Winners, losers and others
The calciomercato in its winter session is in full swing, and we've already been treated with the sight of a fur-collared, bling-bling decorated Antonio Cassano being given a hero's welcome at Madrid's Barajas Airport - by the media more than by the handful or so of fans who still believe Real Madrid's salvation is on the way in the shape of yet another striker.
The lengthy Christmas Break, at least it did seem long to me because one hour spent in the company of relatives feels like one week of regular time, is over but the status of 99% of the clubs - Roma are slightly richer and considerably better off for losing Cassano - is so far the same as it was, and for some of them, not a pretty sight.
Juventus, of course, belong to the category of mid-term winners. Their domination of Serie A so far has been just short of embarrassing, and the news that Mediaset purchased the rights to their matches until 2009 for every conceivable media (mobile phones, satellite TV, digital TV, perhaps even a tiny corner of your bathroom mirror) for a whopping 248 million euros has left them in an even better position to cash in on their strength and kill off all competition.
Odd, then, that Mediaset, who are owned by Milan supremo Silvio Berlusconi, may finance Juve's transfer activity for the next five years, but the move all but reiterates that those two, plus Inter, belong to a different planet and are not remotely interested in the well-being of Serie A as a whole. Though no self-respecting club administrator would reject 248 million euros if offered, of course. In a parallel universe Chievo and Catania would do the same, and they wouldn't care about the rest of the competition either.
So it's not Juve as the Evil Empire, they're just doing what's best for them in the short term.
Vieira's impact in the first part of the campaign, Trezeguet's exceptional goalscoring record, Abbiati's improvement in goal as a replacement for Buffon and resilience in the face of (rare) adversity all mean Milan and more likely Inter have a lot of catching up to do, although there does appear to be a chance for a dodgy result or two for Juve.
Mid-term winners also include Fiorentina, who have put last season's troubles behind them and have built one of the Serie A's more entertaining sides. Luca Toni has not scored since November 27 but the side has not skipped a beat. The defence has improved in the last month, with young left back Pasqual an emerging star, and the Viola are in a great position to keep fourth place and Champions League spot.
Another Tuscany side, Livorno, must be counted among the winners, despite a goal tally that reads 'scored none, conceded 11' in the three clashes with Juventus, Inter and Milan. Their fifth place is a tribute to their effectiveness against all the others and praise must be directed towards coach Roberto Donadoni, who keeps a low profile and has arguably squeezed more out of limited resources than any other Serie A manager so far.
Not unlike Chievo's Giuseppe 'Bepi' Pillon, the subject of a recent Soccernet column, who has revived the Verona club's fortunes and attacking style that had first come into prominence under Gigi Del Neri.
Inter-owned Nigerian striker Obinna is one of the season's best newcomers, and his celebratory cartwheels, albeit admittedly not a proper set of football skills, are a joy to watch (from a safe distance, as his teammates do, for fear of being kicked on the chin).
Inter are obviously another side that fits well into this higher class. Roberto Mancini has taken his time, just like last year, to find his best team, and they have lost a few points behind in the process, but have been a delight to watch in the last month and could be dark horses in the Champions League too. And Figo has more mileage left than originally thought while the defence has been rock solid.
They may not be able to catch Juventus by beating them at the San Siro on February 12 at the end of a month-long winning streak, as defender Ivan Cordoba boldly predicted on Tuesday, but look as the most serious contenders for the scudetto from now on.
A point for fitting Lazio in this upper half of the credits table can be made, too. A side and a club in obvious state of flux, with a permanent state of friction between a section of the fans and owner Lotito for reasons too complex to be explained here, they were expected to struggle in the lower half of Serie A, but terrific home form (five wins and three draws, including a hard-fought one with Juventus) has meant Lazio are comfortably clear of the relegation zone, and may even entertain thoughts of a place in Europe.
Lazio's win against Palermo on September 25, when they rallied from 0-2 to score three in seven minutes, adding a fourth four minutes from the end, must rank as one of the games of the season so far, although Sicilian fans may want to erase it from their minds.
A newcomer, Ascoli, can reasonably be lifted into this category. They were admitted to the Serie A on a very short notice, and did not seem to have depth and talent enough to put up as much as a struggle, but have managed to keep a reasonable balance in the goals for-goals against columns and have played better football than expected, with Milan-owned Pasquale Foggia, a former striker, a rising star on the right side of midfield.
Along with them, Empoli, who had achieved promotion on the pitch, have had their moments of brilliance. Ironically, it was when they went down 0-4 at home to Juventus on week 2 that they found out going all out regardless of their opponents' status was a better way of facing competition that just sitting back and waiting for the inevitable. They ended the year with a disappointing tally of one point from six matches but their attacking capabilities may just be able to offset the worrying awkwardness the defenders have displayed way too often.
Milan, so far, belong to a lesser category which we will call underachievers. It would be too much to call them losers, as they're third in the table, have been the only Italian side to beat Juventus so far and have reached the next stage of the Champions League, but too many question marks remain.
Cafu may be done with the club because of family problems back in Brazil, and his contribution had been down on last year anyway. The defence has let in too many goals and despite being arguably the Serie A's most entertaining side - no one has scored more - they have struggled too many times to finish opponents off. There may still be a spectacular second half of the season in store for Carlo Ancelotti's side, but their CL clashes with Bayern in February will already have a huge say in that. Among the underachievers, Udinese must be counted, too.
Champions League qualification last year was a milestone for the north-eastern side, but the campaign has so far been marred by in-fighting, inconsistency and a failure to deliver at crucial stages.
Home defeat against an under-strength (but obviously strong enough) Barcelona meant last place in the CL group, and surrender against all top sides, especially a 1-5 reversal at Milan which could qualify as Udinese's worst performance along with a 0-2 defeat at Reggina, is unlikely to be the fans' fondest memories of the first half of the campaign.
A point for including Sampdoria among the underachievers could also be made, but expectations were never as high for the Genovese as they were for Udinese.
Coach Walter Novellino will miss centre-forward Emiliano Bonazzoli, the side's surprising top scorer, who went down with a season-ending knee injury on New Year's Day, the same kind of problem that had felled his predecessor Fabio Bazzani in the summer. With the latter back but still not 100%, Sampdoria may struggle up front.
Roma, despite Totti's confidence in boasting back in September that the team could challenge for the scudetto, have had too many ups and downs. Allowing Cassano to leave at a heavily discounted price will be balanced by a better environment in the dressing room, but now the excuse has gone no one will be able to mention Cassano as the root of all evils, as Roma's decline had begun long before the first signs of trouble had surfaced.
Spare a thought for Palermo, too. After annihilating Inter back in early September it seemed manager Del Neri's 'Chievo South', with their heavy emphasis on wing play and aerial power by the centre-backs both in defence and on set-pieces, were destined for great things, perhaps a Champions League spot, but that back-breaking defeat at Lazio stripped the clothes off the Emperor and exposed their immaturity as a top side.
Pity poor Franco Brienza, who'd even gained a spot in Marcello Lippi's squad for the summer trip to the USA with his brilliant play last year but as an attacking midfielder better suited to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-3-2-1, is having trouble fitting in Del Neri's beloved 4-4-2.
His replacement, Angelo Gregucci, lasted all of five matches, which yielded a grand total of one point and two goals, both from the penalty spot, and new coach Silvio Baldini was left with the task of rebuilding morale and a semblance of structure. Which he's done well enough to lift Lecce from the bottom back among the others fighting against relegation, but unless Mirko Vucinic duplicates last year's goalscoring rate (19 goals) and the defence firms up the side from Puglia will have a hard time staying clear of relegation.
Enter the regulars, now, the teams that have achieved more or less what was expected of them.
Siena, anyone? At one point back in November it looked as if coach De Canio may lose his job after a string of disappointing results, but a win in one of the many Tuscany derbies against Empoli broke their nosedive and they're now seven points above the relegation zone, despite a dodgy defence which has let in more goals than anyone else in the Serie A.
Thank God for Enrico Chiesa, who at 35 is still banging them in and has stated he's already got his pen out to sign a contract extension, Siena willing (they should be).
Reggina, despite a horrible start to the season, have been steered back to respectability by the goalscoring prowess of attacking midfielder Francesco Cozza, who'd found little fortune at Siena and Genoa before returning to the club that is probably tailor-made for his skills, as the paucity of talent around him gives Cozza plenty of freedom (not to mention an excuse) to get into goalscoring positions, which luckily for him is almost any spot from 20m in.
Cozza's contribution has been similar to the one Parma were asking of Domenico Morfeo, their talented attacking midfielder, but Morfeo has succumbed to pressure too many times and Parma, still waiting for a owner and without an influential man in the middle of the park, lost all away matches until they snatched an injury time equaliser at Siena on December 18.
Bernardo Corradi, who'd been less than impressive early in the season, has now scored five goals and is perhaps coach Mario Beretta's best bet for the second half of the season, but the team may also be affected by what happens in the transfer market, as a few of the players are apparently wanted elsewhere.
Zola's retirement has meant Langella and Esposito, last year's surprise goalscoring couple, have not had a chance to even approach that kind of productivity, and Suazo's devilish endeavour has not been enough to make up for the pair's drought.
It is tough to stick the tag of losers on Treviso since they, just like Ascoli, only received Serie A status three weeks before the season's kick-off, but scoring ten goals in 17 matches so far looks a sure recipe for trouble, and their bottom place is witness to that.
They're going to shift some players in January, and they might have a different look in a few days' time, but staying up will be a struggle. As it will be for Messina, who have won only twice so far, at Lecce and home to Chievo.
Coach Bortolo Mutti, who'd taken them from last place in the Serie B in October 2003 to promotion to the A in eight months, has been unable to duplicate last year's excellent run which saw the East Sicilians miss a Uefa Cup place by a whisker, and they're now losing their iconic striker Riccardo Zampagna.
Dark clouds ahead, indeed.