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J11: RIP
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The second half of the Italian season begins tomorrow, and I thought I'd help kick it off with a quick rundown of the season so far. THE CONTENDERS Inter Milan somewhat surprisingly only has a four point lead at this point in the season. Inter has managed to dominate the past few years as other big clubs struggled due to the after-effects of the Calciopoli scandal. Mourinho was brought in to continue the run of domination, but only questionable refereeing decisions are the difference between them and Juventus. The most amazing of these decisions allowed Inter to grab a full three points against Siena despite Maicon scoring the game winning goal from a good five yards offside on the play. Ironic, isn't it? One can't help shake the feeling that Inter's real goal this season is the Champions League, and that the team doesn't have enough drive to win the championship. That could change quickly if they get bounced by Manchester United. Juventus, in only their second year back in the top flight, have put together a very impressive team anchored by phenomenal strikers up top and decent mix of talented youth and experienced veterans both in defense and midfield. How this team is only four points back of Inter despite missing their best player, goalkeeper Gianliugi Buffon, more most of the season is a mystery. Most thanks should go to Alex Del Piero. Milan stated that this would be the year they finally focused on winning the Scudetto, having obviously focused more on Champions League glory this past decade. The team acquired additional midfielders Ronaldinho and Matthieu Flamini in the off-season rather than reinforce their defense or buy a competent goalkeeper. While being in the Champions League qualification spots is a welcome change from last year, the team's supporters were hoping they'd be closer than nine points back from the top of the table. The big news with Milan is the possible sale of Kaka to Manchester City. The real question is whether they will use those funds to finally improve their defense and goalkeeping. THE ALSO RANS Napoli currently holds fourth place, which would qualify it for Champions League football at the end of the season. They have a young and talented team that likes to play attacking football. Still, they need to perform better away from home if they expect to hold onto fourth for the rest of the season. Genoa has ridden star striker Diego Milito to fifth place in the standings. If they sell Milito, they will start dropping in the table quickly. Keep him and they can probably compete for a UEFA cup spot. They don't seem to enough topline talent or depth to compete for a Champions League spot. Fiorentina started the season with high hopes, but crashed out of the Champions League in the group stages and has struggled for results all season. They are a good, well-coached side with a lot of talent. Yet they seem incapable of picking up points in important situations. They start the second half Saturday against AC Milan, a game that should say a lot about each club's ambitions for the rest of the season. At their best, they can grab fourth place and another year in the Champions League. At their worst, they are probably still good enough for a UEFA Cup spot. Lazio may be one of the most infuriating teams in soccer right now. They struggle to score goals at home, but not on the road. They're great at preventing other teams from scoring at home, but fail utterly at it on the road. Simply a very inconsistent team. They have the talent to challenge for fourth place if they can find some form of consistency. Roma's failures aren't really that surprising. They have serious questions on their backline and between the posts, which is problematic when playing such attacking soccer. Totti, again, has been injured off an on throughout the season. This team has still not shown it can win without him. They are within striking distance of fourth place, but it seems unlikely to happen given their other problems. If they only tried to buy Frey from Fiorentina instead of Mutu. This team is almost certainly focused entirely on the Champions League at this point. THE MIDDLEMEN Not a lot of interest in the league once you drop past eighth place. The real fight in the league this year is for fourth place. Expect Palermo's coach to lose his job no matter how well his team does. Udinese will probably turn things around and climb up into a UEFA Cup spot. They started the season well, then completely burned out. Sampdoria is always dangerous with Cassano up top, and they recently picked up U-23 talent Giampaolo Pazzini from Fiorentina, which could be an interesting combination. Atalanta and Catania are decent teams that consistently finish between 8th and 14th and will likely do so again. THE RELEGATION FIGHT Chievo, currently in last place, is almost certain to drop at this point. They have scored ten goals in eighteen games this season. Reggina Calabria occupies 19th. Pundits have predicted they will be relegated for the last three years. This will probably be the year it finally happens. Torino's fortunes always seem to go the exact opposite of city rivals Juventus. While Juventus has exceeded all expectations this season, Torino finds itself in 18th place despite spending significant sums to upgrade its team in the summer. More was expected from this team. Still, they will almost certainly escape relegation. The main candidates to take their place are Bologna and Lecce. HALFPOINT AWARDS MVP - Diego Milito. His goalscoring ability has lifted Genoa into fifth place and has them competing for a spot in the Champions League. Comeback Player - Alberto Gilardino. After being pilloried by the press and punditry during his three years at Milan, he's in some of the best form of his career playing alongside former teammate Adrian Mutu and under former manager Cesare Prandelli. Manager - Edi Reja. While it's tempting to put the Tinkerman Claudio Ranieri here, it's hard to ignore what Reja has been able to accomplish with Napoli so far. STORYLINES FOR THE SECOND HALF Can Juventus catch Inter for first place? If so, how many times will we hear or read the word Calciopolio in the process? Is Milan already out of the title race and will their entire team check into a nursing home at the end of the season? Which Italian team will take fourth place, earn a spot in the Champions League, and fail to make the knockout rounds, thus following in the proud footsteps of Lazio, Udinese, Chievo, and Fiorentina from recent seasons?

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