WE'VE sealed another stellar signing for the season with Serie A don Paolo Bandini bringing his expertise to the site thanks to our partner Unibet.
Paolo is an Anglo-Italian sportswriter who pens a superb weekly Serie A column for the Guardian and his other credits include ESPN, the BBC and TalkSport as well as making regular appearances on the Football Weekly podcast.
He's a Trevi Fountain of knowledge and we're delighted to have him on board. Here he previews four crucial Sunday games.
Milan v Fiorentina (5pm)
This was supposed to be a head-to-head for a European berth, but Fiorentina’s shock defeat to Cagliari has stripped away much of the tension. Milan are now guaranteed to finish ahead of the Viola, though they can still fall from sixth to seventh if results go against them. That would mean Europa League qualifying in July for the second year running.
For Fiorentina, who begin the day in eighth, those preliminary rounds represent the only remaining way in. Even then, the odds are stacked against them. Stefano Pioli’s team need to win and have Atalanta lose, whilst also achieving a seven-goal swing over the Bergamo club.
Realistically, that is not going to happen. Yet I still expect to see Fiorentina going full throttle, both because this is their final opportunity to honour the memory of their late captain Davide Astori this season, and because there is not much love lost between them and Milan. The animosity has been building since 2012-13, when Riccardo Montolivo jumped ship and helped the Rossoneri to pip his old club to the Champions League.
Fiorentina will be missing the influential Jordan Veretout in midfield after his red card last week, and Pioli is banned from the dugout, too. Nikola Kalinic, another of their former players, is expected to line up against them. But I can’t shake the feeling that this group will find a way to sour Milan’s end-of-season festivities.
- Milan 1, Fiorentina 1 (6-1, Unibet)
- Kalinic to score first (15-2, Unibet)
- Both teams to score (1-2, Unibet)
Cagliari v Atalanta (Sun 5pm)
A week ago, Cagliari derailed Fiorentina’s European bid. Could they yet set it back on track by defeating Atalanta? If nothing else they will be facing a weakened line-up. The visitors are missing two of their best three central defenders – Andrea Masiello and Rafael Toloi – as well as left wing-back Leonardo Spinazzola and striker Andrea Petagna.
Some of those absences will hurt more than others. The 19-year-old Musa Barrow has stepped up in Petagna’s absence, with three goals in his last five appearances. Spinazzola has struggled with niggling injuries all season, and Robin Gosens has proved a highly capable deputy (good thing too, since Spinazzola will move to Juventus in the summer). But few teams could lose two-thirds of their starting defence without feeling some knock-on impact.
Cagliari are not just playing out the string, either. They dragged themselves out of the relegation zone with that victory at Fiorentina, but they are still only one point ahead of 18th-placed Crotone. Their own greatest injury concern relates to another centre-back, Leandro Castan. He might not be missed if manager Diego Lopez sticks with the back four he used against Fiorentina.
It was Leonardo Pavoletti who got Cagliari’s winner last week, and they will look to him again to exploit Atalanta’s makeshift defence. But I still have my doubts about this team’s ability to keep a clean sheet of its own for the second week running against a European contender.
Napoli v Crotone (Sun 5pm)
After their great escape last season, Crotone once again stand on the brink. Eighteenth in the table, a draw in Naples could save them – if SPAL lose to Sampdoria – yet even a win might not suffice if the teams above them get the same. Manager Walter Zenga observed with frustration last weekend that the clubs at the bottom have all started picking up points at the same time.
On paper, theirs is the toughest fixture this weekend. Only Juventus have picked up more points at home than Napoli. Whilst it is true that the Partenopei no longer have a Scudetto to fight for, that might make them harder to beat. At a certain point, the pressure of the title race seemed to having a negative impact on Maurizio Sarri’s team. The brakes were off again as they won at Sampdoria last Sunday.
Napoli do, furthermore, still have a lesser target to aim for as they seek to reach 90 points for the first time in club history. They are at full-strength for this fixture. Sarri’s only real selection dilemma is whether to stick with Dries Mertens up front or grant Arkadiusz Milik his second start since returning from a cruciate ligament tear.
In any case, we can expect Crotone to come out swinging. They have scored 10 goals in their last five games – their attack energised by the emergence of Nigerian forward Simy – and have drawn with both Juventus and Lazio in that stretch.
- Napoli 3, Crotone 2 (16-1, Unibet)
- Simy to score first (8-1, Unibet)
- Napoli win and btts (6-4, Unibet)
Lazio v Inter (Sun 7.45pm)
Inter thought they had thrown away their shot at a Champions League place when they imploded in the dying moments of the Derby d’Italia. They thought it again when they lost to Sassuolo at San Siro. Both times, they got a reprieve. Win at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday night, and they will leapfrog Lazio into fourth place.
Is that not quite a lot to ask, though, from a team who couldn’t beat midtable opposition at home last weekend? Perhaps, but Inter are a tough team to pin down. As poor as they were against Sassuolo, they had been excellent in the previous defeat to Juventus despite playing almost the whole game on 10 men.
And Lazio themselves are struggling. They have drawn both of their last two matches, and two of their top three goalscorers – Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto – are touch-and-go to make it back from injury for this game. Even if they do make it into the starting XI on Sunday, will they be anywhere close to 100%?
Simone Inzaghi faces a dilemma at the other end of the pitch, too. His best centre-back, Stefan de Vrij, has already agreed a deal to join Inter next season. Does he dare to include a player who stands to miss out on Champions League football himself if the team wins? It is no small question: De Vrij has been Lazio’s best centre-back this season.
Anglo-Italian Paolo Bandini writes about Italian football for the Guardian and his tips appear here thanks to our football partner at MrFixitsTips, Unibet. They're making a big splash in the UK betting scene and if you join them today you can claim up to £30 in Welcome Bonuses when you deposit and place your first bet.