A Name to Remember

Why aren’t the best Directors of Football more sought after?  It is a question that has puzzled me for a number of years now. These are guys who can literally save a club millions and propel them in one continuous desired direction that does not depend on the vision of one single manager. Too often in football we hear of a manager being dismissed and players X, Y and Z quickly becoming entirely redundant under the replacement manager as they do not fit his system and as a consequence these unwanted players are sold at a reduced value. Almost everyday we hear of some manager aggressively trying to purchase a certain player. Rarely are there stories of a chairman relentlessly pursuing a Director of Football to steer his ship.

The importance of an excellent Director of Football cannot be overstated.  In rare occasions, some clubs have the fortune of working with the same manager over an extended number of years and that manager’s vision will ultimately steer the club towards its goals (Manchester United and Arsenal being prime examples). Therefore, they do not require a Director of Football in the continental sense.  But the overwhelming majority of clubs seem to aimlessly bound from one transfer to the next in the blind hope that they stumble upon a winning formula, then axe a manager and rinse and repeat their way into the red.

There is one Director of Football who particularly stands out to me. That man is Walter Sabatini. After spells in coaching and as Director of Football at Triestina, Arezzo and Perugia, he joined Lazio in 2004. Lazio had been a powerhouse in Serie A but financial meltdown in 2002 forced them to rethink their whole strategy. The club was in tatters until 2004 when Claudio Lotito became the major shareholder of the club. However, Lazio could not live the luxurious life it had previously been accustomed to and in the summer of 2004, Lotito had to sell almost all of the club’s big stars to keep Lazio alive – Jaap Stam, Dejan Stankovic, Stefano Fiore, Bernardo Corradi, Beppe Favali, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Claudio Lopez along with stars who had left the club in earlier seasons such as Alessandro Nesta, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastien Veron and Pavel Nedved. Sabatini, by then appointed as director of football at Lazio, was given the duty of cleaning up this mess and bring the Roman club, whose squad was devoid of any real spark and in real danger of relegation, back to the heights it had reached at the turn of the millennium.

Here are some of the notable transfers made by Sabatini during his four-year stint at Lazio:

Name Previous club to Lazio Transfer fee paid by Lazio Transfer fee received by Lazio when sold
Fernando Muslera Nacional €3m €12m
Alexander Kolarov OFK Beograd €925,000 €15m + Javier Garrido
Stefan Radu Dinamo Bucuresti €4m Still at Lazio
Stephan Lichsteiner Lille €1.7m €10m
Gaby Mudingayi Torino €300,000 €6.8m
Valon Behrami Genoa €5.4m €5m
Stefano Mauri Udinese Contract Expired Still at Lazio
Tommaso Rocchi Empoli €4m Still at Lazio

Although these are by no means a record of every transfer Sabatini made as the Director of Football at the Biancocelesti, it is a record of the major transfers he made. As the table clearly demonstrates, his transfer policy was extremely successful not only from a financial point of view but also from a performance perspective. Most of the names here became key members of the Lazio first team: Tommaso Rocchi and Stefano Mauri still hold the positions of club captain and vice-captain respectively. Radu is a player who, at the moment, can comfortably fetch a transfer fee higher than the amount Sabatini initially paid. Behrami is the only real dent in his record here a €400,000 loss on one player is simply a mere blemish on the magnificent record of Sabatini during his time in Rome.

The most important thing to note here is that most of these players were sold after Sabatini himself had left Lazio. The money gathered from his aquisitions allowed the club to expand and evolve. Under their new Director of Sport, ex-Lazio player Igli Tare, they spent big on talented players such as Mauro Zarate (€20m) , Hernanes (€11m) , Djibril Cisse (€5.8m) and Miroslav Klose. Since 2004, Lazio have gone from strength to strength and now sit comfortably in the top six of Serie A. Last season they agonizingly missed out on a Champions League place through goal difference and at the moment, they sit third in the Italian table.

There is no doubt that the likes of Roberto Mancini, Delio Rossi, Edy Reja, Claudio Lotito himself, and the players, all deserve major credit for bringing Lazio back from the dead but Walter Sabatini’s work is absolutely fundamental to Lazio’s resurgence in Serie A.

After he left Rome, Sabatini joined Palermo in the summer of 2008 as their Director of Football until November 2010. At Palermo, he was given more money to spend than when he was at Lazio, with the Rosanero making large profits that summer after selling stars such as Amauri to Juventus, as well as Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo to Wolfsburg. Sabatini’s work at Palermo heralded the arrival of several rising stars who failed to live up to their billing – Andrea Raggi (€7m) and Tulio de Melo (€4.2m) being the two costliest examples. Sabatini though did succeed in bringing some major talents to the peninsula whilst at Palermo. Below are the prime examples:

Name Previous club to Palermo Transfer fee paid by Palermo Transfer fee received by Palermo
Abel Hernandes Penarol €3.8m Still at Palermo
Josip Ilicic NK Maribor €2.2m Still at Palermo
Ezequiel Munoz Boca Juniors €4.6m Still at Palermo
Javier Pastore Huracan €4.7m €39.8m (Palermo only received €22.8m due to third-party ownership)
Simon Kjaer Midtylland €4m €12.5m

So impressed with Sabatini’s work at his club, Zamparini answered “Walter Sabatini” when asked by a journalist who was the best purchase in the summer of 2009. Sabatini left his Director of Football role at Palermo in November of 2010; Zamparini cited personal reasons for his departure. In April of 2011, it was announced that Sabatini would be the Director of Football during the ambitious project new North American owners were undertaking at AS Roma.  There have been reports claiming that the Americans had contacted Sabatini as early as November 2010, asking him to spearhead the project until Franco Baldini was freed from his duties as the General Manager to Capello’s English national team.

Perhaps that is the reason why he decided to leave Palermo in the middle of the season. As shown above, Palermo still hold three big assets purchased when Sabatini was Director of Football and all three are almost certain to fetch considerable sums when they are finally sold. Rosanero president Mauricio Zamparini has been quoted as saying it would take bids of over €15m for either one of Hernandes or Ilicic to even contemplate selling them.  Sabatini’s record here is again impressive but Palermo’s gain is largely dented by the third-party ownership involved in the Pastore sale to PSG in the summer of 2011.

Sabatini got straight down to business at AS Roma. With some impressive aquisitions already in the bag, it is yet to be seen whether Sabatini’s purchases prove to ultimately be successful. However, they are certainly promising. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the Serie A season so far involves Sabatini: the explosion of Fabio Borini. This young player joined Parma on a pre-arranged free transfer but before he even made a single appearance for I Gialloblu, Sabatini brought him on loan to Roma with a €7m option to buy. Roma have already purchased 50% of Borini for the region of €2.5m with Okaka moving to Parma on loan. Outside of Antonio Di Natale, Fabio Borini has the highest goals-to-minutes ratio of any Italian attacker in Serie A and he could be a surprise inclusion in the Italy squad for Euro 2012.

Walter Sabatini has also gained something of a cult status among the Roma faithful for his quirks. He wears two watches, one on each wrist – one set to Central European Time and the other to local time Buenos Aires. He is also a heavy smoker and often smokes whilst talking to the media. One of the more comedic moments during the new American regime’s presentation in a press conference was when Baldini was asked by a journalist why Sabatini wasn’t present. Baldini replied that because the conference was a no smoking zone, Sabatini felt no need to be there. Sabatini also has a penchant for watching matches from the highest point of view available. He can be seen among the broadcasters at the roof of the Stadio Olimpico during the Roma home games and even on the roof of buildings watching practice matches at training.

Walter Sabatini is a shining example of the importance of an excellent Director of Football. The value someone of his ability adds to a club cannot be overstated. An odd character indeed, but certainly an interesting one and perhaps a name to remember.

The 2011-2012 Juventus Season: From the Rear-view Mirror to the Bumpy Road Ahead

Having finished the past two seasons in 7th place, Juventus’ 2011-12 campaign was greeted with humble expectations. With a new stadium and a new coach in Antonio Conte, the Agnelli family was ready to bring back the winning mentality to the club. The arrival of Conte brought a new playing philosophy which focused on possession, pressing and high octane football, as Del Neri’s 4-4-2 was replaced by (what some refer to as) a 4-2-4. The beginning of the year saw the likes of Zdeněk Grygera, Felipe Melo, Mohammed Sissoko and Alberto Aquilani leave Torino, as the starting 11 was totally revamped to fit Conte’s system thanks to some key signings by Director General Giuseppe Marotta. The right-back position, previously occupied by Grygera (and at times a shaky 19 year old Frederik Sørensen with the occasional Marco Motta appearance), was solidified by signing the hard working Stephan Lichtsteiner from Lazio. Fan outcast and former Bidone D’oro winner (given to the worst player in the Serie A) Felipe Melo was replaced by the more versatile and temperamentally stable Arturo Vidal. However, without a doubt, the most impressive signing of the summer was the free transfer of AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who has made sure that Aquilani will be quickly forgotten at the Old Lady. The World Cup winner has been orchestrating virtually every attacking move and is the beating heart of this revamped Juventus side. The right-back position now presents a counterattacking option, as Lichtsteiner offers pace down the right flank, while Vidal has become the modern holding midfielder that many expected Melo to be, the perfect foil for the regista Pirlo. Whether playing the 4-2-4 or 4-3-3 (which includes fan favorite Claudio Marchisio), the Juventus midfield has arguably become one of the best in Europe and has proved to be the main reason for their success.

The first half of the season witnessed an undefeated Juventus lead the league nearly every week, boasting one of the most compact defenses in Serie A, and eventually claiming the ‘title’ of winter champions. Nevertheless, coach Conte remained humble, and when questioned by reporters, he refused to talk about Scudetto prospects. As the unbeaten streak persisted, the inevitable question continued to arise, but Conte insisted just over a week before Juve’s Coppa Italia match against Milan, that the Rossoneri were still favorites to win the Scudetto. February 8th saw Martin Cáceres return to the Old Lady with a stunning two-goal debut to silence the San Siro, leaving Milan down 2-1 on aggregate. After a draw with Bologna two weeks ago (part of a run where the Bianconeri tied six out of seven games), Antonio Conte claimed that winning the Scudetto at this point, would be a “miracle”.

Today, we see a Juventus team fresh of a 5-0 away victory over Fiorentina and a 2-2 draw at home to Scudetto rivals Milan which booked the Bianconeri a spot in the Coppa Italia final. The latter result ensures the continuation of Juve’s unbeaten streak (albeit being 2-1 down after 90 minutes), but also means that in four contests during the 2011-12 campaign, Milan has been unable to beat Juventus managing only two defeats and two draws. In the league title race however, Milan have won five out of their last six Serie A games. The only draw came in the controversial match against (you guessed it) Juventus at the San Siro, where a potentially game sealing Sulley Muntari disallowed goal re-opened the classic goal line technology debate. Before the demolition of Fiorentina, the Juventus Scudetto speculators were greatly humbled as wasteful finishing continued to plague the Bianconeri, but after two absolutely brilliant performances from forward Mirko Vucinic, anything seems possible. The Montenegrin has hit his stride during what will be the most crucial stretch of Juventus’ season. While the four-point gap Milan have secured atop the Serie A may not seem like much considering the ten games remaining, a look at Juve’s schedule vindicates Conte’s “miracle claim”. This sunday, Juventus host Inter Milan, topping off the short week with one of the fiercest encounters in Italian football. Despite Inter’s dismal form this season, the derby d’Italia will surely bring out their A-game. The subsequent three games offer no respite, with games at home against Napoli, away at Palermo (always a tough one), and a home encounter against a Lazio team who will surely be fighting for third place.

The next three weeks will undoubtedly put Juventus to the test. Whether or not the unbeaten streak continues is beside the point. This team must continue their recent form, bury their chances in front of goal, and stop settling for draws; they must stay hungry. While Juve’s route to the title is filled with potholes, Milan’s remaining schedule is a smoothly paved highway, with the two toughest games being the derby match with Inter and a home fixture against A.S. Roma. The rest of March through mid April will likely determine first and second place in the Serie A, but will also ultimately prove whether this Juventus team is ready to challenge the Champions League next season.

Don’t Merely Blame Claudio Ranieri For Inter Milan’s Failures

Unfortunate Inter Milan tactician Claudio Ranieri has constantly fallen under the curse of working under club owners who expect miraculously optimistic, even hopeful, results that exceed the means of the team he has been handed the reins to.

Beleaguered Inter Milan Manager Claudio Ranieri.

His struggles with Inter Milan are well documented. Despite leading his side to seven straight consecutive Serie A victories after first succeeding incumbent Gian Piero Gasperini, Ranieri is now a victim of his own success as he stares at the possibility of the sack after losing 2-0 away to Juventus in the Derby d’Italia.

His early record with the Nerazzuri cumulated in false hopes formed without basis amongst the fans and media that Inter could mount a insurmountable surprise push for the final UEFA Champions league berth with the resources he had. Since December, the damning statistic that Ranieri has won only 1 out of 10 Serie A matches has led to his side’s performances coming under close scrutiny, but the majority of burden should not just fall on the 60-year old, who has been handed the unenviable task of reconstructing an ailing team whose winning cycle has long expired.

A dejected Yuto Nagatomo as Inter fail to win again.

The loss to Juventus characterized many of Inter’s struggles this season, as they consistently tested ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon in the Juventus goal before succumbing to a quick succession of sucker punches, as Martin Caceres and Alessandro Del Piero saw out the Bianconeri’s victory.

The tactical nightmare that Ranieri has been handed is undoing his best efforts to instill a sense of balance and stability in his chosen formations. Never being able to play a consistent line-up that delivers is taking its toll on the team’s results, as their coach is left pondering how to fit the likes of misfits Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan into the team, when they are fit to play that is.

A lack of width available to a manager who has utilized a 4-4-2 throughout his career depicts just how badly this Inter has been constructed for his reign to be successful, rendering him incapable of being able to count on a level of tactical flexibility necessary to adapt to different opponents and their respective styles of play. After looking the side more likely to secure a result in the first half, a tactical shift by Juventus in the second half left Ranieri unable to cope with or respond to wave after wave of attack.

7 out of the 10 outfield players who started against Juventus were in their 30’s. Consensus lies with the fact Inter need a renewal within their squad if they are to make anything of the seasons that are to come. Recent history however has gone on to show that Inter’s coaches, following Jose Mourinho’s departure in 2010, have held little real power in having a say over who comes and who goes.

Departed key players Samuel Eto’o and Thiago Motta have not been replaced.

The abrupt departures of key players Samuel Eto’o and Thiago Motta in the summer and winter transfer windows respectively has not just crippled the team’s level of flair and technical quality, their last-minute nature has left little time for the gaping hole in the squad to be replugged. Not exactly the recipe to success incoming team managers would be imagining.

Owner Moratti’s and board member Branca’s absolute control of transfer activity ask questions on who actually controls Inter, and the level of autonomy of choices available to the coach in attempting to take the club back to the pinnacle of not just Italian football, but Europe as well, a spot occupied just two seasons ago.

The strong voices of the powers that be, particularly that of the South American contingent, in the dressing room also needs to be addressed. Benitez reportedly did not gain the support of the Inter squad, as was testified by Dejan Stankovic following his departure, while the afore-mentioned Forlan’s refusal to ‘come on to an unfavoured tactical role as a substitute’ at the behest of Ranieri suggest the need for the disbandment of such groups who potentially undermine the coach’s authority.

The alarming plummet of the situation of Inter does not conjure good omens for Italy’s representatives in the Champions League over the following seasons. The predicament exists as a double-edged sword – If Inter qualify for either European competition and fail to perform, then the state of Italy’s dwindling league coefficients stand to suffer in accordance. Failure to qualify for either competition, particularly the Champions League, spells doom for Inter however, who need to raise their profile and the significant funds that come as a result to a club struggling to balance its books in accordance with the imminence of Financial Fair Play.

Make no mistake – a change in Inter’s fortunes is paramount, and fast. However, sacking Claudio Ranieri is not going to achieve anything if the authority that is accorded to the coaching role is not redefined to match what is required in a major rebuilding phase. If talk of Barcelona coach Guardiola arriving at Inter materializes, the pit its board has dug the club into is unlikely to shallow itself if he is not handed the powers of control to decide who he really wants, and what he really wants, from his team. Its time drastic changes take place at Inter’s board level and in their management philosophy to ensure the club can continue doing justice to their illustrious sporting history. Anything less will be deemed a failure.

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.