Rossella Marrai continues her monthly blog on Serie A and looks at the two ailing giants of Italian football
As always, so much has happened across Serie A since my debut piece Calcio in Heels – The Annual Managerial Sack Race. My prediction in seeing Giovanni Stroppa being the first coach sacked was in fact handed to Giuseppe Sannino of Palermo – one of just eight managers who kept their positions on the bench throughout the whole of the 2011-2012 campaign. Maurizio Zamparini went into his artillery room and fired the gun just four weeks into the new league putting an end to the so called project he had envisaged.
On the field, plenty more has gone down. Napoli is hot on the heels of Juventus’ tail like a love-whipped teenager chasing the girl next door or rather the Old Lady. Luca Toni has undergone a Florentine renaissance whilst fellow companion, Alberto Gilardino, has got the whole orchestra of Bologna players conducting him in his violin solo.
Although, the most atypical of scenarios which has occurred so far this season started and ended at the San Siro. This month’s Calcio in Heels takes a look at what really got the city of Milan ticking; with the San Siro curse putting a dent into the Milan clubs and the far from classic Derby della Madonnina which hit lucky number 10.
The San Siro Curse
Catapulted across every major sports newspaper in the peninsula was the crisis which had struck the giants of Milan. A crisis which saw neither of the calamitous cousins able to take a point off their opening three games at home… let alone win.
Headlines read after Siena’s shock 0-2 win over Inter: “Humiliated by Siena: San Siro is a hex with zero points in 2 matches.”
Whilst Milan’s goalless draw to Anderlecht in the Champions League drew responses of: “Milan, again zero. Only a 0-0 with the modest Anderlecht, third match at the San Siro without a goal.”
It was a maledizione like no other.
For the Rossoneri losses to the newly promoted Sampdoria – in the opening game of the season – was pursued with a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Atalanta, and to top it off, the lacklustre draw to Anderlecht in the Champions League. The cherry on top? It was Anderlecht’s first game back in the Champions League since putting an end to their six-year hiatus.
Three games, not one goal scored. It would be Milan’s worst start to a season since 1931.
On the Blue and Black half of Milan, Inter was subjected to a humiliating 1-3 loss to Roma in their opening home match of the season; which was followed by the shocking crumbling to Serie A minnows, Siena, and a disappointing 2-2 draw to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League.
There was clearly something wrong and the scapegoat was obvious.
Reasons for the struggle were directed at the new semi-artificial surface which was laid before the start of the new season. Blame was shunned on the new buoyancy of the field, a faster movement of the ball and a denser field to work with, which was all too different from the uneven, dried up and loose field they had been used to.
La Repubblica’s headline on September 18 read: “The grass at San Siro has already won.”
It suggested that the field had failed to show any signs of the deterioration despite Inter’s early start to the league due to their Europa League qualifiers.
Yet the unsolved mystery was how had Rubin Kazan and Siena managed to pull off impressive results? They too were playing on the same field.
Refreshingly, Andrea Stramaccioni, the Inter manager, did well not to concede to the Spanish (or Arsene Wenger) way of thinking and blame the field but admitted it was rather a psychological factor which was holding his team back. “Something has not gone right on a psychological level tonight,” he expressed after the loss to Zdenek Zeman’s Roma side.
In contrast to the opening two games, Milan did eventually get their first home win of the season in a 2-0 victory over Cagliari, which saw the rise of Stephan El Shaarawy.
That same week, Inter went on to secure a win over Chievo and sparked headlines suggestive that the wins were a miracle.
“Miracle in Milano. Rossoneri and Nerazzurri return to winning in the midweek fixtures. The Faraone and Fantantonio wake up Milan and Inter,” read La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Whilst Tuttosport wrote: “Milan and Inter start again. El Shaarawy beats Cagliari, the Nerazzurri win with Chievo: Milano breathes.”
A sigh of relief was echoed throughout the surrounds of the Scala del Calcio and Piazza del Duomo but the ultimate test to see whether the curse was lifted was to come on October 7, when Milan and Inter would meet at the historical perch of the San Siro for the 192nd edition of the Derby della Madonnina.
Derby della Madonnina – The Unique Classic
With all the troubles the two teams had been through to get to the derby, many were expecting it to be an open-ended and free-flowing game with plenty of goals, but it was far from the classics that had been put on displays in previous seasons.
Players who had made history in their club’s colours – recent legends like Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf to Júlio César, Douglas Maicon and Lúcio had all bid their farewells in the summer. Along with the Rossoneri icons, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva also departed to help balance Milan’s struggling books.
It was a new look side for both teams but moreover for Milan who suffered the slings and arrows of the summer’s mass exodus in which only two standing members of the 2007 Champions League winning team remained: Daniele Bonera and captain Massimo Ambrosini.
The evergreen Javier Zanetti added one more derby notch on his 17-year-old belt at Inter whilst one familiar foe continued his treasured trove of luck against the Diavoli. Walter Samuel – ten derbies played in his seven-year career at Inter and phenomenally not a single one lost.
“Samuel – the strength of 10,” read La Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline. “The Argentine who played in his tenth derby in Serie A (won all of them) decides it. Nerazzurri with a man down for a half. Moratti: ‘Strama is like Mou.’”
Traditionally a heated affair between the two antagonists, the temperature bar was raised further when Milan fans laid eyes on Antonio Cassano. Formerly of Milan, the controversial Barese-born striker crossed over the great divide during the summer transfer window under controversial circumstances.
Cassano, renowned for his inability to stick to one place for too long, was one of the fans’ favourite, and a player who had the sympathy of the whole world of Italian football when he was hit with a career-threatening stroke in October 2011.
As the fans have failed to let him forget it was Milan who nurtured him back to health and gave him a second chance at life. They felt betrayed, and quite rightly so, with his sudden departure, and especially, to archrivals, Inter.
Cassano embraced the move as a dream come true and if that wound wasn’t searing enough with pain for Milanisti,it was from his foul in which Samuel scored off a diving header in the third minute of a derby.
Yuto Nagatomo was sent off straight after the start of the second half, providing Milan the perfect platform to draw a goal back and go on to win the match.
However, common to the cause of Milan at late, the Rossoneri lacked the finesse in front of goal and the composure and ability to make any significant threat at goal. The ball was placed into the back of the net by a sublime Riccardo Montolivo long range effort but it was wrongly disallowed due to Urby Emanuelson’s foul on Samir Handanović inside the box.
The referee, Paolo Valeri, was the focal point of banter and Massimiliano Allegri made no withdrawals in holding back his opinion on the matter.
“I never talk about referees. But, I have to now. The referee got it wrong in this game…It’s a shame we are running into some decisions that go against us, but we can’t do anything about that. Maybe the referees are on as bad form as we are,” Allegri hit out after the game before recalling several controversial incidents.
As a Milan fan myself, I will admit I was upset in Montolivo’s sublime strike being denied but I cannot look at the game and feel the referee is the only one to blame.
A poor summer transfer market left little to Milan’s squad strength and it clearly showed on the field when Milan couldn’t get past a ten-man Inter team. Yes, Inter may have parked the bus but what about the games against Sampdoria, Atalanta, Udinese, Anderlecht and Parma, before that?
There is a problem in the way the refereeing took place on the night. And yes Mr. Allegri, your never complaining about the referees is just as believable as Joey Barton having never sworn on the field.
Three successive derby wins for Inter have allowed the Nerazzurri to maintain bragging rights stretching for nearly two years, summing up a tale of Red and Black disappointment which has been orchestrated by the transitional period the Milanello club has gone through.
One thing which has remained in the back of my mind is, if there really is a Curse of the San Siro, has it truly been lifted for Milan? Only one win in four home games (across all competitions) is no record to be proud of and with the way the ball just wouldn’t fall into the back of Handanović’s net, it certainly seemed that the jinx is still alive in the Diavoli’s share of Milan.
Marrai’s prediction panel:
Who will top the Charts come end of October?
League table: Juventus’ dominating run seems almost near impossible to put an end to. Although they may hit one or two snags along the way, it seems the season is destined to be a two-horse race between the Bianconeri and Napoli. Also keep an eye out on Lazio who have been highly impressive under Vladimir Petković’s guidance but Sampdoria’s run will surely come to an end. Juve and Napoli top, followed by Lazio and Inter.
Goalscorers: Edinson Cavani is a man on fire. He is simply oozing with confidence this season and is a huge factor in Napoli’s chase after Juventus.
Alberto Gilardino, at the time of writing, is sitting joint second with five goals, and he is a man who the team is playing for. Every ball is directed towards him and with constant service at his feet, there is little wonder as to why the Biella star has been reborn.
An eye must be kept on Stephan El Shaarawy, Miroslav Klose and Fabrizio Miccoli – three players brimming with confidence and managing to sneak in goals under the radar. If they can maintain the consistency, they could be leapfrogging Cavani in the standings.
Calcio in Heels – The Annual Managerial Sack Race
It’s all about the men in the dugout and the club’s season aspirations in ‘Calcio in Heels’ debuting piece for Goalden Times. Rossella Marrai takes a look at the change of faces on bench, the ones who remained, their club’s season ambitions and finally what to expect from the beguiling Zdenek Zeman
Eleven same faces on the bench
Coaches around the Italian peninsula of Serie A can all breathe a collective sigh of relief as they made it through their first three weeks of the season after giving their dramatic touchline orders from the dugout.
Rewind back to a year ago and things were quite dissimilar. Cagliari and Palermo had already replaced their coaches before the teams even walked onto the field. Massimo Cellino’s dispute with Roberto Donadoni saw him being shown the door before even completing pre-season with the Isolani, while further down the Mediterranean, in Sicily, the volatile Maurizio Zamparini was at his bid. At the end of the 2010-11 campaign, he had bid farewell to Delio Rossi and replaced him with Stefano Pioli, but a third round Europa Cup preliminary elimination to Swiss side, FC Thun resulted in Pioli feeling the wrath of Zampa as he was surprisingly replaced by Under-19 coach Devis Mangia. It didn’t end there; a few weeks later, Gian Piero Gasperini was already on route to Exit Week Five, before the eventual sacking of over a dozen coaches hit the headlines that season.
Two weeks into yet another eventual football season and every team has, albeit surprisingly, still managed to retain their coach, with Juventus in an awkward situation of having Massimo Carrera fill in for Antonio Conte due to his match-fixing and betting ban. Despite the summer break providing more twists and turns than Jennifer Lopez and Shakira battling it out in a dance-off, Juventus are undoubtedly the favourites to take the title.
Juventus director, Beppe Marotta can proudly sport a pompous look of triumph after he managed to scoop Udinese’s brightest players in Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla, who will add stability, creativity and a much needed depth and versatility to the squad as they enter the Champions League season.
The promising Paul Pogba’s switch from Old Trafford to the Old Lady infuriated Sir Alex Ferguson immensely – something which puts a smile on any Italian face – while Nicklas Bendtner is still a young promising striker who could very well fit into the Italian game. Conte’s loss from the sidelines may not seem as extreme as one would think when looking at the squad and their 4-1 riot over Udinese in Week Two proved to be the situation as they surpassed a run of 500 days without a defeat.
Carrera is well suited to be the man to take over on match days after he was appointed the understudy to Conte at the start of their triumphant campaign, and he knows a good thing or two about going undefeated. La Bandera, as he is known to the fans, unwittingly played a key role in Milan’s 1991-92 unbeaten campaign, when they embarked on a 58-match unbeaten run. It was Carrera who headed in an own goal that tied Milan against Juventus and it would remain a key factor to that legendary match. But Carrera maintains that Conte is and will be the real man behind any success this season: “[Conte] is the real coach. I’m looking to take inspiration from him during the week so the team can continue to feel his presence,” he told the club’s official website.
Astonishingly only eleven coaches who ended off last season has remained on the same bench.
Stefano Colantuono will be seen waving his arms on the edge of the area in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. For Atalanta, their ambitions are never one of reaching for the stars, but that of just keeping their kayak afloat in tepid water. The shaved head loud-mouthed coach always seems to get the best out of his team but fails to keep the momentum flowing throughout the year, and their two-point deduction at the start of the season isn’t an easy digestive. Meanwhile, Pioli and Donadoni got their own back on Zamparini and Cellino after they managed to make a success with their new teams, in Bologna and Parma, respectively.
Sebastian Giovinco’s departure may result in a loss in quality in the Parma squad, but Donadoni has proved on timeless occasions he doesn’t necessarily need a star man in the squad, rather a cohesive unit working together. His interchanging from a back four to a back three to suit his opponents has seen him create a more confident and open-minded Ducali side, who seem willing to go out on a limb. Should they mirror their impressive run at the final stages of last season, they could very well be the surprise package competing for Europa League football.
Former Cagliari trainer, Massimo Allegri is currently undergoing a much talked about and highly controversial revolution whilst in his third season with Milan. No longer are the days when Alessandro Nesta will be standing guard in defence, Clarence Seedorf doing tricks with the number 10 jersey on his back and Gennaro Gattuso prowling up and down the field like a hungry dog. The mass exodus, and minimal action in the transfer market, has seen a large amount of blame being shunned upon the coach’s shoulders, after reports suggested a rift amongst the players and management. Completely written off as league contenders, the Rossoneri would consider themselves as fortunate if they grab the final Champions League place next season as they line up their weakest squad in years.
Across the town of Milan, the highly rated Andrea Stramaccioni will continue to oversee Inter after he took over as interim coach from Claudio Ranieri. The fans are expecting a lot from young and fresh blood coming in along with the creative flair of Antonio Cassano, Wesley Sneijder and Rodrigo Palacio to supply balls to their leading striker, Diego Milito. Though the well worked and under the radar transfer window may have seemed a success, Stramaccioni’s backline is an area which leaks more than a colander. The 5-4 win over Genoa, in his first game in charge in March, was easy pickings for the Grifoni’s frontline, while their latest 3-1 loss to Roma in Week Two still proved there is work to be done. Should Stramaccioni find a secure material to plaster the holes whilst continuing their fluid attacking play, the Nerazzurri could favour themselves in giving Juventus a run for the prize money.
New kids on the block
Simplicity is not a word in the Sienese dictionary. In a town renowned for its cantuccini and baked treats, the Tuscans once again found themselves being dealt the biscotto. As if staying alive in their return season wasn’t hard enough, they lost coach Giuseppe Sannino and sporting director Giorgio Perinetti to Palermo in the off-season, all whilst being deducted a colossal six points for their involvement in the match fixing and betting scandal. In return, they welcomed Serse Cosmi to save Lecce, after coming in midseason, and he now faces the rarity of taking over a team from the beginning and the monstrous task of survival. “This is a very nice day for me, I finally have the chance to return to being a coach from the start of the season,” he announced in his unveiling. “It has been my privilege in an 18-year career that several times I have been called in to take over a club midseason, but it is definitely not ideal for any coach. Siena has for many years been in Serie A, with just one term in B, and they have always proven to have the right ambition and the awareness and strength to compete at the highest level.”
In addition, Ciro Ferrara and Giampiero Ventura made their return to the hot seat of Serie A. The former replaced Giuseppe Iachini on the Sampdoria bench, despite handing them promotion from Serie B, while the latter got his Serie A season underway against Siena, for the first time since his Bari days. The pressure was on for Ferrara to make the season a success, following the impressive reinforcements of Enzo Maresca, who returns to Serie A for the first time since 2005, Simon Paulsen, Maxi Lopez and Marcelo Estigarribia. The swoop of the former Malaga player was the coup of the transfer window for the club, and one, which Ferrara pushed for. He told Sky Italia: “I strongly wanted Maresca here, as I know his qualities both in technical terms and with regards to his experience.”
On the calf of the Boot, it will be an uphill battle for Giovanni Stroppa’s men in this campaign. Following their instant promotion back into Italy’s elitist club, Pescara have since been caught in the baptism by fire and it is doubtful that things will get easier. f it wasn’t for Siena’s six-point deficit and Atalanta’s two points at the start of the season, the two consecutive defeats to Inter and Torino would in fact see them lying stone-last on the table.
Their cause was not aided by the transfers of the crème de la crème of the next generation of Italian players: Ciro Immobile (Genoa), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Marco Veratti (PSG). And vital in their push in becoming Serie B champions, was the chain-smoking, outspoken and drastically aged, Zdenek Zeman.
The return of Zemanlandia
Originally leaving the game due to its lack of purism, Zeman became famously known for his anti-Juve banter after he openly questioned the muscular explosion of the Juventus players of 1998. And he made no hesitancy in resorting back to his old ways when Antonio Conte was hit with his match day suspension. “A suspended player can train, but I think a coach with a long ban shouldn’t be able to train his team,” commented Zeman in a Press conference. “I haven’t read the full verdicts of the betting trial, but if people want to weaken this phenomenon then they have to be more decisive.”
Zeman once again stirred up the same warm emotion in the hearts of Giallorossi faithful when he announced his return to the club. Ironic or befitting, his return to the capital coincided with the exact day of his release from his duties at the club 13 years ago. The haze of fumata bianca was warmly welcomed by new owner Thomas DiBenedetto as the second stage of the Roma project enters its midst. Originally brought in to head the project was the Spaniard, Luis Enrique. But like so many of his opposite numbers mentioned previously in this column, he divorced from the club labelling his reasons as a result of ‘tiredness’. The inevitable return of, what is highly uncommon in the capital, the former Lazio and Roma coach sparked enthusiasm across both divides of the fans as they labelled it: ‘Zeman Part ll: The Revenge’. His flamboyant character in front of the media is a site to behold, with his football even more so. Continuity is expected to be kept in the same 4-3-3 formation implemented by the Spaniard before him, but while Enrique’s play was highly possession based and full of horizontal play, Zeman’s will be in complete contrast. Known for his attack-minded style of play, one can expect hard and endless runs from his players, vertical balls, bursting moves and a large percentage of the squad poking around in the box. With Pescara last season, his squad tallied in a master stroke of 90 goals – a feat no team could reach in Serie A, with the Rossoneri hitting the highest with a 74-goal mark.
Concerns in the defensive area continue to circulate around the Eternal City, after last season 54 goals seep in under Enrique – the second highest in the top half of the table. Nevertheless, the Czech still remains unperturbed over it: “It’s normal that every now again you risk something but when you score 90 goals [like Pescara did] it’s not important to see how many you let in.”
Zeman’s love-hate relationship with Italian football was nothing short of pure chaotic entertainment, when he first started coaching in the capital, and he will undoubtedly provide truck load more of quirks, giggles, anti-Juve rants, and, above all, entertaining football.
Marrai’s prediction table: Who will get the sack first?
Giovanni Stroppa – It may be considered near insanity to try to take over from the phenomenon labelled Zemanlandia, but to take over when the plush stars have parted ways is a mission not even James Bond would sign up for.
Two heavy defeats in the first two weeks of the campaign have only but put a heavy dent in the players’ confidence, and should Stroppa fail to get some points out of his next two games against Sampdoria and Bologna, he will be turning left at Exit Week Four. Survival is the minimum they will be aiming for.
** Editor’s Note: Last week at Palermo, Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed as their new coach after dismissing Giuseppe Sannino. **