Italy vs. Croatia Match Preview

Possible Lineups:

Italy:

G: Buffon

D: Bonucci, De Rossi, Chiellini

MF: Maggio, Nocerino, Pirlo, Marchisio, Balzaretti

F: Cassano, Balotelli

Croatia:

G: Pletikosa

D: Strinic, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Simunic

MF: Rakitic, Vukojevic, Modric, Perisic, Mandzukic

F: Jelavic

Tactical analysis.

For Italy, their job will be to focus on dictating play rather than containing it, contrary to what they did against Spain. As such, holding midfielder Thiago Motta may be dropped in favour of the attacking bursts of Antonio Nocerino, while question marks exist for whether Mario Balotelli will be retained in the starting line up, given competition from Antonio Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco.

Daniele De Rossi can be expected to start in central defence again, after helping Gigi Buffon concede only a single goal against the Spanish. Pirlo will take to the centre of midfield to dictate play and put his teammates in good positions.

Croatia meanwhile showed they are capable of taking their chances in their 3-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland. The scoreline camouflages the fact it was an open affair, with the Irish mustering nearly as many shots as their Eastern European counterparts. To stand any chance against the Italians, Croatia have to showcase their clinical side, as well as ensure their midfield covers their fragile centre-back pairing of Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld.

Key players to look out for.

Pirlo (I), Cassano (I), Modric (C)

Andrea Pirlo translated his form for his club Juventus into an imperious display against his Spanish midfield counterparts. His precise distribution and intelligent runs forward could unsettle the Croatian defense.

Antonio Cassano had a fine game against Spain, and tested Spanish keeper Iker Casillas on several occasions during their sides’ 1-1 draw. Packing intelligent movement with a flair for the unexpected, expect Cassano to open his Euro 2012 scoring account soon.

 

Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric adds a vital touch of international exposure to Croatia’s midfield, and was at the heart of every move forward in his side’s victory over Ireland. Taking on a role not too different from that of Andrea Pirlo for Italy, Modric will be a key leader in midfield by example.

Score prediction 

Italy 1-0 Croatia

Edinson Cavani’s Excellent Defensive Work

The Italian football season began with the Super Cup between defending league champions Juventus and Cup winners Napoli. The game was played at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and featured the use of extra officials.

Juventus took home the trophy with a 4-2 win after extra time. The game had finished 2-2 after 90 minutes with Pandev and Zuniga getting sent off for Napoli (the former getting a straight red) in the final 10 minutes while Dossena was also given a ban after making a “threatening expression” to the assistant after the game finished.

As has long been the norm in Italian football, the game finished with talk of injustice amongst the losing party which has made supporters paranoid and given presidents excuses over the years. Napoli boycotted the post-match trophy presentation and president Aurelio de Laurentiis gave the players a bonus of €20,000 because he felt that they were the “moral winners”.

Napoli Front Line

Juventus started with a 3-5-2 shape while Napoli began with a 3-4-1-2 shape. The tactical interest was provided by the positioning of Napoli’s strikers.

Without the ball, both Napoli strikers would drift wider onto the wide Juventus centre-backs (shown by the lines) while the central sweeper Bonucci (circled) was left in space. This effectively meant that Napoli played without a central striker for most of the game as Juventus dominated possession.

Napoli defended very deep throughout the game. There was a conscious effort to allow Bonucci time and space on the ball. This basically forced him into a libero role and he was invited to come forward with the ball (as shown in the image above).

Napoli’s forwards cut out easy sideways passing options for Bonucci in this manner while Pirlo was not given the space to shine either. This made the Juventus centre-back resort to more extravagant long-range passes. The results of this were mixed. Some of his passes were wayward but others were quite good and he created a good chance for Vucinic with a long-ball down the middle.

Napoli did not mind relinquishing most of the possession. Getting the Juventus centre-backs high up the pitch was obviously part of the plan and this was how Napoli scored their opener.

The Juventus defending in this game left a lot to be desired. As you can see from the above image, all 3 Juventus centre-backs are caught too close to each other and this leaves Cavani clear space to run into through the middle. Pandev slips him in and this puts Cavani one-on-one with Buffon and the striker eventually finished giving Napoli the lead.

Cavani’s excellent defensive work

Edinson Cavani was excellent with his application without the ball which is pretty rare for a star forward. He did the positional work of more than 1 player in the game.

Here you can Cavani (circled) closing down Asamoah on Napoli’s right-hand side.And this is him battling Vidal on the other side.And here is him tracking Pirlo after switching positions with Hamsik. Credit here should also be given to Mazzarri for clearly defining the roles of different players without the ball so that the structure is not lost.

Cavani leading from the front

Cavani didn’t just make sure that he did his own duties without the ball, he also made sure that those around him stuck to the game plan.Walter Gargano came on for a rather lackluster Hamsik in the second half. In the above image, Gargano is thinking of closing down Bonucci which is obviously not the game plan as highlighted earlier. You can see Cavani signaling to Gargano to stop closing down Bonucci and focus his attentions on Pirlo (circled) instead.

Does Cavani spend too much time defending?

The one criticism that can be leveled against Cavani here is that he is perhaps too responsible in his defensive work thus limiting his attacking threat somewhat.The above image shows an example of this. Napoli win the ball in the middle of the park but have Hamsik as the furthest forward player while Cavani is behind the play. The move eventually breaks down.

This is obviously a sacrifice Napoli were prepared to make. You can’t play a 3-4-1-2 with strikers drifting out wide to provide extra cover without sacrificing attacking options.

Conclusion

Cavani is one of the most highly rated forwards in Europe and one can see why. His application without the ball is what coaches dream of not to mention his pace, power and leadership qualities. With 33 goals in each of his past 2 seasons, he could well be worth the gamble for one of Europe’s big teams.

The Start of Something Beautiful

On Sunday night we witnessed the awakening of something spectacular. Roma travelled to the San Siro to face Inter Milan. And, in one of the most electrifying performances you will see all season, Roma routed Inter Milan in a 1-3 away victory.  The performance was characteristic of all that is loved about Zdenek Zeman – pace, incision and directness.

Both sides have been tipped to be antagonists of this season’s Scudetto race. Inter particularly have went a long way to rejuvenating an ageing squad with a considerable sum spent on incoming transfers. Roma on the other hand have been more prudent in their transfer market. Roma’s Sporting Director Walter Sabatini had the unenviable task of offloading most of the club’s deadweight whilst trying to complement the squad he went a long way to rejuvenating last summer.  Sabatini added some proven Serie A talent to the Roma ranks in the form of Michael Bradley and Federico Balzaretti.  The defensive woes of last season always meant there would be a shuffle of defensive personnel.  In came two Brazilian centre-backs, the very highly rated captain of the Brazilian U-17 squad, Marquinhos and Leandro Castan, the rock at the heart of the Corinthians side that recently conquered the Copa Libertadores aswell as last year’s Campeonato Brasileiro.  Sabatini also signed two other imports from Brazil – promising but injury plagued left-back Dodo and Paraguayan right-back Ivan Piris.  The most headline grabbing signing of the summer for the capital club was Mattia Destro.  The technical choice to sell Borini to Liverpool for a handsome sum was quickly overshadowed by the expected arrival of Destro – one of the most promising stars of the future Italy set up.

But, perhaps the most interesting arrivals at Roma during the summer come in a less headline grabbing manner.  Against Inter, Roma started the game with two of their midfield three out injured (Bradley and Pjanic).  As a result, two youngsters, both making their starting Serie A debuts, started in their places – Alessandro Florenzi and Panagiotis Tachtsidis.  Florenzi is a product of the Roma youth system.  He was a vital cog in Roma’s Primavera side coached by Alberto De Rossi (father of Daniele).  A year on loan at Crotone last season seems to have served him nothing but good and he returned to Rome this summer with real buzz surrounding him.  Florenzi’s tireless workrate and knack for breaking late into the box has drawn comparisons to another Roma player, World Cup winner Simone Perrotta.  Tachtsidis is another player who spent last season in Serie B.  After impressing at Hellas Verona, Zeman himself personally asked Sabatini to do whatever he could to bring Tachtsidis to Rome in the summer. Because of Tachtsidis’ style being that of a tall, technical, left-footed midfield anchor, it is no surprise to see him compared to Fernando Redondo, although Tachtsidis is more robust defensively.  Both of these players are still rough around the edges but they will certainly be players to keep an eye on as the Serie A season progresses!

It is easy to get lost in the mass of player turnover of Roma this summer but the single most important signing was not a player, it was the re-appointment of Zdenek Zeman as Head Coach.  Despite the management declaring their faith in his project, Luis Enrique resigned at the tail end of last season after failing to finish in the final Europa League spots.  Franco Baldini, the Director General appointed by the American owners to lead the project, has expressed the need to expand the brand of Roma and they must do so by playing attractive football.  Eighteen months ago it seemed inconceivable to think Zeman would so soon be managing Roma again but after winning promotion to Serie A with Pescara, the decision to appoint him this summer felt only natural.  Zeman had previously spent two seasons in the Roma hot seat in the late 90′s before being replaced by Fabio Capello in  1999.  In an interview shortly after being confirmed as Roma manager this summer, Zeman stated that it was impossible for him to turn down the Roma job and that he always felt he had unfinished business in the capital.  He has a reputation for no holds barred ultra attacking football – playfully referred to as Zemanlandia by his fans.  He has admitted his frustration at pointless horizontal passes, placing great emphasis on the rate of transition from defence to attack. the quicker the better.  Zeman teams have no hesitation in verticalizing possession as soon as the opportunity arises, and he is famous for his intensely rigorous pre-season regimes, with high levels of fitness being a great strength and requirement of his teams.

Zdenek Zeman also has a considerable cult following throughout Italy.  He is a very outspoken character and in the late 90′s created a storm of controversy when he accused Juventus of illegaly doping their players.  Zeman cited what he called the unnatural muscle mass gained by both Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero as examples of this.  Vialli famously responded to this accusation by calling Zeman a terrorist.  Ever since this incident both Juventus and Zeman have exchanged words of derision on a regular basis.  There are even those Serie A followers out there who believe Zeman’s accusations towards Juventus (some of whom think Zeman was true) ruined his career for nearly a decade, believing Moggi in particular played a leading role in Zeman’s fall to management obscurity.  It is those same people who now herald Zeman as the crusader against all corruption in Italian football.  This point is exemplified even as recently as Sunday’s match against when the Inter fans praised the Roma manager by holding up a banner in the Curva Nord which read, “Honour to Zeman, icon of clean football.” Here is the banner pictured below:

And, at the heart of this new Roma lies the jewel of the Empire, Francesco Totti.  Still, even at 35 years old he is producing moments of unadulterated genius.  His two assists against Inter on Sunday were nothing short of beautiful, and his overall performance was one to be cherished.  Sharing a pitch with other creative stars such as Antonio Cassano and Wesley Sneijder, Totti stood head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch with a time defying display and set out a masterclass in how to effect a match. Zeman was the manager Totti blossomed under when he first came to prominence and it would be a romantic end to his career if Zeman, the manager he holds in such high regard,  is that same manager that eventually sees him over the finishing line.

The true credibility of Zeman’s Roma title ambitions are yet to be fully revealed, but this young side may very well turn out to be the most entertaining side to watch in Europe this season.  One thing is for certain, Zeman fans will love nothing other than to see a Roma team, led by the man himself, hunt Juventus in what should be another enthralling Serie A season.

Francesco Totti becomes joint-second all time scorer in Serie A

With a goal and two assists against Genoa on Sunday night, Francesco Totti became the joint second top goalscorer in the history of Serie A – sitting in second place with Swedish legend Gunnar Nordahl on 225 goals.  The Roma captain is the only player of the modern era to be among the top five of this elite group.  In first place lies Silvio Piola with what looks like an unmatchable 274 goals.

The Giallorossi crowd gave their hero a standing ovation when he fired home the penalty to give them the lead and equaled the record that has stood for five decades.  The son of Gunnar Nordahl, Thomas, has said he will travel to Roma to personally shake the hand of Totti if he breaks his father’s record.

Where Does Paul Pogba Go From Now?

Paul Pogba transferred to Manchester United in the summer of 2009, but the young Frenchman quickly became forgotten about at the club. In the summer of 2012 when his contract was coming to an end he decided it was the right decision for him to move to the Italian giants Juventus after racking up only 7 senior appearances for the Premier League club. But was this the right decision for his career?

Maybe, but the summer move did seem to suit Pogba as his time at Manchester United was very limited. But Manchester United who are looking to reclaim the title off Manchester City and have an evident gaping hole in their central midfield. One that Pogba could have made his, but there were problems between Pogba and Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was evident that it was a battle of two egos, unhappy with his lack of time on the pitch Pogba was refusing to sign a new contract at the club and was evidently biding his time until a free transfer to Juventus in the summer. Sir Alex then went on to criticize Pogba for not signing a new contract and also placed blame on his agent Mino Raiolo who has a reputation through out Europe for not yielding.

With United unwilling to offer Pogba a new contract and Pogba just seeing out his time at Manchester United, he packed his bag and moved to Juventus in summer. It was an odd move for him as he was not guaranteed a starting place at Juventus either as they had a strong starting line up.  They claimed the Scudetto and went unbeaten all season in the league and one of the keys to that was the midfield trio of MVP – Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo.

However he became a key cog to the Juventus side, performing well, picking up Man Of The Match awards and arguably scoring one of the goals of the season against Napoli with a brilliant volley from outside the box which found its way to the bottom corner of the net.  Even Juventini are surprised at how quickly he has become an important player for the club.

But the only thing that has overshadowed his great performances is himself, his temperament. He was dropped from the Juventus squad before Christmas, following a report of him showing up late for training twice. While Pogba’s agent has defended the player because of ‘extenuating circumstances.’

This looks to have acted as a wake-up call for young Pogba as he has started the post-winter season even stronger – the highlight being a spectacular double against Udinese in January.  And although he may jump in and out of Conte’s starting eleven, it is very rarely that he doesn’t feature at all in a match.  As the trust in Pogba continues to grow hopefully his ability to mesmerise us does also.  The only person who can hold him back is himself!

Incredible Fan View of Pogba’s goal against Udinese

This is a perfect video a fan caught of Paul Pogba’s screamer against Udinese earlier in the Serie A season. The angle of the camera, the silence of the crowd as they realise how good the strike is, the swerve and ferocity on the ball and the explosion of noise when the ball crashes off the bar and in.

Toni Brace Helps Verona Past Lacklustre Milan

In the city where Shakespeare set his famous play, Romeo and Juliet, there was little romance in the Rossoneri’s performance as Max Allegri’s Milan began their league campaign just as they had done last season, with a loss.

Andrea Mandorlini’s Hellas Verona side were making a return to Serie A after a gap of 11 years and marked the occasion with a very impressive performance. The home side had most definitely earned the 3 points on the day against a lacklustre Milan side through a Luca Toni brace after Andrea Poli had given Milan an early lead.

Team Shapes

Both teams began with a 4-3-3 shape with 3 midfielders packed into midfield and 2 wide players either side of the centre-forward.

Verona Width

The most fascinating aspect about Verona’s play was just how wide their wingers were. Most 4-3-3 shapes in Europe usually see at least one wide player cutting inside once the side gets possession. Verona on the other hand, seemed happy to have both wide players hug the touchline as much as possible.

What this meant was that Verona did not present one of the major weaknesses of a 4-3-3 – they did not let the opposition full-backs have space to run into. Not only had Verona made things congested down the middle with their 3 central-midfielders, they also managed to restrict space down the flanks very well.

This is unique for an Italian side. If there’s one thing Italian sides lack, it’s the inability to provide natural width. This is one of the reasons why 3 at the back has increased in popularity both at club level and La Nazionale in recent years.

Montolivo in Front of the Defence

The way the teams shaped up, it was Montolivo who would find the most space for Milan and made 112 passes in the game. There was no direct opponent marking him. Sometimes Toni would drop deep to get tight to him and on other occasions Jorginho would press him but he was midfielder who found the most space.

But Milan had problems in terms of midfield balance. Montolivo did not get any help from his fellow midfielders. Nocerino’s contribution in the first half was minimal. He had no defensive steel beside him and Milan were hence prone to the counter as the game went on.

This is the build-up to Verona’s eventual winner and as you can see, the Verona midfielders found ample space to run into once they got past Montolivo.

Milan Marking or Rather the Lack of

Both Verona goals were a result of some hideous marking from Milan, which in fairness is not all that uncommon from the Rossoneri.

Verona got their equalizer through a corner. As you can see, there were only 3 Verona players in the penalty box but inexplicably, it is Constant who ends up marking Toni (red) which is probably the equivalent of André the Giant facing off against Santino Marella. Not to mention that another Verona player was also left completely free.

The 2nd goal came from a cleverly executed outside-of-the-boot ball from Jankovic to Toni, who smashed home the header. Once again, the marking was non-existent as Zapata was caught ball-watching and left the only attacker in the box, Toni, completely free.

Toni Turns Back the Clock

Luca Toni was undoubtedly the star of the match. The veteran target-man, who almost joined Milan in 2007 before eventually moving to Bayern Munich, did not let his lack of pace stop him from being a threat in this game. His stats were incredible in this respect – 4 shots on goal, 4 shots on target and 2 goals. He was always the target for Verona, from deep or from out wide.

What Verona did well was to make up for their striker’s lack of pace by getting players  to make runs beside him. This is essential for any system using a target-man. If you leave your target-man isolated, you will be gifting possession back to the opposition by constantly hitting long-balls.

With a big, strong striker and wingers that stay wide, the game-plan was obviously to get crosses into Toni. In this game, thanks to Milan’s marking, it was a very successful approach. Toni was an impact option off the bench for Fiorentina last season but could enjoy a lot more starts this season for Verona.

Milan go for Broke

Allegri needed to make changes in the second-half. Ideally, he should have brought on a defensive midfielder to provide some stability beside Montolivo but resources were limited and the scoreboard didn’t allow him to make such a move.

Petagna and Emmanuelson were brought on for the disappointingly quiet duo of El Shaarawy and Niang as Milan went 4-4-2. Later Robinho was brought on for Constant and Milan became even more top heavy.

Although Milan did force Rafael into a couple of saves late on, Milan never provided a consistent threat to the Verona goal while the home side had looked threatening on the counter for the most part before tiring late on.

Conclusion

Sandwiched in between the 2 legs of a Champions League qualifier against PSV, Milan would have hoped for a comfortable afternoon but that was far from the case. The marking from set pieces was awful, the midfield shape unbalanced and the forwards were kept quiet. Needless to say, this is a performance that they’ll want to put behind them quickly.

Verona were very impressive. They could be a surprise package this season because they have something that not many Serie A teams have in wingers that provide width. They also defended resolutely but it will be interesting how long coach Mandorlini can keep Luca Toni firing. He could be key to their hopes this season.