Serie A burning questions: Allegri's Juve future, Atalanta's magic, more
As Serie A prepares to resume on Jan. 7 following a brief winter break, James Horncastle assesses the big questions for the second half of the season.
What does the future hold for Max Allegri?
Max Allegri's recently expressed opinion that you only evolve as a manager by changing scenery and trying new experiences, his angry reaction to defeat in the Italian Super Cup ("I ought to kick them up the backside") and an acute awareness that if you stay anywhere too long you run the risk of going stale has led to much speculation over the winter break about his future beyond this season at Juventus.
To be honest, a lot of it seems overblown.
Seeds of doubt are sewn after every Juventus defeat but rarely do they grow into anything. It has been suggested that the manner in which things went wrong in his fourth and final season at Milan is already preying on Allegri's mind. However, the circumstances today at Juventus are very different.
Back then, Milan's owners Fininvest were imposing austerity on the club, playing the dangerous game of seeing just how far they could cut things back without the team becoming un-competitive. They went too far. Juventus, by contrast, have grown year on year, breaking Serie A transfer records and conscientiously providing a future for this team beyond the founding fathers of this winning cycle.
Juventus have also proven Antonio Conte wrong. He resigned three years ago because he didn't believe the club had the resources to take on the super clubs. But their business acumen and shrewd recruitment has made Juventus as powerful and influential as they have been at any time since the late 1990s.
Of course, you can imagine Allegri might feel fulfilled if (as seems highly likely) he were to lead the Old Lady to an unprecedented sixth straight Scudetto or win the Champions League. The ambition is to accomplish both. But the grass isn't always greener on the other side and, let's say he did feel it's time to leave at the end of this season: walking away from Juventus wouldn't necessarily be what's best for his personal development.
As Allegri said to Paul Pogba in the summer, be aware that in leaving the Old Lady, you are leaving one of the best clubs in the world and they are a very select few indeed. Naturally, the same would apply to him too.
Which Milan club can push for a Champions League place?
Frankly it's difficult to see one of Roma and Napoli falling short even if losing Mo Salah and Kalidou Koulibaly to the African Cup of Nations will present challenges that both must overcome. Milan, however, do seem the best placed. In fact were they to win their game in hand, they would be on the podium.
Enthusiasm is high at Milan at the moment. The first trophy of Vincenzo Montella's career was also the club's first in five years. Getting the better of Juventus for a second time this season not only felt like just reward for the work put in thus far, but served as ulterior confirmation that Milan are on their way back. Montella won't, however, be receiving the same support as Stefano Pioli in the January transfer window.
Owners Suning are throwing yet more money at the team and already look like the most aggressive foreign investors to ever buy into Serie A. After spending €120 million in the summer, Atalanta midfielder Roberto Gagliardini is set to join for €28m. The team has turned a corner, too, winning three games in a row without conceding at the end of 2016 with Mauro Icardi topping the scoring charts.
There's something ominous about Inter, who have more time to rest, recover and game-plan now they're out of Europe. So far though, Milan have done more to earn our trust.
Can Atalanta keep this up?
It's going to be hard now that Gagliardini is going to Inter and Franck Kessie is away with the Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations. Gian Piero Gasperini's first-choice midfield is no more.
Star defender Mattia Caldara has also agreed to join Juventus, but isn't expected to leave for Turin until 2018. With €48m due for him and Gagliardini, and if Kessie moves for another €35m either now or in the summer, Atalanta will have made more from sales of these three players than they did from all their revenue streams combined last year. Never, even in the illustrious history of the Zingonia academy has the club's youth set-up produced such a windfall.
"It can change Atalanta's history," owner Antonio Percassi says. He isn't exaggerating. Some of the money will be ploughed back into Zingonia and may even go towards buying the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia off the council.
Is a golden generation emerging?
The tide does appear to be turning in Italy. Perhaps following the example set by Sassuolo, more and more clubs are putting faith in local talent. Atalanta and Milan, in particular, are huge success stories in this regard. Torino are too.
Exciting players are coming through in every position, from Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal to Mattia Caldara, Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani in defence, Manuel Locatelli and Gagliardini in midfield, Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Berardi in the wide areas and Andrea Belotti up front.
Bernardeschi and Belotti in particular have gone to the next level this season and if this group is starting to make the likes of Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne look like veterans, what about the kids who are making even Donnarumma look old? After Juventus made the much-hyped Moise Kean the first player born in 2000 to get a game in Serie A, 15-year-old Genoa striker Pietro Pellegri then became the joint-youngest player ever to make his debut in Serie A, matching the record established by Amadeo Amadei in 1937.
Italy coach Giampiero Ventura certainly has a lot to smile about.
Is the Sassuolo fairytale over?
After improving every year since their promotion in 2013, it was difficult to see Sassuolo doing better than they did last season when a sixth-place finish got them into Europe for the first time ever. Currently 16th, Eusebio di Francesco's side ended 2016 on a three-game losing streak, arousing serious concern. The Thursday/Sunday schedule of the Europa League has taken a toll and the injury crisis that claimed the on-fire Berardi in August only complicated matters further.
But di Francesco's cycle isn't over. Clear of the Europa League and with Berardi now back, Sassuolo should begin to climb back up the table rather than be drawn into a relegation zone; they still have a seven-point cushion from the bottom despite a desperate run of just one win in 10.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.