Calcio in Heels: It’s a Milan Thing

Rossella Marrai continues her monthly blog on Serie A and looks at the two ailing giants of Italian football

As always, so much has happened across Serie A since my debut piece Calcio in Heels – The Annual Managerial Sack Race. My prediction in seeing Giovanni Stroppa being the first coach sacked was in fact handed to Giuseppe Sannino of Palermo – one of just eight managers who kept their positions on the bench throughout the whole of the 2011-2012 campaign. Maurizio Zamparini went into his artillery room and fired the gun just four weeks into the new league putting an end to the so called project he had envisaged.

On the field, plenty more has gone down. Napoli is hot on the heels of Juventus’ tail like a love-whipped teenager chasing the girl next door or rather the Old Lady. Luca Toni has undergone a Florentine renaissance whilst fellow companion, Alberto Gilardino, has got the whole orchestra of Bologna players conducting him in his violin solo.

Gilardino’s violin recital at Bologna

Although, the most atypical of scenarios which has occurred so far this season started and ended at the San Siro. This month’s Calcio in Heels takes a look at what really got the city of Milan ticking; with the San Siro curse putting a dent into the Milan clubs and the far from classic Derby della Madonnina which hit lucky number 10.

The San Siro Curse

Catapulted across every major sports newspaper in the peninsula was the crisis which had struck the giants of Milan. A crisis which saw neither of the calamitous cousins able to take a point off their opening three games at home… let alone win.

Headlines read after Siena’s shock 0-2 win over Inter: “Humiliated by Siena: San Siro is a hex with zero points in 2 matches.”

Whilst Milan’s goalless draw to Anderlecht in the Champions League drew responses of: “Milan, again zero. Only a 0-0 with the modest Anderlecht, third match at the San Siro without a goal.”

It was a maledizione like no other.

For the Rossoneri losses to the newly promoted Sampdoria – in the opening game of the season – was pursued with a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Atalanta, and to top it off, the lacklustre draw to Anderlecht in the Champions League. The cherry on top? It was Anderlecht’s first game back in the Champions League since putting an end to their six-year hiatus.

Three games, not one goal scored. It would be Milan’s worst start to a season since 1931.

On the Blue and Black half of Milan, Inter was subjected to a humiliating 1-3 loss to Roma in their opening home match of the season; which was followed by the shocking crumbling to Serie A minnows, Siena, and a disappointing 2-2 draw to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League.

There was clearly something wrong and the scapegoat was obvious.

Reasons for the struggle were directed at the new semi-artificial surface which was laid before the start of the new season. Blame was shunned on the new buoyancy of the field, a faster movement of the ball and a denser field to work with, which was all too different from the uneven, dried up and loose field they had been used to.

La Repubblica’s headline on September 18 read: “The grass at San Siro has already won.”

Typical old San Siro pitch (l). The brand new pitch which is still holding up (r)

It suggested that the field had failed to show any signs of the deterioration despite Inter’s early start to the league due to their Europa League qualifiers.

Yet the unsolved mystery was how had Rubin Kazan and Siena managed to pull off impressive results? They too were playing on the same field.

Refreshingly, Andrea Stramaccioni, the Inter manager, did well not to concede to the Spanish (or Arsene Wenger) way of thinking and blame the field but admitted it was rather a psychological factor which was holding his team back. “Something has not gone right on a psychological level tonight,” he expressed after the loss to Zdenek Zeman’s  Roma side.

In contrast to the opening two games, Milan did eventually get their first home win of the season in a 2-0 victory over Cagliari, which saw the rise of Stephan El Shaarawy.

That same week, Inter went on to secure a win over Chievo and sparked headlines suggestive that the wins were a miracle.

Miracle in Milano. Rossoneri and Nerazzurri return to winning in the midweek fixtures. The Faraone and Fantantonio wake up Milan and Inter,” read La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Whilst Tuttosport wrote: “Milan and Inter start again. El Shaarawy beats Cagliari, the Nerazzurri win with Chievo: Milano breathes.”

A sigh of relief was echoed throughout the surrounds of the Scala del Calcio and Piazza del Duomo but the ultimate test to see whether the curse was lifted was to come on October 7, when Milan and Inter would meet at the historical perch of the San Siro for the 192nd edition of the Derby della Madonnina.

Derby della Madonnina – The Unique Classic

With all the troubles the two teams had been through to get to the derby, many were expecting it to be an open-ended and free-flowing game with plenty of goals, but it was far from the classics that had been put on displays in previous seasons.

Players who had made history in their club’s colours  – recent legends like Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf to Júlio César, Douglas Maicon and Lúcio had all bid their farewells in the summer. Along with the Rossoneri icons, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva also departed to help balance Milan’s struggling books.
It was a new look side for both teams but moreover for Milan who suffered the slings and arrows of the summer’s mass exodus in which only two standing members of the 2007 Champions League winning team remained: Daniele Bonera and captain Massimo Ambrosini.

The evergreen Javier Zanetti added one more derby notch on his 17-year-old belt at Inter whilst one familiar foe continued his treasured trove of luck against the Diavoli. Walter Samuel – ten derbies played in his seven-year career at Inter and phenomenally not a single one lost.

Samuel – the strength of 10,” read La Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline. “The Argentine who played in his tenth derby in Serie A (won all of them) decides it. Nerazzurri with a man down for a half. Moratti: ‘Strama is like Mou.’”

Traditionally a heated affair between the two antagonists, the temperature bar was raised further when Milan fans laid eyes on Antonio Cassano. Formerly of Milan, the controversial Barese-born striker crossed over the great divide during the summer transfer window under controversial circumstances.

Cassano, renowned for his inability to stick to one place for too long, was one of the fans’ favourite, and a player who had the sympathy of the whole world of Italian football when he was hit with a career-threatening stroke in October 2011.

As the fans have failed to let him forget it was Milan who nurtured him back to health and gave him a second chance at life. They felt betrayed, and quite rightly so, with his sudden departure, and especially, to archrivals, Inter.
Cassano embraced the move as a dream come true and if that wound wasn’t searing enough with pain for Milanisti,it was from his foul in which Samuel scored off a diving header in the third minute of a derby.
Yuto Nagatomo was sent off straight after the start of the second half, providing Milan the perfect platform to draw a goal back and go on to win the match.

However, common to the cause of Milan at late, the Rossoneri lacked the finesse in front of goal and the composure and ability to make any significant threat at goal. The ball was placed into the back of the net by a sublime Riccardo Montolivo long range effort but it was wrongly disallowed due to Urby Emanuelson’s foul on Samir Handanović inside the box.

The referee, Paolo Valeri, was the focal point of banter and Massimiliano Allegri made no withdrawals in holding back his opinion on the matter.

I never talk about referees. But, I have to now. The referee got it wrong in this game…It’s a shame we are running into some decisions that go against us, but we can’t do anything about that. Maybe the referees are on as bad form as we are,” Allegri hit out after the game before recalling several controversial incidents.

As a Milan fan myself, I will admit I was upset in Montolivo’s sublime strike being denied but I cannot look at the game and feel the referee is the only one to blame.

A poor summer transfer market left little to Milan’s squad strength and it clearly showed on the field when Milan couldn’t get past a ten-man Inter team. Yes, Inter may have parked the bus but what about the games against Sampdoria, Atalanta, Udinese, Anderlecht and Parma, before that?

There is a problem in the way the refereeing took place on the night. And yes Mr. Allegri, your never complaining about the referees is just as believable as Joey Barton having never sworn on the field.

Can he read his future?

Three successive derby wins for Inter have allowed the Nerazzurri to maintain bragging rights stretching for nearly two years, summing up a tale of Red and Black disappointment which has been orchestrated by the transitional period the Milanello club has gone through.

One thing which has remained in the back of my mind is, if there really is a Curse of the San Siro, has it truly been lifted for Milan? Only one win in four home games (across all competitions) is no record to be proud of and with the way the ball just wouldn’t fall into the back of Handanović’s net, it certainly seemed that the jinx is still alive in the Diavoli’s share of Milan.

Marrai’s prediction panel:

Who will top the Charts come end of October?


League table: Juventus’ dominating run seems almost near impossible to put an end to. Although they may hit one or two snags along the way, it seems the season is destined to be a two-horse race between the Bianconeri and Napoli. Also keep an eye out on Lazio who have been highly impressive under Vladimir Petković’s guidance but Sampdoria’s run will surely come to an end. Juve and Napoli top, followed by Lazio and Inter.

Goalscorers: Edinson Cavani is a man on fire. He is simply oozing with confidence this season and is a huge factor in Napoli’s chase after Juventus.

Alberto Gilardino, at the time of writing, is sitting joint second with five goals, and he is a man who the team is playing for. Every ball is directed towards him and with constant service at his feet, there is little wonder as to why the Biella star has been reborn.

An eye must be kept on Stephan El Shaarawy, Miroslav Klose and Fabrizio Miccoli – three players brimming with confidence and managing to sneak in goals under the radar. If they can maintain the consistency, they could be leapfrogging Cavani in the standings.

Football Italia – The Way Ahead

Italians need to change their game plan. In his continuing analysis of Football Italia, Gino de Blasio shows the path ahead by listing ways in which they can begin to execute it

In my first piece I looked at what I saw as fundamental issues with the Italian game, or rather, “where Calcio’s getting it wrong.” I finished that piece with the promise of “where the Italian game can change and how it should be done, in my eyes.”

So here it is.

1) Stadiums

The current stadiums are fine for a World Cup; in fact they were indeed fine probably until the year 2000. But now, new stadiums have taken the mantle of the biggest, the best and the most technologically advanced.

The thought of having to rip apart the Meazza, or the San Paolo is tear-inducing. These are iconic bits of landscape that resonate with the local communities. However, they seriously need some looking at.

Giuseppe Meazza, San Siro

Take The Allianz or Wembley or even… well, something closer to home, Juventus Arena. They have something in common. Realistic Attendance Seating or RAS, as I like to call it. Put it this way. You open a coffee shop. You know that coffee shop can manage the demand over the year of 10,000 people, so why make it try and accommodate more than that?

It’s a business fallacy. If you can guarantee an 85% attendance rate every match, in a suitable sized arena – say a 40,000 seater with an average ticket price of €35 – that ensures a €1.19 million turnover per game. Yes, admittedly, you could achieve that with a 65% attendance for the same price in a 90,000 seater; however, that would mean attracting 58,500 attendees – that’s 24,000 more people.

And it’s not just an attendance calculation, there has to be a  focus on marshalling and policing as well. It has to be a way to better secure matches from the violent ultras, and embracing new technologies.

2) Keep the Ultras

Everyone talks about the Ultras. The thing is, when you spend time in an ultra curva, you realise that the biggest denominator is actually football. Yes, there are political affiliations with some, there also are elements to the intimidation; but you can’t just chastise a group of extremely loyal fans.

Napoli Ultras

What clubs need to do is better identify and understand the attitude and mentality of the ultra. Fight the problem from within than from outside; educate and address rather than throw into jail and point the finger.

The ultras gave the Italian game flare years ago, now they are more likely to throw them at an official. The issue needs to be looked at more carefully.

3) The grassroots are the grassroots

 

We need to drill home the importance of ‘grassroots football’ — how home-bred talent can develop and flourish within the league, and actually I think Italy is one of the better positioned nations right now to do this.

The clubs are financially struggling, and they will continue to do so without the mega oil-rich nations taking over. So they need a plan to generate interest, get better coaches, staff and equipment to analyse and focus on overall player development.

At the last Euro, we saw that the average age of the Italy squad had been reduced; we also saw the second week game of Milan introducing 10 Italian players – something which hadn’t happened since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan of ‘87.

The game needs more accessibility. In southern Italy, where my family is from, ‘a kickaround in the street’, is still literally the street; needless to say I did get a reputation for smashing more than my fair share of car windows. So there needs to be a look at facilities and opportunities to develop football players and coaches at the same time.

4) Destroy the analysis

Italy has a massive problem. Everyone is a football manager,” said my old coach, Mr. Simone. He isn’t wrong. You will find people analysing the tactical and physical attributes of the game played. This, however, isn’t the real problem.

The real problem lies in the Sunday night analysis, by four major TV stations with guests etc. The over-analysis seeps into the early hours and everyone ends up reiterating what was already said the night before rather than what they saw, if indeed they saw anything to begin with.

Analysis should be left to the football managers and referees; I’m probably asking too much but I can always dream.

5) Open up to new ideas from ‘distant’ neighbours

Ok, by now you must be all wondering what I have been smoking.

I, in all conscience, believe that we can learn in football from other nations too. We can all see what we can do better and what we can avoid doing in the future.

I think these lessons can be learnt from the neighbours in Germany, who have club ownership ideas like no other; England, where TV revenues and sponsorship are masterfully done; Spain, where academies are flourishing with the best and brightest; Switzerland, in how it develops business practices, and the list could go on and on.

I think there needs to be a permanent committee in place which all clubs can approach and make use of each other’s know–how to drastically reduce risk to them and the fans.

Italian football fan

We neither want clubs closing down because of financial mismanagement, nor do we want any more security issues. We need fans to be interacting, supporting and supplying the enthusiasm within the stadium and when they leave, so a new generation can always grow with their team rather than fear its future.

So, those were just a few points, I have a thousand more but I think these first five are ones which need a little more attention now than the others.

UEFA Champions League 2012-13: Group Stage Preview

As the excitement and drama returns with the biggest club tournament in football, Debojyoti Chakraborty goes through the groups to see how the teams are shaping up for the contest this year

 

The Prelude

Barely had the transfer window closed and we had the group stage draw for the UEFA Champions League 2012-13 in Monaco on August 31. It is typically an event which prompts club representatives to take out a pen and a piece of paper, desperate to keep track of who-is-drawing-whom, quite oblivious of the fact that the internet will be flooded with them very shortly. Such is the adrenaline rush for this mega event – hailed as the greatest honour in world football – permutations and combinations dominate to predict which team will be pitted against whom. Like each year, teams were slotted in four pots according to their UEFA coefficients – a ranking system which takes into account the club’s historical and most recent performances in the tournament – with the top eight teams in Pot One and the bottom eight in Pot Four. The ranking system is somewhat dubious as except for one team, all others in Pot Four are domestic league winners. For the first time a team finishing as low as sixth in its domestic league featured in the draw as it was the automatic choice – reigning champions, Chelsea. It was already known that teams in the same pot or from the same country cannot be drawn against each other. But that did not prevent us from having some great matches in the group stage.

Pot 1

Pot 2

Pot 3

Pot 4

FC Barcelona

Valencia CF

Olympiacos FC

Celtic FC

Manchester United FC

SL Benfica

AFC Ajax

Borussia Dortmund

Chelsea FC

FC Shakhtar Donetsk

RSC Anderlecht

FC BATE Borisov

FC Bayern Munich

FC Zenit St. Petersburg

Juventus

GNK Dinamo Zagreb

Real Madrid CF

FC Schalke 04

FC Spartak Moscow

CFR 1907 Cluj

Arsenal FC

Manchester City FC

Paris Saint-Germain FC

Montpellier Hérault SC

FC Porto

SC Braga

LOSC Lille

Malaga CF

AC Milan

Dynamo Kyiv

Galatasaray S.K.

FC Nordsjaelland

Group A

FC Porto                 Dynamo Kyiv         Paris Saint-Germain             GNK Dinamo Zagreb

FC Porto:

FC Porto, the Portuguese champions have done remarkably well in the recent editions of this tournament and Vitor Pereira should be happy to be in a group which looks easy on paper. Being in Pot One helped but they have earned it through strong performances in Estádio do Dragão and away. Even after the departure of Hulk, with João Moutinho in form, this side would cause some problems to their more accomplished opponents in the later stages of Champions League.

Dynamo Kyiv:

After the heartbreak in the qualifying rounds last season, Dynamo Kyiv, runners-up in the Ukranian Premier League, are back in the Champions League following two consecutive gruelling qualifying ties. Manager Yuri Semin would be looking at the brighter side thinking his troops are already prepared for the biggest stage of them all. Following the retirement of Ukraine’s greatest ever player Andriy Shevchenko, there is no such ‘star’ in the team and their hopes will rely heavily on their performances at home in Olimpiyskyi National Sports Complex.

Paris Saint-Germain:

The big spending French club failed to win the Ligue 1 last season but still they enter the Champions League stage as one of the hot favourites. Carlo Ancelotti knows he has to bring some honour to Parc des Princes in his second season in charge. And there is no reason why he cannot achieve that with the backing of oil-rich Qatar Sport Investment group. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva, Lucas Moura, Marco Verratti, Ezequiel Lavezzi – there is too much talent everywhere and it only needs to be directed through the right channel.

GNK Dinamo Zagreb:

They are the Croat champions but they bowed out of the Champions League last season finishing bottom of their group. Ante Čačić had a dreadful debut season, but he might just get second-time-lucky as the manager of this hardworking team. Watch out for Duje Čop, who has a thunderbolt but is criticized often for overusing that. He has already showed his knack of goal-scoring in the three qualifying ties. Their other weapon would be Stadion Maksimir which is nothing short of a fortress for them.

Group B

Arsenal FC            FC Schalke 04       Olympiacos FC      Montpellier Hérault SC

 

Arsenal FC:

Lost 3-4 on aggregate to AC Milan in the ‘Round of 16’ last season. They have qualified for this year’s edition by securing the third and last automatic place from English Premier League. Arsene Wenger, in his 17th season in the club, has a challenge to prove that the Gunners are not a mere feeder club to the best clubs in world football. Any club will find it difficult to cope with the departure of one of the best strikers in the world – Robin van Persie. But with fresh arrivals in the form of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, there is new hope in the Emirates Stadium.

FC Schalke 04:

Huub Stevens guided Schalke 04 to third place in the Bundesliga en route to automatic qualification for Champions League after a hiatus of two years. The buoyant supporters from Veltins-Arena will pin their hopes on their star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who was prolific last season with a tally of 48 goals in all competitions. Besides, they have some young and home-grown players who are ready to take centre stage.

Olympiacos FC:

Champions of Greek Super League could not progress to the knock-out stages last season and they will have to pull up their socks if they are to do any better this time round. Manager Leonardo Jardim is in his debut season but quite a few in the squad will know a thing or two about the Gunners after hosting them in 2009 and 2011 campaign at Karaiskakis Stadium. Departure of frontman Kevin Mirallas, who netted 20 goals in the league, to Everton will be a major blow and it remains to be seen how well the Greek army cope with this challenge.

Montpellier Hérault SC:

Montpellier won their first ever league title last season and they are now ready to debut in this season’s Champions League. René Girard and his troop have shown a rare consistency to overpower their mighty domestic opponents and the same ruthlessness will be required if they want to progress in this year’s competition. But with the departure of their main goal-scorer, Olivier Giroud and their lack of squad depth likely to be exposed during the course of the campaign, Stade de la Mosson may not get much action in its debut season in Europe.

Group C

AC Milan                FC Zenit St. Petersburg             RSC Anderlecht                 Malaga CF

AC Milan:

Lost 1-3 in aggregate to Barcelona in the quarter-finals last season. Qualified for this season being runners-up in Serie A. Manager Massimiliano Allegri is in his third season at San Siro. It is time to rebuild for the Rossoneri. Their long serving soldiers have either retired (Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf) or have been shown the door (Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi); their talismanic star players (Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva) have been lured away from the Red and Black. Milan has a young team and their hopes will rely heavily on the new face, Giampaolo Pazzini. Still, being in a relatively easy group should help them.

FC Zenit St. Petersburg:

The Russian champions reached the knock-out stages of the competition last term and they would like to emulate that feat this year. Manager Luciano Spalletti should fancy his chances from this group especially if his side can take full advantage of the home matches in the Petrovsky Stadium. Andrei Arshavin, who was on loan from Arsenal, will be missed big time. Much of the burden will be on the shoulders of Hulk, the marquee signing of the season who is a proven goal-scorer at the continental stage.

RSC Anderlecht:

The Belgian Champions are coming into the competition through play-off after a year’s absence. It will be an acid test for their new man in charge, John van den Brom. They will play in Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. It is a team full of unknown names and faces. But this is the stage where jewels have been discovered in the past.

Malaga CF:

The great Malaga story reached its pinnacle as it qualified for the Champions’ League by finishing fourth in the La Liga and came through the qualifying rounds. Or is it only the start from La Rosaleda for Manuel Pellegrini and his boys? Only time will tell, but there is no denying that this Spanish side will not let it go so easily. Their financial problem meant a series of summer exits which has created a dearth in squad depth and that might turn out to be a bit of a downer for them.

Group D

Real Madrid CF           Manchester City   FC            AFC Ajax            Borussia Dortmund

Real Madrid CF:

The most successful club in the history of the competition were eliminated from the semi-final last season but they did win the La Liga quite comfortably. José Mourinho has found his feet at the Santiago Bernabéu. Anything less than a trophy is considered a failure and this is one trophy which they have not won since 2002. So teams beware! Watch out for Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, Iker Casillas, Sami Khedira, Luka Modric, Karim Benzama, Gonzalo Higuain and Co.

Manchester City FC:

It was nothing short of a horror show for the big spending English champions to finish third in the group stage last season. The City of Manchester faithful will not be as patient as Roberto Mancini if they fail to make much wanted progress this term. This should not be too difficult with the talent and depth Manchester City have, even though they did not bolster their squad in the summer transfer window. Only thing is that they have been drawn against three other major European Champions and this could be another reality check for them.

AFC Ajax:

Bowed out of the competition in the group stages last year but claimed the Dutch Eredivisie. Manager Frank de Boer will expect a better outing in his third season in charge at Amsterdam Arena. It will be interesting to see how much Christian Eriksen can inspire Ajax to progress beyond the Group of Death. He does not seem to have much support apart from an ageing Christian Poulsen and some young lesser known players.

Borussia Dortmund:

Borussia Dortmund had a contrasting season last time – while they won the German Bundesliga they got the wooden spoon in the Champions League. With some of the finest young talents – Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski – at his disposal, Jürgen Klopp would be disappointed if he cannot march his team to the knock-out stages. At least the Westfalenstadion faithful will not accept another failure at the world stage.

Group E

Chelsea FC             FC Shakhtar Donetsk           Juventus                FC Nordsjaelland

Chelsea FC:

Current champions. They had to win it to qualify for the Champions League as they failed to finish in the top four in English Premier League. Roberto Di Matteo won it as a care-taker manager and got the job on a permanent basis. That is history now. Following the summer exodus – Didier Drogba, Jose Bosingwa, Solomon Kalou – and induction of fresh blood – Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Oscar, Marko Marin – Chelsea look a completely new side, and a refreshing one at that.  The trophy has found a home at Stamford Bridge and The Blues will be on a mission to retain it.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk:

The Ukrainian champions did not create much of an impression last season as they finished rock bottom in the group. This was unexpected as they reached the last eight in the 2010-11 season only to be eliminated by the eventual winners, Barcelona. But Mircea Lucescu has been in charge at Donbass Arena for close to a decade and he knows how to plug the holes. The job is not easy though and a progress to the next round may just prove his biggest ever achievement.

Juventus:

Leaving their match-fixing scandals behind, the Turin club was crowned the Serie A champions last season. But their manager, Antonio Conte is still suffering from the scar as he is to sit out of the entire campaign and assistant coach Massimo Carrera will take charge for the Champions League matches. This is not an ideal set up, but like the Azzuri adversity might just prove to be an inspiration for the club from Juventus Stadium. With the experience of Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo at hand – especially the latter operating at the fulcrum of an intriguing 3-5-2 system – should see them through to the knock-out stages and beyond.

FC Nordsjaelland:

The Danish champions are making their debut this season. Known as a club dedicated to youth development, 2011-12 was a milestone season for them as they won the domestic title for the first time. Only Andreas Laudrup may draw some attention due to his more illustrious father, the legendary Dane, Michael Laudrup. Kasper Hjulmand has rightly set his sight to embrace the moment and not to overburden his young side with unrealistic expectations. It will be a huge occasion for some 10,000 odd spectators at Farum Park and they should enjoy the moment without thinking too much ahead.

Group F

FC Bayern Munich               Valencia CF            LOSC Lille              FC BATE Borisov

FC Bayern Munich:

Last year’s runners-up (runners-up in the German Bundesliga too) have bolstered their squad with some marquee signings – Xherdan Shaqiri, Mario Mandžukić and Javi Martinez. The latter will be expected to set the stage on fire, with his calibre and more so for his $50 million transfer price tag. Jupp Heynckes is back in charge for his third spell at Allianz Arena and he would have set his sight on making three finals in four years.

Valencia CF:

Valencia qualifies for the tournament finishing third in La Liga. With a new manager, Mauricio Pellegrino at the helm in Mestalla, they will look to do better than last year’s group stage exit. The club have seen a busy summer where star players, like Jordi Alba, have left but they have also ensured that there is no dearth of talent with the inclusion of Sergio Canales, Fernando Gago and Nelson Valdez. Canales, in particular, could be a star in the making if he can shed aside his injury woes and that will do no harm to Valencia’s chances.

LOSC Lille:

Another team to finish rock bottom in the group stages last year, Lille had to see off the rigours of qualifying rounds after finishing third in Ligue 1. With the departure of key player Eden Hazard life will not be easy for Rudi Garcia. Fans in the newly opened Grand Stade Lille Métropole and away will hope this will not deter their hopes. Just for football fans, Lille should progress through to the knock-out stages with their Barcelona-esque style of play where players roam around to create open spaces and finish opposition off with breathtaking passing.

FC BATE Borisov:

They finished fourth in the group last season and their manager Viktor Goncharenko would like to have a better outing this time round. They were crowned with the league title in Belarus and are ready to go with three back-to-back  wins en route to the final stage of Champions League. Their City Stadium faithful will be looking up to their own child, Alexander Hleb for inspiration but progressing to the next stage will be a tough ask.

Group G

FC Barcelona             SL Benfica               FC Spartak Moscow               Celtic FC 

 

FC Barcelona:

Back in the competition after a disastrous season by their own standards – crashed out of Champions League after losing to Chelsea on 2-3 aggregate and came second best in La Liga. Tito Villanova would like to continue the tradition of tiki-taka with a more or less settled team. If they had any weak points, they have addressed that with the signing of left-back Jordi Alba. Watch out for another great goal feast ahead, at least in Camp Nou.

 

SL Benfica:

Although they came second in the domestic league, Benfica topped the group last time which had Manchester United. Their progress was stalled by eventual winners Chelsea in the last eight but Jorge Jesus, their manager would be proud of their achievements. Benfica play their home matches in Estádio da Luz and are known to be the club with most number of supporters worldwide. Nicolás Gaitan impressed one and all last season and it would be him and a bunch of young, lesser known but highly skilful players who would like to carry their good form ahead.

FC Spartak Moscow:

Spartak Moscow finished second in the Russian Premier League and were drawn against the Turkey runners-up Fenerbahçe in the qualifying round. They earned a hard-fought 3-2 win on aggregate to announce their return to the biggest club tournament in the world. Home matches in the freezing conditions of Luzhniki Stadium would be a big plus to Unai Emery and his team. They need to take full advantage of that if they wish to have any hopes of progressing through to the next round.

Celtic FC:

The Scottish champions appear in the final stages of Champions League after a gap of four years through qualifying round. Neil Lennon will know his side will fight hard for each and every ball but he must be realistic about his team’s chances of progressing through to the knock-out stages. The Bhoys cannot afford to let their guard down at Celtic Park if they hope to salvage anything out of this campaign.

Group H

Manchester United FC           SC Braga              Galatasaray S.K.          CFR 1907 Cluj

Manchester United FC:

After a disastrous season where the Red Devils failed to progress to the knock-out stages of Champions League and lost the English Premier League to their city rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson looks to reshuffle his squad with the addition of star striker Robin van Persie and playmaker Shinji Kagawa. Old Trafford is buzzing with renewed hopes with the addition of RVP in particular, who netted 37 goals last season in all competitions. This should be a stroll in the park for them but easy groups do not always guarantee result as the gaffer would second.

SC Braga:

Coming to the competition after sealing a third spot in the Portuguese Superliga and then defeating Udinese in the play-offs, manager José Peseiro would like to mark his debut season with a notable performance. They do not have any big names to boast of, but their attacking flair would surely catch the eye. Expect some gripping performances, at least on their home turf in Estádio Municipal.

Galatasaray S.K.:

The Turkish champions are back in contention after last year’s absence. Fatih Terim should be positive about his team’s chances being drawn in an easy group. They have some real good players in Hamit Altintop, Felipe Melo, Emmanuel Eboué and Johan Elmander. It seems their home matches in Turk Telecom Arena will play a big role in their progress to the knock-out stages.

CFR 1907 Cluj:

The Romanian champions made it to the Champions league final stages through two play-off tie wins after a gap of two years. This is a relatively unknown club, who play their home matches in Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu, are full of young enthusiastic players without any big name and the man in charge, Ioan Andone is also in his first season at the club. But sometimes no expectation serves as a major booster for a team to play to their fullest potential under a relaxed environment.

Parting Shot

The power shift in Europe is quite eminent. While three clubs from EPL – barring Manchester City – featured in Pot One, La Liga’s dominance is largely concentrated in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Italy has only two representatives in the finals which is an indication of their domestic turmoil. Two contrasting features dictate the rise of two other nations – France and Portugal. While the former has spent massively to lure the best talents across the globe, the latter has put together some strong performances over the years to climb the ladder. There are 17 nations participating in this year’s edition – no one knows who will emerge victorious, come May in London. To know about all that and much more: Follow Football, Follow us!


How to get Banned from GT Lottery Syndicate

Gino de Blasio had made moving predictions about the fate of Antonio Cassano and Carlos Tevez back in January and February in Goalden Times. Read what his own fate became, as a result of those predictions!

I am not a gambler. I’ve never been one, but I do love the thought, like anyone else, of winning the lottery. The whole, “you have to be in it to win it” couldn’t be truer. Now with the Goalden Times staff scattered all across the globe, you could perhaps imagine a Christmas party or a summer barbeque to be quite difficult events to attend, but a syndicate on the lottery would be a pretty nice thing.

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I’d suggested that in the virtual suggestion box a few months ago. So far I’ve heard nothing. And now, I think I’ve figured out why.

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When I wrote the words “Mancini had exclaimed that ‘Tevez will never play for this club again” it wasn’t me who said it; that was Roberto Mancini. How was I supposed to know that he’d take him back and make him play the final twenty minutes against Chelsea?

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His return, and in particular in that match, couldn’t have come at a more decisive time for Manchester City. Being knocked out of the Europa League and suffering a shaky form away from home including a loss to Swansea, they needed that extra something to get them out of the slump.

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Carlos Tevez, in the meantime, has been busy training in his native Argentina since his self-imposed exile and making statements like “Mancini treated me like a dog” (in Spanish) – and to ESPN Spain, you know he couldn’t make the whole “I got confused with the foreign language” excuse – which could get you scratched off the Christmas card list in the United Kingdom.

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The rest, you could say is, recent history. He trained, he scored (for the reserve team) and then he made his league return, producing a fine 20-minute display that saw him set up the winning goal with a sublime pass to Samir Nasri.

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If City needed their fix, they received it that night; whether he’ll last, I’ll let you guess.

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And then my second piece of infinite wisdom came when I wrote “Cassano’s prognosis is showing signs of great encouragement and could be back with the squad sooner rather than later.”  That was four months ago, but going by the current circumstances, it’s unlikely he’ll be back before September.

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Now, once again, this piece of information was from a very trustworthy source – La Gazzetta dello Sport. How on earth was I supposed to know they are feeding me garbage?!

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What I can unhesitatingly report though, from an entirely different source, and verified at least 40 times before writing this short piece, is that Antonio is back to training, with his teammates and with the ball. This must give his doctors and trainers confidence in his recovery phase and they may start working on the physical aspects of his game.

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So, for fear of incorrectly predicting anything more on either Tevez or Cassano and being banned thereby from any future job as a football clairvoyant and Goalden Times’ lottery syndicate participant, I wish you best of luck in this week’s lottery; a game I shan’t be playing.

The Nowhere Man

Carlos Tevez was the name on everyone’s lips for the entire January winter transfer window. Here Gino de Blasio takes the slide rule to the issue to find out what the hoopla is all about. Catch Gino on twitter @ginodb

All dressed up, nowhere to go

Remember high school? The social awkwardness, the struggle to make friends, the isolation that can encapsulate your dreams being burnt like a second year science class before a bunsen burner? Just like the ugly child who no one wants to take to the end of year dance, Carlos Tevez must have been feeling the same, come January 31st.

So how did one of football’s greatest talents get himself into the social exclusion award of the year category, and will he ever make it out in time for his career to fully shine?

Munich – 27th September 2011

Tevez Ignored Mancini

It was a cold autumn night and Manchester City were playing Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stage. Away from home and under the spotlight of Europe’s footballing elite, Carlos Tevez was going to commit a cardinal football sin – disobey the manager.

In a sideline dispute with City boss Roberto Mancini, Tevez refused to enter the pitch for a substitution prompting an expletive-charged tantrum for the world to see. The Tevez camp had later claimed that it was all due to some miscommunication – Tevez’s English speaking skills apparently to blame for the fiasco, however, that did not stand a chance. The cold Munich night lay witness to a calm Tevez while Mancini gesticulated wilder than any Italian since Nero saw Rome burning.

Tevez sat calmly as Mancini gesticulated wilder than any Italian since Nero saw Rome burning

Tevez didn’t get up. Mancini sat down.

The team talk, the flight home, the interviews with the press – all of these constitute modern day football, a tasteful reminder that not only the player has some explaining to do, but the coach too. But it was to be a sombre Mancini, a man who looked destroyed by the whole episode; the stress taking its toll on his verbal capacity to talk, he nonetheless exclaimed, “Tevez will never play for this club again”. To which a nonchalant Tevez expressed his desire to leave anyway as he is not happy to stay away from his family.

Like all great crimes since 1974, this became known as “Tevez-Gate”.

A two-week ban, loss of wages, exclusion from followed by forced inclusion into training. Carlitos needed a new home; Manchester City had made it as much clear.

And so Began the Rat Race…

Who was going to take in “the Apache”? More known for his petulance than a history teacher’s velvet elbow padding and more disliked by his manager than the school snitch, Tevez’s saving grace is that when he plays, you forget all of the above.

His work rate is exceptional, his physical diminutiveness compensated by the terrier-like aggression he uses to win and protect the ball; blessed with a hawk-esque vision he can pick out passes from all over the pitch. Any club would find a position for him, even if it meant selling their prized possession to have him.

A Tale of One City, Two Clubs

Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran the story of how Tevez was a step away from Milan

Like an after-school detention featuring the misfortune of sitting and watching your teacher’s marks, Tevez was totally powerless. It was to be the red and black half of Milan to make the first move, a proposition that would give Milan arguably the best attack in the world and bolster their domestic efforts by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Champions League appearances. Milan agreed on personal terms with the player and the move seemed imminent, till City put the brakes on it by not allowing a free move on loan, preferring an outright sale.

When Milan failed on their first proposal to capture the Argentinian ace, it was set to start an inadvertent bidding war with local rivals Inter Milan. A move seen by many as one-upmanship due to the technical abilities which Tevez would bring, rather than the cure to the cold Inter had acquired; Tevez was a solution for Milan, not for Inter.

This was all taking place the week of the Milan derby; no longer was Tevez the ugly duckling, he was the one everyone wanted to take to the ball.

Cometh the Sacrificial Lamb

When Milan’s original proposal was rebuked by Manchester City, they knew the only thing that could win over the North West club was going to be an offer that they couldn’t turn their nose at. Adriano Galliani played out a move worthy of “hell hath no fury like a Brazilian scorned”. Using the media, and relations with the new Paris Saint-Germain coach (former Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti) and sporting director (former Milan scout and manager Leonardo), a series of open contacts were made to Milan regarding the sale of

Alexander Pato to PSG, a move that would bring in the capital required to purchase Tevez outright.

This seemed like the gamble of a century – selling the young, talented but injury-prone Brazilian for an older, temperamental and non-tested-in-Serie A Argentine. Add to that, Tevez hadn’t played since September – whatever form he was in, it wasn’t going to be match-ready.

Young, Injury-prone, Loyal, Promising or Mature, Proven, Disharmonious; which one to pick?

It wasn’t to be.

Pato’s sale was blocked at the last moment making Galliani come out of negotiations with Manchester City surrounding Tevez. So neither did Milan sell their star Brazilian nor did they buy the sidelined Argentinian. Nothing had changed, much to the dismay of the Twitter audiences around the globe proclaiming the sale of one, the purchase of another. Tevez was stranded. He was, yet again, the one the cool kids didn’t want in their group.

And Then…

There were flutters, both from PSG and Inter (again) but nothing concrete. The media circle that had encapsulated the story and run wild across Europe never came to fruition. Milan were without their preferred striker from the market (a last ditch effort to get Maxi Lopez from Catania did happen), Inter and PSG re-enforced and sold in different departments.

The sad truth is, however, Tevez only has himself to blame for the debacle. And who knows if time will teach him a lesson in player-manager protocol; he won’t be joining the diplomatic mission, that’s a certainty.

The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football

As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on

Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.

Return of the Prodigal Son

Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.

Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.

And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.

Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.

The Oil League

Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn.  Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.

Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.

But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.

Underdog Story of the Year

Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.

Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.

The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.

Heartwarming Victories

Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.

Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshiko went on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.

Year of the Minnows

Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA.  Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.

Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.

They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.

The Thing About 18

Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.

The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale.  Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.

At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.

Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.

The Era Continues

While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.

1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.

Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986  under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.

Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.

Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.

Transfer Deal of the Year

Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.

Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.

Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunning hat trick against Parma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.

But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.

Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)

Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.

Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.

Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.

That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.

Memorable Comebacks

Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.

Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.

Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.

The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.

I Can’t Believe This Happened

Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.

Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.

The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detail but one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.

Celebrations

Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and  the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.

 Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.

The most whacky   celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympic run. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrate it.

Best Football Performances

Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.

Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.

However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.

Best Performance by a Footballer

This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by with this performance by Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, do this and this and this and of course this makes him a complete entertainer.

Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!