Time is rapidly running out on the domestic football calendar in Europe, as all of the major leagues on the continent save France (which concludes its season next week) will wrap up their proceedings for the 2011-12 term by this weekend.
And, as can be expected, several matters are still to be decided throughout the continent before we get to next week’s Champions League finale between Chelsea and Bayern Munich and the fast-approaching Euro 2012, less than a month away.
Much of the remaining intrigue on the continent lies in Italy and France, where we review a pair of games this weekend.
First stop is Serie A, where Juventus already claimed the Scudetto with a week to spare last Sunday thanks to its win over Cagliari and AC Milan’s loss to bitter San Siro rival Inter. The drama in Italy now focuses upon third place and the final qualification spot for next fall’s Champions League. Four sides are still in with a shout for third place.
Two of those, Lazio and Inter, square off Sunday at Stadio Olimpico in Rome, which once upon a time hosted the Olympics in 1960, and where the likes of Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolph blazed to gold medal glory. At stake on Sunday is a chance at that coveted third-place finish.
European oddsmakers see little separating these two for the match, with visiting Inter priced a very slight favorite at 6/4 on the win, with the take-back on Lazio at 17/10. The draw is priced at 12/5 for this 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff that will be covered in the states by ESPN3.
A quick check of the Serie A table confirms the importance of this match, with Lazio currently sitting fourth on 59 points and Inter in sixth but just a point behind on 58. Heading into the week, Udinese (at mid-table Catania on Sunday) narrowly holds the pole position for third place as it sits on 61 points, with Napoli (on 58 and hosting Siena on Sunday) also in the mix for the final Champions League qualification spot.
Let’s sort out the confusing math involved in the fight for third place in Serie A.
Udinese: If it wins or draws at Catania, Udinese is guaranteed third whatever happens. A loss will go unpunished if Lazio and Inter draw and Napoli fail to beat Siena.
Lazio: The Biancocelesti must defeat Inter and hope that former Roma boss Vincenzo Montella does them a favor by guiding Catania to victory over Udinese.
Napoli: Napoli need two other results to go its, a bid reliant not only on Udinese losing, but Lazio also failing to overcome Inter. Three points at home to Siena are also a necessity.
Inter: A dramatic leap from sixth to third rests on the Nerazzuri winning at Lazio, Udinese leaving Catania empty-handed and Napoli being frustrated by Siena.
It has been the late-season surge by Inter, however, that has been most unexpected, as a spot in next season’s Champions League seemed inconceivable for most of this campaign.
Inter, however, has made a dramatic rally since veteran manager Claudio Ranieri was dumped in early March, and youth team boss Andrea Stramaccioni promoted on an interim basis. Now, team prexy Massimo Moratti has hinted that Stramaccioni could be on position for the full-time appointment at the conclusion of the regular season after Inter has lost just once in eight matches under the 36-year-old Stramaccioni.
Fueling the surge has been Argentinian striker Diego Milito, who continued his goal-scoring binge with a hat-trick in last week’s win over rival AC Milan. Milito is now on 23 goals for the Serie A campaign, and continues to get superb service from wizard-like Dutch midfield ace Wesley Sneijder.
Meanwhile, Lazio has not been scoring many goals lately (just six in its last six matches), but does again have the services of German striker Miroslav Klose, the Biancocelesti’s top scorer (13 goals). Still, however, the absence to injury of the likes of midfielders Hernanes and Cristian Brocchi, as well as veteran striker Tommaso Rocchi, has removed some bite from the Lazio attack.
Note that Inter scored a controversial 2-1 win in the first meeting at the San Siro back on January 22. Giampaolo Pazzini’s eventual winner in the 63rd minute should have been ruled out due to an offside call that was missed.
For us, however, the draw, priced at 12/5, looks perhaps the best bet at the Olimpico.
Meanwhile, the shock story in Europe continues to be authored in France by surprise package Montpellier, which is on the verge of a highly unlikely Ligue Un crown after narrowly missing relegation and finishing 14th last term.
The penultimate chapter comes Sunday when Lille makes a visit to Stade de la Mosson for a 3:00 p.m. (ET) kickoff. A check of European wagering outlets suggests a real battle, with Montpellier a slight favorite on 11/8 to win, with the take-back on Lille at 19/10. The draw is priced favorably at 23/10.
A look at the Ligue Un table illuminates the evolving storyline, with Montpellier on 76 points and hanging onto the top spot, three points up on second-lace PSG and five ahead of third-place Lille. All three have already clinched berths in next season’s Champions League, although only the top two get a direct pass into group play (the third-place finisher must enter a nervy round of qualifiers in late August).
Montpellier continues to be fueled by striker Olivier Giroud, who figures to be featured for France when Les Bleus line up for Euro 2012 next month. On 21 goals, Giroud is being linked with a move to the likes of Bayern Munich and Arsenal for next season. Expect his name to be one of the hot ones in the upcoming summer transfer season.
Meanwhile, the queue is also forming for 22-year old defensive ace Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, with Man United and Arsenal reportedly on the radar.
Lille also owns some potential targets for big European spenders, with creative Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard reportedly in the crosshairs of Man City, Man U and Chelsea, with Hazard already expressing a preference for Man City and Chelsea.
Both enter this weekend hot, with Lille having won five on the trot and Montpellier unbeaten in seven of its last eight (with six wins and a draw). The teams met way back on August 14 at Stade Metropole with Montpellier prevailing 1-0 thanks to a Giroud thunderbolt in the 70th minute.
Given Lille’s recent form, however, a compelling case can be made for the visitor. We believe the draw price (at 23/10) might provide the best value.
Following this match, Montpellier finishes the final fortnight with a match at lowly Auxerre, while Lille plays host to Nancy. As for the other title contender, PSG, it finishes vs. Rennes at Parc des Princes on Sunday, then at Lorient next week.