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May 1, 2012

All eyes on battle for bronze

Football may not be as crazy as Roberto Mancini says, but most of the events surrounding it are. Take the race for the Scudetto between Juventus and Milan. Both clubs are among the biggest media darlings you could ever come across, yet both managers claimed in recent weeks either that "there are many who will be unhappy at our win" or that "we pushed on despite all the criticism".

There's nothing new or heartrending about the us-against-the-world attitude, but it can get a bit ridiculous coming from certain quarters.

Although it seems Juve's Antonio Conte is finally getting the credit he deserves, the position of Max Allegri at Milan is more awkward: the crime of being knocked out by Barcelona and possibly finishing in second place in Serie A is not easily forgotten, nor forgiven, by those whose opinions count. Or at least that's what they believe.

Talk, talk, talk, and that's not a verbal version of Mancini's hand gestures at Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline at Eastlands on Monday evening. Talk, and see what happens. Talk, and a cloud of words descends on facts and hides them from view - which of course has never prevented pundits and managers from talking even more.

Which leads us, obliquely, to another struggle that has been heating up in Serie A: the one for third place. This is the second consecutive season Italy will be awarded only three places in the Champions League, thus making the race for that final position in the table more appealing, at least at first glance.

Listen to Lazio, and all they care about - after securing wins in both Roman derbies, which of course trumps every other achievement - is getting that final spot.

Turn your ear in Inter's direction, and getting that third place is the 2011-12 equivalent of winning 2010's Treble.

Napoli? It took them a while to get over the disappointment of being knocked out of the Champions League, but once they got their bearings, they started focusing on that third place, and letting everyone know about it.

The same goes for Udinese, who actually don't talk much - and very few would listen anyway, since Francesco Guidolin's side wear the wrong kind of black and white striped jerseys.

Roma, then? Luis Enrique clearly does not like to talk, not about his future anyway, which he's been asked about every time Roma have lost as much as a friendly, let alone each of the 14 matches they have failed to win or draw this season, but it seems everyone else likes to spread words around, in typical local style.

Except for Roma, on 51 points, all the other sides are joint third on 55 and apparently fighting to grab that last Champions League place, but their talk has not been backed up, in most cases, by convincing performances.

It's a situation that might have jogged the memory of older Italians - those who grew up bombarded by annoying, rhyming sayings purporting to be conveyors of deep truths, of the "bella Cecilia", a mythical lady who everybody seems to like but, as the saying goes, nobody really wants to have anything to do with.

Lazio, in particular, might have confused the term "Champions League" with "Europa League", a competition Italian sides dread taking part in, as it provides them, and their mostly non-football loving fans, with the burden of having to travel to faraway places, listening to a non-descript hymn instead of the Champions League anthem and occupying newspapers and news channels with meaningless stories about an actual match (how dare they!) instead of endless transfer speculation.

Having been in the driving seat for most of the season, Lazio have now grabbed only four out of a possible 18 points in the past month, losing at Novara and Udinese within four days last week. The latter was a match that ended in controversy as a ghost whistle deep into injury time stopped the visiting players in their tracks and allowed Udinese to score their second goal. Lazio's strong-arm (plus shove) tactics of protest had a foundation in the fact play should have been stopped once the whistle from the stands interfered with it, and those who may object to such a vigorous reaction to a goal from a side that was already losing 1-0 deep into injury time would be wise to remember the race for third place may go down to goal difference.

Suspensions dished out following the brawl that broke out after the real final whistle mean Lazio will be without influential centre-back Andre Dias and goalkeeper Federico Marchetti for the remaining three matches. That double blow, paired with a crowded injury list that includes at least five regulars (Hernanes, Miro Klose, Christian Brocchi, Senad Lulic and Stefan Radu), means their chances may not be as good as those of Inter, the side they play on the final day of the season.

Inter have been rejuvenated by new manager Andrea Stramaccioni, but Inter-watchers know the first seven words of this sentence have been told and written many times before. Most of the managers' names eventually turn out not to be the real solution, and despite owner Massimo Moratti's enthusiastic words about 36-year-old Stramaccioni, you never know with these guys.

It is true, however, that Inter have looked better and produced better results under the new man. Four wins and two draws in the past month have propelled the Nerazzurri into joint third-place, although the two draws - a 2-2 at Cagliari (actually in Trieste, where Cagliari play their home matches now, hundreds of miles from their real home) and 0-0 at Fiorentina - were just short of ugly, and Inter still look weak at the back. In fact, after they had to rally from 1-0 down at home to already relegated Cesena on Sunday, Stramaccioni said he'd like his side to "score first for once", something that has happened only once in their four wins.

'Strama' has not stuck with a single system during his month in charge, going from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-2-1 - Wesley Sneijder and Ricardo Alvarez being the "2" - while explaining he likes to have "quality footballers playing behind a lone striker", which considering Diego Milito's form may be gloomy news for Giampaolo Pazzini, who is goalless in Serie A since January 22 and was especially profligate last Sunday against Cesena.

Napoli may be the favourites then. It took them one month to shake off the disappointment of going out to Chelsea, going winless from March 18 to April 21 and losing three in a row in the process, at Juventus, Lazio and at home to Atalanta, looking spent and devoid of motivation. When he takes time off from moaning about something, manager Walter Mazzarri is actually worth listening to, and he explained his side's loss of form and momentum thus: "We're so aware that our football is much better than those other sides have been playing we may have lost our focus at times." There is as much damning praise as praising condemnation in those words.

The run-in has Napoli at home to Palermo, away at Bologna and at home to Siena, and only Bologna, who have for once stayed strong throughout the latter part of the season, are likely to prove a real stumbling block for the Azzurri, who have changed tactics in the past month, going 4-3-3 at Lazio, 3-4-3 against Atalanta and 3-5-2 against Novara before reverting back to their perennial 3-4-2-1 habit at Lecce (2-0 win) and Roma (2-2).

Which leads us to Udinese, winners of just two of their past ten matches. They play Cesena, Genoa and Catania in the run-in. It's an encouraging schedule, but perhaps clashes with their recent loss of form, epitomized by Antonio Di Natale scoring just three times in that disappointing stretch. Some of the players that seemed world-beaters early on, like Pablo Armero, have had a worse second part of the season, and the side was hit heavily by the knee injury Mauricio Isla suffered on February 11 against Milan, which robbed them of a marauding force down the right. Bizarrely, Isla was injured playing his first game of the season in a new position just behind Di Natale.

One thing about this struggle for third place is sure, though: according to statistics published by Corriere dello Sport, this is possibly the worst race in recent times. Whoever grabs third place may reach a maximum 64 points, which apart from Lazio's 62 points in 2007 - actually 65, considering a three-point deduction following the Calciopoli affair - would be by far the worst point total since Serie A was expanded to 20 teams.

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