Calcio Corner: The (melo)drama continues

It has been an eventful month and a half at Serie A after which the usual contenders are leading the tables. But there has been developments in Italian football away from the league too. Here Debopam Roy covers some such stories.

Tavecchio Gets a Rap

The president of the Italian football federation (FIGC), Carlo Tavecchio, has been banned for six months by European football governing body UEFA for making racist remarks. The ban relates to the remarks by Tavecchio made during his election campaign in July by referring to “eating bananas” when he was discussing about foreign players. The duration of six months doesn’t seem much significant but it would mean that he would be barred from the next UEFA congress in March 2015. Tavecchio who was member of UEFA’s youth and amateur football committee would also have to relinquish that role during this period.

However this is not more than a rap on the wrist for the FIGC President. His presidency is not in doubt after the Federation’s internal prosecutor dropped the enquiry over the comment last month. Tavecchio though would have to do some face-saving gestures as UEFA has also asked him to “organise a special event in Italy aimed at increasing awareness against racism”. That might just teach him a lesson or two.

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Chiellini having a Ball…or two…or three

While the President was getting his knuckles reddened, La Nazionale tried to follow suit; well almost. It was supposed to be a set of minnows up against Antonio Conte’s Azzurri. Azerbaijan (FIFA ranking 95) and Malta (FIFA ranking 155) are minnows of world football in every sense of the term. In the two matches that they played against other opposition this game week, Malta lost 0-3 to Norway at home and Azerbaijan conceded six goals while playing away against Croatia.

All that though changed when they faced Azzurri. Italy, playing in 3-5-2, were bottled up by Berti Vogts’ Azeris in a home match before Giorgio Chiellini headed in from a Andrea Pirlo corner in the 44th minute. That lead almost seemed all that the Azzurri would get before Chiellini got on the end of another corner – this time from Azerbaijan’s Dimitrij Nazarov in the 76th minute. The ball bundled in from his touch to give the Azeris a barely deserved equalizer since they scored without even having a shot on target till then. Chiello made amends six minutes later with another header from another corner – this time from Sebastian Giovinco, thankfully. That was how the match ended, and Chiellini ended up with a highly unusual hat-trick. He was candid after the match “Luckily I scored one more in the right goal! It would have been very sad not to win this match”. Chiellini became the first player to score a goal and an own goal in a Euro qualifier since Fernando Hierro of Spain who scored for and against his team against Austria in 1999.

One would have thought that Conte would urge his team to go for the jugular against Malta. But another insipid display followed with another bundled goal by debutant Graziano Pelle from a corner being the decider. The fact that Malta played more than an hour with 10 men after Michael Mifsud saw red didn’t prove any helpful. Instead Leonardo Bonucci was sent off after 73 minutes of the match to plunge further gloom into the performance.

The two wins will still keep the Azzurri on top of the group and Chiellini is still the only player to score past his own defence.  But that’s the only consolation as Italy’s next opponents are the toughest – Croatia and Bulgaria.

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Usual Suspects lead on

It’s over a month since the start of Serie A and the main protagonists have already showed their mettle. Juventus, the three time reigning champions, and Roma, the team which had the best transfer window, led the charge for the title from the beginning. They both had 100% winning record in Serie A before they faced each other. The match, which was crucial to both the defending champions and the challengers, ended in a controversial 3-2 win for Juventus. The game was marred by three penalties – two in favour of the Bianconeri and both highly controversial and two straight red cards – one apiece for the teams. In addition to that Roma manager Rudi Garcia was sent to the stands for protesting against the penalties. Roma threatened and took the lead once to make it 2-1 but those two penalties and an outstanding volley on a corner from outside the box by Bonucci of all people settled the score for Juventus. Juventus were dominant throughout but Roma truly showed what an improved team they are this season.

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The Allegri Curse lifted

It has been a strangely effective start for the reigning champions. Nothing strange about their pedigree or their record which now stands at 22 games unbeaten in Turin – an all-time record for Serie A home matches. It is their hastily cobbled manager – Massimiliano Allegri who has had a makeover. Much maligned before being dismissed, somewhat unceremoniously, from Milan, Allegri has now had six wins in a row – which has included away wins against Milan and home win over direct scudetto rivals Roma. Just to put this into perspective, the last four seasons with Allegri, Milan notched 11, 8, 7 and 8 points respectively in their first six league games. Known as a notoriously slow starter, Allegri has somehow managed to squeeze in wins by the slimmest margin in away matches at Chievo and Milan. This latest 5-goal-thriller at the Juventus Stadium against Roma only confirmed that the hastily concocted marriage has probably given more to Allegri’s reputation than to Juventus. That is because Juventus had primarily brought Allegri to improve their European results which had been disappointing even in the middle of their scudetto hat-trick. But one win and a loss so far has had hardly made the Bianconeri’s European trips a memorable one. Perhaps the consecutive matches against Olympiacos, who managed a thumping win at home against Atletico Madrid only to capitulate away to lowly Malmo, can redeem Allegri’s reputation of overachieving in Europe with a less than mediocre Milan.

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Inter crossroads?

They were supposed to have turned the corner with a new owner who was supposed to pull in funds. They had a manager who has been highly successful in Serie A and in his second season at the helm of Nerazzurri was supposed to lead the club out of doldrums. They are in Europe while city rivals Milan are not. That has not happened since 1998. They had a middling transfer window but had many under the radar signings which could have turned out trumps and may indeed turn out to be eventually. However, six matches in, and Inter are struggling. One 7-0 drubbing of Sassuolo aside, there has been hardly any performance worth mentioning. A symmetric record of 2 wins 2 draws and 2 defeats, both of which came in the last two matches has angered owner Erick Thohir so much that manager Walter Mazzarri’s job is said to be on the line.  Ironically the match to save his seat is against another team which has had a disappointing start to the season – Napoli, Mazzarri’s old team. Napoli though have strung a few results and would fancy themselves to topple Inter who have conceded seven goals in the last two matches. To sack Mazzarri at this stage of the season may be suicidal for the serpenti. There is hardly another manager worth his credentials who is available in the peninsula. Thohir’s predecessor Massimo Moratti was well known for his sackings, having seen off 20 managers, of which only Jose Mourinho left on his own terms, in his 18 years as Inter’s President. Thohir has been patient with Mazzarri so far but another defeat to his former club and Inter may be at another managerial crossroads.

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Serie A Table (as on 14th October)

Position Team Played Win Draw Loss Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Points

1

Juventus

6

6

0

0

13

2

11

18

2

Roma

6

5

0

1

11

4

7

15

3

Sampdoria

6

4

2

0

7

2

5

14

4

Udinese

6

4

1

1

9

5

4

13

5

AC Milan

6

3

2

1

13

9

4

11

6

Hellas Verona

6

3

2

1

6

5

1

11

7

SSC Napoli

6

3

1

2

8

7

1

10

8

Lazio

6

3

0

3

11

7

4

9

9

Fiorentina

6

2

3

1

5

3

2

9

10

Inter

6

2

2

2

11

8

3

8

11

Genoa

6

2

2

2

6

6

0

8

12

Empoli

6

1

3

2

8

8

0

6

13

Cesena

6

1

3

2

5

10

-5

6

14

Torino

6

1

2

3

4

7

-3

5

15

Cagliari

6

1

1

4

7

9

-2

4

16

ChievoVerona

6

1

1

4

5

9

-4

4

17

Atalanta

6

1

1

4

2

8

-6

4

18

Parma

6

1

0

5

11

16

-5

3

19

Palermo

6

0

3

3

6

14

-8

3

20

Sassuolo

6

0

3

3

3

12

-9

3

The Most Intriguing League is back

It was the greatest football league in the world not very long ago. Now it is struggling to maintain its European footprint. But that does not lessen the intrigues and excitement of Serie A. We at Goalden Times would be covering Serie A in some detail. Here Debopam Roy looks at the current state of the Italian football situation including previews of Serie A that starts on 31st August. Here is Part One.

If there was a contest for the most exciting European top flight league, probably the English Premier League and La Liga would vie for top honours. Elsewhere Bundesliga would probably sweep the award for most organised league. But there is no league which can be more intriguing than Serie A. Full of intrigue and subterfuge, the league has long retained the primal position of interest as much for its tactical nature of football as much for the controversies that it stokes at every round.

For some time, the league has lost its European pre-eminence and there are hardly signs in the last few years that a better collective performance in the continental front is round the corner. The national team too has been at its nadir – crashing out of a World Cup at the group stage for the second consecutive time. As a result, the national team is currently without a manager. The national federation is without a head.  That is as low as probably the Italian football can go down to. And hence the only way ahead is up.

The first step for that journey though begins on 11th August, 2014 when all the Italian clubs across the divisions would vote for the next Italian Football Federation (Italian: Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio; F.I.G.C.) President would be elected. There are only two valid candidates but former Milan legend Demetrio Albertini was initially backed by only two Serie A clubs – Roma and Juventus. His rival is the 71 year old head of the Italy’s amateur football league – Carlo Tavecchio who had the support of remaining 18 Serie A and majority of Serie B and the Lower leagues. The election seemed a formality. And then Tavecchio fell on his “banana skin”.

If you walk with your eyes upwards, you will slip on a banana peel.
If you walk with your eyes upwards, you will slip on a banana peel.

It all happened in one of his election speeches where he was trying to suggest that Italy should follow the English rule of only allowing foreigners who are only eligible for work permits. But his choice of words, as translated from Italian came out like this:

Welcoming is one thing, but playing football is another,” said the 71-year-old. “In England they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. “Instead, here we say that any old Opti Pobà can come here, before he was eating bananas, now he’s playing in the Lazio first XI”.

Even if you ignore the xenophobic first part (more on that in another issue), it is the second part that has caused all the consternation. Opti Poba – a fake name that sounds African and is suspiciously close to Pogba (the Juventus midfielder of French-African origin), and the choice of fruit in bananas has made sure that race issues are now out in open.  Even FIFA has written a letter to the Italian FA asking it to take the appropriate steps to investigate the matter and report to FIFA. Some of the clubs – Fiorentina and Palermo – have withdrawn their support for Tavecchio and more clubs are following suit.  But with majority of the clubs still supporting him, he remains a hot favourite for the post. Unless he is found guilty of breaking the FIGC, UEFA or FIFA code of ethics, and banned up to four months (at maximum). If that verdict does not come before 11th of this month, then we may see a President elected and then getting banned and then a new election. Didn’t I say that this is the most intriguing league to follow football!

Amidst all this Serie A fixtures have been announced and clubs are in their pre-seasons trying to get ready for the start of the league on 31st August. Here we preview the clubs alphabetically.

Atalanta

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Manager Stefano Colantuano is one of the longest serving managers in Serie A having been in charge of Atalanta since 2010. That is a long time considering the tremendous turnover of managerial appointments in Serie A. Having overseen the promotion of the team from Serie B in 2010, Colantuano has led the team to establish in the lower-middle tier of Serie A in each subsequent season without ever being in serious bother of relegation. The current season too will not be different this script. Atalanta has always depended on their youth and graduates from their famed academy pepper their current squad too.

Key Player:  German Denis has scored 57 goals in the last three seasons for Atalanta. If the team has to reach its mid table goal, then el Tanque will have to keep firing.

Breakout Star: Daniele Baselli is a 22 year old central midfielder from the Atalanta youth system. He showed glimpse of his talent in his club debut providing one assist after coming on for the last 17 minutes. In his second season, expect him to play a more influential role.

Key Transfer In: Marco D’Alesandro is one of the old fashioned wingers – Short, nippy and skilful. Last year he provided key assists and goals for Cesena in Serie B, helping them with the promotion.

Cagliari

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Cagliari usually finishes in the middle rung of Serie A and had got to 11th spot couple of seasons ago on the back of stellar performance from Marco Sau who scored 12 goals and Andrea Cossu who provided eight assists. Last season though was disastrous and they finished only seven points above the relegated teams. Cagliari has hired one of the iconic managers of Serie A – the chain smoking Zdeněk Zeman. Zeman, for those who have not been to Zemanlandia, is a manager who plays an extremely attacking 4-3-3 whatever be the score line. His teams have all been noted for the spectacular goal binges. One can be definite that Cagliari will score a lot of goals this season. Will they be able to concede less?

Key Player:  Andrea Cossu. The vice-captain is the playmaker and heart of the team. The drop in Cagliari’s performance last season can be owed to his poor form where he managed only a solitary assist.

Breakout Star: Victor Ibarbo. The 24 year old striker is only the second Colombian (after Tino Asprilla) to score a hattrick in Serie A. He has blistering pace but needs to improve on his finishing and there is no better manager than Zeman to get the best out of him.

Key Transfer In: Lorenzo Crisetig and Samuel Longo (on loan from Inter). Cagliari has sold off some of its major performers in Radja Nainggolan and Davide Astori to Roma so there may be more important signings in the later part of the transfer window. But at present, these two youth products of Inter Milan’s academy are the brightest talents coming in. Both have potential and could become vital cogs in Cagliari regaining its perch in Serie A.

Cesena

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Cesena is the first of our promoted teams in this season’s Serie A. They came 4th in Serie B and won in a double legged playoff against Latina. Manager Bisoli has now twice overseen the promotion of Cesena having first accomplished that task in 2009-10. Much of the squad is assembled as loans and co-ownerships. Cesena had restructured and recapitalized their finances in the last two years and hence the funds available for transfer are poor. Bisoli has thus chosen his loans well – ranging from Juventus goalkeeper Nicola Leali, Atalanta’s Daniele Capelli and Guido Murilungo, Sampdoria’s Massimo Volta – these are men eager to establish themselves in Serie A. They would still need to punch above their collective weights to retain their membership of Serie A.

Key Player: Federico Agliardi. When a team gets promoted to the top division, probably the most important question is how their defence and goalkeeper are going to perform. Agliardi was once touted as the next big thing in Serie A but at 31 will have to play heroically to keep Cesena afloat.

Breakout Star: Alejandro Rodríguez top scored with eight goals for Cesena last season. The Catalonian forward though could repeat or go beyond that value given his potential.

Key Transfer In: Massimo Volta is a solid no-nonsense defender who has had prior Serie A experience with Sampdoria and also with Cesena back in 2009-10. His current loan deal could work as a perfect opportunity for the player to establish his Serie A credentials.

Chievo

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The phenomenon of Flying Donkeys is now well established in Serie A. From strugglers in the top division, they have graduated to respected mid-table positions finishing 10th and 12th in this decade. However last season saw them struggle throughout the campaign and in the end barely managed to avoid the drop finishing four points above the relegation zone. This season they have assembled a team of proven Serie A stalwarts like Maxi Lopez, Mariano Izco, and Alessandro Gamberini. Blending balance to the team are promising youngsters like Francesco Bardi and Cristiano Biraghi with Alberto Paloschi, bought out from Milan – last season’s top scorer for Chievo.

Key Player: Boštjan Cesar is a giant of a defender at 1.91 metre. He has been the bedrock for the defence which has allowed Chievo to maintain its hold in Serie A.

Breakout Star: Alberto Paloschi famously scored his first Serie A goal at the age of 18 with his first ever touch after coming on as a second half substitute for Milan. He has grown and matured as a striker of repute and his tally of 13 goals last season were what ultimately kept Chievo alive.

Key Transfer In: Maxi Lopez has seen better days – as stints at Barcelona and Milan would show. The last three seasons have been seen him score only 13 Serie A and Cup goals. In the previous three seasons he had 17, 10 and 11 goals respectively. At 30 years, he is at a crossroad and a transfer to the flying donkeys may just revive his mojo.

Empoli

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Empoli are the second promoted team in our list. They finished second in Serie B last season to be promoted outright after losing in the promotion playoff the previous season. Sarri was the manager both times and under him, Empoli plays an attractive 4-3-1-2 formation and on average scores 1.5 goals in each of the 91 matches played under Sarri. Their team of old guards Francesco Tavano and Massimo Maccarone were instrumental for their promotion but addition of young hopefuls like Simone Verdi and Rodrigo Aguirre would bolster their attack. But the rest of the squad has little known players and it will be a miracle if they can retain their Serie A membership.

Key Player: Tavano (34 years, 22 goals 6 assists) & Maccarone (35 years, 15 goals 12 assists) are two old warhorses who have had many memorable performances in Serie A. An encore of last season’s performance would lift Empoli to mid table security.

Breakout Star: Levan Mchedlidze has been the brightest Georgian talent for some time having made his national debut at 17 against Italy. He has been with Empoli for five years but has only managed nine goals and eight assists. At 24, he is coming into his prime and if this might be the season it all comes through.

Key Transfer In: Tiberio Guarente is an Atalanta youth product who could not maintain his rise after his big transfer to Sevilla in 2010 due to injuries. Now on his fourth loan spell from Sevilla, the midfielder could finally fulfil the potential which made Sevilla sign him with a 30 million buyout clause.

In our next article, we would talk about the results of the FIGC election and what that means for Italian football and do a preview of some more teams.