Monday, 16 October 2017

Those 25 Minutes of the Milan Derby...

Disappointing: Leonardo Bonucci and Lucas Biglia 
It is testament to how desperate Milan are for an identity that the players, coach Vincenzo Montella and some fans have clung to twenty-five minutes against Inter as the real evidence of the real Milan.  Those twenty-five minutes in the second half resulted in two Milan goals, an Andrea Silva shot against the post, two brilliant Samir Handanovic saves, but also unforgivable--and unforgiven--mistakes.  

"If we play like this again, we will not lose," Montella said after the game.  That may be true, but Montella seemed to be glossing over the overwhelming evidence that Inter interpreted the game, its rhythm, better than Milan did.   They soaked the pressure when they had to, and applied it when they had to.  And when they did concede, they sliced through Milan several times right after.  

Those twenty-five minutes in the second half, during which Milan were running right through Inter, need to be sustained throughout ninety, but can they be? They seemed to have been realized through adrenaline rather than geometry, and it showed.  When Lucas Biglia lost the ball in midfield, it was inevitable that Milan would concede because the team was overcompensating.  

The derby defeat is particularly painful also because Biglia, apart from the mistake, didn't have the regista's presence in midfield.  He didn't leave an impression on the game the way Inter's Borja Valero did.  

To compound Milan's problems, Leonardo Bonucci, the other experienced head on the field, played two or three steps slower, a sluggishness that Mauro Icardi didn't forgive. 

Things may start turning around for Milan starting with the next two games against Genoa and Chievo, but only if those twenty-five minutes against Inter can be fine-tuned and used to forge a distinct identity.  The season is long, but it can turn out to be much longer if Montella isn't able to put out a team that can capitalize on what have been fleeting moments of superiority. 

"I think we could have even won considering the chances we created," said Montella, in yet another example of special pleading. It is true: Milan could have won based on the chances they created, but that's not the point.  Those chances have to come from a discernible design.  

Whether that design is 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 is for Montella to decide, and quickly. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Calcio Memories: The Man Who Commanded For A Day

Gianni Comandini celebrates on May 11, 2001
In anticipation of the Derby della Madonnina tomorrow, let's take a look back at Gianni Comandini. This article originally appeared on this blog in January 2012.

He is asked some tough questions about his injury-plagued career.  He is asked about his premature retirement at 28.  It is a line of questioning that would make the most impassive man bristle.  And yet, despite the prying, he remains composed, candid:
"I perhaps visited doctors who cared more about sporting results than my health [...]  People think football is only about training and matches, but it isn't--like almost any profession, there is a lack of transparency."

And there they were--words more transparent than the business of football from a man who proves, even to this day, un-transparent.  Gianni Comandini is a man whom Inter fans want to forget; he is a man whom Milan fans will never forget; he is a man whom football has all but forgotten.

But let's remember.  The date is May 11, 2001, and Carlo Pellegatti and Tiziano Crudelli are priming their larynges for the Milan derby.  There is nothing to play for, and there is everything to play for.  There are five games left in the season, but Milan and Inter, level on points, are twenty points behind a Roma side moving closer to their first Scudetto in eighteen years.  Almost destined for the UEFA Cup, the two clubs from Milan know that only winning the derby really matters for the season.

Cesare Maldini, caretaker manager of Milan after the sacking of Alberto Zaccheroni, decides to field the dependable striker Andriy Shevchenko alongside Comandini in attack.  A midfield of Gennaro Gattuso, Federico Giunti, Kakhaber Kaladze and Serginho supports the duo in front of a defence comprised of Thomas Helveg, Alessandro Costacurta, Roque Junior, and Paolo Maldini.  A 36-year-old Sebastiano Rossi guards the goal.

Looking at that Milan line-up more than a decade later still causes pause for thought, and not just because Roque Junior is in the defence.  It reminds Milan fans like me how well we were covered on the left side of the team.  Serginho, Il Concorde, could play either at left-back or on the left flank of midfield, but Zaccheroni could use his pace and incisiveness further up because he had the peerless Maldini to count on at the back.

That team may have had deficiencies, but the link-up play on the left was not one of them.  And it is to that dynamism that Comandini owes a large part of his odd renown: scoring only two goals for Milan during his one and only season, and scoring them on that very day of the Milan derby.

Well taken goals, too.  In the third minute, Inter's Matteo Ferrari tries to clear the ball, but Maldini intercepts it near the middle of the field for Serginho to burst forward.  Two defenders make for the Brazilian, who dissects them with a ball for Comandini in the penalty area.  Comandini receives the ball with his back to goal, but nonetheless swivels before putting it past Sebastian Frey.  His subsequent celebrations momentarily dissipate his agony; he finally makes his mark on the club who bought him from Vicenza at the close of the previous season. 

But it gets better.  In the 19th minute, Serginho, finding for himself a luxury of space, crosses for Comandini to head home from a tight angle.  This time the celebrations are only slightly less subdued, as he is gradually mobbed by teammates.

Tough times...Comandini at Genoa
And then it only got worse--for Comandini, that is.  Of course, Milan would proceed to flatten Inter 6-0 (see video below) with Serginho instrumental in the annhilation, but Comandini would move to Atalanta the following season, where he would score seven goals in four years.  After Atalanta his career lurched to Genoa and Ternana, before he finally retired in 2006, due to a peristent back problem.

He was brought to Milan to form a prolific pairing with Shevchenko, but instead he is remembered as almost a cult-hero by Milan fans, a player who only got going when it mattered most.  Tinged with tragedy is the fact that those two goals were probably his most high-profile moments because they came in one of Europe's biggest derbies; however, he, understandably, refers to his other achievements as being more memorable.

"People remember me most for those two goals," he said in the summer of 2006.  "But really the best year for me as a player was when I ended up as top-scorer [20 goals] with Vicenza in Serie B, and when I won the Under-21 European Championship with Italy the summer before I came to Milan."

And yet, even yours truly, chooses Comandini's two goals as a portal to glimpse at the man.  I do that not because his career is obscure to me, but because those two goals distill in a kind of fleeting moment, a what-could-have-been moment in his career.  That day stands out more than, say, how he played with Nicola Ventola for the Italy youth side.

And then there were the injuries, the moments you never want to remember about a player.  Comandini is slightly dispassionate about what happened, a distance that undoubtedly gives him comfort.

"I had had two back surgeries, and my back was still not better in the long-term," he said in an interview last year.  "I realized at the age of 28 that my performances were declining."
A career that started at Cesena and spanned Vicenza, Milan, and Genoa faded in Ternana almost six years ago.  However, Comandini sought out a new beginning by starting a restaurant in his native Cesena.  He also plays football at the amateur level.  Rather than rue what could have been, he remains philosophical, accommodating his premature retirement as an opportunity to start a new life.

"When I was suffering through my injuries, I came to a realization that it was time to change," he says, reflecting back on the last days of his professional playing career.  "I wanted to see what was outside of football."

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Inter vs Milan: The Panacea of the Derby Win

Mirabelli, Montella, and Fassone
The lull of the international break still has its moments of anxiety.  You worry whether your club's key players will come back injured, and you agonize over every negative piece of news without the remedy of a weekend fixture to look forward to.

The two weeks can seem interminable.  Milan fans know the feeling.  Smarting from the 2-0 loss against Roma, they had hoped for some good news about sponsorships and finances before the derby against Inter this Sunday.  These comparably prosaic aspects assume an exaggerated importance when there is no club football.

But the news has been mixed.  Each time CEO Marco Fassone has spoken of contingency plans in the event of not qualifying for the Champions League, imminent sponsorship deals, and a secure financial future, the media have done the opposite.  They are all in lockstep: Milan don't have a future under President Yonghong Li, they are months away from being delivered into the hands of the vulture fund, Elliott (the likelihood of which Fassone estimated at 0.01%), and the talk of refinancing their debt on more favourable terms with another party is empty (again, Fassone has said that they will achieve refinancing by 2018).  Just this week it was reported that Adidas will sever ties with Milan at the end of the season, which many on social media took as an ominous signs of the club's future.

Against this backdrop, Milan will take on Inter on Sunday in a hugely anticipated derby.  After years, the quality on the pitch will be more fitting of the clubs' histories.  There is also the usual added intrigue of a coach supposedly on the verge of being sacked, namely Vincenzo Montella.  The Milan coach has said that his team will have to do anything to win.  A look at the table shows why. Milan are already 9 points off of top spot, and 7 off of Inter. 

But Montella seemed to be reaching for something more
Andre Silva
significant.  There is a feeling that if Milan are to win on Sunday it would suddenly right everything.  The media's tune would change, the balance sheets would balance, and Milan would suddenly be contenders again for the fourth spot, and maybe not just. 

This is the peculiar absurdity of the situation, that an Andre Silva winning goal, let's say, could suddenly change the editorial outlook.  Ever since the summer, Milan fans have felt that the press has had it in for them, for their owners who they've enjoyed depicting as poveri (poor), and Inter's as having the real potenza (power).

Even after the last derby in April, in which Cristian Zapata equalized with seconds to go, it was reported that Inter owners didn't deign to shake hands with Milan's.  There is more at stake here than the 3-5-2 formation, or whether Nikola Kalinic or Silva should start; a derby win and a series of subsequent wins will change the atmosphere around the club, vindicate Fassone's and sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli's work in the transfer market, revive the memories of amnesiacs who have forgotten the qualities of Leonardo Bonucci and Lucas Biglia.  

Every day there seems to be a new voice, unheard in the summer, criticizing Milan's transfer campaign.  Today, it was Roberto Pruzzo, saying Milan could have bought better in the summer.  Even former owner Silvio Berlusconi, on the periphery of most things since his illness in the summer, questioned adding eleven players in one transfer window recently.

It is the excitement of that transfer campaign that seems to have been squandered, and the press won't relent.  Milan have to win on Sunday.  A draw would be only an incremental step.  A win would change the season's complexion.  It is precisely that dramatic. 

For the record, I think Andrea Silva should start. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Calcio Memories: Invernizzi, Lombardo, and the Scudetto

Crushed: Serie B is too much for Angelo Palombo
A look back at Sampdoria's relegation in 2011, Invernizzi, Lombardo, and the 1991 Scudetto.

It still strains belief: Sampdoria, a team that won the Scudetto in 1991 and reached the European Cup final a year later, are going to be playing their football in Serie B.  Admittedly, two decades is a generous amount of time to allow for all sorts of upheavals.  After all, Sampdoria were also relegated from Serie A in 1999, but as recently as this season, they were within touching distance of qualifying for the Champions League proper.  Only a spirited Werder Bremen side and perhaps the awe of the occasion denied them that opportunity.

As heartbreaking as that loss was, surely no one expected their entire season to unhinge and lie splayed with one round to go. Recently, I had written of how costly Riccardo Garrone's well-publicized squabble with Antonio Cassano may prove in the final calculations; secretly, I had wished my portentous tone was misplaced. Even without Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini, I felt, somewhere, that in players like Angelo Palombo and Nicola Pozzi (who was outstanding in the last few games) Sampdoria had insurance against catastrophe.  The post-mortem of the club's season is painful as it is bizarre.  A team that was sixth after fifteen rounds of play will not even suffer the final-day drama of a tense relegation battle.

While Sampdoria fans despair now, it is perhaps some solace for them to look back on happier times (though depending on dispositions that may depress even further).

My earliest memories of Sampdoria are from that 1990-91 season, during which the club won their one and only Scudetto.  Alongside the popular, unforgettable characters of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli, I also recall Giovanni Invernizzi and Attilio Lombardo.

An ecstatic Lombardo (left)
Midfielder Invernizzi didn't score many goals for Sampdoria, but he thudded one in against Cesena on the opening day of the season.  After a tangled struggle for the ball in the box, the ball landed at the feet of Invernizzi, who half-volleyed it from the edge of the area.  The ball was struck with the ferocity of Invernizzi's celebrations after the goal.  The midfielder had given his side the perfect start to the season by scoring the only goal of that game.

Any memory I have of Lombardo is punctuated by a bald head which moved in earnest with his slaloms.  It wasn't just a case of the follicles jilting the pate, but almost a wholesale betrayal.  Lombardo's surging runs with that memorable head were a feature all season, but his strike against Bologna was simply stupendous.  With his back to the goal, he received a pass in the area, wrong-footed two defenders with a quick turn, and fired home an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.  It was a goal that would make Alessandro Del Piero proud.

Sampdoria would have many magical moments that season, but I picked these two goals because they came from players whom people don't always recall from that side. This season Sampdoria were deprived of Cassano and Pazzini, undeniably two marquee players, but it was the failure of what was left that is most saddening.  And what was left was not Serie B material by any means.

Sampdoria, you will be missed.

Udinese's and Italy's Stefano Fiore

Inzaghi and Fiore (right) celebrate the goal against Belgium
At Euro2000, the usual debate of 'which superstar should play' had followed the Italian national team into the tournament. Was it to be Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero?  After the group stage, it seemed coach Dino Zoff preferred a twenty-three-year-old Totti to Del Piero.  The Roma man started the first two victorious games for Italy against Turkey and Belgium, scoring in the latter; Juventus's Del Piero started the last meaningless one against Sweden, in which he nonetheless scored a blistering winner in the 88th minute.

The debate staged the usual regional anxieties and allegiances that the blue of the Azzurri never seems to soothe completely.  But while the media quibbled over their preferences, a Cosenza native by the name of Stefano Fiore had announced his arrival on the international stage with a breathtaking goal of his own against Belgium.  

Fiore didn't represent any of le sette sorelle (the Seven Sisters)--a now disfigured sisterhood, but once comprised of the ultra-competitive clubs of Parma, Roma, Lazio, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, and Juventus.  He had just finished an outstanding season at unfancied, sensible Udinese in which he scored nine goals playing more of an attacking role in Luigi De Canio's midfield.  Zoff deployed him closer to the strikers, but he considered him equally adept at playing a more conventional position in central midfield.  Fiore was even deployed on the left flank during his career as well.

It was a bittersweet versatility.  

"My preferred position has always been to play inside of a 3 or 5 man midfield, but it was where I played less in my career," he recently said in an interview to fantagazzetta. "I have played as a regista and often as a trequartista, and even on the flank."

His goal against Belgium at the Baudouin Stadium that summer night illustrated precisely what Fiore was capable of when played closer to the front, as he exchanged a quick pass with Filippo Inzaghi before releasing an unstoppable shot from near the edge of the area.  But it was his celebration that was emblematic of his career: pointing to his name on the back of his jersey as he wheeled away, Fiore was reminding everyone that he still existed, that he still mattered.  

That night he earned his sixth cap for Italy at the age of twenty-five, but only keen followers of Italian football knew who Fiore was.  His career wasn't particularly decorated, even if at Parma he had won a UEFA Cup serendipitously at only the age of twenty.

"I was co-owned by Cosenza and Parma, but I ended up at Parma after they won a bid," he recalls.  "I was playing for the youth team, but then found a place in the senior side, and won the UEFA Cup."

In 1999, he would win the UEFA Cup again with Parma after
Fiore in action for Udinese
playing a much more crucial role in that season, but he only came on as a substitute for Juan Sebastian Veron in the 77th minute of the Final against Marseille.  Marginalized, Fiore went to Udinese where he finally earned the recognition that he had sought.  

But his success was transient.  After Udinese, came Lazio, Valencia, Fiorentina, and Livorno but Fiore was never able to replicate the success of the years between 1999 and 2001 (it should be noted that he had his moments while playing for Lazio and Fiorentina).  That period was his apotheosis as a footballer, and near the end of his career Fiore slowly faded into relative obscurity.

For Italy, after that game against Belgium, Fiore continued to have a remarkable tournament.  He provided an assist for Totti's goal against Romania in the quarter-final, and started the Final against France, which Italy lost to a golden goal.  When I watch replays of that Final even now after seventeen years (I make sure to end my viewing right before Wiltord's equalizer, of course), I still allow myself a smile when the panning camera lingers for a second or two on Fiore during the Italian national anthem.

I read about him in April of this year after he was involved in an accident in Rome that killed a 22-year-old man.  Fiore was cleared of any culpability in the death.  Fittingly, he now works for the youth sector of the club that propelled him into recognition--Udinese.  

Saturday, 30 September 2017

On UEFA Coefficients and Serie A's Progress

Papu Gomez celebrates Atalanta's equalizer vs Lyon in the Europa League
In the late summer of 2002, the question of whether Serie A could still be considered the best league in the world seemed more pressing than ever.  No Italian club had reached the quarter-final of the Champions League in the season that had just ended, the national team had disintegrated at the World Cup, and the league's star Ronaldo had left Inter for Real Madrid.

In truth, the question had been asked for years, quietly or stridently, and at the start of the 2002-03 season the answer seemed obvious: no. 

Eight months later, however, Inter, Juventus and Milan were in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and journalists had to revise obituaries.  On May 28, 2003, Old Trafford hosted the first all-Italian Final between Milan and Juventus.  Serie A was vindicated, robed in the glitter of UEFA's premier event, but the game was played in the cagey spirit for which Italian football is stereotyped and maligned, as if the two clubs were determined to torture their detractors, slowly, with flints and chisels.  The Final was rarely carved open.  Milan won on penalties, and Italian football's critics paid them--for being too quick to close the door, to forget the qualities that make Italian football competitive and relevant.

Today, fourteen years later, the question of whether Serie A is the best league in the world has a clear answer yet again: no.  The criteria that many use to arrive at this conclusion varies--entertainment, star power, financial health et al.--but more and more are now using what only a small core of fans did several years ago, the UEFA coefficient system (for a quick explanation of the system check out Bert Kassies's valuable site).

Every Champions League and Europa League matchday, I become a better person and cheer for all Italian clubs.  The reason is sentimental but can also be expressed as a formula.  This season, for every win Italy gets 2 (for a draw 1, for a loss 0) divided by 6 (total number of teams allotted) points, or 0.333 points.  So, this past matchday, Italy managed 5 wins (Milan, Napoli, Juventus, Lazio, and Roma) and 1 draw (Atalanta), totaling 1.833 points.  As a result, Italy climbed up to third spot in the UEFA coefficient rankings, ahead of Germany, and now sits tantalizingly close to England (Spain are far, far ahead).

The meaning of that success has few practical consequences in the immediate term.  Late last year, UEFA announced that the top 4 leagues (Spain, England, Italy, and Germany) would enjoy four representatives in the Champions League from the 2018-19 anyway.  But the coefficient ranking nonetheless quantifies a league's success, setting aside the gnashing of teeth and making numeric the vexed and emotional 'which league is best' debate. 

UEFA Coefficient rankings (image taken from Bert Kassies's site located here)
The UEFA coefficient system does have its flaws.  For example, it weighs victories in the Europa League the same as those in the Champions League, with only bonus points awarded upon progression in the latter to compensate partially for the calculation.  But the system remains the closest thing we have to a deterministic criteria for judging the health and strength of various leagues across Europe.

It also matters for the league's vanity, for its self-esteem.  After every matchday, it is now common for Italian journalists on social media to remind us where Serie A is in the rankings.  And this season, no one expected Serie A to be more than 3.5 points ahead of Germany.  There have been some performances of distinction as well, like Atalanta flattening Everton 3-0 in the Europa League a few weeks ago, and earning a point against Lyon in France just this past week, or like Napoli totally dominating Nice over two legs in the Champions League play-offs. 

This season may be Serie A's best chance to solidify its position in third, and even replace England in second when you consider both the quality of their representation, and that they will have one more representative next season (meaning a higher number to divide the points by, and thus a lower return for a win, for those keeping track).  Milan and Lazio should go deep into the tournament (Milan's ludicrous 3-2 win over Rijeka on Thursday notwithstanding), and Atalanta have started convincingly with four points from their two toughest games.  And then there are Juventus, who have played two losing Champions League Finals in the last two years, but who have nonetheless earned Italy valuable points, and should earn more this year.

Serie A may not be able to repeat what it did in 2002-03 in the Champions League, but the feats of 2014-15 are achievable, and, hopefully, surpassable.  That season, Italy earned 19 points.  Lazio and Napoli played the semi-finals of the Europa League, and Juventus the Final of the Champions League.  The early signs are promising. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

Learning to Like Kalinic

Kalinic thinks he has scored a hat-trick against Udinese
Milan's signing of Nikola Kalinic was not the one many fans had hoped for after a summer of
reportedly dealing with names like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Andrea Belotti, and Alvaro Morata. When the former Fiorentina striker went on strike in the middle of August, refusing to train with La Viola
 in an attempt to force the move, it endeared him neither to the Fiorentina fans nor the Milan ones.

His proponents talked about his mobility, his sacrifice, his twenty-seven goals in two seasons for Fiorentina, and how well he would fit in coach Vincenzo Montella's team, but that was also where the problems lay for his detractors.  Kalinic was too much of a safe choice, whose output and limits were predictable.

There is something eminently insipid about Kalinic for the modern football fan.  His haircut is maddeningly conformist.  His face shows no torment of the thirty-years-or-so footballer, no affected gravitas of a Messi-style beard, or the lined forehead of the journeyman struggling for relevance. 

Clean-shaven and generally unimpressed, Kalinic seems to show up more for work than he does for a match, applying himself with corporate reserve on the pitch.  Even when he celebrates a goal, he does it as if he knows exactly where it figures in life's calculus of joys.

So, when he stuck three fingers up to the San Siro after scoring what he thought was his hat-trick goal against Udinese on Sunday, his matter-of-fact celebration was fitting, precise, showing that despite everything Kalinic hadn't lost his bearing--or count.  

The 'goal' was ruled out by VAR, but Kalinic's other two counted in Milan's 2-1 win over Udinese. The first was brilliantly improvised, as Kalinic passed to Davide Calabria on the right, and poked the return ball home.  The second goal showed the Croatian is not above putting his tall, awkward frame at the service of the team, stabbing the ball into the goal with one of his long legs as he collapsed to the floor from a challenge.

Both goals came through a crowd of legs or a heap of bodies, as if Kalinic was brute-forcing his way into San Siro recognition.  

He may not be the number 7 that Milan fans wanted.  He may not be the number 7 that Milan fans had with Andriy Shevchenko either.  But even on that count, Kalinic has an answer, mundane but disarming.

"I am a number 9," he told SKY after the game. "But it was taken by Andre Silva, so I took 7 instead."

Kalinic is a reluctant number 7, and Milan fans have reluctantly accepted him as the shirt's heir.  But if he continues what he has started against Udinese, eventually reaching that elusive twenty-goal mark this season, fans may forget how close they came to Aubameyang or Belotti during the summer.