Mario Balotelli – The untold saga

Mario Balotelli overcame many battles and reached a position from where he could have become a legend. Yet, he is struggling today to find his true place. Debopam Roy wonders if this is another case of talent gone wrong.

Introduction

The origin of a superhero  sets the parameters for his/her success. Inevitably, it involves challenges that makes the protagonist gain new strength to win over the world. From that perspective, Mario Balotelli’s story has no equal. Given up to be brought up by foster parents  Silvia and Francesco when he was two, Mario has overcome personal loss, racial abuse, and some of the most scything defenders to rise to stardom. Three-time Serie A winner, Coppa Italia and Super cups, a Premier League medal, and even a Champions League winner medal while still being a teenager—not many can match that. In 2010, he was voted the Golden Boy in European football—an acknowledgement of his potential. Internationally, a meteoric rise saw him as the primary striker in Italy’s unexpected march into the finals of the 2012 European Championship. That, however, was the last of it. In the last three years, he has played for three clubs, shuttling between Italy and England, lost his mojo of scoring from penalties (after scoring the first 21 penalties of his professional life), and , has been irregular with the Italian national team. A third transfer may be on the cards, but at 25, Mario is suddenly at the crossroads where no top club is willing to bet on him.

Beginning of the end: second half of 2012

It was the summer of 2012, when, against all odds, Mario Balotelli took Italy to the finals of the European Championship. He was joint top scorer of the tournament. He scored probably the goal of the tournament in the semi-final against Germany, and gave another of his iconic poses.

The Pose
The Pose

He was subjected to racial abuse yet, managed to be selected for the Team of the Tournament. A very typical Mario tournament. However, he is now in the third season of his big money move to Manchester City. His club  won the league on the last day (where he has provided the assist in the 94th minute). It was the team’s first title since 1967–68.  Mario on theis also baiting tabloids by doing things like setting up fireworks at his house and fighting with his teammates, Jerome Boateng and Micah Richards. Club manager Roberto Mancini is infuriated with his behaviour.

A better and brighter season awaits him.

And then, Mario has a shocking half season. 20 appearances across competitions and all of three goals and an equal number of yellow cards. That is pittance when compared to his 17 goals in 32 appearances in the previous season. This is also coupled with run-ins with the media or the manager, leading to the club being taken to a tribunal and missing 11 games in the half season.

It seems that everyone is relieved when a move to Milan (he was a fan of Milan as a child) materializes.

Reboot #1: The Milan experiment—2013–14

Mario’s arrival at Milan was revolutionary. The club had sold off its most prized assets. One-time fan favourite and Barbara Berlusconi’s arm candy, Alexandre Pato, had been sold off to get the money for Mario’s arrival. It was thought that he, along with Stephan el Shaarawy (who had already scored 18 goals in the season) would be the forerunner of new Milan. Mario was the new Ibra for the Milanisti—top forward who had switched over from hated rivals Inter. On top of that, he was young, Italian, and a fan of the club.

Mario lived up to all of that in his first six months—banging in 12 goals in 13 appearances. Milan managed to scrape through into the Champions League places thanks to his goals. However, ironically the partnership with Shaarawy never materialized, with the Pharaoh adding only one more goal for the season.

The second season was, once again, supposed to be where Mario would become the messiah of Milan and take the team to new glory. However, disciplinary issues and injuries meant that he managed only 18 goals in 41 matches. That’s a respectable figure for a mid-table club, but woefully inadequate for a club fighting on three fronts (including Europe). It is also a far cry from the dizzying figure of his spell in his initial six months.

Eventually, the Milan hierarchy realized what Mario really was. A spoilt brat who could not be trusted to lead the club. Someone like Matt de Sciglio was a far better role model than Mario. Trusting the rejuvenation of a club like Milan with Mario was not sound. The top brass, who were so enamoured with the previous poster boy—Alex Pato (so much so that they had once stopped his sale after agreeing terms with PSG), had decidedly a swift fallout with his antics and disciplinary issues. Mario was unceremoniously dumped for barely a profit. The vision of a revival at a club Mario had supported as a boy was over. A return to Premier League was thought to be the best way forward.

Reboot #2: The Liverpool misadventure—2014–2015

Liverpool was theoretically the best club in the Premier League for Mario to get into. They had punched above their weight to return to the Champions League, having missed out winning narrowly. There was definite space for a striker in a club competing on multiple fronts. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho were the starters, but Mario was an excellent addition to augment the focal point. Liverpool had made a solid gain in Coutinho, who was a reject from Inter and became a world class player at Anfield. They thought Mario would be  a similar player.

It was a disaster for both parties in 2014. After a promising start, Liverpool fell away to finish sixth. Mario had his worst season ever. He managed just a  goal in four different competitions—which included one goal in 16 league matches. Unlike his starts in the previous two clubs, he didn’t have a honeymoon period. It was an overall catastrophe. In all, he scored four goals and saw seven yellow cards in 28 matches. Add to that his antics, which included an Instagram post that cost him £25,000 in fine and a match ban.

G0e1glh

The season was riddled with such injuries and suspensions. By the end of it, Liverpool were sure that they wanted to get rid of Mario at any cost. The problem was finding a buyer.

National Team agony—since Euro 2012

Euro 2012 was supposed to make Mario the predominant striker of new age Italy. The Azzurri depended on him for world cup qualification. He didn’t disappoint. He scored five goals, was the top scorer for Italy, and led it to the World Cup. He also scored and assisted his way to take Italy to the semifinals in the Confederations Cup. However, his absence in the next two matches saw Italy finish third in the tournament. He even scored the winner in his first Word Cup match against England. And that was that for Mario and for Azzurri. Italy lost the next two matches, and was bumped out at the group stages for the second consecutive time. Mario never got to play for Italy again. Manager Antonio Conte has trusted next-generation strikers (Ciro Immobile and Manolo Gabbiadini), late bloomers (Graziano Pelle), and even old timers (Alessandro Matri). But Mario has been conspicuous by his absence. A poor season with Liverpool hasn’t helped, and Mario desperately needs a solid season to get back in shape for a year that will lead up to the Euro Cup in France.

Another reboot?

So, where does Mario go from here? Two stints at the Premier League have shown how they foster his spirit of childish pranks. Two stints at Milanese clubs have shown how deeply they distrust him. Add on the factors of race and his usual disciplinary issues. Clubs in Italy, who once would have queued up to get his signature, have outright refused to take him on from Liverpool. Even so-called mid-tier clubs like Fiorentina and Lazio have expressed their inability to invest in him. The Viola fans went so far as to say that Mario is a man without honour. His stints across the Milan divide has actually seen the clubs unite in their hurry to dispose of him. Mario has scored goals, but has also been a poster boy for chaos. His relation with his club mates has hardly been one of great bonding. It’s only natural that fans of clubs would be wary of him.

At 25, Mario Balotelli is an unwanted man—cast aside from national team and getting pushed around clubs with no fixed destination. In a way, he embodies another enfant terrible of Italian football—Antonio Cassano. But Cassano has had two great clubs where he has flourished—Sampdoria and Parma. Mario needs that. He needs a club where he can be the main man. As he enters his peak footballing years, it would be foolhardy not to try him out as a bargain buy. But will Mario go to a club that has no realistic chance of finishing at the top? I believe that it would actually be a good career move. It’s probably time for him to have one more move and then see if he can perform consistently.

‘You are a man without honour. Balotelli, Florence does not want you’
‘You are a man without honour. Balotelli, Florence does not want you’

Last Word

Mario is a showman—a modern day rockstar. But he would do far better to also be remembered for his footballing achievements along with the non-footballing ones. With that in mind, one hopes that Mario decides to move to an Italian club, plays a full season, and ensures we get back the Super Mario that we all have seen. The talent is all there. All it needs is encouragement and nourishment. The razzmatazz of fast lane would never leave Mario. But the performances he can produce, the sheer brilliance of his skills can match his onetime mentor Zlatan.

…. And the Last Last Words

We all know by now that Mario has gone back to where it all started… to go wrong. Milan holds its breath for the return of his mercurial son. Only good thing about the move is that there is no expectation at all. It won’t make the headlines if Balotelli fails to deliver there. It will still make one every time he loses his mind but that is also somewhat expected, if not acceptable, by now. Will Super Mario finally become the superstar he always wanted to be? Or will he create some new lows for himself, the club and the country? Only time will tell. Till then, Go Mario!!!

Impact of Foreign players in European leagues – Serie A

Football has truly become a global game. With its worldwide reach, which has never been as prominent as in this millennium,every major European league is able to attract hidden talents from every corner of the planet. This has to markedly changed player demographics in the best leagues. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings to you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. After Ligue 1 , the second instalment of this series features Serie A.

Prologue

Serie A, currently sponsored by Telecom Italia, is Italy’s top division professional football league. Founded in 1929–30, Serie A is one of the best football leagues in the world. It, in fact, ruled the charts till the ‘90s, and has produced the highest number of European Cup finalists. Italian clubs have participated at the final for a European honour on a record 26 different occasions, and have come home victorious 12 times.  However, in current years, Serie A has only gone downhill. Italian clubs have reached the finals of UEFA Champions league only five times since the turn of the millennium, winning it thrice in the process.  Performances are even worse in Europa League where no Serie A team have been a finalist since 1998–99. These poor results have been instrumental in Serie A currently occupying the fourth position among European leagues, behind La Liga, the English Premier League and the Bundesliga. Excessive emphasis on a defensive organization often makes the league games a crazy affair, resulting in poor global acceptance, and, subsequently, preventing Serie A from securing lucrative broadcasting deals. Quite sadly, a prestigious league like Serie A is nothing more than a stepping stone for young footballers or an indication of one’s career going southwards for players beyond a certain age.

Gonzalo_Higuain-1200

A reason for this drastic decline is financial instability. The revenue model of the Italian league of the 1990s was not a practical one, as has been proved in the long run. The Cirio group, a major stakeholder in Lazio, defaulted on its loans; Parma’s sponsors, Parmalat, collapsed soon after; Fiorentina went into administration, succumbing to non-payment of huge debts; and Napoli was declared bankrupt in 2004. It has been an uphill economic battle since then, and, even now, only six Serie A clubs are profitable. Handicapped by absurdly low match day revenues as well as the stigma of match fixing scandals, Serie A has been finding it difficult to attract quality players from across Europe or beyond.

However, let us try to see how the top teams have performed even with the dearth of exciting foreign imports in the Italian league. Our sample size is five—the top five clubs since the 2009–10 season.

SS Lazio

We start our Italian tour with Lazio, a club which has performed exceedingly well in the last five years. I Biancocelesti have come a long way since the days when they struggled to feature in the top half of the table. In the last five years, they have miss out on the podium finish twice and have won the Coppa Italia once. And this turn in fortune has been made possible mainly by the contribution of the foreign players. Successful spells by Mauro Zárate, Hernanes, Fernando Muslera, and others have firmly established the club’s stance on foreign import policy. A gradual decrease in the number of domestic players in the first team squad—46.88% in 2009–10 to 23.33% in 2013–14—has brought about this much-sought-after success. The quality at disposal, however, was tested to the fullest in Europe. In the last five years, Lazio have been able to progress to the last eight of the Europa League only once. This happened in 2012–13, the year when they were also crowned with the domestic cup. However, extra matches took a toll on their performance as Lazio finished in a disappointing seventh place in the league table. As soon as the players were free from the burden of midweek matches, the team was back in swing this season, doing full justice to their potential. Currently, they occupy the fourth position in the league table and have stormed into the semis of Coppa Italia.

Lazio

A.S. Roma

A team with an eye for the glare, A. S. Roma has had a very low percentage of Italian players under its wings. This is something that has remained more or less constant over the years. In fact, the share went as low as 28.57% in 2012–13. The results, however, have not been that good. The quality of Roma’s foreign players left the passionate supporters from the Italian capital asking for more. A vastly foreign consortium of players saw Roma struggle outside the Europa league spots for three consecutive seasons. However, the team rectified its strategy with an increase in the number of domestic players last season. The result was imminent. Roma finished runners-up in Serie A. However, with the quality of foreign players not something to boast about—and the good ones (Medhi Benatia, Marquinhos, Érik Lamela) frequently sold to encash and fund future transfers—Roma’s European ambitions had to take a back seat. The decline of Serie A and the subsequent loss of one spot from the top tier of the continental championship has been another major factor behind this. Consequently, in the last five years, Roma has been largely out of Europe. In 2009–10, the team crashed out in Round of 16 of UEFA Champions League, and things have gone steadily downhill since then. Roma could not even clear the qualifying rounds of Europa League in the next season. The team did return this year, but have been sent packing from the group stages of the Champions League.

Roma

AC Milan

AC Milan, the most successful Italian club in Europe, depicts a sorry state of affair for the Azzurris. Once a superpower in the continent, they have been relegated to mid-table mediocrity in the last two seasons. However, this decline in form has not been like a bolt from the blue. Selling off prized assets (Kaká, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva), excessive emphasis on local players (Mario Balotelli, Giampaolo Pazzini, Daniele Bonera) and thrusting relative youngsters (Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia de Sciglio) straight into the first team backfired for the Rossoneri. After winning the Scudetto in 2010–11, Milan’s league standings have been second, third, eighth, and 11th (till date, this season) in the subsequent years. The team have been in the Champions League four times in the last five years. Each time, they have crossed the group stages, only to crash out after the first knockout phase. Even then, in the 2011–12 season, they bowed out in the quarterfinals. The indications are crystal clear—the team have to cut down on its heavy dependence on the local players, who are yet to match world-class opponents. Disappointing results have also led to excessive tinkering with the squad and a steady increase in squad size. However, this has done nothing but unstabilized the team dynamics even more.

Milan

SSC Napoli

Napoli is definitely the most improved side in Italy’s top division in recent years. Gli Azzurri have shrugged off their mid table dwellers tag to cement themselves as a top contender for the podium finish. Not only on the league front, the team have dominated the cup competitions as well, having won it twice in quick succession (2011–12 and 2013–14). Sadly enough for Italian football, Napoli’s success has been purely due to foreign players. From being a club heavily reliant on local players—the side had more than 65% Italian players in the squad in 2009–10—it has completely revamped its team dynamics. Last season’s team had as few as nine Italians in a total squad of 32. Foreign imports like Gonzalo Higuain, José Callejón, Dries Mertens—unlike in so many other peer clubs—have increased the quality of football in Napoli, and the results are there for everyone to see.

Napoli

Juventus

Juventus can be seen as a model club for those who value every penny they are spending on the transfer market and still doing an astute business at that. Carlos Tevez was a bargain buy, and Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba were snapped up on free transfers.  Come to think of it, if one compares what a club like Manchester United has spent in the summer window with the Bianconeri,  one would still find the Italian champion  to have come out as a better team. Actually, Juventus had planned for five years in 2011 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. They spent big (as compared to their normal level of investment) to get some big names and, then, have looked to build on that since. The results have been imminent, with the side bagging three league titles in a row. Juventus, however, like most of the Serie A clubs, depends heavily on local players. Though they have a strong team in Italy, they fall quite short of the mark in Europe. Before this season, the only time they managed to go past the group stages in the Champions League was in 2012–13.

Juve

Conclusion

Serie A has long lost its shine, and the dearth of local talent is one major reason behind this. There are very few who can attract eyeballs or lucrative sponsor deals. The clubs are struggling to make ends meet, and want to encash if any of their players show a glimpse of spark. To go with that, match fixing scandals have also alienated big names coming in the Azzurriland. Both Roma and Juventus have demonstrated good form in recent times, but that is more of an exception than a rule.

Italy being in the middle of a deep recession for the last half a decade or so, has not made life easy for the Serie A clubs at all. With no money to spend, clubs had to depend on the Bosman ruling, i.e., sign players out of contract for free. Now, quality players will most definitely never be out of contract. You get what you pay for, after all!

These players are reaching the fag end of their (illustrious, sometimes) career and want to earn whatever they can out of their remaining time on the pitch. Naturally, these big team discards are not that influential in changing the fortunes of the clubs they join. In fact, in certain cases they disturb the team dynamics—e.g., when coaches are lured to field the ageing superstars owing to their past reputations (Nemanja Vidic in Inter Milan this season)—which are met by catastrophic results. A high negative correlation for Udinese in the following table indicates just that.

Clubs Correlation between % of Foreign Player and League Standing
Juventus 54.71 %
Napoli 37.55%
AC Milan 37.74%
AS Roma -0.84%
Udinese

-54.99%

Foreign Players’ quality is an area of concern

After the summer window this season, Serie A clubs cumulatively had more footballers under their tent than the other big four European leagues combined! This was mainly due to the lack of liquidity in the Italian market, which forced clubs to go for quantity over quality. Even then, most of these players were on loan.

All these ageing superstars might awe star-starved fans, which is, actually, the model followed successfully in Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States. This has given a boost to MLS, but is definitely a downgrade for Serie A. Once famous for putting up star-studded line ups, today the Italian clubs are forced to buy players who are close to, if not over, their shelf life.

That was it for the shambles that is the current Serie A. Watch this space for more in our next instalment.

Calcio Corner: The (melo)drama continues

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

Tavecchio Gets a Rap

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

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

Carlo_Tavecchio_3003539b

Chiellini having a Ball…or two…or three

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

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

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

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

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Usual Suspects lead on

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

Andrea-Pirlo-Francesco-Totti

The Allegri Curse lifted

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

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Inter crossroads?

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

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Serie A Table (as on 14th October)

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

1

Juventus

6

6

0

0

13

2

11

18

2

Roma

6

5

0

1

11

4

7

15

3

Sampdoria

6

4

2

0

7

2

5

14

4

Udinese

6

4

1

1

9

5

4

13

5

AC Milan

6

3

2

1

13

9

4

11

6

Hellas Verona

6

3

2

1

6

5

1

11

7

SSC Napoli

6

3

1

2

8

7

1

10

8

Lazio

6

3

0

3

11

7

4

9

9

Fiorentina

6

2

3

1

5

3

2

9

10

Inter

6

2

2

2

11

8

3

8

11

Genoa

6

2

2

2

6

6

0

8

12

Empoli

6

1

3

2

8

8

0

6

13

Cesena

6

1

3

2

5

10

-5

6

14

Torino

6

1

2

3

4

7

-3

5

15

Cagliari

6

1

1

4

7

9

-2

4

16

ChievoVerona

6

1

1

4

5

9

-4

4

17

Atalanta

6

1

1

4

2

8

-6

4

18

Parma

6

1

0

5

11

16

-5

3

19

Palermo

6

0

3

3

6

14

-8

3

20

Sassuolo

6

0

3

3

3

12

-9

3

The Most Intriguing League is back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atalanta

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

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

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

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

Cagliari

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

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

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

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

Cesena

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

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

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

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

Chievo

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

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

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

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

Empoli

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

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

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

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

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

Calcio in Heels: It’s a Milan Thing

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

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

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

Gilardino’s violin recital at Bologna

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

The San Siro Curse

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

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

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

It was a maledizione like no other.

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

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

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

There was clearly something wrong and the scapegoat was obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby della Madonnina – The Unique Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can he read his future?

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

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

Marrai’s prediction panel:

Who will top the Charts come end of October?


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

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

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

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

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.

Fancy a Dance-off?

 

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.

Carrera & Conte – United we stand

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.

Allegri – Not as he imagined

 

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.”

Wily Fox – if ever there was one

 

 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?

Is that Giovanni Stroppa’s mini-me version?

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.

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 ** Editor’s Note: Last week at Palermo, Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed as their new coach after dismissing Giuseppe Sannino. **

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

The Nowhere Man

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

All dressed up, nowhere to go

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

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

Munich – 27th September 2011

Tevez Ignored Mancini

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

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

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

Tevez didn’t get up. Mancini sat down.

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

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

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

And so Began the Rat Race…

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

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

A Tale of One City, Two Clubs

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

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

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

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

Cometh the Sacrificial Lamb

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t to be.

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

And Then…

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

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

Scouting Network – Stephan El Shaarawy

Scouting Network identifies young players under the age of 21 who have exceptional talent and could be one of the leading players of the future. This month GoaldenTimes profiles Stephan El Shaarawy

Il Faraone

Date of Birth: 27.10.1992

Place of Birth: Savona, Italy

Club: AC Milan

Height: 1.78 m

Weight: 72kg

Position: Forward

Nationality: Italy, Egypt

Market Value: €7m

There is a sense of destiny about Stephan El Shaarawy.

A particular numerology site actually lists him with having #9 associated to him and says “He is the righter of wrongs“. For those who do not believe in the occult and would like to have much more concrete proof, check out these facts.El Shaarawy, nicknamed Il Faraone (The Pharaoh), given his Egyptian heritage (his father is Egyptian while his mother is Italian), is the fourth youngest player ever to play in Serie A. Starting in the Genoa youth system, he led the Primavera team to Primavera Cup, Primavera Super Cup in 2008-09 season and Primavera Scudetto in 2009-10. Realizing that he is destined for bigger things, Enrico Preziosi, the Genoa president loaned him out to Padova in Serie B. As an 18-year-old, he led Padova to the Serie A promotion play-offs against Novara. In that match, an unfortunate red card to Padova defender Cesar, led to El Shaarawy being sacrificed as the substitute for a new defender. Ultimately Padova would lose that play-off but El Shaarawy’s performance over the 2010-11 season with Padova (9 goals and 2 assists in 30 matches) won him the year-end best player in Serie B award in the annual Calcio Oscars. At the age of 19, he has played for every Italian team he has been eligible for – U16, U17, U18, U19, and now has debuted for the U-21. At every stage, he has scored at least one goal barring the U-21.

Tales of his talent were well known in the peninsula and Milan was especially aware of it, being the team that Genoa Primavera beat in the Super Coppa. Adriano Galliani, Milan’s #2 man after President Silvio Berlusconi, had already made an attempt to sign him in 2010 but Preziosi rebuffed him. Finally in 2011, on the back of his show for Padova, Milan coerced Preziosi to co-own Shaarawy. It was expected that he would be loaned out to gain first team experience. But somehow it didn’t materialise. Milan had a debilitating injury crisis at the start of the season and The Pharaoh made his debut as a substitute, in a losing cause at Napoli. He would come on as a substitute 3 days later when Alex Pato was injured in the 29th minute against Udinese at home and Milan losing 1-0. That day, El Shaarawy would save the Milan blushes with his first ever Serie A goal. However, with the stars returning for Milan, the opportunities would dry up and further talks of move away from Milan in January transfer window would arise. But opportunity in a friendly match against Paris Saint-Germain in January showed once again what he offers. Further injuries to strikers would force Massimiliano Allegri to start El Shaarawi against his old nemesis Novara. Twice in a week, in a cup pre-quarter final and Serie A he would be instrumental in Milan’s win against Novara. The defeat with Padova would be avenged. There would be further evidence of his growing reputation in the Cup quarter final win from behind against Lazio, especially his assist to Clarence Seedorf. Each subsequent match that he would play for Milan would only reinforce that reputation.

Padova’s director of sport Rino Foschi is not surprised. “El Shaarawy is a phenomenon, a special player. When Galliani called me before taking him, I said he is the strongest in his age group in all European leagues. He could be much more important in a few years than what Carlos Tevez (Milan’s #1 transfer target in January) is“.

Given how the Pharaoh is progressing, it wouldn’t be long before Foschi’s forecast turns out to be true.

The Curious Case of Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia[1]

Antonio Cassano has divided opinion like no other modern day Italian footballer. Gino de Blasio goes under the skin of the man to find what makes him tick and why we should pray to see ‘Peter Pan’ again

It was a historic moment. 1982 was a year calcio will never forget. It had taken 12 years for the Italian team to reach the World Cup final, and on July 11, Enzo Beardzot’s team, captained by the legendary Dino Zoff lifted the golden chalice after 44 years. A nation had been re-united under one footballing faith.

As providence would have it, 12 July 1982 was to be the start of another footballing beginning for Italy – the birth of Antonio Cassano.

Humble beginnings

“In school, I would get 2 out of 10 in every subject. A great result if you think about it, obtained through constant hard work. I have been held back six times, between primary and high school”

Born in Bari and raised by his mother, Cassano has proven to be a controversial figure of calcio. Fabio Capello used to call his tantrums and subsequent reactions “Cassanate” (literally translated as “doing a Cassano”); not as a modest term of endearment though.

He has played for his home town, Roma, Real Madrid, Sampdoria and now resides in the bosom of Milan. He has been surrounded by some of the greatest in the game, played with those who have achieved the highest of footballing honours; so why hasn’t the boy from Bari been more recognised?

.

.

The man with many shades

.

That match against Inter

It was a 30 yard pass, a pass which  an 18-year-old Cassano, in his debut season in 99-00 with Bari, saw and swooped on; the ball bounced; he controlled with the outside of his boot; it bobbled in front of him. Laurent Blanc cuts across, but to no avail, Antonio sweeps between two Inter defenders before taking aim and firing the shot home.

“If it wasn’t for that game against Inter I would have become a thief, or worse, either way, a delinquent. A lot of people that I know have become involved in that life. That game my talent shone, and it took me away from a future of potential s**t”

It would be fair to say, that match against Inter put Antonio squarely on the map of calcio. Being a prodigious talent from a humble background, the media frenzy it would cause and the subsequent future it would provide him, must now be a distant memory.

Roma calling

It would be with a move to Roma that Cassano would begin to make his name, and stake his claim of being one of the best talents in Europe. But it would be under the guidance of Fabio Capello, and friendship of Francesco Totti that Cassano would go through the highs and lows of top flight football.

With Totti, there would be a telepathic link between the two. When one moved into space, another would feed the ball, it would be some of the best attacking football that you could witness, although blighted by some performances that you wish you hadn’t seen.

But it was to be his relationship with Capello that would be the beginning of the end for his time at Roma. On more than one occasion, (approximately 20 times), he told him to f**k off. He missed training sessions and even incurred the wrath of club president, Rossella Sensi for reasons unknown.

And then there was Real Madrid…

“I used to play between market stalls, everyone wanted me in their team and I would bet 10, 15, 20 thousand lire on the team that I would play on. I wasn’t cocky, I wasn’t stupid: I wanted the money, I had to give myself the best odds.”

 His move away from the eternal city came as a shock to many, but a surprise to few. His temperament had gotten to the likes of Capello and other team mates including his closest friend Totti with apparent training ground bust-ups. His lack of conformity annoyed the echelons at the top. Real came calling and he succumbed, being the second ever Italian player to sign for them after former Roma teammate, Christian Panucci.

.

.

In his Real Attire

.

But his time was to be fraught with injury, poor performances and famously gaining weight leading to subsequent fines for every kilo over his established playing weight. And then Real appointed Fabio Capello, as their manager. He was yet to meet his old coach, and in an infamous youtube moment, Cassano was caught mimicking Capello, leading to the slippery path of exclusion, suspension and contract release…

Sampdoria, no really, he went to Sampdoria

Well, where else could he go? Cassano was derided by the press and his lack of playing time at the end of his Real Madrid days were detrimental to securing a top tier team; no offence Sampdoria fans.

His time though was to be fruitful. He quickly became a local legend. His displays of the Cassano of old was lauded by everyone, even if his temper at points got him carded and a shirt throwing incident landed him a five match ban. But his first year provided the highest point for Sampdoria since winning the scudetto in the early 90s, a return to European competition was awaited.

His second season was more of the same. Sterling performances with costriker Pazzini saw him produce some of his best displays, leading many to compare the partnership to that of Mancini and Vialli. Sampdoria finished fourth, a Champions League playoff followed, only to end in disappointment for the blucerchiati.

It was to be his third season that the good old Antonio showed the attitude that had left him out of the national team. Following a heated debate with the club president, Cassano had his contract terminated, and subsequently a sporting tribunal saw that Antonio couldn’t play until January 2011 when….Milan came calling.

Buongiorno[2]Milano!

“I was poor, I want to be precise, in my whole life I have not worked a single day. I don’t know how to do anything. Up to today I’ve spent 17 years being a scoundrel and spent 9 being a millionaire. I still have 8 years to balance up the books.”

Antonio moved from Sampdoria to Milan in the January transfer window of 2010, for a fee yet to be understood by NASA scientists! The complexity ensured Milan paid little, very little for the jewel of Bari, but it was a risk. Could he guarantee the talent without the tantrum? Could Milan manager Max Allegri and co. keep him away from straying?

It was to be the case. Cassano was instrumental in the second half for Milan in the 2011 season. Providing movement and goals at the front, he eased the burden on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pato, linking brilliantly with anyone he played with. His talent was at the forefront, with Milan’s environment of highly decorated former players and staff, keeping him out of trouble.

A temporary set back

And so it was to be the start of a second season that “Fant’Antonio” was to begin displaying the best his abilities could provide. Recalled to the Italy squad under Cesare Prandelli, and providing a flux of assists for club and country, it seemed we were all being treated to the Cassano we knew he could always be.

But it was to be a return from an away match against Roma that saw the Italian football world stunned. Cassano suffered an ischemic-based stroke. His life momentarily threatened, his career was instantly put on the back burner, for club and ultimately country. Whilst the prognosis remains a minimum six month absence from the pitch, it has only recently emerged that Antonio was seen back in training with the Milan squad, only three months after prognosis.

“The football gods have decided that this is to be a temporary setback” said one Milan fan on twitter. But now, with the prospect of Cassano back on the pitch sooner rather than later, if football miracles can happen, please dear universe, let this be one of them.


[1] The Jewel of Old Bari – a nickname of Antonio Cassano

[2] Good Morning!

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

●●●  

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

●●●


[1] Illegal betting on football

Scouting Network – Manolo Gabbiadini

Scouting Network identifies young players under the age of 21 who have exceptional talent and could be one of the leading players of the future. This month GoaldenTimes profiles Manolo Gabbiadini


Manolo Gabbiadini is an up and coming Italian striker who plays for Atalanta. Manolo is the younger brother of Melanie Gabbiadini who is an Italian international and has won 3 Scudetti, 3 Italian Super Cups, and 2 Italian Cups. When asked to comment on her brother’s potential, she said, “He’s a very good striker. He’s tall, he’s quick and he has a great left foot.” If you were transported 15 years back and somebody said the same thing about a striker who plays for Atalanta, you would immediately utter the name of Christian Vieri. The resemblance becomes clearer when you note that Vieri did come to play a season with Atalanta in 2008-09 and young Manolo may have come in close contact with him as he was in the Atalanta youth system at the time.

He made his Serie A debut at the age of 18 for Atalanta in 2010. That season though Atalanta would be relegated to Serie B and Manolo would move to Cittadella on loan. The 2010-11 season would be one of apprenticeship in Serie B and Manolo would play 29 times for Cittadella, notching up 5 goals and 4 assists. His exposure would hold him good as Atalanta, who had gained promotion to the top division, would recall Manolo to the team.

In the 2011-12 season though, Manolo has struggled to hold on to a regular spot in the Atalanta first XI. He has played 9 times in the league and once in the Coppa with his sole goal coming in the Coppa. German Denis is the joint top scorer of the league and he has been ably supported by Maxi Moralez and Guido Marilungo, leaving Manolo to bit-part roles.

But his real progress has been evident in Ciro Ferrara’s Azzurrini (Italy U21) team. In 4 matches of the U21 European qualification, Manolo has scored 6 times with 2 assists to boot. This included a hat-trick against Liechtenstein and 2 goals against Hungary. He also provided both the assists in the top of the table clash with Turkey. Powered by his performances, the Azzurrini have a 100% record. Overall in 13 matches for the Azzurrini, Manolo has scored 10 times – a very handsome ratio by any standards and he became only the 9th Italian ever to reach double figures while playing for the Azzurrini and some of those names have gone on to become legends of Italian football – Andrea Pirlo, Christian Vieri (that man again), Gianluca Vialli among them. Manolo though has his head about him. There have been transfer rumours of reported interest from Juventus but seeing how he is struggling to hold on a place in Atalanta, he would rather fight it out at Bergamo than look for a move to Turin. If Denis continues his scoring spree for Atalanta, Manolo might  be well served to have a loan season tucked in to keep his good form for the Azzurrini reflected in the league too. A move down to Serie B would not harm either.

In effect, Manolo is one of the archetypical Italian bombers who have the feet and the head to engage the defence on his own and score goals. A bit more tactical awareness and off-the-ball movement along with some much needed playing time would boost him up to realising some of the potential that he has shown and get him towards matching his sister’s medals tally.

Most Competitive League in Europe

Competition (re)defined

Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared.” Wikipedia defines competition this way. However, it is not so easy to define I guess. How do we classify competitiveness of a European football league? Surely, the most popular football league in the world need not necessarily be the most competitive one. Neither the Galacticos nor supposedly the best ever club team playing in the same league can ensure that.

                                                         

English Premier League                             Spanish La Liga                                     Italian Serie A

                           

German Bundesliga                           French Ligue 1                                           Dutch Eredivisie

Some may feel that the number of winners over the past few years is the best parameter to judge the ruthlessness of any league. But here’s a question. How many of us have heard of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio? Not many, in my opinion. It is the football league operated in San Marino. Since its inception in 1985, it has seen 10 different winners – 5 in the last decade. This league is ranked 53rd in Europe by UEFA. The Swedish Allsvenskan, top division football league in Sweden has seen the trophy taking a tour of as many as 7 different club locker rooms during the same period. There can be several leagues in Europe which do not feature highly in the UEFA league rankings, or are not watched by billions, but they are certainly competitive by this parameter. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that EPL or La Liga is the most predictable league in Europe. There are other contenders. Last time the Scottish League was won by a club other than Celtic or Rangers, was way back in 1984/85 – the club was Aberdeen, managed by a certain (not Sir yet) Alex Ferguson. So, let’s not complicate things – just get on with some hard core facts and statistics.

Methodology

In this research, we have made certain assumptions and here is a quick snapshot to start off.

Select Leagues from Europe

For this analysis, top 3 leagues from Europe have been shortlisted – English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga. For the German Bundesliga, French League 1, Dutch Eredivisie fans, I seek an apology. The 3 leagues chosen had the maximum number (4) of clubs appearing in the UEFA Champions League for the past few years. Germany has overtaken Italy this year and will be having 4 teams in the Champions League season 2012-13, but for the time period considered – more on that later – Italy used to have more participants than Germany. Under the parameters considered, the French or German League could have come up with the honours if included, but we have taken into consideration the pedigree of the league also.

Finalize Parameters

Certain parameters have been shortlisted to take the analysis forward. They are:

  • No. of drawn games
  • No. of matches won with a victory margin of 3+
  • Difference in points across the league table
  • Point gap between the 1st and 5th placed teams
  • No. of Goals scored
  • No. of different  winners
  • No. of different Teams featuring in the top 4
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Mid table opponents
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Bottom 5 teams

Data Collection

For the analysis, 5 years of recent data has been collected from the respective league’s official website. There is no need for normalization as the league structure is the same for all the 3 leagues – 20 teams play in the home and away basis, at the end of which 3 teams get relegated. So number of teams, matches played, and the number of survivors in the league – are well synchronized to help our analysis. For the analysis, point deductions or any penalties imposed (most notably in Serie A 2006-07 season for the match fixing fiasco) have been ignored. Subsequently, the league standings have also been altered and updated. For example, Fiorentina was deducted 15 points at the start of the season and hence finished 6th in the League. Had they not been penalized, they would have finished 3rd and that is the place they have been put in for this piece’s analysis. We are dissecting the competitiveness in the field, so any off-the-field implications are best kept away with.

Analysis

It is very difficult to rank the parameters or to decide which factor is to be given how much weightage. So, let us just assess the parameters individually as far as possible and see if we reach a coherent conclusion from there.

1.      Number of Drawn Games

A drawn game, more often than not, depicts the inability to win of either sides playing. Putting it in the colloquial lingo, “they have cancelled each other out… it’s a stalemate.”

La Liga has a lower number of drawn games historically and that too at a downward trend. EPL and Serie A seem to lock horns with each other with the former taking over the mantle from the latter in recent years. This is due to the fact that EPL has an upward trend in number of drawn games, whereas Serie A is quite the opposite. Overall the number of drawn games in these 3 leagues hover around the 25% mark, take one or two percent here and there. So, it means effectively 9-10 drawn games for each team in a season on an average basis. That is pretty high, show-casing the high level of competition in each of the leagues.

2.      Number. of Matches with Winning Margin 3+ 

These score lines have been few and far between in EPL & Serie A

Fiercely competitive teams, when playing against each other, will have a very narrow winning margin. As a thumb rule, a margin of anything over 2-0 or 3-1 or likewise can be termed as a stroll in the park. Agreed, results can be misleading; but in a wide horizon, these anomalies are likely to be ironed out. So, let us see how many thrashing we have witnessed in the recent past.

As expected, Serie A teams have lived up to their reputation of having a tight defence and thus have had fewer experiences of these thrashings. The teams from Italy on an average experience this kind of humiliation only once in the entire season. For the other 2 leagues, the number almost doubles. The number of such matches has, more or less, remained constant over the years for each individual league. La Liga & EPL are neck and neck, although the former is slightly ahead.

3.       Difference in points across the League

Let us now see by how much have the table toppers leapfrogged the last boys? To do that, we have categorized the 20 teams in any league under 3 broad subheads:

  • Top 4 teams – they are the Top teams as they go on to participate in the top tier of European Club Football, the Champions League.
  • Bottom 5 teams –3 of these teams were relegated eventually, whereas the rest are assumed to be involved in a dogfight for survival for the majority of the season. Hence, it makes perfect sense to categorize them in the same bracket.
  • The Mid tablers – rest 11 teams in the league.

Now average points earned by each of these 3 groups have been taken up for calculating standard deviation – a statistical parameter, to measure the proximity of variables under consideration – of points in the league. This gives us a fair idea of how closely the teams, or rather cluster of teams, are finishing the league.

EPL is showing steady decrease in this, meaning the teams are getting ever closer. The figures are more or less constant for Serie A, although with a decreasing trend. La Liga is just the opposite in this regard – the teams are finishing with some considerable point gap among them. This was the scenario in EPL a few years back, but they have become quite competitive over the years. The case of La Liga is simply opposite.

4.      Point Gap between 1st & 5th placed teams

The team to finish 5th in these leagues are given a pat at the back with consolation. They nearly miss out to an elusive Champions League Football spot. So, let us see how the gap between the Champion and this unfortunate side has evolved over the years.

In sync with the previous stat, the gap seems to get more and more widened in La Liga. This is expected, as their champion team is a certain Barcelona. Also, the spread between the 2nd and the 3rd placed teams are widening quite alarmingly – 5, 10, 8, 21 and 25 points over the last 5 years. Just to put it into perspective, the 21 or 25 points gap is by far the biggest gap between any two consecutive placed teams for these 3 leagues over the last 5 years. In fact 25 point gap encompassed all the teams baring the top 5 in year 2010-11 in EPL. People do not call this league a 2-horse race just for fun. For Serie A and EPL, there is a downward trend in this regard. So it shows there is an increasing competition towards the business end of the league.

Udinese edging out Lazio for the last Champions League spot by goal difference in 2010-11

5.         Points dropped by the Top 4 against Mid-tablers

Depth of any league is measured by the skill, tactics and determination applied on the field by the mid-tablers – teams finishing 6th to 15th in the final standing. More often than not, they fancy their chances against the big boys, especially playing at home, and are capable of getting a point, sometimes even 3. Teams like Sunderland, Mallorca and Palermo have often played a significant part in deciding the fate of the league winner. Stronger these teams, more cut-throat is guaranteed in the league.

In La Liga, the mid-tablers are losing the ground steadily to the front runners – there is a steady decline in the points dropped. EPL demonstrates just the reverse trend, the mid-table toddlers are going from strength to strength. However, Serie A has been the leader by far in this respect over the years. EPL, though, has a sharper trend and may overtake Serie A if the pattern continues. Overall, the top teams drop one-third of points against the mid-table opponents across these 3 leagues. This is quite a hefty proportion – 1 draw every 2 matches.

Mid Table teams look to set the scores straight

6.      Points dropped by the Top 4 against Bottom 5 Teams

The relegation contenders often play a spoil sport. The top teams are expected to win against them, that too handsomely. However, they can sometime cause an upset to the joy of other title contenders. A Fulham can upset Arsenal’s plans of automatic qualification to the Champions League. A Livorno can snatch away the title from Roma. So, let us see how the stats stack up over the years.

Like the previous section, La Liga table toppers are improving year after year against the minnows. On the other hand, the other two leagues are finding it more and more difficult to walk away with the honours against the bottom clubs. EPL though, in spite of this trend, has a lower average points dropped – there the top 4 teams are doing fairly well against the less fancied opponents. Serie A teams have been the front runner in this stat – they are way ahead of the competition and are steadily increasing the gap. Overall, the top 4 teams are performing well enough against the lower clubs – they concede only 10% points in these encounters. However, the position of the league table, the time of the season when they are dropping points – these factors are more important. Like the bottom most team in the league table, Wolves were the first team in the EPL 2010-11 season to beat the eventual champions Manchester United. The defeat set the Red Devils on a poor run of form and Chelsea had the opportunity to cash in.

David v/s Goliath is not always a foregone conclusion

Conclusion

So many statistics and analysis! So where are we now? Can we reach any conclusion? Let us try to recapitulate the results in a nutshell.

In the above analysis, the most competitive league based on each parameter has been given rank 1. The arrow’s direction represents the trend, whereas its colour depicts the competitiveness – green for more cut-throat, red for the opposite and yellow for middle-of-the-road competitiveness. For example, a green downward arrow means that the league has a downward trend as far as the parameter (say, Point gap between the 1st & the 5th placed Teams) is concerned, and that fact (the arrow being green) will make the league more competitive in the coming years.

It is quite evident from our analysis that Serie A is by far the most competitive League. EPL may be just edging out La Liga for the period under consideration. So, what about the hue and cry about EPL being the most competitive league in Europe? What does their dominance in the Champions League (i.e. number of teams featuring in quarters or semis) mean?

One thing going in favour of EPL is the number of goals scored. Serie A, being a defence dominated league, logically has less number of goals. EPL, though not as competitive as Serie A, scores over in this aspect.

A definitive answer lies in the trend analysis of our findings. While La Liga is finding it difficult to remain competitive as per the parameters provided here, EPL is fast catching up with the Serie A. In recent 2-3 years, they have surely leapfrogged Serie A in every aspect of competitiveness. Moreover, number of goals scored in Seria A is shrinking. EPL is quite the opposite – far more goals are scored there and the rate is even better than La Liga. It is not surprising, since the top English clubs are now massive sports franchises which can lure the top players to the Premier league. So, EPL apart from being quite competitive is a fairly entertaining league (after all, a goal is what every football lover wants to see, isn’t it!). If the trend continues for the coming years, EPL fans’ claim will be hard to turn down.

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Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United and East Bengal (India) fan. He can be reached at debojyoti.chakraborty@gmail.com