Milan - The battle for Serie A supremacy is the closest in
years but Juventus sitting nine points off the pace is not enough for the Turin
giants' potential successors.
After 12 games, only five point separate the top five teams,
four of whom can harbour serious scudetto ambitions following Juve's disastrous
start to their title defence.
But like poker players knowing they could be on a winning
hand, none are giving much away.
Roberto Mancini, who won seven trophies including three
consecutive league titles in his previous spell with Inter Milan, was dismissive
after seeing his side pull level with leaders Fiorentina after a 1-0 win at
Torino on Sunday.
Fiorentina are playing some great football but Portuguese
coach Paulo Sousa claims he just wants other teams to recognise the team's
Roma now have no excuses as they go in search of a first
league trophy since 2001, but two years of being humbled by Juventus has seen
coach Rudi Garcia swap a tone of defiance for one of cautious optimism.
As for Napoli? Try mentioning the word 'scudetto' around Maurizio
Sarri and you'll be reminded they haven't won the title since Diego Maradona
led them to the second of their two titles in 1990.
Treble winners in 2010, when Jose Mourinho led them to the
league, Cup and Champions League titles, Inter are finally back in the hunt
after years in the domestic wilderness.
Also read: Juve suspend defender Caceres for alleged drink-driving
- Quality -
Inter are the only team in the top five not involved in
Europe this season, but that added bonus means little for Mancini.
"I would say the others (title challengers) have a
slight advantage because they've been playing together for longer," said
"This squad has only really been together since August.
We're trying to create a quality squad that includes younger players that can
develop down the line."
Although Italian football's 1990 heydays are long gone, this
season could help rekindle a forgotten love for watchers of 'calcio'.
Fiorentina haven't been champions since winning a second
league crown in 1969, when they finished ahead of a Cagliari side steered by
Italy legend Luigi 'Gigi' Riva.
But under Sousa, Fiorentina are flying, with Nikola Kalinic
(7) and Josip Ilicic (4) hitting 11 of the team's 24 league goals so far.
Sousa is among a select few players to have won back-to-back
Champions League titles, triumphing in 1996 with Juventus then a year later
with Borussia Dortmund.
But when it comes to Fiorentina's title chances, he is
modest: "We want to challenge every side in the league, but the best prize
we can have at the end of the season is for our rivals to recognise our
Roma, who have hit a league-leading 27 goals in 12 games,
sit one point behind Fiorentina and Inter after Sunday's 2-0 derby win over
Lazio, but Garcia admits it's no longer a two-horse race.
"Inter and Napoli are both very strong this year, but
you can't forget about Juventus, either," he said.
Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri admits his side now have to
go "step by step" to revive their title hopes.
If Napoli end their 25-year-wait for the league title, it
would be the story of the season.
Naples-born Sarri failed to make the grade in top level
football and became a banker, but regularly swapped his shirt and tie after
office hours for the tracksuit that has since become his trademark to coach.
He worked his way up the ladder, led Empoli into Serie A
last season and made such a good impression he hit the jackpot by replacing
Rafael Benitez when he left Napoli.
After they hit a bad patch at the start of the campaign,
former club legend Maradona hit out: "If we keep on playing like this, we
won't even finish in midtable."
Napoli have since beaten Lazio (5-0), Juventus (2-1), AC
Milan (4-0) and Fiorentina (2-1), qualified for the Europa League last 32 with
two games to spare and Gonzalo Higuain is Serie A's joint top scorer on nine
goals along with Sampdoria's Eder.
It is perhaps no surprise that Sarri, whenever Napoli and
scudetto are mentioned in the same sentence, usually replies: "It's a
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