Wednesday 28 September 2011

Holding On: Bundesliga Is Not The Only Competition for Serie A

Lazio rejoice during an unnecessarily complicated draw versus Vaslui
It wouldn't totally be a fall from grace. After all, Italian football has had well-documented problems ranging from lurid match-fixing to racism in stadia, so grace probably flatters Italy's footballing context.  However, as far as performances are concerned, the risultati, which Italian teams have often privileged over method and spectacle, Italian football is teetering.

The UEFA coefficient rankings may be imperfect, but they are far more reflective of a league's comprehensive health than the farcical FIFA rankings are of a nation's quality on the world stage.  And as far as the UEFA rankings are concerned, Serie A has not only fallen behind the Bundesliga, but is in genuine danger of being usurped by France's Ligue 1 and even Portugal's Primeira Liga (see table below the article).

The reason is simple: while an Italian team has won the Champions League twice in the last four years (Milan in 2007 and Inter in 2010), Italian clubs in general have treated the Europa League with derisive contempt.  This is even after they know that victories in the Europa League gain valuable points for the coefficients (see a detailed explanation of how coefficients work on this outstanding site). On the one hand, it is difficult to blame them.  The financial incentives to compete in what many see as a perfunctory sideshow to the Champions League are not significant enough to motivate a team like Udinese to field their preferred starting line-up (after all, the winner of the competition earns at best close to six million euros).  For example, Antonio Di Natale is being rested for the trip to Glasgow when Udinese play Celtic on Thursday.

However, even when Italian teams have fielded a semblance of a starting line-up, or at least a fairly competitive one, the results have been disappointing.  Lazio's 2-2 draw with Romanian outfit Vaslui on the first matchday was risible.  The starting line-up contained Federico Marchetti, Cristian Ledesma, Tommaso Rocchi, and new signing Djibril Cisse.  Sure, key players like Hernanes did not start, but Lazio should have, with all due respect to Vaslui, recorded an easy win with the players who did.

The mantra of "there are no easy games," which is ubiquitous in football journalism but remains suspicious, does not apply here.  While there is no way to peer into the hearts and minds of the players, what remains clear is that Lazio did not play with the same urgency and spontaneity they played with when they gained a far more creditable 2-2 draw against Milan only days earlier.

Somewhat similarly, Udinese's slight 2-1 win over Rennes at the Stadio Tardini was an exercise in salvaging three points that should never have been in jeopardy to begin with.  How can a team that came torturingly close to eliminating Arsenal in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League be on the backfoot against Rennes just a few weeks later? Admittedly, Rennes may resent my cavalier attitude, for they did finish sixth in Ligue 1, and were even in the top four for some of the 2010-11 season.

Fiorentina vs Rangers in the 2007-08 UEFA Cup
What is less arguable than my characterization of Rennes, however, is that Udinese did not play with the same urgency with which they did against Arsenal.  Yet, this alibi of there is no real financial incentive to play well in Europa League does not seem to have legitimacy in Germany or France, and the results are there for all to see.  Just take the last few seasons.  Hamburg and Werder Bremen were involved in the Europa League semi-finals during the 2008-09 season (Werder Bremen progressed to the final, only to be beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk), and PSG and Marseille were in the quarter-finals.  Only Udinese were in the quarter-finals from Italy.  Similarly, during the 2009-10 season, Hamburg and Wolfsburg were in the running during the quarter-finals, with Hamburg making it to the semi-finals.  Last season witnessed Portuguese domination, with Benfica, Braga and Porto competing in the final four.  Porto ended up winning the competition against Braga in the final.

The last time Italy did have representation at even the semi-final stage of Europe's second-tier competition was when Fiorentina lost to Rangers on penalties during the 2007-08 season of what was then the UEFA Cup.  Since then, there have been some high-profile embarrassments.  Just this season, Palermo were eliminated at the qualifying stage by Thun of Switzerland.  Last season, Napoli  played lethargically and drew with the likes of Utrecht, and a last-gasp goal against Steaua Bucharest barely qualified them for the second round, at which hurdle they stumbled to the team they expertly vanquished just yesterday in the Champions League--Villarreal.  And lest we forget, just last season, Juventus could not beat Poland's Lech Poznan to get out of the group stage.

If money is not the motivation, then can not sporting merit be enough in and of itself?  If Italian teams see the Europa League as an opportunity to try out youth and players who get less action during the league season, then why can not a certain quality of performances be virtually guaranteed? Is the failure of Italian teams in the Europa League also symptomatic of a failure of a system that is not producing enough quality?

Indeed, the last question is sobering, and reminds us of how far Italian football has sunk.  Parma and Inter won Europe's second-tier competition five times between them in the 1990s.  However, in the last twelve years, not one Italian team has triumphed.

Yesterday, Serie A had a memorable day in the Champions League.  Inter went to Moscow and managed a thrilling 3-2 victory against CSKA Moscow, while Napoli cruised past Villarreal 2-0 at the San Paolo.  It is also up to the Europa League contestants of Lazio and Udinese to keep the momentum going.  If Serie A clubs do not heed these alarming signs of decline, then Italy will inevitably be fighting to keep hold of the three coveted Champions League spots it does have left.  Trying to win back the third spot from Germany seems improbable; losing the fourth position to France or even Portugal does not.  And even for Italian football, which seems to withstand all sorts of debacles, that ignominy may be one too many.

UEFA Coefficient Rankings taken from Bert Kassies's website

Monday 19 September 2011

Napoli Roar with Cavani

El Matador Edinson Cavani ripped through Milan
Of course, post-mortems of posticipi are always easier when your team isn't involved.  I have always preferred to have Milan play earlier on in the weekend, so that I can watch the "big game" of the weekend, which, in theory, should fall on Sunday evening, with either smugness or resignation, depending on how Milan have done earlier.

When the posticipo in question is a title-tilt, the pressure is unbearable.  Luckily for me, Milan's 3-0 annihilation of Inter last season was on a Saturday evening, so I was spared the agonizing wait for Sunday.  Furthermore, my nerves were fortunately less frayed than they might have been had the game been sinuous.  As it happened, Pato made things easy after fourty-five seconds, and Milan strolled to victory.

Early in the season, when there is relatively little at stake, a fan like me watches for how the landscape will be laid for the season ahead.  The hope is your team grinds its teeth against--with all due respect--the Cesenas and Sienas before tussling with the Scudetto contenders.  Admittedly, Milan's shocking defeat to Cesena last season upturns even this assurance.  Nevertheless, on Sunday, Napoli's resounding 3-1 win over the reigning champions at the San Paolo, during just the second week of the Serie A season, felt a bit like being kicked in the teeth.

It was a posticipo that kicked me out of complacency, at least.  Despite the lack of a big signing, Milan went about their work intelligently this past summer, adding depth to an already parsimonious defence, and even creativity further up the park with Alberto Aquilani.  A team that had led the standings from November to May triumphed deservedly last season; giving the coach options like Philippe Mexes in defence, Antonio Nocerino in midfield, and Aquilani in attack only seemed to set them up perfectly for a successful title defence.

Not so, suggested Napoli.  Even allowing for the fact that Milan were missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, and Kevin-Prince Boateng, their defeat on Sunday was hideous.  It's excruciating to pick out everything that went wrong with the Milan performance, but there are some points that have to be mentioned. Singling out Clarence Seedorf is always easy, so let's go with him.  There are moments in the season when Seedorf decides that a competitive game is a jaunt.  Last night's encounter against Napoli was one such game.  And then there is Pato, who lilts when given space (as Barcelona's Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets found out in the Champions League) and wilts when he isn't.  The striker is undoubtedly talented, but even in his fourth season at Milan he plays with a clumsy urgency, running into a wall of defenders when there are other options.

To be fair his team-mates didn't make anything easy--and neither did Napoli.  Even after Aquilani had given Milan the lead with a dazzling header, Napoli didn't give up.  Their coach Walter Mazzarri could not have asked for a more perfectly executed bite-of-the-thumb from the Southern upstarts at the Northern aristocrats.  Napoli's president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, sat smiling, joyfully and wryly, as Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Walter Gargano and Gokhan Inler ran, often uncontested, at, through, and by the Milan midfield.  Gargano's run to set up Napoli's and Cavani's second goal defied even an attempt at a brutal tackle by the normally pugnacious Mark van Bommel.  It was a moment that indicted, not for the first time, a legless and senescent midfield.  How Milan miss Boateng.

Yet, the game, for all of the dominance of Inler, and for all of the industry of Gargano and Lavezzi, can be summarized in three words: Cavani, Cavani, Cavani.  The Uruguayan's hat-trick undoubtedly was possible because of a capable cast, and it would be unfair to elide their contribution in any way.  Yet, Cavani proved that his twenty-six goals in Serie A last season were the signs of an awesome striker, the real deal who didn't achieve full flight at Palermo.  He is soaring now at Napoli. His third goal, an agile reaction shot after Alessandro Nesta's clearance fell to him, proved that the man is always in the hunt.

It shouldn't be all despair for Milan.  The new summer signings of Aquilani and Nocerino had decent outings (even if the former missed a simple chance to make it 2-2),  and surely this Milan will be different when all their players return.  It is too early to sulk.  Yet, it must worry Allegri that the midfield lost so many balls--or perhaps Milan didn't play with any to begin with.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

A Point Worth Much More- Forza Milan!

Pato and Thiago Silva celebrate in Milan's 2-2 draw against Barcelona at the Camp Nou

Monday 12 September 2011

Memory: Milan vs. Barcelona- October 20th, 2004

Nesta challenges Ronaldinho- October 20th, 2004
It should have been an even battle between two of Europe's most storied clubs.  And until only some years ago it was.

The match between Barcelona and Milan at the Camp Nou on Tuesday is, for many, a foregone conclusion.  The ending, for many, is inexorably determined--but still some persist in the Milan camp.

"We have to stop Barcelona's brain," said an unusually philosophical Kevin-Prince Boateng. "Xavi and Iniesta are the right and left side of the brain."

Boateng characterized his opponents eloquently.  That's what this Barcelona side does.  It combines both sides of the brain--mathematical precision with poetic flourish.  But, terrifyingly, it seems Barcelona do that throughout the team.

Competing with them is difficult, even impossible.  For Milan to do it without their main mercurial talent, their quintessential right-brainer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, seems improbable.  The Swede was ruled out for the game due to an injury sustained in training, meaning that Milan will probably play with one striker in Alexandre Pato.

Tuesday's game brings back many memories.  The 1994 European Cup Final in which Milan dismantled Johann Cruyff's Barcelona side 4-0 is always discussed when these two sides play each other.  Also, Milan's controversial semi-final elimination at the hands of Barcelona in 2006, when a perfectly good Andriy Shevchenko goal was disallowed, will undoubtedly do the rounds. However, a game between the two sides that took place many years after the 1994 triumph and many months before the 2006 disappointment  remains nestled in my memory.

The date was October 20th 2004, and Frank Rijkaard returned to the San Siro as coach of Barcelona.  He was up against his former club, coached by his former Milan teammate, Carlo Ancelotti.  Like Tuesday's encounter, it was also a group game and came early on in the Champions League campaign.

Milan lined up with Dida, Paolo Maldini, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta, Cafu, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi, and Shevchenko.  Barcelona, meanwhile, fielded Victor Valdes, Rafael Marques, Carles Puyol, Juliano Belletti, Oleguer, Giovanni von Bronckhorst, Deco, Xavi, Ronaldinho, Henrik Larsson, and Samuel Eto'o.

Barcelona had a burgeoning reputation at the time, and many fancied them to go all the way in Europe (they did the season following).  Milan had won the Champions League in 2003, and only a dramatically absurd collapse against Deportivo La Coruna had prevented them from going past the quarter-final stage the previous season.  The encounter, then, was between two teams primed for success.

The match was engrossing in the initial exchanges.  Early in the first half, Shevchenko forced an outstanding save from Valdes from a tough angle, and a few minutes later Larsson hit the crossbar with only Dida to beat.

The decisive moment came in the 31st minute.  Marcos Cafu found space down the flank, and crossed for Shevchenko, who won the aerial battle against the Barcelona defence and headed home.

Milan may have had the better of Barcelona in the first half, but they had to withstand relentless pressure in the second.  Eventually, to the relief of the home support, they secured the three points.

It wasn't a vintage Milan performance, but it remains a cherished memory of mine.  Here's hoping that Ignazio Abate and Pato do tomorrow what Cafu and Shevchenko did almost seven years ago.

Forza Milan!

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Prandelli's Azzurri Show Poise

Cannavaro reckons Italy collapse
Fabio Cannvaro's head-in-hands reaction to Italy's collapse during the World Cup in South Africa seems so long ago now.  Italy's 1-0 win over Slovenia on Tuesday clinched their place at Euro2012 next summer with two games remaining.  A team that looked irredeemable just a year ago has been revived by Cesare Prandelli.

Admittedly, there was little chance that Prandelli could do worse with Italy than Marcello Lippi had during the previous World Cup.  Italy's sojourn in Africa during the summer of 2010 was not even characterized by the drama that usually accompanies their campaigns.  After all, even when they lose, the Azzurri find a way to register on a tournament.

Take for instance the 2002 World Cup loss to South Korea.  Even allowing for the fact that South Korea were hosts who had careered past Poland and Portugal in the group stages, no one expected Italy to stumble during their second round clash given that they were starting with the much vaunted trident of Christian Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero, and the consummate enigma, Francesco Totti.  As it turned out, however, Italy lost 2-1 to a golden goal, and Totti, who had seduced coach Giovanni Trapattoni enough for him to liken the Roman's talent to Vincent Van Gogh, did little before being controversially sent off by the now disgraced referee, Byron Moreno.  The acrimony surrounding the patently scandalous refereeing detracted from Italian shortcomings in general.  Italian failure was accommodated by an almost unanimous appeal by journalists and fans to the conspiratorial.  Italy were defeated, but they weren't about to indulge in any drawn out, profound inquests.  They exited the stage with a flourish, and strident cries of "foul."

In contrast, conspicuous by absence during their performances at the World Cup in South Africa was a pulse.  Italy looked spent.  It wasn't only the fact that Fabio Cannavaro was long, long past his Berlin self, or that it was mystifying how Simone Pepe had a starting berth; it was more that the performances illuminated how anachronistic a modern man like Lippi could be.  His faith in the tired and weary was one thing; it was how he obdurately stuck to those selections that was so maddening.  For a man who earned not an insignificant portion of his renown for meticulous attention to detail--a disposition even evident in his garb--Lippi did the big things wrong.  The fact that he had won the World Cup four years earlier gave him credibility that was ultimately misplaced.  Italy exited the World Cup without winning a single game--something that no Italian team had done previously.

When Prandelli came into the frame, enthusiasm for the national team was low.  The belief that had gained currency was that the Italian generation of players was simply not good enough.  It was a belief prompted partially by the despair of South Africa, but also because the defence, something that most Azzurri sides could always boast, looked the most unsettling part of the team.

Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini, the mainstay in the back four, is the standout defender, but he is not nearly at the level of Alessandro Nesta or Fabio Cannavaro in their prime.  Yet, he provides the solidity and the hard-nosed attitude that Prandelli wants.  It is around his towering presence that Prandelli has moulded his defence.  Chiellini has started every single game of the Euro2012 qualifiers, but around him a varied cast of defenders have come and gone.  His partner for the last three games has been Inter's Andrea Ranocchia, who took over from Chiellini's Juventus teammate, Leonardo Bonucci.  The full-backs have changed frequently with the likes of Gianluca Zambrotta, Cristian Molinaro, Mattia Cassani, Federico Balzaretti, Domenico Criscito, Christian Maggio, and Lorenzo De Silvestri having all started at some point during the qualifiers (incredibly, this list does not contain Milan's Ignazio Abate, which tells a lot about how exaggerated claims of a chronic lack of decent defenders are and were).

Cesare Prandelli
However, and this fact redounds to Prandelli's acuteness as a coach, despite the changes, Italy only conceded one goal during the qualifiers (it should be noted, the game against Serbia was awarded 3-0 to Italy after fan violence, but a remarkable statistic nonetheless).  Prandelli may not have been able to rely on the personnel the quality of Nesta or Cannavaro, yet he has managed to prove that it is not crucial to have the best defenders in order to have the best defence.  That is, his back four, notwithstanding a constant state of flux, has managed to defend superbly as a unit.  Of course, Italy have not always been up against daunting opposition during the qualifiers, but remember how easily they were carved open by Slovakia at the World Cup.

Addressing the defensive problems so effectively has been a signal achievement for Prandelli.  However, his flexibility in changing formation from 4-3-3 to a 4-3-1-2 depending on the need has allowed this Italy side to maintain a shape with three solid points of references in midfield and attack: Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, and Antonio Cassano.  These three players, alongside Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon in goal, are virtually guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.  Further, similar to how Lippi assembled his team for the 2006 World Cup, Prandelli has used players of varying strengths around this nucleus, from Stefano Mauri to Giuseppe Rossi.

The results have been better than most expected, and the culmination of Prandelli's hard work came to a sentimental point on Tuesday.  The coach conceded that securing qualification at the Stadio Franchi, the stadium he called home for the five years he coached Fiorentina, was "a tremendously emotional moment."  That is all he conceded.  He  was eager to refocus, regroup, and rethink for Euro2012, by stating that preparations for the tournament would begin in earnest now.

Characteristically focused, Prandelli, a year on, seems to have the same poise Lippi did before the 2006 World Cup.  To expect the same result may at first seem wildly optimistic; however, judging by the confidence with which Prandelli's Italy play, that optimism may seem eminently reasonable next summer.