by Michael Slaughter

Last weekend’s Serie A fixtures marked the half-way point of the season and the title race is still wide open with as many as five teams potentially challenging for top spot this season.  Juventus were leading the pack by a single point after Milan’s derby day defeat against Inter, who themselves are right up there after an impressive run of form and Udinese quietly going about their business in third place. Juve had a great opportunity to put pressure on their rivals, as they played a day early than the other title chasers, and didn’t have a particularly difficult task in trying to get past Atalanta, who have yet to get a point this year.

Juve started strongly, and had their first chance after only 3 minutes, with Juve’s top scorer in the league Matri flashing Pepe’s low cross over the bar from six yards out. This miss very much set the tone for the rest of the first half as Juve wasted chance after chance, much like they did in their recent draw against Cagliari. Pepe was next to try his luck, after Atalanta lost the ball far too easily in midfield to Marchisio, who set Pepe on his way on the right hand side of the goal, but his cut back drifted narrowly past the post. Atalanta did occasionally threaten though, and Giacomo Bonaventura wasted a reasonably good chance when he volleyed the ball into the ground from the edge of the box, but the ball landed comfortably into Buffon’s arms.

Juve threatened again a few minutes later after a free kick pinged around the area until Matri poked it towards goal, but Atalanta goalkeeper Consigli just got his finger tips on the ball to push it onto the post. Another set piece provided Juve’s next chance as a free kick on the right wing was whipped in perfectly by Pirlo, but left-back Paolo de Ceglie headed over from close range. Arturo Vidal probably came closest for Juve in the first half when his curling, dipping 30 yard bullet was just tipped onto the bar. He made the space for himself, and probably spurred on by the profligacy of the strikers ahead of him, Vidal let fly and very nearly broke the deadlock in the most spectacular fashion.

Two substitutes combined to finally secure the points for the Old Lady in the 82nd minute.

Atalanta had the last opportunity of the half, though, when striker Denis volleyed Moralez’s dinked cross wide, but the self-proclaimed Goddess (Italy really is superb for team nicknames) were probably the happier having kept Juve at bay for the first 45 minutes.

However, their resistance didn’t last long into the second half, as Pirlo set up Swiss right back Lichsteiner with an absolute peach of a cross-field ball in the 54th minute. The weight of ball was absolutely perfect, and Lichsteiner really couldn’t miss as he nodded home from close range. The goal really took the sting out of the game, and despite only having a one goal cushion, Juve really took their foot off the gas for the remaining 35 minutes, especially after Pepe was stretchered off after 70 minutes. Atalanta did try to fight back, and had a reasonable shout for a penalty turned down, when Denis was tugged down in the box, but the fact that he still managed to get an, admittedly weak, overhead kick on target probably swayed the referee’s mind that he wasn’t being impeded too strongly. Two substitutes combined to finally secure the points for the Old Lady in the 82nd minute as Pepe’s replacement Marrone flicked the ball through to half-time sub Giaccherini, who volleyed the ball past the onrushing goalie with real finesse. Overall, it was a comfortable win for the league leaders, but their wastefulness in front of goal could really become a problem against a team with a much more potent attack, something which is sure to be tested in the coming weeks.

Elsewhere at the top of Serie A, Inter carried on their phenomenal run of form as their charge for the Scudetto marches on after leapfrogging Lazio for fourth spot after beating them 2-1 win at home. The match began relatively quietly, with neither side making any clear cut chances, although Lazio were certainly the more comfortable on the ball. Mistakes at both ends almost broke the deadlock, when a terrible clearance from Marchetti lead to Alvarez blasting over for Inter and a terrible touch from Lucio allowed Rocchi to get a shot away for Lazio which just rolled slowly against the post, and then out of play. The game continued in this cagey fashion until the 33rd minute when Ledesma played Rocchi in behind the Inter defence, and his first time shot was placed expertly in the far corner, leaving Julio Cesar with no chance.

Ranieri rung the changes at half time bringing on Sneijder and Obi for Alvarez and Chivu.

The home side had been reasonably poor for most of the half, but found themselves level just before halftime when Diego Milito exchanged passes with Alvarez inside the box to drill the ball in from the left. It was probably more than they deserved considering their first half showing, but Milito has really found his goal scoring touch again, as he notched up his 5th goal from the last 4 games.

Ranieri rung the changes at half time bringing on Sneijder and Obi for Alvarez and Chivu, but this didn’t have an enormous effect on the flow of the game, as there really weren’t many, if any, chances of note until Inter took the lead in the 63rd minute. A long ball was humped up field by Inter, and the Lazio defence just fell asleep after Milito missed his header. The ball ran through into the path of Pazzini who lifted the ball over Marchetti and into an empty net. It was inexplicably bad defending from Lazio, and ultimately it cost them dearly, as despite all the possession they had throughout the match, 55% at full time, they never really looked like getting the equaliser their build up play probably deserved.

Both AC Milan and Udinese kept up pace with Juve, but neither had things entirely their own way. It took Milan until the 57th minute to break down the stubborn defence of bottom-sde Novara. After they did, however, it was plain sailing as Ibrahimovic got 2 goals of real quality and Robinho scored Milan’s controversial second, as Nocerino appeared to handle the ball in the build-up. Udinese were given a slice of luck against mid-table Catania, as an own-goal in the 20th minute from Catania, where midfielder Izco deflected the ball past his own keeper. Di Natale put Udinese two up with a thumping volley from inside the box, but a late penalty for Catania was despatched by Lodi to make for an uncomfortable last few moments for the little Zebras, but it was too little too late.

It’s as you were then at the top of Serie A, but with much bigger tests to come in the next few weeks for all of the top 3. Juventus face Udinese tomorrow and Milan travel to Lazio the week after, and with a minimal points gap separating the top 4, the half-way point of the season certainly hasn’t given us any clarity as to which way the Serie A title will go this season.