Best of Times… Worst of Times…

It once was the greatest football league in the world. Currently, it is struggling to remain a meaningful European league. But that doesn’t lessen the intrigues and excitement of Serie A. We, at Goalden Times, would be covering Serie A in some detail. Here, Debopam Roy presents the second part of his preview of the league starting on 31st August.

In our earlier piece on Serie A, we  had talked about how Italian football, with underperforming clubs and a lack of a federation head or a national manager, had probably reached its nadir. Things have changed—but whether they are for better or for worse is a matter of perspective. The tint of your glasses will determine how you see the present. For the old boys club, in the forefront of which are Adriano Galliani of Milan and Claudio Lotito of Lazio, it is a time to revel. This is because the 71-year-old Carlo Tavecchio has become the new president of FIGC. That Mr. Tavecchio had referred to foreign players as “banana eaters” who steal local player’s livelihood and had made sexist derogatory remarks about female footballers in 2009 seemed incidental. It was a decision made by 63.63 percent of Italian club presidents (those who ultimately voted for Tavecchio) which made a mockery of the rest of the world’s views on the man.

New Picture

It was not as smooth as it was supposed to be.  Demetrio Albertini, the sole opponent of Tavecchio, was backed by Juventus and Roma. For a while, it seemed as if more clubs would follow, as Tavecchio’s “Opti Poba” remarks had created a furore even in the FIFA headquarters. But there were key desertions as the election neared. While club Presidents of Sassuolo stayed true to their objection of Tavecchio, the Presidents of Cesena, Atalanta, Palermo, and Cagliari made about turns after pledging their support for Albertini. In the end, it all became more about objecting to Tavecchio than pushing for Albertini. Tavecchio’s opponents weren’t rallying behind Albertini. Rather, they were rallying behind the idea of opposing Tavecchio. Such a movement is never strong and, sure enough, it disintegrated soon.

The voting delegation comprised 278 representatives from Serie A, Serie B, the Lega Pro, the Amateur League, the Players’ Association, the Coaches’ Association and the Referees’ Association. The only suspense was how soon Tavecchio would be elected and it was surprising that he took three rounds of it.

Winning Requirement

Tavecchio

Albertini

Round of Voting

75% of votes

60.2%

35.46%

Round 1

66% of votes

63.18%

34.07%

Round 2

50% +1 of votes

63.63%

33.95%

Round 3

After being elected, however, Tavecchio was gracious enough to acknowledge his detractors, “I will be a president for everybody and especially for those who have legitimately expressed their dissent about me taking the job”. His first job as President was to choose the national team manager which had been vacant since Cesare Prandelli’s unexpected resignation.

When Prandelli had resigned, the only credible candidates to fill his shoes were Roberto Mancini and Massimiliano Allegri. These were the two Italian managers who had the experience of managing the two Milan clubs. Moreover. they were free at the time. Though numerous left-field picks were suggested, it was thought to be a straight fight between Mancini and Allegri, especially since Carlo Ancelotti, probably the best Italian manager of this generation, had taken himself out of reckoning. Within a week of the start of pre-season, however, the scenario changed completely. This was because Antonio Conte, the three time scudetto winning manager of Juventus, resigned suddenly, and Juventus, just to simplify the scenario, picked Allegri as their manager. Hence, Conte became the front runner for the position of National Manager quite some time before the President elections. Finally, when news of Conte’s appointment as the Azzurri manager arrived, it was almost anti-climactic, given the preceding turmoil in the FIGC elections.

Conte’s appointment was widely hailed as a step in right direction. The charisma of a young, three-time defending Serie A winner, who won it in his very first attempt in Serie A, is universal. According to fellow Bianconeri player and Azzurri manager, Dino Zoff, “He’s the right man to lift the Azzurri colours to the top. He can transform the Nazionale from a frog to a prince.” Former Roma legend, Azzurri teammate, and Fiorentina manager, Vincenzo Montella, described him as Serie A’s best. The man himself took it as a challenge, “I have never been afraid of challenges. I am convinced that we will succeed in picking ourselves up because Italy’s place is among the top teams in the world.” The deal, though, was quite costly. Conte supposedly has a basic salary of €4.1m, which could rise to €4.6m with bonuses. It is significant that more than half of that salary is to be paid by the sponsors— Puma—making Conte one of the highest-earning national team managers (behind other such illustrious Italian managers like Fabio Capello).

With two such different and diversifying appointments in the space of a week, Italian football is truly at a crossroad. On one hand, there is the promise of a young and successful manager who may lead the Azzurri from the disappointment of Brazil 2014. On the other hand, there is a 71-year-old racist and misogynist at the helm of the federation and it doesn’t bode well for the country’s star striker. More on Mario Balotelli and his transfer will be covered in our next installment.

We continue our previews of the Serie A 2014-15 season with details of five more teams.

Fiorentina

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La Viola has been one of those clubs which has played attractive football and steadily progressed in the last few seasons. Part of that has been down to manager, Vincenzo Montella. His vibrant and dynamic tactics have managed to extract the maximum out of his team. Shrewd transfer campaigns, which have yielded players like Borja Valero, Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Gomez, and Juan Cuadrado on the cheap, have made Fiorentina a continental contender. They finished fourth in the last two seasons, missing out on Champions League football, and it may require a huge amount of effort from the players and the staff to bridge the gap this year. However, if Rossi and Gomez remain fit, and if Cuadrado is not sold, then the Champions League may not be beyond La Viola’s reach.

Key Player: Giuseppe Rossi is probably the most talented Azzurri attacking player of his generation. Even though injuries made him miss Brazil 2014, 17 goals for Fiorentina in 24 matches last season was a great comeback. Viola and Azzurri fans are hoping a similar performance from him this year .

Breakout Star: Mario Gomez is an unlikely choice for a breakout star. But with his pedigree, it’s a disappointment when there are only 4 goals in 15 official matches. Injuries have also added to his woes. However, if he remains injury free, Serie A might get its new Super Mario this year.

Key Transfer In: Marko Marin is one of those under-the-radar transfers (on loan from Chelsea) that Fiorentina specialises in. Pushed out of Chelsea due to other high profile signings, this could be the ideal platform for Marko to shine.

Genoa

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Every year, Genoa generally manages to buy a clutch of players who are just below the highest level, and then tries and manages a mid table with them. However, every year, the project gets disbanded and another new batch arrives. Last season saw them struggle a lot and ultimately finishing 12 points above relegation. This year, with some shrewd moves—Diego Perotti from Sevilla, Alessandro Matri from Milan, and Iago Falque from Tottenham, they may mount a challenge for the top half. However, significant departures like Alberto Gilardino, Sime Vrsaljko, and Bosco Jankovic may also pull them back. But it is more likely that they will see an encore of last year.

Key Player: Mattia Perin was the third goalkeeper in Cesare Prandelli’s world cup squad. The player has matured quite a lot and, based on this season’s performance, could move to one of the big clubs of Serie A. His saves would be vital for Genoa to remain competitive in matches.

Breakout Star: Andrea Bertolacci has been earmarked as a great talent, and he has served notice of the same with performances. What is expected, however, is consistency. He had a great 2012–13 season but didn’t follow it up with the same brilliance in 2013–14. Season 2014–15 might be the year when he finally blossoms.

Key Transfer In: Alessandro Matri struggled badly last season at Milan. The Milan youth product returned to Milan for 11 million Euro from Juventus, but hardly bothered any opposition goalkeeper. His lone stint at Fiorentina was marginally better. Genoa will offer him a chance to show that he still has the skills for something great.

Internazionale

 

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The Nerazzurri have been in a rebuilding ever since their treble winning season of 2010—so much so that, since then, the club has had only a single domestic trophy (Coppa Italia next year). The club has been sold off to Erick Thohir.  However, the performances have not been top notch under the new management, and there has not been any heavy investment either. There have been notable acquisitions this season but no splashing. Most of the signings are under the radar, but smart players as Yann M’Vila, Gary Medel, and Nemanja Vidic can all add to the squad. However, there is no single player who could be counted amongst the world’s best. Promising players like Mauro Icardi and Mateo Kovacic will have to up their game if Inter are to get Champions League spots. The team, though, still looks short of the best, and it will be a major achievement if they finish within the top three.

Key Player: Hernanes didn’t feature much during a disappointing World Cup campaign, but remains the most creative midfield outlet for the Nerazzurri. If he recreates his Lazio form, the goals and assists should drive his team up.

Breakout Star: Mateo Kovacic remains the brightest spark in Inter’s midfield. Bought for 15 million Euro from Dinamo Zagreb, he has had moderate success in Italy. If he fulfils his wonderkid status, Inter will surely have a memorable season.

Key Transfer In: Nemanja Vidic is among the three defensive cast-offs from EPL that have joined Serie A this year. However, unlike Ashley Cole or Patrice Evra, Vidic’s deal was done in January, proving that Inter had planned this well in advance. He will provide the defensive leadership and solidity that is needed after the retirement of Javier Zanetti and the release of Walter Samuel.

Juventus

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Three-time Serie A champions were in superb form, and it all seemed poised for their fourth consecutive title. And then, Antonio Conte, the man who managed those three title-winning seasons, resigned one day into the pre-season. Max Allegri was possibly the most unlikely choice as his replacement, given his Milan history, which included him being only the second manager to be dismissed mid-season in the Berlusconi era. But The Old Lady has chosen to go with the pragmatism of Allegri over other candidates. The sale of Arturo Vidal was arguably the other soap opera plaguing Juventus fans. That the sale has not happened yet seems to indicate it not happening this season as a sale at this juncture would leave Juventus with very little time to get a replacement of a similar level. If Vidal stays, then the fabric of the last three title winning teams remains intact. With inclusions like Alvaro Morata and Romulo , Juventus may safely remain the best bet for a fourth consecutive scudetto.

Key Player: Arturo Vidal is simply the soul of this Juventus team. With the largest number of tackles and the largest number of interceptions in Serie A, Vidal brings another level of dynamism to the bianconeri midfield.

Breakout Star: Kingsley Coman arrived on a free transfer from PSG, and, at 18, is touted as the next Bianconeri midfield star after Vidal and Paul Pogba. Coman is the reason that Juventus can even think of a possible sale of one of those two players.  Making his debut at 16 in Ligue 1, the 18-year-old Coman has already represented the French U21 teams and could make his senior debut soon. He might take a bit to adjust to Serie A, but with the likes of Pogba around to help him acclimatize, he may provide instant hits.

Key Transfer In: Alvaro Morata is the big transfer that Juventus did from Real Madrid for 20 million Euro and seems to be the future of Juventus’ attack line after Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente. Being 21 years old, he is expected to lead the line for years to come.

Lazio

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Lazio had an underwhelming season and finished ninth last year. This was after a couple of promising seasons when they had played regular European football. The Coppa Italia win of 2012–13, too, wasn’t repeated. Vladimir Petkovic had to pay the price, and a short stint by Edoardo Reja later, the reins are currently with Stefano Pioli. Pioli has managed multiple Serie A teams without ever being in charge of one of the top ones. He is known for a pragmatic style of play, and Lazio needs to exploit its full potential to finish in the European places. Their transfer season has been spiced up by the arrivals of Marco Parolo, Filip Djordjevic and Stefan de Vrij. The team still depends on the creative outlet of Antonio Candreva and the goalscoring feats of Miroslav Klose. The season would be considered a success if they finish in the top 6, but reality might push them further down.

Key Player: Antonio Candreva was the most valuable contributor for Lazio last season, with 12 goals and 9 assists in Seria A. He will have to continue being in such form for Lazio to get into the Champions League spots.

Breakout Star: Keita Balde Diao is a 19-year-old Lazio youth product who has scored 6 goals and provided 9 assists in his first senior season in Serie A and Europa League matches. The powerful Senegal-born Spanish forward is touted for bigger and better things, and this may be the season when he establishes himself as a first team regular.

Key Transfer In: Stefan de Vrij was one of the unheralded heroes of the Dutch team that finished third at Brazil 2014, though his performance elicited interest from the likes of Manchester United. The 22-year-old ex-Feyenoord star is another smart investment, who can be an asset for years to come. He scored 4 goals and provided an assist in his last season with Feyenoord, while getting only a single yellow card in 32 matches in Eredivisie. Lazio may have finally found a player to live up to the legend of Alessandro Nesta.

Calcio in Heels – Conspiracies, Record-breakers and a Tactical Genius

The last time Calcio in Heels was on display for Goalden Times, it was soon after Inter’s Derby della Madonnina defeat over Milan. This time, Rossella Marrai continues to profile the Nerazzurri’s latest undefeated run with a stellar victory over Juventus and the man behind the empathic win. On top of it, the latest dilemma of referees and its continuous debate of whether it was ‘human error’ or a ‘bought referee’, also comes into play in November’s issue

Calcio’s conspiracies

Calcio is not just purely about football anymore. In Italy, it has become a fusion of both football and amalgamated conspiracy theories over years past to form a paradigm that certain fixtures have been bought over to procure a result.
No longer can two sets of players walk onto the field and see a goal given for straight ‘human error’. No, it’s a constantly growing force that has overshadowed the ‘Beautiful Game’.
Ever since the 2006 Calciopoli scandal erupted across the Italian peninsula, few fans, and even neutrals, can’t watch a game without the thought of ‘that must be fixed’ or ‘that team has bought the referee’ having crossed their mind.
It is a sad reality which needs to be stopped. Bad calls, offside goals, non-existent penalties don’t just happen in Italy but the conspiracies hit full throttle during Week Nine of Serie A.
The Stadio Angelo Massimino was the venue at question, Catania the victim and Juventus the one controlling the linesman’s flag – or so it was said by the cynics.
In that game, Gonzalo Bergessio had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside in the first half, whilst Arturo Vidal’s 57th minute goal was allowed to stand – by the same linesman as the incident before – when he was handed the ball with Nicklas Bendtner in an illegal position.
The incident arguably caused up a stir in an already heated affair with Catania eventually being reduced to ten men following Giovanni Marchese’s second booking.
We need to delete what happened. We have accumulated a lot of anger. I tried to close the doors on it on Monday morning already when training returned. I am sorry our merits on the field have not been shown in a proper light but now it is a chapter closed,” Catania coach Ronaldo Maran told reporters a few days after the encounter.

Catania’s perfectly good goal ruled out for offside (l), Nicklas Bendtner offside in the build-up to Vidal’s goal for Juventus (r)

If there was ever a large gathering of anti-Juve followers, the group suddenly grew bigger. The incidents didn’t do the Bianconeri any favours in clearing the label of ‘Rubentus’ (‘Rubare’ means to steal in Italian) dubbed on them after they were relegated to Serie B in 2006 for match-fixing.
Cries of ‘Ladri, Ladri, Ladri’ (thieves, thieves, thieves) were echoed across the Massimino on that sunny Sunday afternoon, and it only further laid reason to claim truth behind the conspiracy theories – that Juve had ‘bought’ the game.
History may not favour the Bianconeri in convincing the cynics that the decisions made by Luca Maggiani were in fact ‘human error’ but when a team is on a 47-match unbeaten run, why would a club need to pay off an official when their quality is miles ahead of their rivals?
It seems nonsensical that it is the same Juventus team which saw penalties wavered away as frequently as Lionel Messi’s scoring ratio last season.
It was almost as if last season the referees were scared to hand any favours to Juventus in order to see their names dragged through media dust. Is this a sign of a team who has bought officials? No.
The Bianconeri strengthened their squad for the 2011-2012 campaign and managed to complete the season undefeated, whilst this transfer market, Director General and Sports Department CEO of Juventus, Beppe Marotta has only but further increased the quality and depth in the squad. It seems illogical that a team, which holds significantly better talent from their scudetto winning season, would pay the match officials especially when the gap of quality to the likes of Milan had substantially widened. Only Inter could really truly rival them, whilst Napoli and Roma lack the depth and consistency.
The same weekend of the match against Gli Elefanti were Manchester United and Chelsea and those games too were overshadowed by controversy in poor refereeing and officiating decisions. It only goes to show that not only does it happen in Italy but it happens in England too and that ‘human error’ is so often crossed over the to the fine line of judgmental and rash opinions.
Games are won on the field and not via Electronic Funds Transfer.
Saturday, 3 November, was a prime example of this when Inter beat the Vinovo outfit despite Arturo Vidal scoring a goal 21 seconds into the game from an offside Kwadwo Asamoah pass. It was here where determination by Inter bettered the conspiracy skeptics and went on to break their undefeated record.

Juventus are beatable

The Juventini would tell you they won their ‘30thscudetto on the field last season, whilst – as per the norm – the Milanisti would beg to differ.  They would say the title was handed to Juve after an ‘unacceptable’ (as labelled by Milan themselves) offside decision wrongly went in favour of the Bianconeri when Sulley Muntari’s goal was cancelled out.
And while I don’t condone the fact that the decision to rule out the most evident goal by the Ghanaian was atrocious, it was not the reason for Juve’s title win. It was Milan’s inability to compete for the whole length of the season coupled with the injury crisis to have hit the squad which saw them give away the lead, whilst the Old Lady had done away with her walking stick and was running a full marathon.
Fans of the ‘anti-Juve’ academy were up in arms that scudetto number 30 or 28 – call it what you will – was only aided by several key refereeing moments, seeing them dubbed as ‘unbeatable’ due to the ‘favouritism’ handed to them. However, Inter and Andrea Stramaccioni put things straight.
Confident of his side’s ability from the off, Stramaccioni knew full well what his side was capable of: “They’re a bit more established, a bit more settled in terms of the way they play. It will be our biggest test yet to assess our progress.
I wouldn’t settle for a draw, though: we’re Inter and I’ve never gone out looking for anything less than victory. We’re not afraid,” the young coach told La Gazzetta dello Sport before the game.
Afraid they were not as they showed that the ‘unbeatables’ can, in fact, be beaten as Inter pulled off one of their most striking displays on the field this season.

Inter Milan ended Juventus’ 49-game unbeaten run

Even after conceding a goal so early on at the Juventus Stadium, Stramaccioni’s tenacity, instilled in his team to never give up, raised the bar of their performance and it was undoubtedly something few teams had in them in order to fight back.
Milan failed to overcome their anger after Muntari’s goal was disallowed and found more reasons to protest and argue than to fight back, while Catania’s Sicilian nature saw their hopes go void when they were reduced to ten men.
Inter, on the other hand, didn’t succumb to such emotions.
At half-time I was certain we’d get the game back on track and even win it, because I saw the way it was going. The whole team had belief and was fired up during the break. Inter are growing and that is the important thing,” Stramaccioni said after the game at the Juventus Stadium.
However, their determination and hunger to win wasn’t the only reason for Inter’s win; it was Stramaccioni’s astute tactical changes too.

Stramaccioni – Tactical Genius

Special Strama – From the victory in Torino to scudetto dreams.
The Inter coach has changed the squad and won everyone over in 40 days. The president and fans see Mourinho in him. And in the Serie A he has a 70% winning percentage: better than the legends…” read a headline from La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Labelled as a ‘tactical genius’ for his charismatic and clever way of reviving Inter, in the latter stages of last season, in which he helped move Inter up to sixth position and allowing them to qualify for the Europa League, Stramaccioni only further emphasized the reason behind the name.

At 36 years of age, ‘Strama’ is the youngest coach in Serie A and whilst his lack of experience may not reach the levels of some of today’s coaches in the league, the tactician hosts a world of enthusiasm to get him by.
Traditionally seen sporting his favoured formations of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, where the combination of a compact defensive unit aided in having perfect balance of an attacking line-up.  The formations proved to provide a reportedly unhappy Wesley Sneijder with a rejuvenated form and he too praised the young tactician’s efforts.

Special Strama

Fortunately now there is a coach who understands me, gives me a lot of energy and he has put things in order,” the Dutchman said after Stramaccioni’s appointment.
Although Sneijder’s new form – which saw him form part of an attacking trident of Antonio Cassano and Diego Milito – was often considered to be the puppet master in the way Inter’s results panned out, Stramaccioni was forced to adapt in his formation due to the playmaker’s absence from the Juve game.
Against the Bianconeri one could say the ‘element of surprise’ was used when Inter turned out in a 3-4-3 formation to counteract Juventus’ 3-5-1 structure.
I knew full well I’d play 3-4-3. I thought Juventus would have an advantage by knowing our tactics beforehand, so why should I make it easier for them? Our strength is that we are versatile and have a basic approach that can then be adjusted for each individual situation.
When I told the strikers I wanted to play this way, it perhaps surprised them too, but became an enormously motivating force and everyone stepped up,” said Stramaccioni, while revealing the thoughts behind his masterminding of such a result.
Inter’s attacking trio allowed was a force to be reckoned with as their constant overlapping runs and fluidity on movement allowed for Juventus’ backline to have little reference points to work off.
Another advantage to the new line-up saw the wide players in the Black and Blue shirts add extra pressure onto Juve’s wing-backs which required him to drop back whilst creating more space for Inter to utilize the open space. This was only emphasized when Fredy Guarin and Yuto Nagatomo contributed to the scoreline with their runs down the flanks.
The implementation of Guarin for Cassano provided Inter with more pace and versatility to their play. Guarin was at the heart of the Nerazzurro turnaround in the second half display as he continued to show the promise which saw him shipped to Italy for Portugal despite being injured.
A game is made of two halves and there was only one team who owned the second period of the match due to their initiative in not letting a wrong decision get the better of them. And in the words of Stramaccioni: “Juve keep talking about what happened on the pitch, on the pitch, on the pitch – well, Inter beat them on the pitch.”

Those three points added to the match accumulator of nine consecutive wins and the ‘unstitching’ of Juve’s pattern deservedly saw the revelatory coach named as a ‘Tactical Genius’.

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!


Calcio Re-Booted

Serie A returns with new drama and Debopam Roy brings you up-to-date on each of the 20 teams

There are times when the big movie franchises feel that they are not progressing with existing storylines and decide to reboot the franchise. Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is probably the most relevant one in mind. Many a time, such a reboot is required for the franchise to remain relevant and introduce fresh ideas into the system. If one were to look at the boot of Europe, then the overwhelming theme seems to be ‘Reboot’. Starting from champions Juventus, to the newly promoted teams – Pescara, Torino and Sampdoria, each of them are undergoing changes significant enough to alter their immediate and long-term future. It is a sign of times. The league has lost its position of European pre-eminence, given how 2012-13 marks the first ever season that Serie A will send only three teams to the Champions League, with the third of them, only eligible for the qualification rounds. There are signs that a revolution has been set in. For a league which has been rocked and shocked by too many scandals, high-profile transfers out and random stunts by presidents and managers, it is but inevitable. Whether the season of change will ultimately lead to a new launching pad is of course a story we will keep evaluating throughout the year at Goalden Times.

(in alphabetical order)

Atalanta

2011-12 performance: Performed very creditably to finish on 46 points and 12th in the table. But for a six-point penalty imposed before the season, they could have even vied for European spots.

Transfer Market: Acquiring German Denis, who scored 16 goals last season on loan, was a no brainer. But it is the transfer of the talented Luca Cigarini, who is yet to live up to his evident potential that makes it a promising transfer window . Cigarini is one of those failed starlets of Italian football and a stint outside Serie A hasn’t helped either. Maybe Atalanta will provide that platform and with Denis upfront, will work in tandem to light up the Nerazzurri.

Average Age: 27.6 years

Manager: Stefano Colantuono is in his third season with Atalanta, having secured their promotion from Serie B and then a splendid finish last year. The 49-year-old, who favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, has a 43.75% win record and has managed his team to score over 100 league goals in the last two seasons.
Star: German Denis. With 16 goals last term, he was in the race for the capocannoniere. With Cigarini to pull the strings and provide assists, Denis can potentially reach or improve on that figure.
Watch Out For: Andrea Consigli has been a youth product of Atalanta and at 25, had earned his maiden Azzurri call-up against England in a friendly. With search for “Who Next” after Gianluigi Buffon, Consigli, who had twelve clean sheets in 35 matches last season, is a creditable contender.
Expectation: Like last year, Atalanta would again start off with points penalty. But only two this time round. They would expect a safe middle of the table position. But it all will depend if Denis can reprise his form of last year. With several mid-table teams weakening, it may not be such a bold statement to say that Atalanta will improve on their 12th position.
Prediction: Safe middle of the table
Bologna
2011-12 performance: Performed incredibly to finish in the top 10 teams. But for a stalling in form once they had reached the magical 40-point mark, historically a sign of top level safety, Bologna could well have finished with a European place. The architect of that performance was club captain and legend, Marco di Vaio with 10 goals and seven assists. They conceded only 43 goals which is the least conceded outside the top three.
Transfer Market: Di Vaio didn’t renew his contract and left for the MLS. His departure at 36 years of age was expected. What was unexpected was Bologna selling off Jean-François Gillet, the very dependable Belgian goalkeeper, to newly promoted Torino. The 33-year old custodian made his second move in as many years after being with Bari for over 11 years. And quotes like “I have no reason to find a new club, I’m very happy at Bologna and I do not see really why I should leave this city“, days before his transfer meant that Bologna really didn’t try hard enough to retain his services. Securing services of Gianluca Curci from Roma and Robert Acquafresca from Genoa will help somewhat in replacing Gillet and di Vaio, but the gulf in quality will tell.
Average Age: 25.6 years
Manager: Stefano Pioli was at the helm last year when Bologna went on that stupendous run. He remains in charge for another year. His preferred formation is 3-1-4-2. His Bologna side had a solid look with 39 goals scored and 33 conceded over the season.
Star: Alessandro Diamanti is the creative lynchpin of Bologna. Left-footed and mercurial, he has recently been regularly called up for the national team. He was influential last season with seven goals and assists apiece.
Watch Out For: Federico Rodriquez. He joined Bologna from Penarol via Genoa and a member of Uruguay’s team in the 2011 U20 World Cup, Rodriquez has the quality to shine through.
Expectation: Matching the previous season would be a humongous task. A more realistic option would be to secure mid-table safety.
Prediction: Safe middle of the table
Cagliari

2011-12 performance: They started the season well and were in the top 10 till the 23rd round but losses in the last rounds ended up being 15th with just goal difference to put them over Palermo.

Transfer Market: Cagliari’s biggest transfer move was the players that they managed to retain – Davide Astori, Radja Nainggolan and Andrea Cossu. Capture of Chilean forward Mauricio Pinilla from Palermo is the only high profile capture.

Average Age: 25.8 years

Manager: Massimo Ficcadenti was appointed as the Cagliari manager last season and then sacked within three months of the season only to be reappointed in March 2012. It is to be seen if the manager who prefers 4-3-1-2, can stay all season.

Star: Davide Astori. Growing up in the Milan youth system, he would have studied some of the best defenders of all time. At 25, and with Azzurri colours a reality, he was expected to move on but he himself rejected a €15m move to Russian side Zenit. Whether he can continue his impressive displays to convince Cesare Prandelli to make him a permanent fixture in the national team is to be seen.

Watch Out For: Vincenzo Camilleri is a 20-year old highly-rated defender. Having played in Serie B for a season, Camilleri has shown promise that he might be the next big Azzurri hope. Strong in the air and firm on the tackle, he still lacks a bit of composure, and exposure at Serie A will help him fulfil his promise.

Expectation: With a largely unchanged squad, the expectation is that Ficcadenti would be able to mould them in a way that they can go for mid-table safety. Last season’s experience shows that they tend to fall off the perch quite easily and if things start going pear-shaped then there is noone who could stop the rot.

Prediction: Barely escape relegation

Catania

2011-12 performance: Catania were one of the stories of the season especially under the managerial command of Vincenzo Montella. They finished 11th overall but were within European spots till the 30th round.

Transfer Market: They sold off Maxi Lopez, who was already on loan at Milan for the last six months of the season. They managed to retain the rest of the team, including deep-lying midfielder Francesco Lodi, who Milan had wanted as a possible return to (Andrea) Pirlo-like formation.

Average Age: 26.2 years

Manager: Catania wanted to retain the services of the hugely impressive Montella but saw him joining Sampdoria. So they punted for Rolando Maran – a 49-year old journeyman manager who has never managed in Serie A and whose only claim to fame has been taking Varese to the Serie B play-off last season. With his first time in Serie A, he would remain a prime candidate to be the first managerial casualty of the season.

Star: Francesco Lodi was one of the big success stories of the season, so much so that there was a real push for him to be included in the Euro squad of Prandelli as a vice-Pirlo. He scored nine goals and created seven in the league. Left-footed and brilliant in free kicks, he is a rare commodity in the Italian football. When Milan came calling in summer, he rejected showing rare loyalty – “Catania had given me a chance from obscurity and I am grateful to them. I would not leave them for any club.”

Watch Out For: Growing up in the famed Cantera of Atletico Madrid and debuting for them at 17 years 8 months, Sergio Gontán Gallardo or Keko, was thought to be a prodigy. But the potential has not been fulfilled and he has joined Catania as a free transfer. In a league not known to blood youngsters, Keko would have to work hard to gain favour.

Expectation: Gain mid-table safety and push for a top ten finish. But if things go pear shaped, don’t expect the club to be patient. Maran would be the odds-on manager to be sacked.

Prediction: Middle of the table safety

Chievo

2011-12 performance: The Flying Donkeys have defied many conventions over the season. In 2011-12, they provided a solid defence and enough attacking acumen to finish 10th. It was a remarkable position for a club with meagre budget. Credit for that would go to a mean defence that conceded only 45 goals – the seventh best in the league.

Transfer Market: They lost two of their best performers in Francesco Acerbi to Milan and Michael Bradley to Roma. Both made richly deserved jumps, but their replacements are not quite their level. Dario Dainelli is a 33-year-old who was a backup defender at Fiorentina while Paul Papp is an untried 22-year-old from Romanian side FC Vaslui. Getting Marco Rigoni from relegated Novara was a smart piece of business. Rigoni scored 11 goals with eight assists for the relegated team last season.

Average Age: 28.8 years

Manager: Dominico di Carlo continues from his previous year and hopes to repeat the performance of last year. In charge of Chievo for the second time (he earlier had coached them for two seasons from August 2010), di Carlo favours a tight defence with swift counters. His favourite formation is 4-3-1-2.

Star: It’s very hard to identify a star when a team collectively punches way above its weight but keeper Stefano Sorrentino is probably the closest you will get to one. Playing for Chievo, his last three seasons, has had 10, 12 and 13 clean sheets in the league. As that number is increasing over the seasons, one can expect another solid shot-stopping season under the bar. At 33, he may have passed the age for playing for Italy, but he remains one of the most consistent performers in the league.

Watch Out For: Alberto Paloschi. A dream debut for Milan and subsequent growth at Parma meant a lot was expected of him when he joined Chievo on loan. However, injuries have curtailed his performances. At 22, he should still count age on his side and with parent club Milan undergoing a revolution, a bright season at Chievo should see him called back pronto to lead the Rossoneri.

Expectation: As always, you expect Chievo to punch above their weight and avoid relegation. Their team ethic is superb and that is what has allowed them to do it year after year.

Prediction: Escape relegation and mid-table

Fiorentina

2011-12 performance: Fiorentina had a wretched season marred by the sacking of two managers – Sinisa Mihajlovic, midway through and his replacement Delio Rossi later in the season. The lead striker, Alberto Gilardino was sold off and the team finished a lowly 13th. This from a team that was playing Champions League regularly and beating the likes of Liverpool home and away to qualify for the knockout rounds – last season was a huge letdown. Though they did manage to keep their influence in the deciding title by beating Milan 2-1 at home – their first loss of the season at home, which ultimately put Juventus ahead of Milan for the last decisive phase of the league.

Transfer Market: Director of Sport Daniele Prade and the owners Della Valle family have ensured that Fiorentina buy reinforcements throughout the squad. Prominent buys include Juan Cuadrado from Udinese, Mounir El Hamdaoui from Ajax, Gonzalo Rodriguez from Villareal and a trio of playmakers – Alberto Aquilani from Liverpool, Borja Valero from Villareal and Matias Fernandez from Sporting. It is a makeover that was long needed. Add in the fact that they have retained some of the best young talents like Stevan Jovetic, Adem Ljajic and Michele Camporese and you see that this team is ready to challenge for European spots again.

Average Age: 25.3 years

Manager: Vincenzo Montella was one of the managers last season – winning hearts with his attacking displays with Catania and taking them to a strong finish. Prade managed to lure him from Catania and give him a project. If Montella manages to do justice to this project, he would surely install himself as one of the favourites for the national team job once Prandelli’s tenure is up.

Star: Stevan Jovetic, at 22 has already been a subject of €50m bid from Manchester City. Bought for €8m in 2008, he has suffered cruciate ligament rupture in 2010 which set him back a long way. In 2011-12, in 27 matches he scored 14 times with six assists. At 22 years, his stock can only rise and this may be a season where he takes Fiorentina back to European spots.

Watch Out For: Matija Nastasic was the other Fiorentina player whom Man City wanted as part of that €50m bid. At 19, he is already a full Serbian national and a centre-back with immense promise. He played 24 matches last season and scored twice. For an 18-year old defender to break into a Serie A team and have his own spot is no mean feat.

Expectation: With influential signings all around the park, and the managerial acumen of Montella, Fiorentina would hope for a European spot finish. Some of the outstation talents like Valero and Fernandez may take time to settle in Serie A but if the strong youth can rally along with old pros like Juan Manuel Vargas, Fiorentina can even go into the top three and a Champions League spot.

Prediction: Finish in Europa League spots

Genoa

2011-12 performance: Genoa had a horrible 2011-12. From the 31st round onwards, they were 17th in the league and stayed in that position (by a gap of six points) till the end. For a club with high investment in terms of players, it was a catastrophic season. And even that last spot of the league survival wouldn’t have been possible if not for the 19 goals from Rodrigo Palacio. That they conceded a league high of 69 goals was much responsible for the plight.

Transfer Market: Genoa is a study on its own. The number of players that pass through the oldest football club in Italy is quite amazing. It’s as if every transfer season they change their entire team. With a disastrous season, Genoa, quite justifiably could plan for a reboot. So out went Palacio, the top-scorer, Miguel Veloso was shipped to Kiev and keeper Eduardo dumped in the Turkish league. A lot of Genoa-owned players were sold off too – Mattia Destro being the most prominent name. Destro, co-owned by Siena and Genoa was sold to Roma for €11.5m.  None of the incoming players are prominent names – promising midfielders Alex Merkel and Andrea Bertolacci were brought from Milan and Roma in exchange of Stephan el Shaarawy and Destro, respectively. Julian Velazquez is the big defensive signing from Independiente, Argentina.

Average Age: 25.5 years

Manager: The story of Genoa’s managerial merry-go-round can best be described thus: Davide Ballardini (pre-season) -> Alberto Malesani (December 2011) -> Pasquale Marino (April 2) -> Alberto Malesani (April 22). Luigi De Canio was given the reins on April 22 and so far, he still has a hold on that position. But with as fickle a President as Enrico Preziosi, De Canio would do very well to cover a year in that position. De Canio is an experienced manager who has even managed QPR for a year. Playing an aggressive 4-3-3, De Canio has managed Udinese, Reggina, Siena and Lecce in Serie A.

Star: Alberto Gilardino has been the ‘nearly’ man of Italian football. His rise at Parma and then move to Milan and a Champions League win with Milan along with the World Cup win with the Azzurri couldn’t mask the fact that he is not cut out for the constant pressure from the fans in a big team. A move to Fiorentina and he seemed to thrive again, till the Viola fell on hard times themselves and then sold him to Genoa. The misfortunes though went with him. Now a senior, he has to find it in himself if he can lead a new look Genoa to redemption.

Watch Out For: Ciro Immobile is the next big hope of Juventus fans. On loan at Genoa, he might find his first season at Serie A a daunting one. The 22-year old €1.85m striker though has been banging goals in Serie B for fun. Last season at Pescara, he scored 28 goals and created 7 in only thirty-seven matches. If he can score half that amount, he would be playing in front of his beloved Juventini fans the next season.

Expectation: Every year, Genoa promise much while delivering little. The 17th spot was the nadir of the lot. Anything worse would mean relegation. With the quality at his disposal, Genoa should be comfortably finishing in the top three. But a slip like last season is quite possible again.

Prediction: Middle of the table safety

Internazionale

2011-12 performance: Inter self-destructed in spectacular manner all season. First they hired a manager (Gian Piero Gasperini) who only plays with three at the back. Then when he asked for specific players, they were not given to him and he was the first manager sacked in the season after only five games. In came the Roman – Claudio Ranieri and in his own way he had taken Inter to the top four but then from January end to March in 10 matches, they won one, managed to score in three and lost six matches. That they finished in European spots was made possible by a topsy-turvy win in the derby which ensured Juventus would be the champions. Missing out on the Champions League was a huge setback.

Transfer Market: For much of the season, Inter’s mercato was dominated by how they were unsuccessful in offloading some of the high-earning old players – like Julio Ceser, Maicon, Dejan Stankovic, etc. But the reinforcements have been shrewd and throughout the ranks. Samir Handanovic has been the best shot-stopper in Serie A for quite some time. Rodrigo Palacio scored 19 goals last season for Genoa. Matias Silvestre is an improvement on the 35-year old Lucio who was offloaded to Juventus for free. Fredy Guarin of Porto and Gaby Mudingayi of Bologna provide some midfield steel. The last minute exchange of Cassano for Pazzini also favours the Serpenti. With a little bit of luck they would really push Juventus for the Serie A title.

Average Age: 26.8 years

Manager: Ranieri had gone when that severe drought streak had hit and in came Andrea Stramaccioni, the U19 manager. President Massimo Moratti has kept faith in the 36-year old manager whose biggest claim to fame is winning the 2011–12 NextGen series with Inter Primavera team. But the young manager did win five of the nine matches he was in charge of Inter after Ranieri’s sacking and that included the most important derby win. Stramaccioni favours a 4-3-3 offensive formation and it is to be seen if he can be the first manager to succeed in dismantling the strong Mourinho hangover that Inter still suffer from.

Star: Despite differences in opinion which once had almost led to him being sold to Manchester United, Wesley Sneijder remains the heart and soul of Inter. If he is on song, then Inter will soar. Plagued by injuries throughout last season, he only managed 4 goals and five assists. No wonder that Inter had such a misfiring season. With reinforcements of calibre around him, Sneijder could reclaim the title of being the best trequartista in the peninsula.

Watch Out For: Coutinho was bought as a 17-year-old and left at his club Vasco da Gama to mature. When he finally arrived at Inter, he couldn’t really enthral the audience who expected him to be Inter’s answer to Milan’s Pato. After a season long loan at Espanyol, who at least guaranteed him a starting spot, Coutinho is back at Inter for a second stint. And at 20, this might be his last chance yet to impress or else be shipped out again.

Expectation: After a season spent outside Champions League football, Inter are focussed on an assault at the scudetto. The team has been rebuilt with care and the personnel are probably just right to achieve that goal.

Prediction: Finish within top three

Juventus

2011-12 performance: Juventus last lost a Serie A match back on May 15, 2011 to Parma. They again face Parma in the league opener of 2012-13. In between, they have not lost a single game. The feat of winning a scudetto without losing has only been achieved once – by Milan in 91-92 but then the league wasn’t 20-team strong. Hence the Bianconeri can be rightfully proud of their achievement. That they managed it with their top-scorer not even hitting 10 goals is a testament of the spirit with which the whole team combined. Heroes came up when they were required. The defence had superheroes though – conceding only 20 goals, an all-time low in a 20 team Serie A competition.

Transfer Market: Juventus have bought their players early and have bought well. Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla of Udinese are two priceless signings for the midfield while bringing back Sebastian Giovinco can be seen as a return of the prodigal son. Martin Caceres was bought after his loan spell of last season and Paul Pogba and Lucio came on free transfers to show that the club was aware of players on either end of the age spectrum, who were having problems in their existing clubs. They have also managed to offload the unwanted extra players like Elijero Elia, Milos Krasic and Felipe Melo. Returning to Champions League after a hiatus of two seasons, Juventus have bought well and sold off to free wages and look primed for another scudetto.

Average Age: 27.1 years

Manager: Antonio Conte won the scudetto in his first time at Juventus but he has been involved in the calcioscommesse scandal for some of his games in charge of Siena. He has been handed a 10-month touchline ban, which would not debar him from coaching the squad in general. Juventus have stood behind Conte in his appeal to the court and have promoted Conte’s assistant, Massimo Carrera as the caretaker manager. Pending the court’s appeal process, Conte would only remain a figure in the background but Carrera, who has won the Italian Super Cup and the Trofeo Berlusconi (the winners of which have never gone on to win the scudetto) can legitimately claim that Juventus won’t miss Conte much.

Star: Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo remain the lynchpins of this Juventus. While Buffon led the moststingy defence of the season, Pirlo revived his career to notch up a league-high 13 assists. Both had a wonderful Euro 2012 where Italy reached the finals. But with Juventus returning to Champions League, they would require to be at the top of their game for the season, if Juventus are to fight on equal footing in three different trophies.

Watch Out For: Paul Pogba. He is a highly-rated youngster who Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t really want to release. But promise of more first-team, brought him to Juventus and in his first outing in the Trofeo Berlusconi, he looked quite assured and comfortable. His technique is well suited for Serie A but it is going to be a test of his temperament, if he can withstand the sharp examination of the Italian league.

Expectation: A repeat scudetto and at least a quarter-final in the Champions League. But they could be found out in the Champions League especially as they will not be seeded there and hence will face a tough group.

Prediction: Would finish in the top three

Lazio

2011-12 performance: Lazio was one of the over-performing sides of the league last year. Their incredible run had ensured that they were in top three for most of the season but in the end finished fourth, pipped to the final Champions League spot by Udinese. It was a revival for the Biancocelesti after a long time. Their revival was marked as much by the performances of free signing Miroslav Klose and Brazilian Hernanes, as it was by the wily tactician Edy Reja. But sections of the fans were unhappy with some of the displays and Reja threatened to quit in March, only to stay along till the end of the season before leaving.

Transfer Market: Till date, Lazio has not spent a penny in the transfer market officially. Players have come on or returned from loan, or have been captured for free. Similarly they haven’t sold anyone. It’s a neat equation altogether. President Claudio Lotito believes in the squad and has added only zero cost players. Prominent among those returning include Mauro Zarate (on loan at Inter from Lazio), Ederson Campos(on a free transfer from Lyon), Antonio Candreva (on loan from Udinese) and Argentine goalkeeper, Juan Carizzo (onloan from Lazio at Catania).

Average Age: 28.7 years

Manager: Vladimir Petkovic is one of only two foreigners managing in Serie A this season (incidentally the other foreign-born manager is his Roma rival Zdenak Zeman). Petkovic is a Croatian who took Swiss nationality and managed exclusively in the Swiss league with a solitary abortive stint in Turkey. At 49, he is a big gamble by Lotito and Petkovic is another manager who could well be the first to be sacked in the season, given the expectations.

Star: Hernanes is in the third season at Lazio and has been the biggest influence in the recent upsurge of Lazio fortunes. With eight goals he was the second highest goal scorer behind Miroslav Klose who hit thirteen. He is the biggest draw in a side which looks underwhelming but has been producing results in the last couple of years domestically.

Watch Out For: Since his transfer to Lyon in 2008 as a 22-year-old, Ederson has flattered to deceive. Four years and many injuries later, he has finally sought a new destination. At Lazio, he will not be under much scrutiny that was present at Lyon because Lazio captured him for free. That, coupled with the presence of Hernanes, might give him the confidence to shine in Europe.

Expectation: Lazio are expected to break into the Champions League spots that they missed so narrowly (and also because Italy lost the fourth spot in Champions League). However, with no significant reinforcement and a new manager, it may actually turn out very differently.

Prediction: Finish just outside European spots

Milan

2011-12 performance: It was a season of so near yet so far. The injuries piled up one after another and at one time there were 13 players (all of whom would have featured if fit) who were out and despite the team rallying long and hard on three different fronts (rivals Juventus only were fighting domestically), they ended up short on each of those fronts. Still a runner-up by four points after the closest scudetto run in years, a semi-final loss in extra time in Coppa Italia and a quarter-final exit to Barcelona did not mean the end of the world. That happened at the end of the season. With a generation of players leaving simultaneously, it was suddenly a Milan that fans couldn’t recognize anymore. But worse was to follow in the summer.

Transfer Market: The transfer market of Milan has been so skewed that they are the team with the biggest transfer surplus in Europe this season – close to €60m. The sale of top-scorer of the league, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (28 goals), and probably the best defender in the world, Thiago Silva meant that suddenly the team had lost its backbone as well as its true superstars upfront. Both the sales were due to economic consideration. In the last season before FFP came in, Milan wanted to balance the books. The tax laws in Italy had meant Zlatan’s €12m annual wages to be a herculean amount. PSG, while negotiating Ibra, put in a value of Thiago Silva which was a world record for a defender and Milan simply couldn’t say no in its economic condition. Worse was to follow when Antonio Cassano was sold to Inter in exchange with Gianpaolo Pazzini and Milan also agreed to pay Inter €7.5m over three years. It was a transfer that defied logic for the reason that Milan was paying the money to get a bench player while handing over a starter who had easily topped the assists charts of the Rossoneri last season despite being away for over six months due to an ischemic heart condition. The defence has been bolstered by Francesco Acerbi, whose total Serie A experience is of six months and Cristian Zapata, who has spent a miserable year at Villareal, who were relegated. There is a clear need for a left-back, an anchor in the midfield and a creative midfielder. It is to be seen if the Milan Director of Sport Adriano Galliani can unearth a few gems in the last few days of the transfer season.

Average Age: 27 years

Manager: With Conte getting banned for 10 months, Massimiliano Allegri starts the second consecutive season as the only manager to have won the scudetto among his peers in Serie A. It is his third year at the helm of the club and is probably his hardest. At Cagliari, where he made his name before switching to the San Siro, the manager thrived with a team that punched above its weight. He may have to go back to those lessons, given how lightweight the team has become after the mercato. If he manages to drag Milan into a title fight and finish within at least the top three, then it will be a huge achievement for his managerial career.

Star: Alex Pato is 22 and is only the second player ever to have scored over fifty goals in under 100 Serie A matches. Yet he has been bugged by injuries throughout the season and barely featured in Allegri’s plans. His tactical immaturity and passing incompetence has led to many fans asking him to be sold. Indeed in January 2012, PSG came up with a €36m  bid for Pato and despite the club agreeing to the deal, Pato himself put the brakes on it and chose to stay back. It was a rare show of loyalty and now with the sale of Ibra, with whom it was felt Pato was being stunted, the only way is up. The club and Pato both need each other in this most difficult of seasons.

Watch Out For: Mattia de Sciglio is 19, has come up through the ranks of Milan youth and is probably the best defensive full-back Milan has produced from its youth sector since the times of Francesco Coco and Cristian Panucci. He is the designated understudy at right-back to Ignazio Abate (now an Azzurri regular) but can also fit in at left-back despite being a right-footed player. It reminds most Milanisti of another legendary and much more illustrious left-back, probably the best left-back of all time, who was also a right-footed player and came through the youth ranks of Milanello – Paolo Maldini. If de Sciglio has even half that impact, in his Milan career, then he would become the face of Milan for the rest of the decade.

Expectation: The expectations are pretty low among the fans and many have asked for a refund of the season tickets. For a club as illustrious and well decorated as Milan, those that have asked for such refunds may as well look elsewhere to get their calcio fill. The big names have left and so have the creative ones. But the ones who are staying are a hardworking bunch. Allegri knows how to make a team punch above its weight.

Prediction: Finish outside top three

Napoli

2011-12 performance: Napoli underwent a reality check this season. Qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history, they had a run which they can be justly proud of. But for some spirited Chelsea at home, they would have easily qualified for a richly deserved quarter-final against Benfica. Who knows what they could have achieved there. But the strain of that success had its effect on the Serie A performance. The team which ran Milan close in 2010-11, never came within the top two teams after the third round. Their eventual fifth position denied them Champions League football but the quality of the side came through when they beat Juventus (their only defeat of the season) in the Coppa Italia final.

Transfer Market: The sale of Ezequiel Lavezzi was a big blow. But PSG offered €26m for him and that was that. The good thing was that Napoli managed to reinvest that money into the transfer kitty by buying Eduardo Vargas from Chile (already on loan last season), Goran Pandev (already on loan from Inter), Valon Behrami and Alessandro Gamberini from Fiorentina.

Average Age: 29 years

Manager: Walter Mazzarri is the oldest serving manager in Serie A, having been in charge of Napoli since 2009-10. The manager who employs the 3-1-4-2 formation has slowly but steadily made the Partenopei a force to reckon with again since the heady days of Diego. With the loss of Lavezzi, one of the three tenors, Mazzarri has to either reinvent the tactical structure or find a player who can fill in for him. Some would say that Napoli under him has probably had their moments and there can’t be any higher peaks to climb. However, a scudetto push is not beyond this bunch and Mazzarri will have to reignite those desires among new players.

Star: There has never been a striker at Napoli since Careca (if you don’t call Diego a striker, that is), who could strike fear into the hearts of defenders, like Edinson Cavani does. Strong, lithe, tactically superb, hardworking, good with head and long rangers, Cavani is probably the strongest striker in the league. In two seasons at Napoli, he has hit 67 goals and eighteen assists in his 96 games. That included 5 goals and two assists in 8 Champions League games. At only 25, his best days are ahead and Napoli’s ambitions of a scudetto are oriented around his form.

Watch Out For: Lorenzo Insigne is probably the best young thing to come up through Napoli youth ranks. Last season at Pescara in Serie B (on loan), he scored 18 goals and fourteen assists in 37 matches. It is not since Gianfranco Zola, that Napoli have a homegrown boy who can lead the line. Insigne is short, speedy and plays on the left wing – provoking further memories and comparisons. But he is not Gianfranco Zola – at least not yet. And at 21, with the sale of Lavezzi, it is a big chance for him to seize this moment and establish himself in the eyes of the fans.

Expectation: A strong scudetto finish and a finish within the top three. The quality is evident right through the side but last season showed that Cavani’s brilliance alone is not enough to pull Napoli into Champions League. With Lavezzi leaving, there will be even more a need for quality. And even though there isn’t the strain of a Champions League, Napoli would like to defend their Coppa Italia and also have a decent run in the Europa League.

Prediction: Just finish outside top three

Palermo

2011-12 performance: Palermo is a team where the President is renowned for hiring and firing managers and for the team to defy convention and perform despite selling out of stars. Last season Palermo sacked three managers and two of them were even before the season had started. Bertolo Mutti, who finished the season, was sacked soon after. The team too struggled and barely avoided relegation, finishing 16th even though they were 10th in the league as late as the 32nd round. That run was possible because of Fabrizio Miccoli having a season to remember – 16 goals and twelve assists. But he fought a lonely battle – being responsible for 28 of the 52 goals that Palermo scored. They also conceded 62 goals – the second highest in the league and with such a porous defence, it was lucky that they managed to stay alive.

Transfer Market: Like last two seasons, they have sold off a long time first-team regular this season. After Cavani and Nocerino, it is Federico Balzaretti to Roma. They have also sold Matias Silvestre to Inter and Mauricio Pinilla to Cagliari. The reinforcements are all unknowns – 18-year old Uruguayan forward Sebastian Sosa, 18-year old Argentine forward Paulo Dybala and 30-year old Uruguayan Egidio Arevalo playing in the Mexican league. Goalkeeper Samir Ujkani is a good capture from relegated Novara.

Average Age: 25.9 years

Manager: Managing Palermo means keeping your biodata on the ready because you never know when you will be sacked and you need to find a new job. 55-year old Giuseppe Sannino is in his first stint at Palermo and having led a Siena side, which many thought would get relegated to a mid-table safety last season, is thought to be ideal for this Palermo side. The decline in the quality is very apparent and it will take all of Sannino’s managerial guile (provided he stays on the right side of President Maurizio Zamparini) to keep Palermo above relegation.

Star: At 33, his best days are thought to be behind him. But pint-sized Fabrizio Miccoli had a stellar season responsible for 28 goals of the 52 that Palermo scored last season. Such a performance may not be repeatable again but it is on his shoulder that Palermo’s hopes of remaining in Serie A depend.

Watch Out For: Josip Ilicic sparkled in his debut season in Serie A two seasons back scoring eight and creating eight more. Last season was the inevitable second season blip – only two goals and six assists. Now having spent two seasons, he has grown as an attacking midfielder and a lot will depend on his creative prowess on how potent the Palermo attack is.

Expectation: Finish middle of the table with comfort. Though Zamparini’s mood and Miccoli’s fitness will play major roles. The team is light on quality and a defence that leaks goals (with no major reinforcements) should be cannon fodder for the more proficient attacks.

Prediction: Relegated

Parma

2011-12 performance: Parma provided an astonishing late surge in the table last season. From being 17th and just above the relegation zone after the 29th round, they improved to eighth (Roma finished seventh on goal difference) and just two points behind sixth placed Inter. Such a meteoric rise was as much due to Roberto Donadoni’s managerial acumen as it was due to the performance of Sebastian Giovinco; 15 goals and eleven assists – responsible for 26 goals out of the 54 Parma scored. Parma also had a solid defence and finished with a positive goal difference, something that no other team below them managed.

Transfer Market: Parma thrives on developing low cost players on loan and co-ownership and then selling big once those players have risen in value. Giovinco is the latest such name, with Parma cashing in on 50% of the players for €11m. Low cost acquisitions include Marco Parolo and Sotiris Ninis on a free transfer and the costliest acquisition is €4m spent on Colombian forward Dorlan Pabon. With very few days of the transfer season remaining, Parma will probably loan in more promising players and get their team to a position of strength.

Average Age: 26.6 years

Manager: Roberto Donadoni is a Milan and Azzurri legend and a former Azzurri manager. But his worth as a manager has always been questioned with the idea that he became the Azzurri top spot more by default (with other contenders like Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello unavailable when Marcello Lippi resigned). He had been sacked at Napoli and Cagliari after his Italy adventure and the Parma stint was as much a challenge on his managerial acumen as anything. He struggled throughout the season but then that fantastic sprint for European spots at the fag end showed his capability. The new season should see him in the same role of trying to lift a bunch of talented youngsters to a respectable league position.

Star: Antonio Mirante has long been on the cusp of national selection without ever breaking into the fold. But he is a solid if unspectacular keeper and managed to keep seven clean sheets in the previous league season.

Watch Out For: Sotiris Ninis has long been called a wonder kid and his FIFA profile claims he “possesses a dizzying range of skills to go with sublime vision, an electrifying change of pace and fearsome long-range shooting skills“. So far though, that has not earned him a move out of his first senior club, Panathinaikos. Now at Parma, he has the perfect opportunity to hone the tactical and mental side of his game to go along with the skills that he possesses.

Expectation: Fight bravely and finish middle of the table. They have lost their brightest jewel in Giovinco but make no mistake, Parma will make a lot of bigger teams pay through their nose.

Prediction: Fight bravely and avoid relegation

Pescara

2011-12 performance: Pescara gained promotion as the champions of Serie B. It was only the sixth time that they would play in Serie A. Of the five previous seasons, only once have they been able to avoid immediate relegation back to Serie B. Pescara though absolutely rampaged Serie B last season scoring 90 goals in forty-two matches. They also conceded 55 goals (only two other teams in the top 10 of Serie B conceded more) showing that they believed in attacking and letting the rest to chance. This is the typical essence of the man who managed them – Zdenak Zeman, whose legendary attacking intent has often led to spectacular wins and defeats. This time though he had Ciro Immobile scoring 28 goals, Lorenzo Insigne scoring 18 and Marco Sansovini scoring 16. From the midfield, Marco Verratti orchestrated games providing nine assists.

Transfer Market: Pescara lost their top three goalscorers, top assist man as well as their iconic manager in the summer. The most high-profile signing has been Vladimir Weiss from Man City for €1.8m. All the other signings are not at all known even in the leagues from which they have come.

Average Age: 24.2 years

Manager: Giovanni Stroppa was once in charge of the Milan Primavera team – till 2010-11 season. Last season he managed Sudtirol in the lower divisions of Italy. After losing Zeman, Pescara have turned to him as manager. The 44-year old Stroppa’s net experience of managing a senior team is exactly one year and it would be a tall task for him to make sure Pescara avoid the immediate drop-back to Serie B.

Star: Jonathas is a 23-year old Brazilian forward. Tall at 1.90m, he scored 16 times with seven assists for Brescia in Serie B last season. He is expected to be the lynchpin of the attack in the coming season. With Weiss in the team, Jonathas can expect good service from the wings and if he manages even half those numbers, he would have gone a long way in saving Pescara.

Watch Out For: Mattia Perin is 19, and is owned by Genoa. But was loaned out to Padova in Serie B last year and performed commendably. It is expected that he would be the goalkeeper for Pescara this season, in which case he would be the youngest custodian of any teams starting this season.

Expectation: Fight bravely against relegation. But with en masse departures of the figures who led Pescara to their promotion departing in the summer, it seems a lost cause already. With an unproven manager at helm, it would be nigh impossible to avoid the last position.

Prediction: Relegated

Roma

2011-12 performance: Roma started last season in a new model – the Barcelona model. They bought young players from round the globe, including loaning Bojan from Barcelona. The manager was Barcelona youth team manager – Luis Enrique. The formation he played was the 4-3-3 of Barcelona. But the on-field results were not remotely Barcelona-like. Roma never reached higher than fifth (twice) and finished just outside the European spots – two points behind Inter. One of the new signings, Miralem Pjanic made seven assists. But no one else made any significant impression. But with virtually a new team under a new management and new manager, it was expected there will be growing up pains. The supporters have been mature enough to handle that. Enrique left after a season but Roma’s project has taken a turn for the extreme with maverick manager Zdenak Zeman in charge. One can only stay hopeful that the youthful Romans will get their due.

Transfer Market: Roma has had probably the most impressive mercato behind Juventus. They sold off the very impressive Fabio Borini to Liverpool but bought intelligently – young Italian striker Mattia Destro, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, who shone for Greece in the Euros, Brazilians Leandro Castan, Marquinho and Marquinhos. But the two transfers which really shone through were the acquisitions of Michael Bradley, after an exceptional season at Chievo and Federico Balzaretti, who is the starting Azzurri left-back.

Average Age: 25.6 years

Manager: Zdenak Zeman is the most controversial manager in Serie A – probably of all time. He has been managing in Italy since the start of the 80s and is in his second stint at Roma, the earlier one having ended after being in charge for two years. Whatever one may say about the man, he ensures goals for his team. His Pescara scored 90 goals last season in forty-two matches. His Foggia scored 67 in thirty-four matches. He is also a noted advocate of youth and Roma has probably found the perfect man to lead their still-born project in Zeman.

Star: A €30m bid is made by Man City, who promise to double your wages and your team is not one of the winningest clubs in Europe. You decide to reject the bid. That is Daniele de Rossi. The one-club men are few and far and when you play for a less fashionable club like Roma, it should be all the more creditable. With Francesco Totti entering the last part of his career, de Rossi would lead I Lupi soon enough. No other gesture could have proved his love for Roma than the one he took in rejecting the millions from Man City.

Watch Out For: When he was signed, Miralem Pjanic was already a familiar name in Europe, thanks to his exploits with Lyon and it was a surprise that he left Lyon for the Italian capital. In his first season, he showed his worth already topping the assist charts for Roma with nine and also scoring thrice. He is expected to flourish under Zeman more and would be entrusted with the primary creative role in the midfield.

Expectation: A scudetto would be a great result but otherwise finishing within the Champions League spots would suit Roma fine. It has to be remembered that they have completely turned around their team composition in just two years and finishing within the top three would be a vindication of the path the leadership has taken.

Prediction: Finish within top three

Sampdoria

2011-12 performance: Sampdoria spent the last season in Serie B, managed to come up at first chance but it was a laboured promotion. Sampdoria finished sixth in Serie B to claim the final spot of promotional play off. The third placed team played against sixth, and fourth against fifth over two legs. The winners of those matches then played among themselves in a a two-leg match to obtain the right to be promoted to Serie A. Sampdoria beat Sassuolo (third) 3-2 over two legs and then Varese 4-2 over two legs, to qualify. Nicola Pozzi with 15 goals was the most memorable performer of the season.

Transfer Market: Sampdoria made a few major purchases including strikers Maxi Lopez from Catania and Eder from Cesena. They also bought Renan – a defensive midfielder from Romanian side CFR Cluj. A couple of full-backs have also arrived – Lorenzo de Silvestri from Fiorentina and Andrea Costa from Reggina. Utility man Marcelo Estigarribia will be returning after spending last season on loan at Juventus.

Average Age: 25.9 years

Manager: Ciro Ferrara is a Juventus legend and has been assistant manager to Roberto Donadoni for the national team. He has also managed the Italian U21 team for the last two years. But his only stint at Serie A managership – at his beloved Juventus ended in a sacking within six months. He is seen as a promising manager and Sampdoria have given him a second chance to show his worth.

Star: Maxi Lopez was on loan at Milan in January and had a deal with Milan to make the loan permanent. However, Milan didn’t take the offer, but that decision was questioned by fans once Ibra and later Cassano were sold off. He is a proven goal scorer in the domestic league and having played for Milan and Barcelona in his career already, he needs a place where the team would be built around him. Sampdoria might just give him that option.

Watch Out For: Andrea Poli was supposed to be the next Andrea Pirlo and much was expected when he was loaned to Inter. Inter though had a horrible season and didn’t take up the option on Poli. After a season, Poli has thus returned to Sampdoria and he has to show the same level of consistency which initially provided grounds for the comparisons with Pirlo.

Expectation: To finish mid-table. Sampdoria have a decent squad and a young and resourceful manager. Their acquisitions are solid and would help them achieve their dream. They though started off with a handicap of one point, having been found guilty in the calcioscommesse trials.

Prediction: Finish middle of the table

Siena

2011-12 performance: Siena was one of the odds on teams to be relegated last season after gaining promotion and even though they spent 10 rounds stuck at 17th position, they never went below that and ultimately rallied in the second half of the season to finish 14th. The most remarkable thing of this display was a stingy defence which only conceded 45 goals in thirty-eight matches, which is the sixth best in the league. So even though they scored only 45 goals, their defensive displays allowed them to survive the drop.

Transfer Market: Siena lost top-scorer Mattia Destro to Roma but have managed to keep most of the other players. There were few reinforcements, the most notable of them being Portuguese centre-back Neto. But they did lose Serbian goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic, who was on loan from Udinese. Brkic was one of the pillars of the stingy defence that enabled Siena to maintain their hold of Serie A.

Average Age: 27.9 years

Manager: Giuseppe Sannino had crafted Siena’s stay in Serie A last season but when he left for Palermo, Serse Cosmi, a man noted for taking clubs in similar positions was appointed. Cosmi, whose last four assignments were with Lecce, Palermo, Livorno and Brescia respectively, has a tough job if he has to emulate Sannino and keep Siena afloat.

Star: This is truly a team without stars but if anyone can claim to be the lynchpin of the team it has to be Emanuele Calaio. Strong and tall, the Palermo born hitman scored 11 times in twenty-five matches and assisted twice. It was his personal best return in a season and it was required to keep Siena afloat. The 30-year-old would do well to repeat that feat, if he is to ensure Siena’s survival.

Watch Out For: Francesco Bolzoni was once a promising Inter Primavera player. But loaned out with no chance offered, he has waded from Genoa to Frosinone to Siena. At 23, it is probably just right for this central midfielder to start imposing himself in the games. Last season he played 16 matches scoring once but was instrumental in closing the defensive hatches.

Expectation: Fight bravely against relegation and punch above their weight to finish mid-table. However, the defensive solidity which was responsible for their survival could prove elusive this time with key loan players moving out. And if that was not enough, they would start with a penalty of six points and while last season Atalanta started with a similar points penalty and yet comfortably finished mid-table, it may just be beyond Siena.

Prediction: Relegated

Torino

2011-12 performance: Torino are one of the giants of Italian football but have languished in Serie B for the last three years after being the third and final team to be relegated on the last day of the season when they lost 3-2 away to Roma. They qualified for Serie A by finishing second in Serie B behind Pescara. Both Pescara and Torino had 83 points and it was two away goals that Pescara had scored at the league match at Torino that decided who finished first. Torino conceded only 28 goals in the campaign which is bettered only by cross-town rivals Juventus’ 20 goals conceded across Serie A and B. Much of that credit goes to the young defender Angelo Ogbonna who is already a steady member of the Azzurri.

Transfer Market: Keeping hold of Ogbonna was a triumph in its own.  Even though they sold off Mirko Antenucci – a man who scored 10 goals for them last season, reinforcements like Mario Santana from Napoli, Damiano Ferronetti from Udinese and Matteo Brighi from Roma have been useful. Signing the goalkeeper, Jean Francois Gillet from Bologna was another masterstroke. Belgian Gillet has been one of the most unsung goalkeepers in Serie A in last two seasons and he would add solidity to the already impressive defence of Torino.

Average Age: 25.9 years

Manager: Gianpiero Ventura was the man who was in charge of Torino last year, and he has been retained to give him a chance to continue his good work. Ventura prefers a 4-4-2 ‘double six’ formation (a formation with two holding midfielders) and his team would try and frustrate the big ones before snatching a goal here and there.

Star: Angelo Ogbonna is the one true world class player that Torino possess. Assured and calm in possession with brilliant anticipation, he has been marked out for greatness for a long time. Coming through the youth system, he has been a kind of prodigal son for Torino. So far Torino has managed to retain him despite interests from all the big clubs in the peninsula but if he manages to play to his potential in his first senior season in Serie A, then it would be tough for Torino to hold on to him.

Watch Out For: Gianluca Sansone is not a household name but it was this 25-year old diminutive left winger striker who singlehandedly accounted for 20 goals and nine assists for Sassuolo (total goals scored – 57) in Serie B last year. Sassuolo finished third, just three points off Torino and were later eliminated in the play offs by Sampdoria. Sansone will be making his Serie A debut this year and it is to be seen if he can reproduce the same form.

Expectation: Comfortably finish mid-table. With a team based on solid defence and a sound goalkeeper addition, Torino should be a mean and stingy defensive unit this season. The goal-scoring threats would be few but with the likes of Man City rejects Rolando Bianchi or Riccardo Meggiorini, Sansone can snatch vital goals here and there. They too would start with a one point penalty for calcioscommesse trials but they would be quietly confident of overcoming that deficit.

Prediction: Comfortably avoid relegation and finish middle of the table

Udinese

2011-12 performance: No praise would be enough in talking about Udinese’s campaign last season. The owners, Pozzo family have built a wonderful football franchise which is successful, plays entertaining calcio and yet remains profitable. Their scouting network is second to none and the same family owns Granada in Spanish Primera Division and Watford in English Championship. Thus with three clubs in three leagues, they are able to provide playing and developing time to a vast number of players. Like most years, they sold off some of their best players – Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler, Cristian Zapata, Simone Pepe and yet improved on their fourth place finish a year earlier to finish third and thus maintain their hold on the final Champions League spot from Serie A. Captain Antonio di Natale led the chase with 23 goals and seven assists. Pablo Armero provided a further 10 more assists and Udinese pipped Lazio to the third spot by two points.

Transfer Market: Following their tradition, Udinese sold off some of their crown jewels in Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah to Juventus, Samir Handanovic to Inter while 16-goal hitman German Denis’ loan move to Atalanta was made permanent. They brought in the hugely impressive Luis Muriel from Lecce and Zeljko Brkic from Siena – both of whom were on a loan there. Maicosuel, a 26-year old midfielder was their highest transfer in at €5.3m. Two more Brazilian midfield imports were Allan from Maldonaldo and Willians Fernandes from Flamengo. Closer home, they got Davide Faraoni from Inter and Cristian Pasquato from Juventus – two highly-rated youngsters. It was a very typical Udinese transfer window and despite selling some of their first team regulars, Udinese have the belief that they can yet again provide a strong Serie A season.

Average Age: 25 years

Manager: Francesco Guidolin has been in charge of Udinese since 2010-11 season, and in two seasons have taken Udinese to fourth and third on the league table. Natural progression would mean that they break into the top two but for that he has to ensure that his captain extraordinary – di Natale keeps producing a 20+ goal performance again. His Udinese is flexible enough to adjust to 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 as required and counter-attack at breathtaking speed is what marks his style of play.

Star: Antonio di Natale is a club icon and his records are quite incredible. In 2009-10 season he scored 29 goals and created 7 more. In 2010-11 season he had a dip and so scored 28 and created 6 more. Just to show he is mortal, in 2011-12, he only scored 23 and created 10 goals. It is a phenomenal run in any European league in the last three seasons.  If he produces another 20+ goals this year, Udinese would be assured of another top three finish.

Watch Out For: Luis Muriel is a 21-year old Colombian striker who has been burning the pace charts in Serie A. His pacy runs and finishes at such a young age have drawn comparisons with Alex Pato, and Milan were at one time interested in him. But Udinese saw him as a player who could take the role Alexis Sanchez did in his final year. They let him develop at Lecce where he scored seven goals, assisting in eight more last season and brought him back this season to be paired with Di Natale. Muriel is good with both feet and has a mean long distance shot as well. He just might be the next jewel in Udinese’ crown.

Expectation: To finish in the top three. Unlike last year, Udinese would most probably qualify for the Champions League proper, having drawn Braga of Portugal in the qualification match. Fighting on three fronts would then make it difficult for the team to attain the kind of performance required to make the top three in Serie A – like how Napoli found out last season.

Prediction: Finish in the Europa League spots

Football Italia – Why they are where they are

 Calcio is not ready for a change, yet! Gino de Blasio analyses what ails Italian football in the first of his three part series   

 Match fixing. Mercurial mad men of football. Zemanlandia.

It reads richer than a Federico Fellini script, where the main protagonists find themselves wondering “where’s the bit where I get to kiss Britt Ekland again?” But this is calcio, in its current incarnation. A diaspora of talent, a quagmire of old ideologies coming to terms with a new football reality.

Why they are where they are

 It’s too contrived to think that I have the answer to this particular dilemma, but I have some thoughts on the matter. For me, I see three things that have curtailed Italian football development and things that have got them into this mess to start with.

 Culture. Systems. Lack of investment.

All three are related, two are easier to change, but it comes down to the powers of calcio. The movers and the shakers are such that, they need to ask the question, “Do we really want it to change?

Culture

Let’s take culture. When Spain play, they are credited with their national culture for the way that tiki taka has enabled them to win so much; they have, however, had to work on this. They have had to take an introspective look and ask themselves, “What’s going to work for us?” Their style of play is to be admired; no one can deny that some of the football seen in the national game is breathtaking. However, their business side, much like their economy is in a mess. Once again, culture strikes at the heart of their problem, this is no different to the Italian game, in my opinion.

In Italy, it’s easier to get things moving, done, completed, if you know the right people, in the right places. The system of getting planning permission for stadiums isn’t a public tender issue, but a private one. Take for example, football ground ownership. It’s all public, aside from two clubs – Udinese and Juventus. Ironically, look whose books are in better order!

Once the culture of the national landscape waddles its way into the nooks and crannies of the national game, then you have to accept that, it is ultimately one of the greatest barriers to the game from ever developing into a new “super power of football”.

Take calcioscomesse, a problem that has affected the Italian game more than any other league. Is it true that all Italians are corrupt? No, they aren’t. But do Italians believe that they can get away without paying taxes, jumping queues, getting their things seen to first? Unfortunately, most do believe that, that is the way. It’s taken years to get there, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t disappear overnight.

System

Systematic changes are a different kettle of fish, but they are affected by the culture indefinitely. Ok, put it this way: FIGC, the Italian football commission is so archaic that whilst the board has changed several times over the last 20 years, the people that were there 20 years ago hold massive veto powers. That’s basically like saying, “Hold on guys, what does Mussolini think?” Granted Mussolini is dead, but if he were alive and still in parliament, his decisions would continue to sway the system.

The recent calcioscomesse issues have brought up the problem for everyone to see.

Antonio Conte was found guilty of not reporting match fixing. He has claimed since the start that he was innocent. 23 witnesses have claimed that he was innocent. One man has claimed he was guilty. Who wins? The one man, and the system goes completely against the sense of logic and fairness in the whole case.

Juventus coach Conte is escorted to Italian football federation disciplinary committee for his appeal in Rome

The reason why the system is the way it is, is actually simple. The culture hasn’t allowed for the change to occur. In a nation where people are judged upon title of study rather than what they can contribute to society, there is always going to be an endemic problem of changing something that embodies that whole spirit. Put another way, if someone likes being called doctor and enjoys the benefits of being labelled so, why would he or she change it? Simple, they most certainly wouldn’t.

Investment

And then we come to investment, or rather lack of it.

All but one club in Italy is wholly owned by a single foreign investor, AS Roma. And yet that investor has Italian heritage – Thomas DiBenedetto. When foreign leagues such as that of the Premiership have multiple foreign owners, you notice a massive difference in how the club is run.

Thomas DiBenedetto

I’m not saying that it is indeed a perfect system in the EPL. Actually, I think it’s far from perfect, you only have to look at the number of clubs which have financially failed because of such ownership, and when you compare that to the Italian league, it is a different story.

But opening the doors to foreign investment has allowed the EPL to develop grounds, to get the ball rolling, into making it a more open, friendlier and most importantly, more commercially viable option as a league. The expansion of the Premiership over the last 20 years has come about because not only are the investors interested in seeing their new ’toy’ in action, but they also see a business future somewhere down the line.

More and more pre-season tournaments happening in foreign countries are only the start; who is to say we won’t get some sort of NFLesque model where a game a season is played in America or China to help expand the reach of the Premiership? This could only happen because foreign owners see the value in it, perhaps not the fans.

What about other leagues? The German Bundesliga has the highest ownership of clubs by fans. Bayern Munich is 70% owned by the fans; they have such a rewarding system, that club ownership is seen not only as a duty to keep the books in order but to ensure stadia are looked after and fans are at the heart of key decisions.

The point to all of this is, the Italian system is not willing to open itself up to such changes, yet. But when it does, how will the Italian game cope? I think culturally, not well.

Look at Olivetti computers. In the late 80’s they were Italy’s IBM, then Hewlett Packard launched an attack for ownership, it took eight years to see them change hands, eight years! I’m pretty sure I finished high school in eight years and started college when it did eventually happen.

The Italian game needs to identify its own problems, but surely this is a good starting point for them.

In my second part, I will be looking at what the Italian game can change and how they should go about doing it, in my eyes.

First Whistle – April, 2012

At the impressionable age, when I just entered high school, the goal that left a lasting impression is what we depicted on the cover of our very first issue. We call it the ‘Locus of God’. But that’s not the only way to score a great goal. There could be a set of amazing passes leading into a goal, or a chip or a free-kick. Our revamped look from March onwards is somewhat a convex combination of such techniques; largely run solo, but ably assisted by other key players in team Goalden Times. We have received encouraging feedback on our new layout from our readers and this kind of support eggs us on to continuously improve and enrich our content.

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Moving on to the football pitch, news of Antonio Cassano, the Milan and Italy striker finally receiving a go-ahead to resume playing following  a heart surgery has been very heartening. With the collective prayer of football fans around the globe, Fabrice Ndala Muamba is getting better and Eric Abidal is progressing fine.  However, not all news has been good for the heart. We would like to take this opportunity to send our sincere best wishes to Aston Villa’s captain Stiliyan Petrov, who doctors say, has been a victim of the Chernobyl disaster. We wish him a positive outcome and speedy recovery. The game also lost a great man in Livorno midfieder Piermario Morosini who collapsed on the pitch and died of cardiac failure last week. We extend our condolences to his family and friends.

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Outside of health hazards, Carlos Tevez is back doing what he does best – showing his (hat)tricks on the football pitch. But his club, Manchester City is now 5 points behind the city rival United with five matches to go. In Italy, just 1 point separates the league leader Juventus, still unbeaten this season, and AC Milan. Borussia Dortmund seems to have a decisive 8-point lead over Bayern Munich in Bundesliga. In La Liga, Real Madrid won an El Clásico inalmost five years at the Camp Nou to almost seal the top spot. Elsewhere in Europe, Montpellier has a narrow 3-point lead over their nearest rival – the big spending Paris Saint-Germain, while Ajax is 6 points ahead of AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord Rotterdam. In India, Dempo Sporting Club has clinched the I-League title.

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Odds are of another El Clásico on May 19 in the UEFA Champions League final. There is a distinct possibility of an all-Spanish final in the UEFA Europa League as well with three Spanish clubs in the final four.

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We shall see how the Spanish national team dominates the UEFA Euro 2012 starting June 8, in Poland and Ukraine. Goalden Times will celebrate Euro and football in more ways than one. Keep watching this space, our Facebook page and Twitter.

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First Whistle – March 2012

The onset of Spring brings with it rebirth, renewal and regrowth. And so is Goalden Times reinventing itself while keeping pace with the winds of change. Well, the Armani’s, Dior’s and Saint Laurent’s may not be around to drape us with a new look, but we can redesign our outfit, alright. Hope you like our brand new attire! And don’t mind us being fashionably late…

In other news, the Ides of March brought evil tidings for clubs from England. Widely acknowledged as the most competitive league in Europe, the Premier League suffered one reverse after another, the worst being Athletic Bilbao sweeping aside the English champions Manchester United through some exceptional football. It would have lost its entire stock of clubs in Europe, but for a miraculous comeback by Chelsea in a pulsating thriller with Napoli. Having fired their manager, the old hands of Chelsea turned the clock back to produce vital performances. Elsewhere, it was a celebration of Michel Platini’s efforts to empower the clubs from outside the traditional powerhouse leagues. Apoel FC from Nicosia is a poster boy for this, reaching the Champions League quarter-finals where they will be up against the might of Real Madrid. Traditional giants AC Milan and Bayern Munich also made their presence felt. Mario Gomez was no match for Lionel Messi who slammed, slalomed, crashed, walloped and blazed five past Bayer Leverkusen. Milan against Barcelona would be the tie of the quarter-finals but having faced each other in group stages, many would have argued that UEFA needs to relook at the system.

Domestically, most leagues threw up two-horse races. Milan leads Juventus in Serie A, the Manchester clubs are separated by one point in Premier League, Borussia Dortmund have advantage over Bayern Munich in Bundesliga, Paris Saint-Germain have a slender lead over Montpellier and Porto lead over Benfica in Primeira Liga. In La Liga though, Real Madrid’s eight point lead over Barcelona seems to have already ensured another league win for Jose Mourinho.

Juventus remained the only club among the big leagues to remain unbeaten across all competitions, though having drawn more than they have won, their title hopes are dependent on Milan suffering reverses. One such ‘reverse’ for Milan was when this happened in the title clash with Juventus, leading to increasing calls for goal-line technology.

Liverpool managed to grab their first trophy in six years, winning the League Cup beating Cardiff City in tiebreaker, thus ensuring their participation in European competitions after a year’s absence.

On the other side of the globe, in India, the fourth oldest cup competition in the world (started in 1893), the IFA Shield was won by local giants East Bengal. The win is memorable for it came in the centenary year of the first ever win of the Shield by an Indian team – ironically, East Bengal’s archrivals, Mohun Bagan.

With the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and various domestic tussles in Europe, the next four weeks look promising. We shall be around to bring you all the riveting updates.

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Taking Stock – The Serie A Mid-Season Review

A seminal year for Serie A with corruption raising its head, European adventures and the return of a giant – Debopam Roy reviews the season so far in Italy

Prior to the start of the 2011-2012 Serie A season, Goalden Times had done a preview where we had looked at the prospects of each of the 20 participating teams and touched upon some of the most discussed issues of the league. With almost half the season gone (16 of the 38 rounds) and the teams in a richly deserved winter break, it is the perfect opportunity to look back at the past 5 months, and take stock.

 The European Coefficient

In our preview, we had discussed how the Italian teams needed to spruce up their act in the continental competitions. We had seen how Serie A had been overtaken by the Bundesliga after consistent performances in both the European competitions and had consigned Serie A to only three Champions League slots. The 2011-12 season is the final season of Serie A, hopefully for a short duration only, with 4 Champions League teams as next season onwards, that privilege would be taken over by Bundesliga. Indeed the total points earned in the half season too show Serie A to be off its rivals.

Country

07-08 coefficients earned

08-09 coefficients earned

09-10 coefficients earned

10-11 coefficients earned

11-12 coefficients earned

Total coefficients earned

Teams that earned it/Total teams in Europe

England

17.875

15.000

17.928

18.357

12.375

81.535

8/8

Spain

13.875

13.312

17.928

18.214

11.285

74.614

5/7

Germany

13.500

12.687

18.083

15.666

10.750

70.686

4/6

Italy

10.250

11.375

15.428

11.571

9.500

58.124

5/7

France

6.928

11.000

15.000

10.750

9.666

53.344

4/6

Table 1: Year wise European Country Coefficients

So we see that only five (Milan, Inter, Napoli, Udinese, Lazio) of the seven teams that were in Europe actually contributed. (Palermo & Roma were ousted in the first qualification match in Europa League). The net points earned for 2011-12 (9.5) is also well below the other 4 nations in the top 5. This is because either more teams earned the points (as in England’s case) or the teams that entered, finished top of their group (Spain) thus accumulating more points.

In several previous seasons, individual Serie A teams have performed brilliantly in Europe, even winning the Champions League but there has been a collective effort lacking in both the tournaments. It was thus heartening to see the 5 Italian teams that qualified for group level in both the tournaments, actually making the knockout rounds. This 100% record is unmatched across Europe.

Country

No. of Teams in Europe

No. of Teams in Group Stages of European Competition

No. of teams in knockout rounds of European Competitions

England

8

8

5

Spain

7

6

5

Germany

6

5

4

Italy

7

5

5

France

6

5

2

Table 2: Performance of Teams Entering European Competitions in 2011-12

So one can say it was only Serie A which had a 100% record of the teams that actually qualified for the group stages of the European competitions. This is a surprisingly welcome cumulative effort from the peninsular teams and they now have an opportunity to earn more coefficient points in the knockout rounds, which are much higher than the group stage. Another point worth noting is that of all the leagues, Serie A has the maximum teams (three) in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. It is a credible achievement and needs to be lauded. But as we saw in table 1, the gap between Serie A and Bundesliga is more than twice the gap between Serie A and French Ligue 1 (which is below Serie A). Hence such consistent cumulative performances have to be continued for some years as well as get more teams to earn points in the knockout rounds to make an impact.

The Calcioscomesse[1]

The season had started with a massive shock of the Calcioscomesse where police had charged and arrested 16 people including Lazio and Italy striker Giuseppe Signori but of the active players, the most high-profile capture was Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni. On 9th August, Cristiano Doni was sentenced to three years and six months ban from Italian football though he was released on bail. That effectively ended the career of this 38-year-old. Signori was also banned for five years from calcio. Doni was re-arrested in December and even spent five days in solitary confinement before being released on house arrest. In his interrogations, Doni accepted that he had influenced matches unjustly, though he was adamant in confirming that all his efforts were directed towards the improvement of Atalanta and never had he conspired against his team. Further questioning awaits Doni on 18th January when the Italian National Arbitration Court for Sport will quiz him in Rome. One can rest assured that there may be more skeletons waiting to come out of the closet, in this matter.

The Season So Far

In many ways this was a throwback to the past for the behemoth that is Juventus finally found its range under a former iconic player who was managing on the big stage for the first time – Antonio Conte. Conte had led two teams from Serie B to promotion but this was the first time he was appointed for a big Serie A team (his other Serie A experience was with Atalanta). Tempering the 4-2-4 that he used in most of his earlier teams, and with the need to include Andrea Pirlo in the midfield, Conte tried 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 and managed to end the half-season as the only team unbeaten, not just in Italy but in all the big leagues of Europe. The strikers were not too prolific though, with the exception of Alessandro Matri, but Claudio Marchisio was having the season of his life, already scoring six goals from the midfield.

But their impressive showing was not enough to go to the top alone, as defending champions Milan themselves bounced back from a start of 5 points in 5 matches (the 5th of which was a 2-0 loss to Juventus) to go on an unbeaten streak of their own which included 29 points in 11 matches with 30 goals scored and 8 conceded and 7 clean sheets. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in six consecutive matches, tying the club record of Andrei Shevchenko and at the winter break, Milan were tied for the top spot with Juventus but ahead on goal difference. A welcome feature of the season was the goals that Milan midfielders managed: Kevin-Prince Boateng had a hat-trick in a memorable 4-3 comeback win away at Lecce while Antonio Nocerino is having his best season, scoring six goals including a hat-trick in a 4-1 win against Parma.

The challenge for the top two came from the unlikely source of Udinese, who had sold their most promising striker (Alexis Sanchez), their best midfielder (Gokhan Inler) and their best defender (Cristian Zapata) and still had ended with an almost 100% win record at home (only broken by the 0-0 Juventus managed on the last round of matches before the break). Lazio too had bought well in the summer and Miroslav Klose was a revelation scoring goals and leading the line.

All these 4 teams should provide the backdrop for the scudetto fight though Juventus have a definite advantage with no European distractions and a fit team. Milan has probably the best squad of them and Ibrahimovic who has not lost a league title in the last eight years, but Champions League foray might eat into their title challenge. Udinese are the surprise and the neutral’s favourite for scudetto. They too are in Europe though as are Lazio and with thinner squads than either Milan or Juventus, they might drop off from the top four.

The three big teams that struggled to establish a consistent set of performances were Napoli, Inter and Roma and each had their own reason. All of them should qualify for Europe, though it is to be seen whether Champions League or Europa League beckons them. The identity of the top seven teams as of now should remain same at the end of May; the only thing to note is whether any of them can challenge Milan, Juventus and Udinese for the title.

Napoli had qualified for the Champions League and making a good fist of that chance but the strain of fighting on multiple fronts was taking its toll on the team. Coach Walter Mazzarri tried rotating his team, something that the fans had long clamoured for, but even then they were inconsistent in the league. There were brilliant wins against both Milan giants, a 6-1 thumping of Genoa and a 3-3 tie with Juventus in a match they led 3-1 with 18 minutes to go. But they also lost to Catania, Parma and Chievo, and drew with Cagliari and Fiorentina among others. The names show a pattern – wins against the big guns but loss of focus against the lesser lights.

Roma had spent big on promising youth players like Eric Lamela, Miralem Pjanic, Bojan and Fabio Borini but with an inexperienced manager and too many new players playing to a new system would have inevitably required time to gel. Seventh spot at the winter break is the best that they could manage. But with the team gelling better with time, this team can actually improve.

Inter Milan had a horror start to the season where after 9 matches they were in the relegation zone with five losses (including losses to Novara, Palermo and Catania). The team had not scored in their home ground till the seventh match and had their manager Gian Piero Gasperini sacked after five matches. The old hand, Claudio Ranieri was brought in to stabilise the ship and there was improvement as Inter picked up 18 points in the next 7 matches. Considering only top three teams will qualify for the Champions League, there is still some way off for the nerazzurri to work.

The most interesting and surprising team has been Atalanta. Hit with a six point penalty due to the Calcioscomesse, they knuckled down to win key games and remained unbeaten at home throughout. But for the points penalty, they would have been in the sixth position. German Denis led the surge with 12 goals in 16 matches and the top scorer award at the winter break. Memorable performances also came from Maxi Moralez, the diminutive Argentine bought from Velez Sarsfield as he contributed 4 goals and 3 assists.

Each of Catania, Fiorentina and Cagliari had their moments but largely struggled to get out of the mid table ruts. Palermo, who had a rollicking start and had a 100% record at home (including an opening day win versus Inter) were totally derailed from the 13th round onward. In their last four matches they picked only two points scoring in only one of those matches.

Down the table, the three teams who risk relegation the most are Cesena, Lecce and Novara. Lecce were exceptionally poor managing only a single point from all of their home matches – a draw with Novara. They lie bottom with nine points. Novara, who returned after 55 years to Serie A managed a fine win against Inter but managed only one other win to have 12 points, a tally that was matched by Cesena. Both Cesena and Novara were also matched in that they both had the only two artificial pitches in Serie A. Along with these three, both Siena and Bologna too may get embroiled if they do not improve in the second half of the season. The relegation dogfight should be confined between these five teams.

Team

Matches

Wins

Draws

Loss

Goals For

Goals Conc

Points

Milan

16

10

4

2

35

16

34

Juventus

16

9

7

0

27

11

34

Udinese

16

9

5

2

20

9

32

Lazio

16

8

6

2

24

13

30

Inter

16

8

2

6

22

19

26

Napoli

16

6

6

4

29

18

24

Roma

16

7

3

6

21

19

24

Catania

16

5

7

4

20

23

22

Palermo

16

6

3

7

18

20

21

Genoa

16

6

3

7

19

24

21

Atalanta (-6pts)

16

6

8

2

23

19

20

Chievo

16

5

5

6

13

18

20

Parma

16

5

4

7

21

26

19

Fiorentina

16

4

6

6

15

15

18

Cagliari

16

4

6

6

12

17

18

Siena

16

3

6

7

14

16

15

Bologna

16

4

3

9

14

24

15

Novara

16

2

6

8

17

29

12

Cesena

16

3

3

10

8

20

12

Lecce

16

2

3

11

17

33

9

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Top Goalscorers

German Denis (Atalanta): 12 goals

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Milan): 11 goals

Antonio di Natale (Udinese): 10 goals

Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Mirosalv Klose (Lazio): 9 goals

Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma), Pablo Osvaldo (Roma): 7 goals

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[1] Illegal betting on football