The Odds Are Crazily Stacked Against Milan. They Just Have To Be Crazier.

The scale of Milan’s task having to face Barcelona in the Quarter-Finals of the Champions League was evident from the day they were drawn together with arguably the strongest club side ever assembled in the history of football. Several weeks later, Milan now have to grapple with declining odds against a new and potentially deadlier opponent: the injury crisis that has struck Milanello, threatening to derail everything good they have achieved this season.

The tactical choices available to Milan tactician Massimiliano Allegri, particularly in defence and midfield, are not looking particularly rosy. The Scudetto front-runners defeated A.S. Roma 2-1 in the weekend Serie A action to keep distance off second-placed Juventus, but that result could be made to feel like a defeat tonight should the fact they lost world-class defender Thiago Silva to injury return to haunt them against Barcelona.

Such circumstances tip the odds further in Barcelona’s favour, causing Allegri to scratch his head in befuddlement as he questions what he did to deserve the task of having to take his beleaguered side past opponents who’s performances tend to transcend those of mere mortals. Truth be told, it will be pretty crazy to harbour hopes in Milan’s elimination of Barcelona and the advancement to the Semi-Finals. Below are five ways in which Milan can be ‘crazier’ to secure some hope of making it through the first leg:

 

Let Barcelona make the first move

Tactics at the minuscule level are not going to work if the team’s philosophy is not firmly established. Milan have the necessary quality to win the Champions League, but even if the team were at full strength, they couldn’t afford to slog it out head-to-head with Barcelona. With the situation at hand now, Milan have to sit back and allow their opponents to come at them, looking to frustrate them and hit them on the break.

Such tactics have been employed this season by the smaller regional sides that make up La Liga to great effect, forcing Barcelona off the pace in the title race and ensuring they depend ever more on Messi to produce a typical moment of magic to win them games. Milan have the necessary quality to punish a frustrated Barcelona in this case, and if they can hold out till the 70th minute and conserve their energies before starting to push forward, they stand a chance of snatching a result.

Don’t use Ibrahimovic as the out-and-out striker

Ibrahimovic has better uses.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be Milan’s top and most reliable scorer with 22 goals in Serie A so far, but there’s so much more to the Swedish superstar than merely being expected to do what his position entails of him. Employing him as an isolated out-and-out striker against Barcelona will just work against Milan, and he has to be utilized in a deeper role that will enable him to use his flair for conjuring up the unthinkable to create space for his teammates to get forward with intent.

Such a role paid its dividends when Milan tore Arsenal apart 4-0 at the San Siro, with Ibrahimovic laying on 2 goals as well as orchestrating countless other attacking moves to get his teammates into good attacking positions. With Barcelona expected to control the majority of possession here, Ibrahimovic stands to become that much more involved in matters should he is to be used in a slightly more unfamiliar role than normal.

Play the Trequartista in a defensive role

The Prince has the energy to attack and defend simultaneously.

Milan are going to have to accept that they will be on the back foot for much of the game. Their primary formation, the 4-3-1-2, works in their advantage in this case, given its midfield can be adapted to play with a more attacking or defensive-minded mentality, the latter looking the more obvious choice here.

Whether Dutchman Urby Emanualson or Kevin-Prince Boateng adopts the role of the attacking midfielder, or Trequartista, behind the strikers, their role will lie more in disrupting Barcelona’s fluid building of their attacks from deep. How well either energetic player goes about the job harassing and disrupting the movements and composure of Barcelona’s principle architects Xavi, Fabregas or Iniesta could hold the difference between a defeat or a result for Milan.

Experience counts

These oldies can teach their younger opponents a thing or two still.

Much has been made of Serie A’s ageing players. Admittedly, they do not have the physical attributes necessary to get them through an entire season in the domestic league, thus limiting the effectiveness of their contributions, but in a competition that calls on as much of international experience and exposure as a player’s natural talent and ability, Milan very much have the advantage over Barcelona.

From Clarence Seedorf to Massimo Ambrosini, Alessandro Nesta (if he is fit) and Gianluca Zambrotta, Milan’s veterans should be given priority to start the game, where they must rise to the fore to lead by example. The onus lies on them to expect to know when to make the right foul, the right move, the right burst and the right feint in order to provide an embattled Milan with the leadership and impetus necessary to secure something from this game.

Do what matters – get the goals

A few goals are within Milan’s reach.

For all Barcelona have contributed to the game via their tiki-taka style of play, characterized by breathtaking displays of attacking football that are a far-cry from the dour, cynical side commonly associated with Calcio, or Italian football, the reality in football is, the performances of the team still lies secondary to its results.

Given their injury crisis, Milan have had to dig deep in order to secure their wins in Serie A. Their football may not be the prettiest at times compared to that of Juventus’ or Roma’s, but it must be admitted, it is efficient. It will be very ‘Italian’ for Milan to grab a few goals against the run of play and and hope for the best in the away leg, where they will face another daunting 90 minutes trying to do exactly the same, but that’s football for you, and exactly what they have to try for.

So there you have it, the ways in which Milan can chase the dream of progressing over both legs into the semi-finals. It takes guts to stare Barcelona in the eye and say you deserved a win more than them, so the biggest tip to Serie A’s representatives here is, don’t try. Regardless of whether tonight’s game proves to be an example of pragmatism vs. fluid perfection, or a thriller where both sides throw caution to the wind, you’re going to be guaranteed what could go down in history as a classic of European football, as A.C. Milan entertain F.C. Barcelona at the San Siro.

In Judging The Fogies…

Lining up the ball on the edge of the box, he proceeded to curl it cleanly over the wall set up to thwart his prowess from free kicks into the bottom corner of the net, leaving the goalkeeper helplessly rooted to the spot and marking that win against Catania as significant for Andrea Pirlo’s first Juventus goal, after signing on for the Scudetto contenders in the summer transfer window.

The impact he has made with the Turin club certainly did not just begin with that moment however, with his presence dictating play from midfield absolutely fundamental to revolutionizing the way the club played its football as a new era of success beckoned under coach Antonio Conte. Initial detractors who were against his free transfer from A.C. Milan, claiming he was past it at 31 then, were rapidly converted. The wave of the move’s success has appeared to catch on, and reports, prior to Milan’s second-leg semi-final against F.C. Barcelona, now suggest Pirlo is trying to convince his former colleague, Alessandro Nesta, to join the revolution in Turin.

Andrea Pirlo has made a massive impact in Turin. Can Nesta do the same?

The powers that be at Milan were widely criticized for their lack of foresight in not attempting too hard to stop the mercurial Pirlo from leaving for one last hurrah with Juventus. Consensus would suggest they would come in for the same treatment if they allowed Nesta, who days earlier proved his worth in thwarting free-scoring Barcelona and holding them to a goalless draw with Milan in the Champions League, to leave in similar fashion.

The question is, should Juventus add the two-time Champions League, not to mention World Champion, to their ranks of veterans who have seemingly taken on new leases of lives in Turin? What future value would the 36 year-old Nesta bring to the club in relativity to Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, the afore-mentioned Pirlo and possibly but unlikely, Alessandro Del Piero?

The former Lazio captain and current Milan icon certainly has what it takes to play at top level for a season or two more, despite making only 11 Serie A appearances this season given persistent back trouble. He ably makes up for his dwindling pace with an apt ability to read the game, where his experience proves a capable ally alongside an innate calm to cleanly win balls and bring them out of the defence with consummate ease.

Despite being 36, Nesta still has something to offer. The question is, how significant?

Such a question can perhaps only be answered after evaluating why Andrea Pirlo has made such an impact with, and indeed why he was first brought to, Juventus. Despite his age and his practically season-ending injury in the 2010/2011 season, Pirlo provided the Bianconeri with something the club previously could not boast of, a graft in midfield that helped the tactical components of the team to coexist in balance on the field, not in conflict. In that sense, Juventus were not signing a singular player; they were signing a new philosophy, an idea, an expression of play, a tactical redefinition. Name thy ways. The same cannot be said of Nesta.

Nesta would bring a boost to the defensive know-how of any team, but in considering the nature of the inevitable split between Bianconeri legend Del Piero and the club, how does the world-class defender represent anything different in value to the Juventus captain? In spite of his status at the club and recent scintillating performances inciting fans and fellow professionals to petition for his contract to be renewed, Del Piero has been told his departure will bring the symbolic ushering in of a new age where the club focuses on young, talented blood.

 

If even Del Piero has not been able to earn a stay at the club, how so Nesta?

Nesta may be a head over any of the current Juventus defenders from a technical perspective, but that ought not to be enough to warrant the club shattering the consistency and credibility of its stand towards such matters when they achieve nothing of that sort in this case.

As it is, Nesta’s arrival will stunt the development of his hypothetical new defensive teammates, in a side that already boasts the best defensive record in Serie A this season. Chiellini and Barzagli have risen to the fore in the centre of defence, young Leonardo Bonucci, despite the occasional hiccup, has shown enough to warrant a successful future with the club, and new arrival Martin Caceres has shown himself as adept in the centre as he is out on the wing.

Antonio Conte’s side has shown tremendous potential in the department this season, and can only go forward with their acquirement of young, talented defenders. Signing Alessandro Nesta to offer competition to what is already and what will be at the club’s disposal will only be self-defeating and a fatal prioritization of the short term over the long, wholly at odds with the introduction of the new phase in the club’s history. It has already been perverse, albeit pleasing given his performances, to see Pirlo, a man firmly established in Calcio followers’ minds as a player historically synonymous with A.C. Milan, donning Bianconeri colours; for more reasons than one for both Juventus and Milan, pray Nesta doesn’t follow in such footsteps.

Who Deserves Third Spot in Serie A and Entry into the Champions League?

Week 31 saw yet another twist in the Serie A title race, as Juventus, at one point finding themselves four points behind A.C. Milan in second place, not only reduced that deficit, but overturned it. The rejuvenated Turin club’s routine 2-0 victory over Palermo in Sicily coincided with Milan’s shock 1-2 home reverse against relegation-battlers Fiorentina, sending them a point clear of their rivals as the season enters its final seven fixtures.

Since the end of the winter break, with the focus lying on referees, conspiracies and plain-old scintillating displays from the two Scudetto contenders, an intriguing battle for third place, and the final qualification berth to the Champions League, has somewhat unfairly been relegated to the back of followers’ minds. As derived from this writer’s opinion, only one club deserves to claim that spot, not so much for its results this season as for their long-term ambitions and potential.

The battle for Serie A’s final UEFA Champions League spot heats up.

The 3-1 victory for Lazio over fellow-challengers Napoli restored some rightful luster back to the qualifying race for Europe’s premier club competition, highlighting the unpredictability of Italy’s top flight and its sheer competitiveness. Once thought to be Udinese’s for the taking, they have now been joined by the afore-mentioned challengers as well as A.S. Roma, and it is a combination of the project that the American-owned club are undertaking as well as the deficiencies of the other challengers that makes the Giallorossi, however unlikely it will happen, ideal takers for that spot.

The Romans, in an attempt to expand a greater global standing to the sporting department that was first introduced during the American takeover of the club by Thomas R. DiBenedetto, a partner with the American Fenway Sports Group, promptly replaced the previous season’s interim coach Vincenzo Montella with Luis Enrique. A former F.C. Barcelona Youth Team coach, Enrique has drawn heavily on his time in Spain by attempting to implement a tiki-taka style of attacking football to his side, with mixed results.

Luis Enrique has attempted to change the way Roma play with mixed results.

Their up-and-down form currently sees them occupy sixth-place, seven points behind bitter rivals Lazio in third. Despite criticism that their dominance of possession with little end result has been labelled as aimless, Enrique has largely managed to get the squad playing to his ideas, with only the odd-hiccup such as their 4-2 loss to Lecce on Saturday night threatening to derail their bid for Europe.

The club nonetheless has exuded a surprising calm and patience with Enrique, portraying an ideal modern example to the rest of Italian football on how sustainable coaching can be achieved, something Udinese and Napoli have also implemented to their credit in recent times. The new club board has likewise showcased its ambition by making the expensive acquisitions of Miralem Pjanic, Erik Lamela and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, also promising more high-profile names in the future.

What separates Roma from arguably its closest counterpart, Napoli, is that while both clubs share the same passion in adopting a long-term strategy to boost their club profile season by season, Roma have as much as double the resources than those at Napoli’s disposal, making it that much easier for the capital side to execute their ideas, at twice the speed. Both sides are not yet the finished article, but give it a season or two more, and Roma will find themselves going head-to-head with Italy’s and Europe’s elite on an equal footing.

 

Napoli’s humbling at the hands of Chelsea was a sharp return to reality.

Napoli have performed with surprising aplomb in their maiden appearance in the Champions League, with Aurelio De Laurentiis having led the Southerners on a meteoric rise since their time in Serie C1.They rode their luck and gave as good as they got against Bayern Munich and Manchester City, but ultimately proved heart, spirit and courage was not enough to cut it against the riches of Chelsea, falling out of the competition at the hands of the London side. Their struggles to sustain the massive physical efforts of playing in three competitions at once, most notably in the league, suggest they still have some way to go before they can be considered a top club, despite the talented players at their disposal.

Lazio and Udinese remain selling clubs at the moment, Lazio especially showcasing an alarming ability to self-destruct. After struggling to win the support of the club’s fans, coach Edy Reja then suffered a tempestuous falling out with club owner Claudio Lotito over the club’s moves in the January transfer window, making it far from the ideal environment a coach can do his best work in. Support in transfer markets has not been too forthcoming, and Lazio are expected to eventually lose key players Senad lulic, Hernanes and Stefan Radu in the not-so-distant future, having already seen Goran Pandev, Aleksander Kolarov and Stephan Lichtsteiner depart. Udinese too have suffered from inconsistency in the second part of the season, as the summer sales of Gokhan Inler, Christian Zapata and Alexis Sanchez begin to be felt. No spite intended here, but these European contenders have been winging it for the past few seasons; clearly not enough if Serie A is to remain categorized as one of Europe’s top leagues much longer.

Udinese and Lazio have not performed with the consistency to be dubbed any more than placeholders.

If Roma can learn to translate their attractive football into results, a place in the Champions League will remain an achievable target. Do not judge them based on this season’s results; there is more to them that meets the eye. While Napoli, Lazio and Udinese have been enjoying the past couple of seasons and Roma apparently feeding on their scraps, the balance of power in football can shift in the blink of an eye with lavish support from the board, the right acquisitions, and a policy of patience to allow the coach time to implement his ideas; look no further than Juventus this season. Make no mistake, the Lupi will be back with a vengeance.

Pay Piermario Morosini Respect That Really Means Something

The unfortunate passing of Piermario Morosini during the Serie B match between Pescara and Livorno on the 14th of April 2012 marked one of the saddest deaths in the world of sports. Only 25 years of age, Morosini collapsed on the pitch and was rushed to a local hospital, only to eventually be pronounced dead.

Many went as far as to say it was destiny that called the young man home, with doctors stating not even a defibrillator could have saved him from either the cardiac arrests or aneurysm that are claimed to have taken his life. Morosini’s colleagues lent their voice in chorus to praise the memory of the late player, who had lost both his parents and younger brother to tragic circumstances, yet ‘just wanted a little happiness’ and never let his troubled past prevent him from having ‘a smile on his face’.

The shaken world of Calcio duly responded to the news by sensibly postponing all of the weeks Serie A fixtures, support of that decision nobly pouring in from every corner of the league, bar Zamparini (who else). The Lega Calcio has done everything, perhaps beyond, what can be reasonably expected in the mourning of the late midfielder, but despite this, more should yet be expected in paying respect to one of the last members of the Morosini family, this time from Serie A’s top clubs.

A clue into what the likes of A.C. Milan and Juventus can do lies in Morosini’s agent’s words describing his client. “He [Morosini] was a young man who suffered so much and just wanted a little happiness. Such a polite and very sweet person always spoke quietly, but at the same time knew how to make sure he was respected.” In a period when the bid for the Scudetto is hotting up, both on the pitch and very much off it, the rest of Serie A has been given a timely reminder to rekindle its humanity and refocus its sporting values.

In one statement, too much has already been made of too little this season. Focus has been diverted onto what are in retrospect, trivial off-field matters when placed in perspective with the struggles Morosini had to endure in life, yet never uttering so much of a whimper nor losing any appetite for life.

Italy is a country that has always taken its football seriously, but a little too seriously this season round. The shenanigans of Milan and Juventus clamouring about the likes of referees, officiating standards and conspiracy theories put the morals Morosini stood for to shame, in a season that has already seen the most beautiful, and the most ugly, side of Calcio reveal itself.

Paolo Maldini, the resident Milan legend, criticized coach Massimiliano Allegri in the lead-up to last weekend’s would-be matches for again raking up Sulley Muntari’s wrongly disallowed goal almost two months back against direct competitors Juventus, the last incident in a long string of clubs firing salvos at each other that have typified the turn of the new year. That the Bianconeri tend to respond in nearly as snide a fashion does them no credit either.

The venom existing between clubs has dislodged much of the credibility of the sporting aspect.

The ongoing exchange of opinions between this set of Scudetto contenders highlight the once-more increasingly political nature of Italy’s league, and Morosini’s death and the bringing to light of his values should initiate a step back for the clubs to look and reflect on all they have gone too far with. If made a habit in the long run, what implications will it have on Calcio? Will officials retain the courage to referee honestly, protecting Italy’s smaller teams when correct?

A trend should not be made of a few isolated incidents; neither should it kick-start the mouths of conspiracy theorists. While Serie A clubs have every reason to stand up for their own rights, there is still a limit to what can be deemed acceptable, with little excuse to shirk obligations to exercise professionalism, responsibility and set a good example for the league’s millions of followers.

The feuds between Milan and Juventus exceed said mandate in asking for fairer treatment, and in truth are really causing the basic sporting morals of friendly competition and respect for opponents to be thrown out the window. All clubs, present and future, have to realize the damage that is being done by boardroom wars and return to winning games in the way that is known best, on the field of play.

Like Morosini, the less clubs talk about their circumstances and the more they get on with what they have to do, the better. Today, a call goes out from this writer for the rest of Serie A to exude the same sort of grace that typified a good man’s life, if his memory is to truly be honoured.

Rebuilding a Broken Roma

A quick glance at the Serie A table and you will see the revelation of the European season unfolding – something miraculous is happening in the Eternal city. A resurgent Roma under Rudi Garcia have exploded out of the traps, recording the greatest ever start in the Italian league, winning all ten of their opening games and conceding just one goal in the process, only on the eleventh time of asking was an opponent able to take points from them yet they still march on unbeaten as matchday 14 nears.  So, after two seasons of failing to qualify for Europe, what has changed?

There are two individuals who can be praised for this reborn Roma.  Firstly, and most obviously, is the head coach Rudi Garcia.  Appointed in the summer after a strong spell at Lille, which included a league and cup double win in the 2010/11 season.  The Frenchman’s arrival came at a pivotal time after the previous two coaches in charge both left Rome with their tails between their legs.  The summer of 2011 heralded a major moment in Roma’s history with the arrival of the American owners.   Bold statements were made regarding the club and the direction they wanted to take it.  In came former Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique to export the Barcelona model to the Italian capital.  Franco Baldini, Roma general director at the time, chose Enrique not only for his footballing philosophy but also because he believed he wasn’t contaminated by Italian football.  Enrique’s time in Rome ended after only one year as he resigned at the end of his first season, despite clear affection from his players, the fans on the other hand were not impressed with the Spaniard.  Afterwards came the return of Zdenek Zeman.  Another move appointed on the idea that this new Roma had to have an attractive brand of football in order to grow, Zeman is famous for his ultra attacking style.  The decision to bring back Zeman failed spectacularly with the Czech tactician being relieved of his role with 3 months of the season remaining.  The need for a more conservative coach was now crucial for this project to work.  After more or less three seasons without European football given that Roma were eliminated at the Europa League qualifying stages by Slovan Bratislava during Enrique’s first month in charge, and with the club hemorrhaging money as a result, the results on the pitch had to improve drastically.  The choice of coach for this season was therefore seen by many as make or break for the American ownership.

So what has Rudi changed? Firstly, from a tactical point of view Roma defend with a much deeper backline.  The midfield fold in on top of the defence and the two wingers also dropping deep to form a 4-1-4-1 formation when the opposing team have possession.  It is not unusual to see either of the widemen (usually Florenzi and Gervinho) retreat deep enough to act as a shield in front of the respective full-back on their side.  The high work rate of both players allow for this to happen.  Last season, with Totti playing as a left winger, despite the success it brought going forward, it left the Roma left-back Balzaretti extremely exposed at times as Totti’s lack of mobility could not allow him the protection the likes of Gervinho can offer him in the defensive phase.  The deep defensive line also plays strongly into the hands of the two centre-backs – Benatia and Castan.  Both joined Roma from previous successes in similar defensive setups, Castan with the Copa Libertadores winning Corinthians and Benatia in Francesco Guidolin’s Udinese.  As a partnership they are very much at home at watching play unfold in front, being able to attack the ball from deep and minimise the space in behind them.   After Zeman failed to re-create Daniele De Rossi as a box-to-box midfielder last year, under Garcia he has returned to his strongest role anchoring the midfield, and when pressure mounts he drops in as a third centre-back between Benatia-Castan.  The midfield trio of De Rossi, Pjanic and Strootman is one that possesses everything – aggression, flair, steel and intelligence.  Strootman in particular has been an incredible addition to the side.  His reading of the game is extremely underrated and he has a habit of starting Roma attacks by winning the ball from the opposing midfielders in dangerous areas.  Miralem Pjanic also looks to be blossoming into the star he was once tipped to be at Lyon now that he has the muscle in midfield to protect him.

Arguably Garcia’s greatest move is returning Totti to his false nine role.  Totti thrives when he has movement around him, he is the best passer of the ball of his generation and he has options to find he will do so time and time again.  For this reason Gervinho and Florenzi are hand carved to play alongside him in attack, the off the ball movement of both is world-class.  Florenzi is forging a similar relationship with his captain to the one Totti sparked with Simone Perrotta during the Spalletti years, albeit in a slightly different position.

A surprising partnership but one that is bringing out the best in each other.

Another underrated aspect of Rudi’s work with his Roma team is the slight but very effective moves he has made to the roles some play.  Take Florenzi for example.  In his breakthrough season last year he played as part of the midfield three.  He was very effective in this role going forward but his over-eaginess to contribute in attack often left the other two midfielders over-exposed.  Garcia noticed this and has used Florenzi as a winger, utilising both his energy and off the ball movement to add to Totti’s game but also Florenzi’s high work rate to act as defensive winger when Roma do not have the ball.  A move that has clearly benefitted both the team and the player as Florenzi has since been capped and scored for the Azzurri.  The same can be said of his decision to move Totti back to a central role instead of keeping him out on the left.  This way Roma still reap all of the benefits of Totti and none of the defensive draw-backs his lack of mobility causes at times when on the wing.

Off the field Garcia has re-moulded the squad.  He has installed a mentality that previously just doesn’t exist within the camp.  This can be seen most obviously in the way Roma are seeing out winning leads, something this squad of players had great trouble with over the past two years.  Rudi has also welded a togetherness with the group.  Cliques had formed within the squad in the past two seasons with a Brazilian group of players forming their own little group, likewise for the Spanish-speaking player and the native Italian speakers.  The squad seemed to be split in sections.  Whereas now they seem to be one big group.  Garcia now orders the team to eat together after matches, to celebrate as a team.  And in the summer pre-season tour of America through late July into August, he even took the team on some unusual group bonding events.  The most publicized one was water-rafting.  Some of the videos from the event are very funny with the players in different boats pushing each other with oars and splashing one another etc.  Some pundits claim one loss could make this side go into freefall but seeing the unity of them, that is extremely unlikely.  Garcia has forged something remarkable in this group and with the eyes of Europe now upon them, the road ahead will only continue to get tougher as teams will now value them as title contenders.  Having recently dropped points to Torino and Sassuolo in the past week, the absence of Totti and Gervinho has ground to a halt the scintilating form the club showed up to matchday 11 but the return of these key men is expected after the international break, with mouth-watering ties against Fiorentina and Milan approaching just before the winter break.

The unsung hero of this Roman revival is the man behind the curtain of it all, Walter Sabatini.  If you are not familiar, I’ve previously written an article on him nearly two years ago which can be read here.  The American ownership placed Franco Baldini in charge of the footballing side of the project, working as general manager from the summer of 2011 until the summer of 2013.  It was Baldini’s decision bring in Luis Enrique and then Zeman in the head coach position, a decision which failed spectacularly on both accounts.  Rudi Garcia had been linked to the capital club as early as the summer of 2011 as one of the five possible candidates who were reviewed.  Baldini instead chose to ignore the man who is now setting Serie A alight, favouring two inferior managers in the hope of an overly romantic idea of what the project should be.  The end of Baldini’s time at Roma came during the past summer when he very publicly courted Milan’s Max Allegri when it looked like Berlusconi was not going to stick by the tactician.  But in a surprising u-turn Allegri, after dining with Milan director Adriano Galliani, was backed by the senior management of the Rossoneri for the coming season.  This move was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Baldini went to London and Sabatini was promoted in his place.  The first thing Sabatini does is recruit Rudi Garcia.  So the question must be asked, was Baldini holding the project back? If Sabatini had been in charge from the get-go would the project also have kicked off as promising as it has this season? An impossible question to answer and Sabatini did make some questionable signings as sporting director but it is clear the project was ultimately set to fail with Baldini’s poor choice of coach to lead the club.

A meeting between Sabatini and Roma CEO Claudio Fenucci which was inadvertently recorded by a journalist (Sabatini had left his phone on during the conversation) brought to light the failure to secure European football over the past two seasons had now cost the club financially.  Sabatini was clear in that at least one important player had to be sold and that Daniel Osvaldo’s behaviour under interim manager Andreazzoli at the end of last season rendered the striker’s future at the club on extremely thin ice.  Over the coming weeks Roma would offload close to €100 million in players.  The most spectacular was centre-back Marquinhos, a player Sabatini paid only €5m for the previous summer was sold to PSG for €35m.

Walter Sabatini – the man behind the curtain.

It could be said Sabatini was dismantling the squad he had built under the idea of what Baldini wanted Roma to be.  And he was now going to construct the side in his own image.  An influx of Serie A veterans arrived – Morgan De Santis, Maicon and Mehdi Benatia.  At the request of Rudi Garcia Gervinho arrived to replace Lamela.  And in a transfer that would draw 500 Roma fans to the arrivals section of Fiumicino Airport on a Tuesday night to welcome him with screams of joy, Sabatini bought PSV captain Kevin Strootman for €19m in one of the shock transfers of the market.  Every single one of these dealings have so far proven to be worth their weight in gold.  A perfect summer transfer market for Roma with Sabatini pocketing the club a cool €20m profit at the end of it after reshuffling his deck.  That money may prove to be important if the club look to strengthen again in the winter market for a Scudetto push or will go towards helping to somewhat alleviate the growth of debt at the club as the lack of Champions League football generates more and more turnover in the red (despite some growth in revenue).

Rudi Garcia may be the man who is being showered with praise for rebuilding what looked like a broken Roma, and rightly so, but Walter Sabatini deserves immense credit for his activities during the summer.  After Baldini’s failures it was he who had the vision to appoint Garcia and then when forced to sell some key players, he assembled a squad even stronger than the one before it.  After two false starts, Roma Americana is well and truly upon us now.

How is Massimiliano Allegri to be Judged Come Season End?

April is now coming to an end, and Serie A is taking on the shape of one of its most thrilling season-finishes. At the time of writing, Juventus – a side who were pretty much written off to finish largely in the same position as they did in their two previous seasons, sit pretty at the top of the table. Three point behind lie former-favourites A.C. Milan, who have seen their form stutter over the past month and questions constantly asked about their ability to defend their title, especially in light of their disappointing home draw against Bologna in week 34.

Despite winning the title at his first attempt and keeping Milan in the Scudetto challenge this season, coach Massimiliano Allegri is now having his future at the club questioned after elimination from the UEFA Champions League and the Coppa Italia, as well as surrendering a once healthy four-point lead over the Bianconeri. A scenario previously deemed unfathomable, Allegri has had to contend with rumours that he could be replaced if he does not succeed in delivering the Scudetto this season.

The question is, is it fair to pull the carpet from under Allegri’s feet after all the promise he has shown? Surely fate cannot be so cruel for the talented young coach, who has virtually done the impossible; dragged an injury-ravaged team from six points behind the early pacesetters and current leaders to overtake their opponents and stay within touching distance of the Scudetto, only to see his exhausted team crumble at the end, its last energy spent.

Sacking Allegri will be a poorly evaluated knee-jerk reaction that only focuses on the deficit at hand rather than the achievements he has obtained at Milan. The same parameters that were used to judge his work in the 2010/2011 season cannot be imposed here with accuracy, given the presence of greatly reinforced opponents that make it an unrealistic expectation to take this season as a stroll in the park.

Comparisons between Allegri and his counterpart Antonio Conte have been aplenty given their young age, yet they are misleading, failing to take into account the latter has not yet been fully tested due to a kinder set of circumstances, such as a more spacious fixture list. Truth be told, rarely do coaches in Italy get put through such grueling tests as those Allegri has had to endure and emerge with similar aplomb. If last season lent supporters a hint of the talent he possessed, this season provided plain evidence of it.

That Allegri has had to turn to squad players in Daniele Bonera and Urby Emanualson in place of first team regulars, and have them respond by contributing more than would normally have been asked of them for weeks on end are testament to his ability to motivate and improve the worth and belief of his squad, a trait that has been unfairly overshadowed by them now sitting in second place behind Juventus.

Milan’s squad players have handled the pressure capably in taking the place of injured regulars and perform just as well.

Should he be replaced, who else of equal standing and coaching caliber is on hand to possibly replace him and deliver similar results? Fault him for his mismanagement in rushing back key injured players such as Thiago Silva and Alexandre Pato, yet these are all mistakes the next coach could just as easily make. Is he too mired to the 4-3-1-2? Purchase players who can provide him alternatives, and you may just see Milan start employing a different tactical approach to games.

The season is far from over; Milan and Allegri’s detractors would be wise to wait till its end when a proper evaluation can be carried out before opting to write the coach off, but in the opinion of this writer at least, he already has had the last laugh, no matter what his fate has in store for him.

The Scudetto is Won or Lost in the Provinces

All it would take for Juventus to allow A.C. Milan right back into the title race on a whim was one false step, and it occured when Lecce’s Andrea Bertolacci was allowed to capitalize on the rarest of errors from Juventus custodian Gianluigi Buffon to score the equalizer and earn his relegation-battling side a gutsy 1-1 draw with the league leaders at the Juventus Stadium in Turin.

That goal has cut Juventus’ lead over Milan to just one point in Serie A, as the title race cumulates in its final two fixtures. Scorer Bertolacci has now joined numerous other players who have played for the minnows, or teams from provincial areas in Italy, and affected how the title race pans out for their more glamorous and established club counterparts. Regardless of how crucial this Sunday’s Milan derby could turn out to be, one can’t help but harbour the feeling the Scudetto’s fate has already been decided by either contender’s record against Italy’s smaller sides.

This season, Juventus, patient as ever, have sat back to capitalise on Milan’s slip-ups and go within touching distance of their first title since returning from relegation following Calciopoli, standing to wrest the trophy from their opponent’s grip if they win their remaining two encounters. Should they drop further points and surrender the lead to their rivals however, they will be left to rue an incredible 15 draws, consisting of dropped points and missed opportunities, as their unbeaten record weighs on their shoulders without counting for anything.

Indeed, this season is not without precedent as history proves nothing is impossible in a league as unpredictable and competitive as Serie A.

Backtrack to the season 1999/2000, and Juventus were leading the table, again by one point, as they looked a cinch to clinch the title amidst a comfortable away tie to mid-table Perugia, who had nothing left to play for. A win for Lazio, who were in second place, against Reggina would count for nothing if the former decisive act played out.

A look at the table on 7th May 2000, one fixture before the last of the season: Juventus were on hand to clinch the Scudetto.

The matches went on as expected on the 14th of May, but nature then turned up to Juve that winning the championship was not cast in iron till after a referee’s final whistle; torrential spring rain opened up on the pitch at Perugia, prompting referee Pierluigi Collina to halt the match for a good 82 minutes before opting against calling it off. The damage was done nevertheless; playing in terrible conditions, Juventus were to suffer an Alessandro Calori sucker-punch, going down 1-0 as Lazio comfortably beat their guests 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Juventus had painfully lost the Scudetto just as it was about to enter their hands.

A look at the table on 14th May 2000 and after the last fixture of the season: Juventus had unthinkably lost the Scudetto at the final hurdle.

Fate was to smile more kindly on Juventus heading into her final fixtures in the 2001/2002 Scudetto edition, but this time round, they were to be the ones to clinch the title from behind, having to depend on any favourable results of their opponents that fell into their hands, as the season progressed and cumulated in a final day three-horse race comprising the Bianconeri, Inter Milan and A.S. Roma.

The Serie A table as of the 28th of April 2002: Entering the final week of the season, Juventus found themselves in second this time, against Inter Milan and Roma.

Hope was present amongst the Juve tifosi as they made the trip east to Udinese, given that the side that had ousted them from top spot two seasons ago, Lazio, were due to host the Nerazzurri in Rome. Anticipation of an upset was present in the air as David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero eased the away side’s nerves as they absorbed wave after wave of Udinese attack.

The atmosphere amongst the traveling Juventus fans was to dip and spike during the match when Inter’s Christian Vieri gifted Inter the lead before Luigi Di Biagio renewed it. Then arrived the moment all Bianconeri fans were waiting for. Inter, capped off by a horror show from Vratislav Gresko when he ‘assisted’ Lazio’s Karel Poborsky’s goal, capitulated to lose the match 4-2, while Roma’s victory against Torino had little effect on Juventus’ march to the title. The players and fans looked jubilant; they had erased the memory of their Scudetto suicide two years back by taking advantage of Inter’s this time round.

The Serie A table after the final round on 5th May 2002: Juventus exorcised the ghosts of two seasons past by winning that Scudetto edition.

Past case studies present a worthy trip back to see how players not used to being under the spotlight could influence proceedings as much as their more illustrious peers could, for better or for worse, as how smaller, less supported clubs likewise played a role in the greater scheme of things. Now into the final two games, these two scenarios from a good decade ago, portray excellent contrasts to the situation Juventus now find themselves in, and how possible a scenario it is for league leaders to be overhauled in the final stretch; maximum concentration, and a fair bit of luck, is necessary as both Juventus and Milan prepare to have their fates decided, in a season that has already proven to be anything but straightforward.

In Juventus’ Weakness Lay Their Greatest Strength

Juventus, a club accustomed to winning, yet starved of that unique flavour in recent times, roared back to everyone’s attention in the European realm as they clinched their 30th (detractors would contest that number) Scudetto, or Italian league title, on Sunday evening.

Juventus win the Scudetto to the jubilation of their fans.

While to the delight of their millions of fans worldwide who sensed the prize, the club’s first in six years, was at its closest to being paraded around in Turin after so long, one could not help but wonder, how did it all change for a side stuck in mid-table to reach the pinnacle of an Italian triumph in the space of a single season?

Many opinions populate football talk shows and expert opinions across the Italian peninsula, and indeed, this writer was swamped with answers when he ran a Facebook poll asking a mixed group of Serie A fans what they thought proved to be the turning point in this season’s title race. While feedback ranged from Sulley Muntari’s phantom goal against Juventus to Claudio Marchisio’s winners against former league champions A.C. Milan in October 2011, this writer’s opinion stands as such: the balance of power shifted in favour of the Bianconeri with the admission of their relevant weaknesses when compared against the Milan juggernaut.

A self-admission of weakness was not what the average Juve fan wanted to hear at the beginning of this season; after all, the club had finished the previous two in seventh position, its credibility in shambles after fans grew weary of the team’s apparent lack of progress in spite of the myriad of changes effected to both coaching and playing departments.

Hard work was to become the mantra of Antonio Conte’s new Juventus side.

Nevertheless, there was an air of honesty in the way the words were spoken by new coach, former captain and club legend Antonio Conte. Those words were never meant to belittle the club or the players, but to enforce change for the better; the team would have to grow and improve tenfold in order to prove it’s worth to the fans and the club’s name.

Such an attitude imparted a desire to work, to make up for their deficiencies and the way they were viewed by their fans, that inspired the team to over-produce what would normally be expected of them. So different from other coaches, Conte imparted a crucial sense of modesty that ensured the expectations placed on the team were aptly managed; they were not likely to win anything, but there was no harm in trying and seeing what they ended up with anyway.

To try, and try they did. Empowered by having nothing to lose and with an acknowledgement of their shortcomings, while their opponents sat basking in the glory of their triumph the previous season, Juventus rallied while the Rossoneri fell into decay, their vision clouded by their apparent strength in allowing Milan icon Andrea Pirlo to depart for a new challenge with the dark horses. What a decision that turned out to be, as crucially were the failures to find suitable alternatives to ageing players such as Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Ambrosini, Mark van Bommel and Alessandro Nesta.

Milan, inadequately equipped from a squad level, were made to suffer as the season progressed.

Naturally, while a mindset of humility helped, heart and spirit were not going to win Juve the title alone; reinforced by an intelligent transfer campaign that also netted Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Mirko Vucinic and Martin Caceres alongside metronome Pirlo, these inductees soon became acquainted with the essence of wearing the club’s shirt at the inspired opening ceremony of the new Juventus Stadium, the first structure to be owned exclusively by an Italian club independent of the town’s council.

The rest is now history; aided by Milan’s persistent injury crisis as well as a fair bit of good old luck, Juventus worked their tails off to capitalize on the former champion’s odd slip-up in gifting their fans a renewed sense of pride in calling the team theirs.

The Bianconeri would not have achieved their highs this season without first having to go through the lows of the past six years. While the new Italian champions can boast of having a character of iron forged in the furnaces of fire surrounding Calciopoli, the face of adversity was obviously newer to Milan, who were not prepared for the sudden materialization of competition that dared to challenge their might.

Driven on by a small group of players who represented the heart of Juventus and aided by new members who did not want to leave without first writing history afresh, the rest is history as the team now basks in the adulation of their fans. With Champions League football beckoning, the players will do well not to have forgotten where they have come from, as the Scudetto looks to beckon in the start of a new winning cycle for the club.

Napoli missed out on the Champions League final, but what does that matter?

No one really cares about where the Coppa Italia goes so long as the Scudetto is up for grabs. That has been the sad reality of recent edition as Italy’s domestic cup competition plays second-fiddle to its league counterpart, as is common place in so many other European football landscapes. Not this season, however.

The two finalists, Juventus and Napoli, have intriguing back stories that will set this finale apart from every other. While the Bianconeri, who claimed their first Serie A title after six year on Sunday, will be looking to pay departing club captain Alessandro Del Piero a fitting tribute by lifting their tenth Coppa Italia, the onus lies with Napoli to make something out of their most realistic chance so far to lift silverware in decades.

Napoli, since their promotion once more to Serie A, have gone on to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. While they played a part in last season’s Scudetto race as well as gave the Champions League’s much-vaunted EPL sides a run for their money this term, this final represents their best shot at glory and a return to the big time. For the southern outfit, winning the Coppa Italia will be taken as a symbolic achievement, a small stepping-stone on the way to greater success as the first trophy to be won in the new eras being painstakingly forged.

A physically beleaguered Napoli that invested so much effort in Europe was unceremoniously dumped out of the elite club competition by a team sporting nearly three times the monetary resources at their disposal. Sunday’s final arrives as a gift just when the Partanopei need to rediscover and maintain their belief that they have been doing great things since they returned to Serie A. Seizing this chance at cup success will spark renewed impetus and create new belief in the players’ and club’s means, in order to begin next season with the best foot forward.

The reason is simple: The Coppa Italia may remain a smaller piece of silverware in the eyes of the ordinary public as a domestic cup, when in contrast, winning it will represent much greater value to the hungry players and fans of the once-great club, who are at the forefront of a revival of one of Calcio’s historic sides.

For all the talk of Lionel Messi being the next Diego Maradona, the same moniker could be placed upon Napoli patron Aurelio De Laurentiis, who has made the same impact on the club as the Argentine superstar, albeit not from the field. Despite punching above their weight, Napoli may struggle to retain the services of coveted attacking triumvirate Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi in the face of interest from clubs who consistently challenge for Europe’s greatest club trophy. That explains the feeling of ‘now or never’ amongst the club’s loyal fans, who already missed seeing their team qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Napoli will do well to shake their notorious inferiority complex playing against the more established sides of Calcio if they are to have any chance against the new league champions however. That said, Juventus are by no means unbeatable, and if the Partanopei can exploit their opponent’s Achilles heel of being profligate in front of goal, then the game will be a wide-open affair.

If encounters between Juventus and Napoli are anything to go by, this Coppa Italia final will be a cracker of a game. The last three meetings between these two sides yielded 11 goals, with a particularly spectacular 3-3 draw fought out in Naples last year.

This season’s Coppa Italia is a road to redemption. Starting small, success for Napoli will serve as a springboard to spur the club to keep faith in its reconstruction project and look forward unto a horizon that promises much. Over in Spain, it is not by chance last season’s Copa del Rey winners Real Madrid have broken the dominance that arguably is the greatest ever club team in the history of the game, F.C. Barcelona. To the rest of Serie A, beware. Underestimate the Coppa Italia to you peril.

Could Prandelli have hurt Italy’s chances at Euro 2012 with his squad selection?

For the first time since 2006, the Italian national team can stake a major claim of having a reasonable chance of winning the European finals. Coach Cesare Prandelli has worked wonders with the Azzuri, incorporating a meritocratic squad selection process as well as balancing out experience and vitality by mixing the old with the young.

In such a way, the wisdom of Gigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Andrea Barzagli are ably complemented by the energy of international upstarts Claudio Marchisio, Sebastian Giovinco and Angelo Ogbonna. With Italy breezing through the qualification process, the nation eagerly looked forward to see what Prandelli had in store for them as he announced his 32-man preliminary squad.

A good balance has been achieved between the old and the young for Italy.

To say the list threw up a few surprises is an understatement, as five of the players called up had either never played under his reign or even been called up to the national team squad. While Antonio Di Natale rightfully earns his place amongst the hopefuls to make the trip to Poland and Ukraine, other selections the 54 year-old coach made can be called into question.

Federico Marchetti, the man who famously conceded four goals out of the five shots that were fired at him in the 2010 World Cup when he stepped in as Buffon’s understudy, is a notable exclusion from the long list. Neither Morgan De Sanctis, Salvatore Sirigu or Emiliano Viviano can claim to have had a season as good as the man who defended Lazio’s goal, on the way to accumulating 31 games played in Serie A this season.

Federico Marchetti deserves a second chance in the international set-up.

It is testament of Marchetti’s commitment to working hard that has seen him prove to be one of the most valuable acquisitions of this season, as his greatly-heightened command of the area, anticipation and reflexes ensured Lazio continued challenging for Champions League qualification next season. Missing out due to disciplinary action after he punched the referee in Lazio 2-0 loss to Udinese, it’s no surprise there is a feeling Italy fans will miss Marchetti’s presence between the sticks this June.

On to the defence, and Salvatore Bochetti and Domenico Criscito unexpectedly find themselves on Italy’s shortlist. While young and promising, neither can claim to provide adequate competition to fix Italy’s Achilles heel at left-back alongside Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti. Given the excellent season Paolo De Ceglie had as Juventus strode to the Scudetto, it is indeed surprising the 25 year-old has never been utilized by Prandelli.

Paolo De Ceglie could be the answer to Italy’s left-back problems, if not now than in the future.

De Ceglie gradient of improvement has been sharp these past two seasons. While his progress was abruptly halted by a season-ending injury the last time, this season had seem him firmly cement his place in Antonio Conte’s new champions via his tireless running, intelligent movement and pinpoint crossing ability. If De Ceglie’s chance doesn’t come this summer, expect him to be noticed very, very soon.

19 year-old midfield playmaker Marco Verratti had a fairytale season topped off with a call-up to the preliminary squad, and while it is undeniable the Pirlo-wannabe has talent, it should be said the Pescara native, along with fellow surprise inclusion Ezequiel Schelotto, does not have the international experience required to make the cut.

Verratti has proven his eye for the pass on the edge of the box in helping Zdenek Zeman’s Serie B side win promotion, but the blood does occasionally go to his head in either a poorly-timed lunge or forgetting his position on the pitch. At this level, such mistakes are cruelly exposed, and Verratti should be made to wait his turn by being called up for World Cup 2014 instead. Lazio duo Antonio Candreva and Stefano Mauri present interesting options in place of the youngster, after enjoying a stellar season with the Biancocelesti.

The inclusions of Stefano Mauri and Antonio Candreva would have given Cesare Prandelli interesting tactical options.

While Argentine-born Schelotto can be pleased at playing his part in keeping Atalanta afloat in Serie A after the club was hit by a 6-point deficit enforced by a match-fixing investigation, there is a more experienced like-for-like alternative in Juventus man Simone Pepe. If Prandelli aims to switch to a tactical style that emphasizes wider action compared to his standard 4-3-1-2, he will have no choice but to bring the young winger along, who could find himself out of his depth at the most crucial of moments.

Just as a wide formation requires a good outlet on the wings, it also entails having a good, old-fashioned primo punta on hand to bang in the goals. Again, that’s something crucially missing from the Italy squad, with the likes of Giampaolo Pazzini, understandably, and Pablo Osvaldo, less understandably, left out.

Nevertheless, good ol’ Italian improvisation won out against sides better equipped for the World Cup in 2006, and Prandelli probably has a few tricks up his sleeve yet. If Italy can squeeze out of the group stage, given Spain also form part of that group, and go on to get past the round of 16, the Azzuri will have a fighting chance of lifting the European cup and confirming their newly-restored credibility.