Fellipe Bastos has a reputation for scoring some unbelievable goals and he all but secured Ponte Preta’s progression to the Copa Sudamericana Semi-Finals with two free-kicks. His first free-kick is parried by the goalkeeper only for Uendel to tuck it home before Bastos fires in the second goal from at least 35 yards out (second goal starts at 00:50):
Trinidad and Tobago international defender Akeem Adeems has lost his left leg in his battle to survive after suffering a major heart attack on Wednesday 25th September. Doctors confirmed the amputation below the knee on Tuesday morning, explaining that it was esential to aid circulation. Adams has now undergone four major operations since the 25th and it is believes he is body is too weak at the moment to successfully handle any heart transplant. The 22 year old has been capped 8 times for his national side and made the move to Europe to play for Hungarian side Ferencváros.
The fans of Ujpest, bitter fierce rivals of Ferencvárosi, released an incredible statement in support of Adams once they had heard the news.
Adams had played in Ferencvárosi’s 3-1 victory over Ujpest in the Budarest Derby only a few days before he was struck down. The Ferencvárosi physio has since said Akeem told him he had felt dizzy during the match. We will keep you updated on any developments of this story and the condition of Akeem Adams.
After spending seven years as a player at Parkhead, Stan Petrov returned to Glasgow to take part in a match for his charity, a game that sold out the 60,000 capacity of Celtic Park, a charity he founded after recently overcoming his battle with leukemia. At the end of the match the Celtic support serenaded their former captain which a wonderful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, with Petrov’s sons running on the park it became an extremely emotional scene, prompting Petrov himself to break into tears as his youngest son leaped into his arms.
Vitesse Arnhem will commemorate the Battle of Arnhem this weekend by wearing a strip consisting of the regiment’s famous colours.
The British 1st Airbourne Division were heavily involved in the attempted liberation of Arnhem in September 1944 from Nazi occupation. The division lost three quarters of its strength (8000 men) behind enemy lines during the failed mission before the remaining survivors eventually withdrew after nine days of fighting.
With this list I’ve tried to avoid the usual big names that typically appear in this type of article – the likes of Neymar, Draxler, Isco, Lamela, Koke, Marquinhos, Eriksen etc. Here is our rundown of the ten players to watch this season, aged 21 and under, from all over the world.
10) Alen Halilović – Dinamo Zagreb
The Croatian attacking midfielder came very close to joining Tottenham Hotspur in the summer in a double swoop involving Dinamo Zagreb club-mate Tin Jedvaj joining him in a €24 million move to White Hart Lane. The deal fell through at the final hour and Jedvaj soon joined Roma for a fee of €5 million. Speculation as to why the deal collapsed pointed the finger at Halilović’s family asking for ridiculous personal demands during negotiations. It is not the first time he has been linked with a move away from Zagreb. At 14 years old, Alen’s father, former Real Valladolid midfielder Sejad Halilović, was caught by Dinamo trying to arrange a move to Real Madrid for his son. The club temporarily suspended both father and son for the attempted move.
Comparisons have been drawn to Halilović and Modric for their many similarities – composure in possession, ability to hold onto the ball and diminutive stature. He has also been labelled the Croatian Messi due to his skill of beating opposing players and his over-reliance on his left foot. Truthfully, in terms of style the Messi comparison holds more weight. And like Messi in his early career, Halilović has often been deployed on the right-hand side by Dinamo Zagreb. Still only 17, Alen has already been capped three times by the senior Croatian national side and became the second youngest ever player to play in the Champions League when he came on as a late substitute against PSG last season. Surely it is only a matter of time until this lad is household name.
9) Bruma – Galatasaray
After breaking into the Sporting CP line-up in the final third of last season, Bruma went on to become one of the stars of the summer’s Under-20 World Cup in Turkey, scoring five goals in four games for Portugal. The exciting winger would then go on to have a controversy filled summer as he entered a dispute with Sporting a to whether or not he had a contract with the Lisbon club. Bruma said his contract had ended and he was a free agent. Sporting however declared that his current contract did not end until summer 2014. This mess wasn’t sorted until Portugal’s Sporting Arbitration Committee became involved and declared that Bruma still had one year left on his contract. After the falling out a move was still clearly on the cards and he soon joined Galatasaray for €10 million amidst alleged interest from Manchester United and Chelsea.
With Galatasaray badly struggling to find any rhythm playing both Burak Yilmaz and Drogba together in the same system this season, and with the lack of quality from players such as Amrabat and Aydin Yilmaz, Bruma may quickly see himself become vital to Galatasaray’s season. He kickstarted his spell in Turkey in Galatasaray’s match at home to Antalyaspor, adding some much need energy and invention to a dire performance from the Turkish champions, although the match ended 1-1. With pace to burn and the arrogance on the ball to exploit it, Bruma will be another star of a long line of talented Sporting wingers to prosper away from the Lisbon club.
8) Memphis Depay – PSV
With the departure of Dries Mertens to Napoli, Depay will settle into the role he vacated in the left-wing position in the PSV attack under new coach Phillip Cocu. He possesses an almighty right foot and has already scored a screamer from distance in the second round of Champions League qualifying campaign against Zulte Waregem (video below). He also came agonizingly close to scoring the goal of the tournament against Spain in the summer’s Euro Under-21 tournament in Israel (video of this strike also below this paragraph).
With the huge loss of quality in the Eredivise during the transfer market, and with the league being as open as it has ever been, a breakout season for Depay could propel Cocu’s young side to preventing Ajax from achieving their first ever four league titles in a row.
7) Juan Quintero – Porto
In a deal that could quite easily become one of the bargains of recent times, Quintero joined Porto from Colombian giants Atletico Nacional for only €5 million. The price coming as a big shock as Quintero had performed strongly in the previous season with Pescara in Serie A and with Colombia at the U20 World Cup. The environment at Porto will be perfect for his development and with the loss of James Rodriguez to Monaco during the transfer market, Quintero’s presence fills in the exact tactical role left by James.
Quintero has a very similar style to Diego Maradona. He is clearly nowhere near that level and it is extremely unlikely he ever will be but they share that same dribbling action and severely left-footed style. Quintero still has nuances in his game he has to iron out such as holding onto possession for too long and becoming too bogged down in trying to beat a player when a pass is clearly the better option. He plays with that beautiful South American tempo to his game. As Porto rebuild their next generation of moneymakers, Quintero looks to be the most promising of all the talents they acquired over the summer. He has already opened his account in the Portuguese Primeira Liga with a delicious goal against Vitoria Sebutal:
6) Mohamed Salah – Basel
Salah has grabbed the headlines this week with his man of the match performance and goal in Basel’s win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League, it was his second goal at the Bridge after he scored in his side’s 3-1 defeat there in last season’s Europa League. The 21 year old winger already has an incredible goalscoring record at international level with Egypt, 17 goals in 24 caps. Basel has served as the perfect club for Salah to grow and now it looks like it may well be his final season in Switzerland. Strong interest from Roma, Inter and Tottenham Hotspur persisted during the summer. And with his price rising with every passing week, there will probably not be a better time for Basel to cash in on their star man.
5) Adrien Rabiot – PSG
For anyone who watched Ligue 1 , the physical difference in Rabiot between now and this time last year is night and day. He has filled out considerably in that time, growing taller and broader. The appointment of Laurent Blanc as PSG head coach will do nothing but good for him as he is not shy to use youth, having already displayed that already this season. A loan spell at Toulouse in the second half of last season served Rabiot well in exposing him to consistent Ligue 1 football. He has already made a telling contribution in the league this season when he came on as a second half substitute and scored the vital opener in the 91st minute against newly promoted Guingamp in a match were PSG looked completely out of ideas. Although he faces stiff competition from fellow youngsters Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia for a prospective future role, it will be no surprise to see Rabiot as a full French international at some point this season. Although World Cup 2014 comes a touch too early for the 18 year old.
4) Luciano Vietto – Racing Club
The hottest prospect in Argentina and with the sale of Neymar perhaps now the most sought after player on the South American continent. Rumours circulated for weeks of Borussia Dortmund’s interest in Vietto, a bid relied upon the departure of Lewandowski which never came to realise. Vietto has been a shining light for Racing Club in some tumultuous times for the Argentinian powerhouse. The 19 year old striker made his name with a blistering hat-trick in a match against San Martin de San Juan last year before going on to score his second hat-trick against league champions Newell’s in April. With Europe beckoning, it only a matter of time before Vietto is strutting his stuff for one of Europe’s biggest teams.
3) Doria – Botafogo
Over the past decade Brazil have been second to none in producing world class centre-backs and Doria will be another off of that assembly line. The 18 year old is already a key member of a Botafogo side chasing the Brasileiro, currently lying in second place with one of the tightest defences in the league. The recent purchase of Marquinhos from Roma to PSG for €35m made him the fourth most expensive defender of all time behind Lilian Thuram, Rio Ferdinand and Thiago Silva. Doria is very much in the Marquinhos mould. Already unbelievably mature in his defensive style, Doria is much more physical than his PSG counterpart. For someone so young he is far along in his physical development. Given his no-nonsense demanour to playing, t is easy to see a future Brazil captain in Doria.
2) Filip Đuričić – Benfica
Benfica announced the signing of Djuricic for a reported €6m before the transfer window even opened and then proceeded to slap a €40m buy-out price in his contract. The Serb was coming off the back off an electrifying season for Heerenveen. Djuricic found himself thriving at the left wing position in the Eredivise although it is yet to be seen where exactly he will play for Benfica as they could look to return him to his former attacking midfielder role. Djuricic is an incredible talent – intelligent, direct and elegant in possession. He has all the raw qualities there to go on and become a truly world class player. He has already scored in his Champions League debut against Anderlecht in the past few days. Benfica banked one of the deals of the transfer market when they moved swiftly for him, swooping in before interest from Serie A champions Juventus could be confirmed. And in Portugal he will be in the perfect league to hone his craft for the next 2-3 seasons. Not a name that is one everyone’s lips at the moment but be rest assured, Djuricic will become one of the most sought after players in Europe soon.
1) Adem Ljajić – Roma
When Roma sold Erik Lamela to Spurs for €30m (€35m including performance related bonuses), many were gobsmacked at the low price he had gone for. However, Roma Sporting Director Walter Sabatini had a move up his sleeve. He instantly moved for Fiorentina’s want-away star Adem Ljajic in a deal that could go as high as €15m. The 21 year old playmaker was statistically one of the most productive players in the whole of Europe last season when it came to key actions such as key passes and shots on goal. And was by far the most productive player of anyone aged 21 and under. A more in-depth look at this can be found in this fantastic article at StatsBomb of Europe’s Best Young Attackers.
Roma have effectively replaced Lamela with a player just as talented and pocketed half the change in doing so. He started his life at Roma with a bang (video below). Ljajic was a huge factor in Fiorentina’s renaissance under Montella and with Roma looking much more balanced under Rudi Garcia this season in a Serie A looking more competitive than it has been over the past decade, Adem Ljajic could prove fatal to his former club when it comes down to the bitter race for those three Champions League spots in Italy. And learning from the master Totti, Ljajic could be a match made in heaven for Roma.
As we mentioned over the last week, Dutch club Vitesse planned to pay tribute in their home match against PEC Zwolle to the British paratroopers involved in the attempted liberation of their city Arnhem during Operation Market Garden in September 1944, this is an update on how the day went. Veterans of the British 1st Airbourne Division were welcomed to the match and the Vitesse support even unveiled a tifo featuring the colours of the regiment with the famous Nijmegen Bridge in the background of their display.
The Dutch side opted away from their typical yellow and black strip to dawn the claret and blue colours of the British 1st Airbourne Division for the commemoration. Emblazoned on the strips was the phrase ‘No Bridge Too Far’, in reference to the star-studded 1977 film A Bridge Too Far based on the events of the previously mentioned Allied mission.
Having been soundly beaten 3-1 by Napoli in Italy under former manager Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea will have to come back from a two-goal first leg deficit at Stamford Bridge under the stewardship of caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo if they’re to have a shot at lifting the Champions League trophy so coveted by owner Roman Abramovich. It’s vital to understand how Napoli got their first leg lead and the tactical battles that may play out in the second leg at Stamford Bridge.
That Chelsea had 58% possession despite being thoroughly outplayed is indicative of the contrasting approaches both sides took to the game in Italy. The Italians lined up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, employing a compact back 3 and two wing-backs (Juan Camilo Zuniga and Christian Maggio). Marek Hamsik played behind the Napoli front two of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi and remained on the right side of the pitch. Lavezzi drifted to the left wing while Cavani lined up in a slightly more advanced position on the left. Chelsea chose not to lineup in their usual 4-3-3, opting instead to play Malouda on the left and Juan Mata as a trequartista behind Drogba, forming a 4-2-3-1. Daniel Sturridge played on the right while Raul Meireles and Ramires played as a double pivot in front of the back four. David Luiz and Gary Cahill lined up in the center of defense, with Ivanovic at right back and Bosingwa at left back (he was injured early on and replaced by Ashley Cole).
Unsurprisingly, Napoli were keen to get numbers behind the ball and defend from deep, allowing Chelsea time on the ball in midfield and then looking to counter quickly when they won back possession. When Chelsea were on the attack, the Napoli wing-backs dropped deep alongside the back 3 forming a five-man defensive line. The key tactical decision of the game revolved around Chelsea’s use of Ivanovic at right-back. The Serb pushed up into very advanced positions on the right wing to give Chelsea width while Daniel Sturridge drifted inside from the right. Because Napoli were effectively defending with five at the back, Lavezzi didn’t need to track the forward runs of Ivanovic and was able to sit in the pocket of space left by the Serb. When Napoli won possession they quickly hit diagonal balls into this space on the left flank for Lavezzi. Cavani stood in front of Chelsea’s right-sided centre-back Cahill, creating a 2 vs.1 situation for Napoli on the left side of the pitch and overloading Cahill. The quick counter attacks of Napoli were exceptional and Chelsea were fortunate not to concede more goals (Lavezzi missed a breakaway and Ashley Cole saved off the line). It’s no surprise that Napoli like to counter-attack and though they executed them brilliantly, it’s nonetheless shocking how ill-prepared Chelsea were set up to mitigate the dangerous counters. After taking an early lead through Mata, Chelsea should have been more cautious, particularly in terms of Ivanovic’s forward runs.
Needing at least two goals to win the tie, Chelsea will be forced to get numbers forward and chase the game. Unfortunately for the Blues, this plays directly into the hands of counter-attacking experts Napoli. The Italians will again be happy to play with a back five when out of possession, put numbers behind the ball, clog space in Chelsea’s attacking third and counter when the opportunity comes. Regardless of how Chelsea line up, it’s crucially important they remain patient, keep their shape at the back, and avoid attacking recklessly. An early Napoli goal will leave the Blues chasing 3 goals which will all but kill the tie off.
Interestingly, the back three formation with advanced wing backs employed by Napoli seems like a good option for Chelsea (with Chelsea’s wing backs playing much more advanced than Napoli’s). The Blues could start Luiz, Cahill and Ivanovic as a back three with Cole and Bosingwa playing as wing backs and providing Chelsea width. Essien and Ramires would line up as a double pivot in front of the back 3 while Mata could play the trequartista role behind a forward pairing of Sturridge and Drogba.
There appears to be several benefits to this formation. It would allow Cole and Bosingwa to get involved offensively in wide positions. If Napoli were to nick possession and spring a counter-attack by playing the ball wide to Lavezzi, Chelsea would still have threes centre-backs available to deal with Cavani and Lavezzi. If both Napoli forwards overloaded one side as they did in the first leg, Chelsea would still be able to defend a 2 vs.2 situation rather than forcing Cahill into a 1 vs.2 as was the case in Italy. Offensively, the formation would allow Sturridge to play more centrally in a two-forward system where he is more comfortable. Cole and Bosingwa would join the attack from wide, occupying Napoli’s wing backs. The Napoli back three would then be left to deal with Sturridge and Drogba as well as Mata in his advanced role. This would create a 3 v. 3 situation in the attacking third for Chelsea rather than the 2 v. 3 one we saw in the first leg when Drogba was the lone forward and Mata stood behind him.
The obvious issue with this formation is that Chelsea have always played with a back four in the Abramovic era and it’s no easy task to install a formation that players aren’t familiar with. The Blues’ chances of advancing in the competition depend on their ability to get forward and create scoring opportunities while mitigating the effectiveness of Napoli’s swift counters.
Abramovich’s desire to lift the Champions League trophy is no secret but given Chelsea’s unfavorable position following the first leg defeat coupled with their overall poor form this campaign, the Russian billionaire can’t be too confident that success is beckoning in Europe. Any chance the Blues have of advancing to the quarterfinals will come down to their ability to press the issue from an offensive point of view while reducing the effectiveness of the excellent duo of Lavezzi and Cavani. Quite a task for a caretaker manager in what will only be his third game in charge.
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|
|Alexander Kolarov||OFK Beograd||€925,000||€15m + Javier Garrido|
|Stefan Radu||Dinamo Bucuresti||€4m||Still at Lazio|
|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)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.