The Most Intriguing League is back
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.