By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - A weekend of upsets has made it harder than ever to predict the winners of this season’s Serie A title, with little separating Italy’s top seven sides halfway through the season.
AC Milan were crowned "winter champions" on Saturday, the title given to the team on top after 19 rounds of the 38-game season, despite a 3-0 defeat by Atalanta.
But only nine points separate Milan on 43 from Lazio in seventh with 34, the smallest margin between the top seven at this stage for 10 years.
The last time the first seven were this tightly bunched, in 2010-11, was also the last season in which Juventus failed to win the championship.
Milan were crowned champions that year, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic their top scorer in his first spell at the club.
The 39-year-old Swede has been instrumental in Milan's revival since returning to San Siro in January, 2020, and the winning mentality he has been praised for providing was clear after their heaviest defeat of the season against Atalanta.
"Being winter champions means nothing,” Ibrahimovic told Sky Sport.
"We’re halfway through the season. We’ve done well so far but haven’t achieved anything yet, this is the most difficult part."
The mid-season title is taken seriously in Italy, mostly due to historic precedent.
Only twice since the league reverted to 20 teams in 2004 have the winter champions failed to finish on top -- Napoli in 2015-16 and 2017-18.
Milan have suffered two defeats in their last four league games, but their major rivals for the title, Inter and Juventus, have failed to take advantage.
Inter coach Antonio Conte was sent off for dissent at the end of a frustrating 0-0 draw at Udinese on Saturday, which left his side two points off the top.
But the Nerazzurri squad appears best-equipped to win the league and they are the only side in the top seven without European commitments, due to their Champions League group stage elimination.
Juve are undergoing a transitional season under rookie coach Andrea Pirlo and they have been inconsistent so far, but the Turin club's nine-year cycle of dominance cannot be ignored.
Pirlo’s team have a game in hand to come against Napoli, who they beat 2-0 to win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday, making their current seven-point gap to the top slightly misleading.
Atalanta have finished third for two consecutive years and made it to the quarter-finals in their debut Champions League campaign last season.
The Bergamo club were in Serie B the last time the title race was this close and have the 11th-highest wage budget in Serie A.
But a fairytale title win cannot be ruled out -- Atalanta's tally of 36 points is a club record after 19 games, and they tend to finish seasons strongly.
AS Roma and Napoli's form has dipped recently and their coaches, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso, have consequently come under pressure, while Lazio have moved back into the mix after four successive league wins.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie, editing by Ed Osmond)