MILAN (Reuters) – With Juventus cantering towards an eighth successive Serie A title, racism, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system and the battle for a single Champions League place are likely to hog the spotlight the second half of the Italian season.
Serie A resumes after its winter break at the weekend with unbeaten Juventus nine points clear of second-placed Napoli and an early chance to increase their lead still further.
Juve, who have taken 53 points out of a possible 57 in the first half of the season, host bottom-of-the-table Chievo on Monday while Napoli (44 points) have a much tougher fixture at home to fourth-placed Lazio on Sunday.
It is a mark of Juve’s dominance that Napoli could well end close to the club record 91 points they set in finishing runners-up last season and still end up well short of the Turin side.
Inter, at home to Sassuolo on Saturday, are comfortable in third place (39) with a seven-point cushion over Lazio (32) who are in the fourth and final Champions League slot.
However, only seven points separate Lazio from Parma in 12th place with AC Milan, AS Roma, Sampdoria, Atalanta, Torino, Fiorentina and Sassuolo sandwiched in between.
Even if the title race has fallen flat, there is still plenty going on elsewhere, however.
The first half of the season ended amid a debate over the use of VAR and more racism in Italian stadiums, two matters which are unlikely to go away.
Inter’s match against Sassuolo will be behind closed doors as they complete a two-match sanction imposed after their fans were found guilty of racially insulting Napoli’s Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly at San Siro on Boxing day.
Koulibaly, now the subject of speculation over a possible move to Manchester United, was himself banned for two games after being sent off for dissent, leading to suggestions from anti-racism campaigners that the victim was also being punished.
The head of the Italian football federation Gabriele Gravina said that Italy would now follow FIFA guidelines in further cases of racist chanting or money noises from the crowd.
“Following a stadium announcement, the match will be temporarily suspended and the teams will go to the centre of the pitch,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport.
“If the chanting continues, they will go to the dressing room. At that point, the public security officials will decide if the match is re-started or called off.”
Italian authorities have in the past been criticised for failing to act, often using the justification that only a handful of fans were involved.
VAR also remains contentious, with coaches and club officials at times berating officials for not reviewing incidents and at other times complaining that it is being used too often.
The VAR system was introduced to correct what soccer’s rule-making body described as “clear and obvious” errors but Serie A referees have often carried out forensic frame-by-frame reviews of incidents, often taking several minutes in front of the pitchside monitor to reach a verdict.
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)