ROME (Reuters) – Inter Milan remain the team to beat in Italy heading into 2022 after a year in which they reclaimed the Serie A title and maintained their momentum under new management.
Simone Inzaghi’s side have gathered momentum this season after a shaky start, finishing the year as winter champions and in formidable form, four points clear at the midway stage.
The new coach’s work has been impressive after a tumultuous close season for the club.
Antonio Conte steered the Nerazzurri to their first league title in 11 years in May, ending Juventus’ nine-year reign of dominance, but departed after the campaign along with key players Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi.
Those changes left many wondering if Inter should still be regarded as favourites ahead of the new season, a question that Conte’s successor Inzaghi has emphatically answered.
“We have believed in ourselves since July, from the very first training session,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. “Now it’s convenient for many to say we are favourites, that we are a battleship. But I already knew then that we could do well”.
Inter are the league’s top scorers with 49 goals and have the second-best defence behind Napoli, conceding 15 times and keeping six consecutive clean sheets before the winter break.
Their close-season signings have settled, particularly veteran striker Edin Dzeko, who has 11 goals in all competitions, and playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu, who has been directly involved in more Serie A goals than any other midfielder this season with six plus seven assists.
While Inter are the in-form side, eight points separates the top-four and a competitive title race could be on the cards.
AC Milan and Napoli set the pace at the start of the season, both going 12 games unbeaten, but subsequent dips in form have left them four and seven points off the pace respectively.
Atalanta are one point further back, while behind them Juventus are in desperate need of a better year in 2022 after a disastrous 12 months.
Worryingly, Juve are five points worse off than last season, when they surrendered the league title with a whimper and only scraped into the top four on the final day under Andrea Pirlo.
Cristiano Ronaldo left in the close season and returning boss Massimiliano Allegri has struggled to get a tune out of his squad since, with Juve sitting fifth, 12 points off the top, at the halfway stage.
“In terms of history and individual quality, it is a top-level team. But this year the team was like a squeezed lemon,” former AC Milan and Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said.
The projects of new coaches Jose Mourinho at AS Roma and Maurizio Sarri at Lazio remain works in progress, with one point separating the two inconsistent capital clubs.
Between them in seventh are Fiorentina, who have been revitalised by coach Vincenzo Italiano and fired by the goals of star-in-the-making Dusan Vlahovic.
The 21-year-old Serbian leads the league scoring charts with 16 goals and has had an outstanding 2021, equalling Ronaldo’s league record by finding the net 33 times in a calendar year.
At the other end of the table, Salernitana have suffered. The Campanian club sit bottom of the standings with eight points, but their off-field issues have been equally alarming.
The Italian Football Federation has threatened to throw Salernitana out of the division if they do not find a buyer by the Dec. 31 deadline.
League rules dictate they must change ownership, as current owner Claudio Lotito also controls fellow Serie A side Lazio.
The threat of a 19-team division is not the only uncertainty facing the league, as stadium capacities nL1N2TF0P7 have been reduced to 50% due to COVID restrictions and cases are rising amongst the players.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris)