten Lazio (5-0), Juventus (2-1), AC Milan (4-0) and Fiorentina (2-1), qualified for the Europa League last 32 with two games to spare and Gonzalo Higuain is Serie A’s joint top scorer on nine goals along with Sampdoria’s Eder.
It is perhaps no surprise that Sarri, whenever Napoli and scudetto are mentioned in the same sentence, usually replies: “It’s a curse.” – Agence France-Presse