Saturday 8 December 2012

And here I am, Italian football

Get used to it: Ibrahimovic is presented as a PSG player
It has been a long time since my last post.  The Euro2012 Final was not exactly heartbreaking as it was sobering, and the disappointment of losing a Final disappeared quickly thereafter.   So, I can't attribute a five-month absence to a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the best team in the world.

No, the reason I had no will to write about Italian football for so long was because of Italian football--not its performances on the field, but more off it.  Two things encapsulate my displeasure.  Let's take a  look.

First, and acutely for me, there was a hideous denouement to the whole Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva affair.  Selling them to PSG was a capitulation to the most vulgar truth of modern football: the nouveau riche are not simply upstarts but ones who can goad the slightly willing into selling half their team overnight.  That is precisely what happened, if not in number then in quality, when Milan sold Silva and Ibrahimovic.

In selling Silva, one of the best defenders in the world, Milan pioneered a market manoeuver of shocking duplicity, which stands alone in its callousness towards fans.  When PSG got serious about Silva and were tantalizingly close to getting him, in stepped, predictably, Silvio Berlusconi for the colpo di scena, sparing fans and Silva alike from the indignity of selling their team's foundation to a team that flashed a little cash.  I am being reductive here, as there was more to it than Berlusconi, but it was he who headlined the rescue.  

Silva renewed his contract, and Milan fans could breathe a sigh of relief at least for the 2012-13 season.  However, a few weeks later, Silva was sold remorselessly to PSG.  It was cruel even by Milan's recent standards.  The fans least suspected it because a contract renewal has been a time-honoured gesture of the player and the club to continue their relationship at least for the subsequent year.  But Milan relinquished tradition a long time ago. 

And then there was Ibrahimovic who was hastily and gracelessly shown the exit as part of the package deal. The Swede is not generally known for his retreating disposition, but he has every right to despise the suits at Milan, and by all accounts he does (he and Galliani don't talk now).  Milan didn't spare him any indignity.  They wanted him gone if Silva was gone, which is not a very edifying approach to dealing with a player who had allowed Milan to stand on his shoulders and grab a Scudetto in the two seasons he was there.   

The protest and response in Italy was surprisingly muted, leading to speculation that Galliani had perhaps promised something to the hard core of the Milan contingent, the Curva Sud.  This cadre has always been at the forefront of Milan mirth, madness, and melancholy over the years, but their protests were tame by their standards and they have, to their credit, supported the team through a disastrous start to the season.  Lest we forget, Milan's season is now recovering, unlike my faith in the men leading my club.   We are at the whim of Berlusconi until he decides to sell. 

Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio
Secondly, and more succinctly, Legge Crimi, the stadium law that I have written extensively about has still not been ratified. In its jarring absence, there have been some promises by Roma and Inter for a new stadium, but those projects are slated for 2016.  The toxicity of the legislative bodies, local councils, and politicians in Italy is staggering. Vested interests have once again trumped broader utility.  The law that would allow teams to refurbish their dilapidated homes is still on standby, and so are the potential revenues that could be realized by these clubs on matchdays.

This event and non-event are symptomatic of what is totally rotten in Italy.  The suits lie and dither, and Italian football suffers.  But that is why I'm back.  I have to write about Italian football even when it is lurching from one crisis to the next.  I have been for a while now, so why not continue?  At the very least, the textual trace will give the chaos and hopelessness some form and geometry.  

And of course, there are some plus points.  On the field, Italian football is showing signs of hale. In Europe, five teams are still alive.  Juventus emphatically announced their return to the big time by flattening the reigning European Champions Chelsea 3-0, a victory that allowed the spectator to anatomize how effective Juventus really are.  A midfield of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo could even play behind invisible men and still make inroads into the opposition half at will.  Speaking of invisibility, even in Antonio Conte's conspicuous absence (he is serving a harsh ban), Juventus are still at the summit of Serie A (though they have lost to Inter and Milan this season), and have just finished top of their Champions League group.

Lazio, Napoli and Fiorentina have been impressive as have been Inter.  Milan started the season poorly, but Stephan El Sharaawy, Riccardo Montolivo and at times Bojan have shown that Milan can predicate a revival of fortune and spirit on these younger players (Montolivo at 27 being the geriatric among the three). There is hope because Italian football, as I have written about countless times, as a philosophy, as a way of playing, is still powerful and effective.  Italy just went to the Final of Euro2012, humiliating England and soundly beating Germany on the way, and this year's football in Serie A has been compelling, even exciting.

Considering the cynical bureaucrats running the game are disinclined to bring about real change, the coaches and players deserve immense credit for their effort.

Forza Italia!

Friday 7 September 2012

Monday 2 July 2012

Despair In a Minute

This is the anatomy of the beast that is despair:
ten red shirts, fine-tuned, attuned, coming at nine blue ones in disarray, hanging on.
Fire running towards water.

Thiago Motta, his hamstring, and Italy snap.
2-0 turns to 4-0 turns to history.
Briny shirts, teary eyes.                                                                      
Bandwagon jumpers
sworn Spanish fans since circa 2008.

Pathetic. Painful. Despair:
look into it and glimpse its anatomy.

We reach the Final every six years:

1994, 2000, 2006, 2012.
We look towards 2018
Too far away.                                                                                            
Too far away.

Pirlo and I will almost be forty!                                                
Warm middle-age interrupted
Churn of Spanish
production line of
cyborg talent in the distance.

More bandwagon jumpers,
The mediocre upon mediocre
the magnificent.

Make the incantation stop.                                                                  
Don't utter.

But say the beautiful:
Balo, black, bicycle
Pirlo, penalty, panenka
Balo, black, blistering

Anatomy of hope:
Straight, limber, and sturdier
flicks away the despair.

We wait for Gli Azzurri.
With hope.

Saturday 30 June 2012

Azzurri, We Love You

Balotelli embraces Cassano as Pirlo looks on
It seemed already decided before a ball was kicked in anger at Euro2012: Germany and Spain, the two best teams in Europe, would play the Final.  On the one hand, you had a German team that had been honed for the occasion, a redoubtable unit that was the apotheosis of speed and precision.  On the other, you had a Spanish team that was destined to keep the ball from everyone by virtue of a biological imperative.  These were two teams with a distinct identity, built and burnished over years of hard work. Even UEFA president Michel Platini couldn't stop from gushing over the prospect, unreservedly admitting that he would like to see Germany and Spain in the Final.  

Italy, though, had other ideas.  On the eve of the tournament, when asked about yet another scandal extending its fingers into an Italian squad--
and grabbing his stand-out left-back Domenico Criscito in the process--Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, perhaps exasperated at how people had trained their attention on extracurricular matters, responded disarmingly: "If it suits everyone, we are ready to withdraw from the tournament." 

It was the candour of the response that was notable, incisive.  A tactful man like Prandelli had been pushed and pushed, and the strain was beginning to peek out from under him.  Italy's preparations for the tournament had been chaotic not just because of the scandal, but also because of preparations that exposed, at the time, how ill-prepared Italy were.  Their first friendly against Luxembourg scheduled to be played in Parma was cancelled because of an earthquake, and their second against Russia, a 3-0 defeat, was a humbling insight into what needed to be done.

I, and many
Azzurri devotees will agree, am thrilled that Prandelli and Italy are still here, and that no one took Prandelli's suggestion too seriously.  Italy took on Spain on June 10 and Germany on June 28.  Both games should have confirmed that Italy were still outside the very elite, a notch below the two competitors that were to battle in the Final in Kiev, on July 1st. They didn't.  The 1-1 draw with Spain in Group C's opener, and the resounding 2-1 semi-final win over Germany have instead pushed Italy into the Final on Kiev against Spain.  The predictions were only half-right.

Thursday's win in particular stands out as one of the proudest moments in Italian football.  Quite apart from the fact that Italy dismantled Germany (I won't be covering how, here--you all probably saw it) the game definitively established one signal thing: it made Italians, and even some neutrals, fall in love with
this Italian side.

Prandelli  during the semi-final
The question has been asked on more than one occasion now, and the answer from many is that this Italy is almost as loveable as the ones from 1982 and 2006.  Up front you have the combustible duo of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.  The former is here even after a stroke he suffered this past season, and every time he breathes heavily, I get nervous.  But the way he swivelled past the German defenders to set up Balotelli's first goal shows that there is blood pumping unabated.

Balotelli, the unmistakeably real sociocultural response to  Lega Nord and those "fans" who think that a black man can never be Italian, is Balotelli:  the perfectly poised reflexive property that needs no other qualification.  Balotelli is indeed Balotelli, and he is also Italy's great hope going into the Final against Spain.  His brace against Germany definitively heralded his arrival after his stupendous goal against Ireland had hinted at it.

In midfield, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, and Andrea Pirlo have shown that you don't have to have a Spanish midfield to be eminently good: the trio have been the vital signs for Italy.  Pirlo has moved as he has wished, tuning out the raucous atmosphere of matches to let the slow, soothing cadence of his own game guide him and his teammates.

In defence, Gianluigi Buffon, the vociferous goalkeeper who rallies perpetually, has been the clearest expression of this Italy's tenacity.  Remember, it was he who was irate when Italy let Germany have even a glimmer of hope at 2-1, so late in the game. Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Federico Balzaretti have been playing superbly together, so much so that Prandelli has no intention of reverting back to a 3-5-2.

And then there is Prandelli himself, one of the most likeable characters in Italian football.  A consummate professional, who remains dignified in scandal, victory, and defeat, the 53-year-old has made people fall in love with this Italy, after Marcello Lippi had left it in disarray following the 2010 World Cup.

No matter what happens on Sunday, this is an Italy to be loved.  But I urge the Azzurri to play with the same assertiveness as they have lately.  "We are not afraid of Spain," Prandelli said, and so they should show it.  They have our support.

Forza Azzurri!

Monday 25 June 2012

Azzurri: Eloquent, Decisive, and Devastating

Magic...Andrea Pirlo shows how it is delicately done
It was all about the chip.  One hundred and twenty minutes plus penalties, and it was one nudge, one impudent scoop, restrained in economy, expansive in affect that encapsulated Italy's total dominance over England.  When England goalkeeper Joe Hart sprawled across, watching the ball agonizingly sail past him, Andrea Pirlo had punctuated the penalty shoot out with an ellipsis. What he did was simply ineffable.

"Maybe my penalty put pressure on them," said Pirlo, with the same understatement as his penalty.  It did.  It shattered England, and it made Hart's antics to put off Italy's penalty takers seem like he was mentally ill.  The two Ashleys, Young and Cole, could not follow up Pirlo's virtuoso act even with a competent one.  It was men against boys, weak-mindedness against cerebral force.

It would have been a travesty had Italy lost the penalty shoot-out.  Before the game, a conspicuous portion of English opinion had predicted Roy's Boys to edge through somehow.  This team worked together, for each other, for a purpose, we were told.  Their flaws become their strengths, you see.  Their sum is much greater than their parts.  Sure, they didn't have the greatest midfield, and sure they hadn't performed coherently once this tournament, but they knew how to get results.   It was all pathetically wrong.

Italy came at England in waves, passing the ball around--yes, around them, about them, and through them.  Blue shirts swirled around white ones like winding patterns of ink.  At times it was embarrassing.  The statistics make for crushing reading for England.

Italy had 68% of possession and 36 goal attempts to England's 9.  A country whose punditry devotes a good chunk of its time denigrating defensive football that seems, to them at least, to be the sole preserve of Italian football, played not defensive football, but no football at all.  It was a cipher performance.  Glenn Johnson's almost-goal in the first few exchanges receded into distant memory as Italy took ownership of the Olympic Stadium's real estate.

Italy celebrate their triumph over England
Somehow, however, like his players, Roy Hodgson completely misread the game.  Unrestrained in his delusion, he said England had been "heroic."  Misreading is one thing--this is downright illiteracy.

Yet, Italy do have some things to sort out.  Daniele De Rossi's curving shot that hit the post, his subsequent near-miss, Mario Balotelli's inability to pull the trigger, and Riccardo Montolivo's huge miss in front of a gaping goal should have crowned Italy's approach-play.  It didn't, and that, amid all this euphoria, is a concern going into the semi-final against Germany on Thursday.  How Italy would love a Christian Vieri or Filippo Inzaghi right now.

For now, though, it is time to celebrate. It is time to celebrate Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, whose save on Ashley Cole twisted the dagger that Pirlo had initially sunk.  It is time to celebrate Alessandro Diamanti, a model of serenity before the clinching penalty.  It is time to celebrate coach Cesare Prandelli, who believed in this team, and who remains self-effacing as ever.  It is time to celberate Gli Azzurri.

Forza Azzurri! 

Thursday 21 June 2012

Memory: Montella Decides England vs Italy Friendly 2002

Gattuso (left) and Montella celebrate scoring against England
The friendly between England and Italy at Elland Road, Leeds was played in late March, about two-and-a-half months before the 2002 World Cup.  Azzurri coach Giovanni Trapattoni fielded Marco Delvecchio and Francesco Totti up front, while the midfield was comprised of Gianluca Zambrotta, Cristiano Doni, Luigi Di Biagio, and Cristiano Zanetti.  Gianluigi Buffon played behind a defence of Marco Materazzi, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, and Cristian Panucci.

Italian expectations going into the World Cup were high, and a friendly against England was a perfect way to fine-tune their preparations--even if Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri were not part of the friendly.

The game was more or less uneventful until the 63rd minute.  Nesta, mostly infallible, surprisingly lost the ball cheaply to Joe Cole, who in turn fed Robbie Fowler for a goal.

However, England's lead lasted only four minutes.  Vincenzo Montella, who replaced his Roma teammate Totti, unleashed a superb high shot from the edge of the area past David James into the top left corner.  Of course, Montella subsequently rejoiced with the classic aeroplane celebration.

But there was more to come.  In the 90th minute, Montella turned brilliantly in midfield and found a surging Massimo Maccarone, who was brought down in the box clumsily by James.  Montella calmly converted the resulting penalty to give Italy the 2-1 win.

Curiously, Maccarone scored the sole Italian goal in a 1-1 friendly draw between the Under-21 sides of both nations a day earlier.  He was also to score the winner in Italy's 2-1 win over England at the European Under-21 Championship in May of 2002.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Italy Optimistic Despite Struggles

Italy celebrate their progress to the next phase
3-5-2? 4-3-1-2? Biscotto? Those were the questions oppressing Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, his players, punditry, and fans before Italy's critical game against the Republic of Ireland.  But it was Prandelli who somewhat accurately described what was the most significant reason for Italy to go through to the quarterfinals.

"Today we understood that determination made the difference, and not just our quality," said the coach in the post-match conference, the tension slowly dissipating from him after what he called the toughest game of his managerial career.

In fact, Italy's quality was a rare sight yesterday, rarer than against Spain and Croatia, and even their determination, at times, threatened to veer into panic, as the players started to look at the clock well before full-time.  It wasn't until Mario Balotelli's absolutely staggering goal to make it 2-0 that Italy exhaled.  Well no, that's not entirely true.  They had to wait for news to filter in from the other game between Spain and Croatia, which the former won, before they could fully let go and exult.

The victory yesterday was Italy's first at a major tournament since their 2-0 defeat of France in Euro2008, and it came after football that was less than convincing.  But this has been typically the case with Italy in decisive group games in recent memory (World Cup 2002, Euro2004), and yesterday, too, 
there was the customary drama that accompanied Italy's final group game.  

Most important, however, is to understand that Italy have shown a distinct struggle for consistency and identity during their first three games at Euro2012.  Against Spain, Italy were convincing for the most part, against Croatia they were tired, and against Ireland they were nervous.

The only palpable thread uniting all three performances has been the quality of Andrea Pirlo, who should be wrapped in the softest silk if Italy are to have a hope in this tournament.  His feet have been poetic even at 33.  He described yesterday's game as one of his "worst," but even then it was he who set up Antonio Cassano's goal, and it was he who calibrated, admittedly only at times and not as effectively as in the other two games, the pace of the game according to his mood.

Bonucci tames Balotelli
Daniele De Rossi was solid all three games too, but further up the field Italy still have to discover their best combination.  Playing Thiago Motta behind the strikers in a 4-3-1-2 was not extremely effective, and it is still unclear whether Prandelli will start with Antonio Di Natale, who had a decent game, or Balotelli.  I would guess Balotelli will start the next game.  Remember, too, that Fabio Borini has also not seen playing time yet, but perhaps he will have to be content on the bench.

Lest we forget, of course, there is also the constant question of whether to play three or four at the back.  Italy don't seem to have the fitness levels for the former option, and with Giorgio Chiellini potentially injured for a couple of games, it seems four at the back may be the way to go forward (figuratively and literally), not least to include Federico Balzaretti, who was impressive last night.

All things considered, I am optimistic.  I think as cliche as it is, I agree with Claudio Marchisio when he says that "Italy's tournament starts now."  Italy will play one of France, England, and Ukraine next (most probably France), and there will be a need to impose themselves on their opponents.

That means Cassano has to do even more than he has, and Balotelli needs to understand--really, understand--that his superb technique, on display in full technicolour yesterday, is the precise genius that Italy are craving (incidentally, Leonardo Bonucci's muzzling of Balotelli after the latter's goal was the most endearing moment of the tournament thus far).

This Italy can reach the Final, as Marco Tardelli and Giovanni Trapattoni said yesterday. Prandelli also concurred, though he didn't put it as confidently in the affirmative.

"Now, nothing can be excluded," Prandelli has been quoted as saying by Tuttosport.  On the balance of the three games the optimism may seem misplaced, but Italy are soaringly confident now that they have wriggled past the World and European Champions, an imposing Croatia side, and an Ireland who, under Trapattoni, was supposed to give them problems.

It is perhaps what was needed to lend sharp relief to Italy's slowly evolving self-realization in this tournament.


Thursday 14 June 2012


Like the smoke around Buffon, Italy's Euro2012 future is unclear
So, like I said cautious optimism was needed after the 1-1 draw with Spain.  Italy now go into the last game of Euro2012 knowing, just like they did in 2004 and 2008, that even a win will not be enough. More on that later...let's talk technical stuff now.

Like in 2004, Italy know even a win will not guarantee anything as a draw between Spain and Croatia and a win for Italy against Ireland will mean all teams would be on five points, but results against Ireland would be irrelevant then--a mini-table between the three teams would be formed. Italy's careless 1-1 draw with Croatia and Spain's 4-0 hammering of Ireland mean that even if Italy were to win handily against Ireland a score draw of 2-2 or higher between Croatia and Spain would knock Italy out.

At this stage, Italy can qualify without complications if there is a winner between Spain and Croatia, and Italy simply beat Ireland, who are, of course, already eliminated.

Other scenarios are more complicated.

If Italy win against Ireland, and Croatia and Spain ends in a 1-1 draw, then Italy, Spain and Croatia will all have 5 points and an identical goal difference and goals scored record.  In that case, the team who has the best goal difference in the entire group will go through (that would mean results against Ireland would come back into consideration).

In 2004, Italy were in the exact same position, and their worst nightmare came true: Denmark and Sweden drew 2-2, and Italy went out despite having beaten Bulgaria 2-1.

It is never easy for Italy.

Here are the UEFA tie-breaker rules:

1) Highest number of points obtained in the games between the tied teams in question
2) Goal difference between the teams in question
3) Goals scored between the teams in question (in the matches they played against each other)
4) Goal difference in the entire group
5) Highest number of goals scored in all games of the group
6) UEFA coefficient position
7) Fair play record in the tournament
8) Lottery

Monday 11 June 2012

Azzurri Need to Confirm Impressive Start

La Gazzetta dello Sport brims with admiration
By all means, and by all accounts, Italy should celebrate with vim and gusto their 1-1 draw with Spain in the opening match of their Euro2012 campaign.  After all, taking a point off of the reigning European and World Champions should be a restorative jolt to the Azzurri, who were written off by every pundit I listened to or read before the tournament started.   Lest we should have been concerned, there were the perfunctory, "Italy are always unpredictable," or "you can never write off the Italians."

In fact, yours truly also polished off an article that had Italy "fighti[ng] for fluency" less than a week before the big tournament.  Of course, my less circumspect side wanted to write an article with green and red letters, with about two dozen exclamation marks (six of them side-by-side), but I will save the font-porn until Italy get out of their group.

The truth is with Italy you never know what you're going to get.  It wasn't as if I was trying to insure myself against humiliation if Italy were to do well at the tournament; it was more that I was genuinely bewildered as to how a team that was struggling to cohere a few days before the tournament would fare against the Spanish.  I'm happy that they fared well despite a few incidents like when Mario Balotelli heard Zack Morris call '"time out" a few inches from goal.

There has been much said about the game.  And why not? I personally would like to say Antonio Di Natale's goal in the 60th minute was a vindication of Italian football's core truth, which is not solely rotten like the latest betting scandal.  Instead, it also proffers us a man like Di Natale, ensconced at a club like Udinese, having turned down an offer from Juventus a few seasons ago.  At 34 and with 23 goals this past season, he came off the bench, and with his first touch showed Balotelli how it's done.  He knows where the goal is even when facing the redoubtable Iker Casillas.  Seriously, how tidy and sweet was that finish? Beautiful.

Yet, I urge cautious optimism.  If Italy are notorious slow-starters, they have also had breezy false starts before.  In Euro1996, they looked to be on course to qualify for the next round after beating Russia 2-1 in their opening match; they didn't.  In World Cup 2002, they comfortably beat Ecuador 2-0, but only just made it out of their group.  

Croatia await Italy next.  Remember Italy haven't managed to beat the team since Croatia's independence, and Croatia also defeated Italy in their second group game at the 2002 World Cup (albeit controversially).

More important than whether Daniele De Rossi should play in the center of defence (where he was outstanding by the way) or whether Di Natale should start (he should by the way) is how Italy approach their next game mentally. 

"Our next game will be the most important of the group," said coach Cesare Prandelli, echoing what he told World Soccer a few months ago as well.

"Croatia are a dangerous and unpredictable side."

Indeed, Prandelli seems to get it. Beat Croatia, and virtually guarantee your progress to the next round.  Anything less will make things a bit complicated.  It would be a shame to squander all the progress of 90 minutes against the Spaniards. Hopefully, Italy build on what they have started. 

But yes, before I forget, a very emphatic "Forza Azzurri!" from me!

Saturday 9 June 2012

Forza Azzurri!

La Gazzetta dello Sport talks about a "match of brains" between Pirlo and Xavi...Forza Azzurri!

Friday 8 June 2012

Italy's Aching Need for European Glory

Facchetti lifts the Henri Delaunay Trophy in 1968
For all of Italian heartbreak at the World Cup (1970, 1994), and outright humiliation (1966, 2002), it is the European Championship that remains Italy's ultimate bête noire. Four World Cup triumphs are an antidote to the four agonizing years previously mentioned, but Italy have won the European Championship only once: in 1968, and even that victory came after a huge dose of luck.

Italy were hosts that year, a year that marked the first time the tournament was called the European Championship instead of the European Nations Cup.  The format of the tournament also slightly varied from the 1960 and 1964 editions: a group phase replaced the two-legged home and away knock-out round.  In the quarter-finals, Italy overcame Bulgaria, setting up a semi-final match against the then USSR.

After they battled to a 0-0 scoreline, and after extra-time couldn't separate the two sides, a coin toss resulted in Italy as the winner.  Incredibly, Italy were through to the Final through a method that made penalty shoot-outs look compassionately fair.

The Final needed a replay to decide the winner.  Italy and Yugoslavia battled to a 1-1 draw in the first game after Angelo Domenghini responded to Dzajic's opening goal for Yugoslavia.  Two days later, the replay saw Italy run out winners as Gigi Riva's and Pietro Anastasi's goals floored Yugoslavia.

It was a European triumph, but it came via a tortuous path, whose turns and twists prevented Italy from getting full credit.  That team had Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, and Riva, but it was the coin-toss semi-final win that pushed Italy to glory.

Since then Italy have had virtually no luck in the European Championships.  In 1980, for example, Belgium denied Italy a place in the Final by frustrating them to a 0-0 draw in the last game of the Group Stage.  Both countries finished on the same number of points in the group, but Belgium went on to play West Germany in the Final not on goal difference, but on goals scored--three to Italy's one.

In later years, Italy were eliminated at the Group Stage due to a combination of ineptitude and misfortune.  In 1996, Italy defeated Russia in their opening game, and looked to be on course for the quarter-finals.  However, a 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic in the next game meant that Italy had to beat Germany to ensure qualification.  A draw would only suffice if Russia beat the Czech Republic in their final game.  In the 85th minute, Italy seemed to be inching towards the quarter-finals, as Russia were leading the Czech Republic 3-2 while Italy were deadlocked against the Germans 0-0.  However, Vladimir Smicer scored a late goal for the Czechs to eliminate Italy.

During Euro2004 in Portugal, Italy were left to rely on other results once again--and once again it was all in vain.  Italy had drawn 0-0 with Denmark in their opening game, and could only collect another point against Sweden in their second.  The results meant that Italy needed to beat Bulgaria in their final group game, and hope that the game between Denmark and Sweden not end in a 2-2 (or higher) draw.  Italy beat Bulgaria with Antonio Cassano scoring in injury-time, only to learn that Denmark and Sweden had indeed played to a 2-2 draw.  As news filtered through, Cassano sunk in despair in the Guimares rain.

A tearful Totti after the Euro2000 Final
However, as painful as those two European Championships were, the most excruciating fate awaited Italy in Euro2000.  Not many expected Italy to do well at the tournament being held in Holland and Belgium as coach Dino Zoff was without striker Christian Vieri and first-choice goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (both out injured) going into the tournament.  However, players like Stefano Fiore, a young Francesco Totti, and the peerless defensive trio of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro inspired Italy to the Final where they took on France.

In the Final, Zoff opted to start with Marco Delvecchio and Totti up front with Udinese's Fiore playing right behind them.  Ten minutes into the second half, Delvecchio struck.  Totti laid a brilliant backheel pass on for Gianluca Pessotto, who crossed in low for Delvecchio to volley home past Barthez. Italy had played superbly up until that point and were deservedly in front.  Even after Del Piero, who replaced Fiore early in the second half, missed two supremely simple chances, Italy looked well placed to go on and win their first European Championship in thirty-two years.

However, a cruel--indeed tortuous--conclusion was yet to come.  With less than two minutes to go, Barthez cleared long up the field, and Cannvaro mistimed his header straight into the path of Sylvain Wiltord, who guided the ball past a helpless Francesco Toldo in goal.  Italian players looked totally deprived of strength and hope after that goal, and it was little surprise when David Trezeguet scored the golden goal winner in extra-time.

That game remains my most painful memory of football--more painful than Baggio's miss in 1994, and more painful than even Milan's farcical capitulation to Liverpool in the Champions League Final of 2005.  Italy came within seconds of winning that tournament, and the way they had played that Final in Rotterdam merited a win.

Between 1972 and 2008, Italy has had little to celebrate in the European Championship.  Here's hoping Cesare Prandelli and his side, against daunting odds, change that in Euro2012.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

My Favourite Euro Tackle

Italy's Alessandro Nesta performs a wonder-tackle on France's Sylvain Wiltord during the Euro2000 Final.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Italy's National Anthem in Euro2000

It is perhaps the weight of the occasion or perhaps the particular acoustic resonance of the Italian anthem in the versions below that separate them from others I have heard during the European Championships.  They are from the semi-final and final of Euro2000 respectively.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Azzurri Fight for Fluency

Italy's Balotelli (left) and Russia's Ignashevich
You would think that after all that has happened with the match-fixing scandal in Italy, the friendly against Russia would be respite, an encouraging preview of what is about to come in a week's time--when Italy, you know, take on that eminently average Iberian team, Spain.

The preview was lurid.  Italy coach Cesare Prandelli watched his team flounder to a 3-0 loss to Russia, the defeat marking Italy's third consecutive friendly loss.

A lot was wrong, and not just Cristian Maggio at right-back, whose blunders were costly.  Throughout the game I had the same feeling I have had at different times during the qualifiers, but one that has now swelled into an overwhelming dread: this Italy does not know how to express itself fluently.

Indeed, for those eager to rebut the admittedly hackneyed argument that Italy are dour, dogged, and defensive, the statistic that Prandelli's side had the most possession of the ball after Spain during Euro2012 qualifying has been amply useful.  But what that statistic does not tell is that Italy have often looked like they don't know what to do when they have the ball.

The incisions in the final third have been nibbles around the opposition's goal.  When a promising move does actually materialize, no one has been able to capitalize on it for the last 270 minutes or so of football.

And so it went yesterday.  Prandelli started with Riccardo Montolivo behind Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.  Coherent on paper, disjointed on grass.  Montolivo was featherweight, ghosting in and out of the game ineffectually, revealing only fleeting moments of competence, while Cassano and Balotelli gave glimpses of their repertoire individually but failed to combine their powers.  It was worrying because the two haven't played much together, and it seems like Prandelli will be relying on them significantly.

Andrea Pirlo, however, was at his heat-seeking-missile-accurate-best, oxygenating a stifled Azzurri with astoundingly accurate passes in the seventh and twenty-fifth minutes that should have led to goals.   But it was the rest of the midfield and defence that will cause Prandelli all sorts of tactical challenges.  Even before yesterday's friendly some urged for a three-man defence due to the absence of Domenico Criscito.  It would be surprising to see Prandelli switch so late in preparation, but he must somehow provision for better and more cover.  Russia approached and breached Italy at will.  Maggio was an absolute shambles at the back, while Andrea Barzagli seemed slightly unhinged.   Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio should have provided a bit more cover in midfield as well.

Italy conceded only two goals during qualifying but have shipped five in their last three friendlies. While many reached for platitudes in the post-match interviews, Barzagli was the most forthcoming, admitting that Italy "lacked balance."  That is perhaps the most dismaying thing for Prandelli to ponder: how to balance this lopsided team.  It is all the more dismaying when one casts his mind back to the fall of last year.  If you recall I wrote an article in September 2011 entitled "Prandelli's Azzurri Show Poise."  At the time things looked promising, but the last three friendlies have revealed a somewhat diffident side, unsure of the qualities it took months to cultivate under Prandelli.

Prandelli gives direction to Di Natale (left) & Giovinco
Prandelli's calibration over the next week will also need to contemplate what role Antonio Di Natale, the veteran at 34, will play this tournament.  He came on in the 68th minute yesterday, but his pace and ability to elude marking would have been useful earlier.  Di Natale remains a crucial alternative to Cassano or Balotelli.  However, he may also get a start if things don't tick after the first game against Spain.

More homework for Prandelli then, but the coach was quick to point out (justifiably) that this is also Italy's "third game in eight months," insinuating that the Lega Calcio's obdurate refusal to let him have some time with the players during the season has been a hindrance to the Azzurri.

With only a week left until the encounter with Spain, Prandelli has to defy the match-fixing scandal, an injury to Giorgio Chiellini (which should heal in time), Giuseppe Rossi's absence through torn knee ligaments, and the fact that his team only played one of their two scheduled friendlies--the first one against Luxembourg was cancelled because of an earthquake in Italy.  On top of that, the country's Prime Minister, Mario Monti, decided to jilt common sense and instead opt for the most drastic non-option available in the wake of the match-fixing scandal.  "I wonder if it would be a good idea to postpone Italian football for two or three years," mused Monti.

No, Prime Minister.  Absolutely not. Even though Prandelli said this week that he would be willing to take Italy out of Euro2012 if need be, Monti's suggestion and Prandelli's willingness though ostensibly noble are a bit bizarre.  Despite the predictable furor over the scandal, there remains an aching need for Italy to put in a good account of themselves during Euro2012.

There is no time to sulk.  There are many things to consider for Prandelli, not least important among which is how his team are actually playing on the field.  It is not so much formation that needs tweaking--at any rate, Prandelli was flexible during qualifiers switching between a 4-3-3 and a 4-3-1-2 as required--than a need for incisive eloquence from a team that purports to hold the ball more than we are used to seeing from Italian teams in the past.  There will be, after all, no time to stutter against Spain, a team that considers holding the ball their birthright.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

The Familiar Gloom

Under investigation: Domenico Criscito
It seems all too familiar now.  Coverciano, inquests, investigations, raids, recriminations, and strident protests of innocence.  This is all preparing for a major tournament, Italy style.

For 2006, read 2012.  For 1982, read 2012.  Italy coach Cesare Prandelli picked a shortlist of players for Euro 2012 and the news Monday should have focused on who should stay, who should go, who should play where.  In the case of Domenico Criscito, he simply could not stay, so he went, and he will not play a part in Euro 2012.

On Monday morning, police arrived at Coverciano, the headquarters and training ground of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), and questioned the left-back over his involvement in a match-fixing scandal that has already resulted in the arrest of Lazio's Stefano Mauri, who is by no means a low-profile player in Italian football.  Criscito's room was raided by police, and although he is still under investigation, he was told to pack his bags.  For Prandelli, for Demetrio Albertini, FIGC's vice-president and former Milan legend, his presence would have been too much of a distraction.

"Criscito won't be going," said Albertini. "He has to sort this out--it is understandable and the federation has supported the coach."

With less than three weeks left until Italy's opening match against reigning World and European Champions Spain, you could say, without being laughed at, the preparations could be going better.  As if the scandal wasn't enough, the elements have conspired against Italy too, it seems.  Today, their friendly against Luxembourg was cancelled because of an earthquake near Modena.

There is a perverted logic to all of this.  As dedicated optimists will tell you, whenever there are occurrences of this nature around the Azzurri, they perform.  As squalid as the latest match-fixing scandal is, the omen is good.

In 1982, Paolo Rossi arrived at the World Cup after serving a ban for match-fixing--he stormed the tournament, taking Italy to their first World Cup triumph in 44 years.  In 2006, Calciopoli 'broke' before the World Cup.  The debates around that scandal are well-rehearsed, but suffice to say here that the legal crusade of investigator Stefano Palazzi against Italy's biggest clubs concentrated, rather than dissipated, the Azzurri, resulting in Fabio Cannavaro euphorically hoisting the trophy in Berlin.  It was indeed quite the juxtaposition to read of Italy's progression at the World Cup, and the regression of their football back home.

Ashamed: Giovanni Trapattoni
That is the optimistic view.  While the view is comforting, it also tacitly privileges what should be a depraved sideshow.  To say Italy will win again this summer--and indeed I have hoped that the latest match-fixing scandal spurs Italy onto great things in Poland and Ukraine--is, in the end, also to trivialize what is happening.

"In the foreign media our image is abysmal," lamented former Italy and current Republic of Ireland (whom Italy play during the group stages) coach Giovanni Trapattoni.  "We should give a better account of ourselves."

Italian football's problems, from racism to crumbling stadia to match-fixing, inundate any account of its football.  It's a shame.  The latest scandal, which also involves Juventus coach Antonio Conte and his time at Siena, gives another opportunity to people who have had the knives out for Italy a long time ago.

Neutrals and non-Italian football fans, in my experience, despise Italy and Italian football with almost a venomous passion; as if they need any more excuses.  There may be a redemptive element to all of this, and I hope it shows itself, but for now it is a moment to reflect on how low Italian football can sink.  And for another increasingly rarer moment, I can agree with Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, that it is a sad day, and there is not much else to say.

Since 2006, the publicized clean-up of Italian football has not drained the lifeblood of scandal--rather, persistent machinations have engorged it.  It seems that when it comes to Italian football, scandal is not only bizarrely an omen for succes, but also for more scandal.

I will be covering the Azzurri almost exclusively over the next month.  Keep visiting. Forza Azzurri!

Friday 18 May 2012

Memory: The Azzurri's Amsterdam Miracle

Amsterdam joy: Toldo is mobbed by team-mates
Incredible to watch.  On June 29, 2000 Italy took on the Netherlands in a semi-final match of Euro2000.  The men in orange were expected to win, and a devastating 6-1 win over Yugoslavia in their quarter-final portended the worst for Italy.

Italy had had a successful  tournament leading up to the semi-final, defeating Turkey, Belgium, Sweden, and Romania on their way to Amsterdam.  The performances of Stefano Fiore, Filippo Inzaghi, and Francesco Totti (who was only twenty-three at the time) emboldened the Azzurri against the Dutch.

Yet it was Italy's defence that would steal the show in Amsterdam.  Italy were facing a catastrophe in only the first half after Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off in the 33rd minute for a second bookable offence.  All signs pointed to a Netherlands win, but Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, and goalkeeper Francesco Toldo put on a show that I will never forget.

Toldo saved Frank De Boer's penalty in the 38th minute, and Cannavaro and Nesta ensured that Dennis Bergkamp and Patrik Kluivert were kept quiet the entire game.  After De Boer, Kluivert missed a second Dutch penalty, but the Netherlands continued their unremitting onslaught.  Somehow, Italy clung on and took the game to penalties, during which Toldo saved two--one again from De Boer and one from Paul Bosvelt.  Jaap Stam blasted his penalty into oblivion, and Kluivert was the only Dutch player to score from the spot.  For Italy, Luigi Di Biagio, Gianluca Pessotto and Totti scored, and Maldini missed what was to be an inconsequential penalty in the end.

It was an Italian win that some would find prosaic and totally fortuitous.  For a fan of calcio, however, it was a cerebral display of tactical mastery.  Cannavaro and Nesta were simply unbeatable, and while the Netherlands continued their vain search for a goal, the duo slowly deprived the game of space and chances.  It was the ability of Toldo, Nesta and Cannavaro to stay undaunted in front of a partisan crowd which really stood out.

Before the game, Dutch legend Johann Cruyff had said Italy could not beat the Netherlands, but the Netherlands could lose to Italy.  However, to look at that game solely as Dutch suicide is to detract from Italy's ability to cope with the situation far more intelligently than their opponents.

Yet, the indignation at the Italian win was widespread.  For example, the BBC described Marco Delvecchio's near-goal in extra-time as a potential "travesty." And this was in just a regular match-report.

Leading up to the tournament, Italy were not fancied to go far.  They were without key players as striker Christian Vieri could not travel because of a thigh injury, and first-choice goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon broke his arm a week before the tournament.

Coach Dino Zoff was a lugubrious figure throughout Euro2000, and even his side's largely unexpected win in the semi-final did not visibly elate the man.  "Let's wait until the final," he responded to a journalist when he was asked to smile after the game.

Of course, Italy would lose the final heartbreakingly to France, but that game in Amsterdam is my most cherished memory of Euro2000.

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Best...Grazie Ringhio.

Gattuso is leaving Milan at the end of the season

Sunday 13 May 2012

The Best...Grazie Inzaghi.

Inzaghi is leaving Milan at the end of the season

Thursday 10 May 2012

The Best...Grazie Nesta.

Alessandro Nesta is leaving Milan at the end of the season

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Vindication: Juventus Back On Top in Italy

Top...Chiellini leads the celebrations for Juventus
After Milan's tumultuous 4-2 loss to Inter, and Juventus's 2-0 win against Cagliari, I sent a quick email to a close Juventino friend of mine from Italy, congratulating him on a well-deserved Scudetto.  His response was emphatic, eloquent: "End of nightmare!!!"

As the depravity of Calciopoli assailed Serie A fans six years ago, as the Bianconeri's long-faithful--and long-unfaithful when considering Luciano Moggi's instrumental role in the match-fixing--exited tearfully, defiantly, disgraced, and broken, one got the feeling that the club's very identity was at stake.

The last six years have indeed been a sort of nightmare for Juventus, relieved only by a motivational sense of indignation and injustice--however unfounded.  The overwhelming feeling that Juventus were punished too severely has sustained the club through a time that has seen their two main rivals, Inter and Milan, win Scudetti and European Cups.  Most gallingly, in the case of Inter, Juventus's most despised rivals, domestic superiority between 2007 and 2009 owed a lot to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a former Juventus player brought to the club from Ajax by Moggi in 2004, but one who left to Inter when Juventus were relegated to Serie B after the scandal.

Now, finally, there is some redemption.  For all of their past faults, Juventus are pointing the way forward for the whole of Italian football.  The club's first Scudetto since 2003 (or 2006 depending on your perspective) comes in a season at the start of which they unveiled their very own stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that has consigned the cavernous Stadio delle Alpi to a distant memory.  Juventus are the only club in Serie A, and one of two in Italy (Reggiana being the other one) to own their own stadium.  Admittedly, business sense does not always equate to on-pitch success, but Juventus's season has been a sort of homage to their fiscal foresight.  It is almost as if their success on the field is an inauguration of a modern era:  Juventus are not only winning, but they have laid the commercial and financial groundwork to keep on winning.

"What they have done in Turin cannot be repeated in Milan," said Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani this season. "We cannot build a stadium here, but for now we can renovate the San Siro."

Not what Milan fans wanted to hear.  The San Siro is becoming a hollow, sun-deprived anachronism.  A part of its turf is denied regular light due to a tier built during Italia'90, and the results of that architectural blunder have been embarrassing for the club, as both Arsenal and Barcelona complained very publicly about the patchy field.

Encapsulated in the state of each of Milan's and Juventus's stadium is the narrative of this season.  While Juventus boss Antonio Conte did revert to the conspiratorial this year, pathetically blaming the referees for being afraid to give Juventus decisions, he pioneered a path forward for a side that had finished seventh the last two seasons.

"Remember," said Conte in the wake of any mishap or slip during the season, "we were seventh only last year."

When you consider how marginalized Juventus have been from the title race since 2007, Conte has done an incredible job to steer them to a Scudetto.  Milan, on the other hand, capitulated to a languor, a post-Barcelona arrest that came as a result of an exhausting Champions League quarter-final.  It was a hangover that cost them everything.  With a month to go in the Scudetto race Milan were ahead of Juventus with a much easier run-in.  However, a loss to Fiorentina, a draw to Bologna, and a humiliating 4-2 loss to Inter on Sunday buried their challenge in a heap of stupidly concocted excuses, old ideas, and old players.

"That one incident cost us," maintained Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri often this season.  The "one incident" was the Sulley Ali Muntari goal against Juventus that was shockingly disallowed.  That game ended 1-1 and at the time Milan had a point to complain.  But since that incident Milan have been fundamentally incompetent.  They simply didn't deserve the title.  Their record against the 'big' teams this season was atrocious.

True, they were playing two competitions, while Juventus were essentially playing one.  Also true, they had the most injuries of any team in the league, and Juventus the least.  However, that is precisely my point: Milan's loss of the Scudetto this year is a clamorous defeat of their system, their philosophy.

Expectant...Zlatan Ibrahimovic
We heard many things about the vaunted Milanlab, but the injuries kept piling up.  "It cannot go on like this," Zlatan Ibrahimovic said after Thiago Silva, foolishly risked in the Coppa Italia by Allegri, was ruled out for more than a month. "Something has to be done about the injuries."

We heard much of the commitment of the senatori, but they looked jaded, glaringly past their sell-by date.  For one telling example, Clarence Seedorf played with a disgusting sense of entitlement, petulantly reacting to being substituted late in the season in the game against Bologna.  Seedorf's attitude was only so bold because the club has allowed old players generous contracts rather than showing them the door.  It may sound callous, but it is the only way to run a football club--and keep key players happy.

"I was told we were making a Grande Milan," said the begrudging voice of the club, Ibrahimovic. "Let's see if they are still interested in doing that."

Ibrahimovic heaved sighs throughout the season, but he did his part and then some: he has already scored 28 league goals, and he was ubiquitous against Arsenal in the Champions League second-round first-leg.  But playing behind him throughout the season were players who couldn't even provide service, the partnership, the collegial inspiration that he wanted and deserved.  Antonio Cassano did only occasionally because he was out with a heart problem for a long part of the season, while Kevin-Prince Boateng was injured far too often.

Ibra must be tired.  He must be tired of an old system with old players. It is not only that Arturo Vidal lines up for Juventus in midfield while Massimo Ambrosini does so for Milan; it is not only that Juventus won the key games of the season; it is not only that Juventus have stayed unbeaten thus far; and it is not only that Milan suffered untimely injuries.  Juventus's win was also a vindication of their modernity, their rejection of complacency, their good work in the transfer market.

When asked if Milan would be signing top players this summer, Galliani replied idiotically, "we already have two in Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva."

The former is being pursued by Real Madrid, the latter by Barcelona.  Both will probably stay this year, but both will want guarantees of a competitive team.

Milan's attitude is even more bizarre when you consider that they are still, despite Juventus's new stadium, the team that earns the most in revenue in Italy.  However, it is their failure to adapt to the changing landscape, their failure to bring in players who can complement the likes of Ibra and Thiago Silva that may prove disastrous for seasons to come.

Juventus have the momentum now, and with Champions League revenue, they will buy key players.  The club from Turin, maligned in recent years, has done it the right way, and they are at the top of Italian football again.  And it is up to Milan to prevent the Bianconeri laying down a hegemony over the league for seasons to come.

Friday 6 April 2012

Di Benedetto Delivering for Roma

Sound plans: Thomas Di Benedetto
When Roma's American owners took over in the summer, many were sceptical of their enthusiasm's stamina.  Thomas Di Benedetto, the senescent cherub from the United States who is now the club's president, arrived with plans of making Roma a global brand.  Given the horrific mismanagement of the Sensi family, which had left the club lumbered with debt, Di Benedetto had his work cut out for him.  There was also, of course, the debilitating Italian bureaucracy with which to contend.

Almost a year on, however, Di Benedetto is doing all the right things despite the obstacles.  I have written in the past about Di Benedetto's effort to work with the city council, and recently there has been some progress.

As reported on their official website, Roma recently commissioned the consulting company Cushman & Wakefield to pick a suitable place to build a stadium for the club.  Il Tempo reported that the selected area is Tor Di Valle with 2016 set as the year in which to unveil the new stadium. In the meantime, Corriere Dello Sport reported on Wednesday that Roma have reached an agreement with CONI, which will see them stay at the Stadio Olimpico until 2015, with enhancements to the corporate hospitality areas.

All of these developments come in addition to Roma's recent deal with Disney, which is expected to boost revenues through merchandising.  Roma already saw a 20 million euros boost in revenue last year notwithstanding the fact that they didn't even play in the Champions League.  The future looks promising for the club.

In October, Di Benedetto had said that people "did not understand" where he was taking the club.  Given how things are evolving, one has to praise his ambition.  Despite Legge Crimi being stuck, Di Benedetto has decided to move forward in earnest.

Saturday 24 March 2012

A Vital Win, A Vital Loss

Zlatan Ibrahimovic guides Milan to another win
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's transcendent skill to decide today's game against Roma almost succeeded in making me forget that Milan have to play, on somewhat equal terms, Barcelona on Wednesday.  The goal was astonishingly skillful, and another finger in the eye of the peculiarly committed anti-Ibra brigade.  Milan were 1-0 down before Ibra scored a penalty and the winner. Milan are now seven points ahead of Juventus, who play Inter tomorrow.

Yet, it was when the Milan-Roma game was young, only at nine minutes, still emerging and taking shape, that Milan fans witnessed an injury to Thiago Silva, an injury that can potentially have a devastating impact on their Champions League campaign.  Coach Massimiliano Allegri has to take a generous portion of the blame here.  Silva was risked in a Coppa Italia semi-final mid-week clash against Juventus.  It was all in vain as well as Milan were eliminated, but, more crucially, Silva was injured.  Today he went through a tentative warm-up before the game.  Ten minutes in, his pre-game diffidence turned into total despair.  He was taken off, and Allegri has confirmed he will not be available for Barcelona.

"I took a risk with Silva, and we paid dearly for it." said Allegri. "He has a problem with his hip flexor, and he will certainly not play on Wednesday."

Philippe Mexes has been unwilling to concede even an inch, and Daniele Bonera is probably playing some of his best football, so Milan can be optimistic.  Further, Alessandro Nesta, who contained Lionel Messi so well during the Champions League group stage clash at the Camp Nou, also returns.  However, Silva's injury, at such a crucial point of the season, redounds to the bafflement at the medical attention Milan players are receiving from the much vaunted Milan Lab.  As Gazzetta reported, Milan have had the most injuries this season (Juventus the least), and were it not for a capable squad, they would have disintegrated a long time ago.

Those discussions, however, will not be the prevalent ones on Wednesday.  There is the small matter of Lionel Messi, and defying the smothering, near unanimous expectation of a Barcelona win.

Forza Milan!

La Gazzetta dello Sport reveals how many matches each club's players have missed through injury this season

Saturday 17 March 2012

L'Incubo Comes Real for Italy

Not ideal: Breitner draws Milan against Barcelona
And then it happened.

At the start of this week, the worst case scenario for Italy in Europe was Napoli squandering their two goal advantage against Chelsea, Inter unable to overcome an eminently achievable goal of eliminating Marseille, and Udinese ultimately succumbing to a 2-0 defeat inflicted by AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League.  It all happened--and then some.

On Thursday night, Italy had a sole representative in the quarter-final of European competition left and that was Milan, the club that has often carried Italy in Europe in the past.  A season that could have seen Italy gather valuable coefficient points now hinges on Milan.

"This has been the trend for many years," mused Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani. "France and Portugal will surpass us soon in the rankings."  The this he refers to darkly is Italy's unfailing ability to find the ceiling fan and noose around this time in Europe.

Perhaps Galliani a bit too pessimistic, but as I have written before what his melancholy predicts is not implausible.  Portugal have now two teams left in European competition: Sporting Lisbon and Benfica.  The former have a great opportunity to go deep in the Europa League as they have been handed Metalist Kharkiv as quarter-final opponents, while the latter have to overcome Chelsea in the Champions League.  Portugal may well amass more points  than Italy this season.

It all now depends on Milan.  But even then there is a slight problem.  The Rossoneri have come up against that team from Catalonia.  Milan are not only up against Pep Guardiola and his team, but also a sizeable portion of public opinion, manufactured fans, and an overwhelming feeling of inevitability that the Allianz Arena should, by divine right, by the right of what is right, host Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Final.

"For me, the winner of this competition must stop Messi and his friends," said former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid legend Paul Breitner before he would draw out the names for the Champions League quarter-finals. Obvious, yes. Ominous, too.

Each time the bearded German opened the tiny plastic ball to reveal a team, my heart drummed.  There were seven possible teams for Milan.  After drawing Barcelona in the group stage, and Arsenal in the second round, surely Milan deserved better.  The uncaring probability of things didn't think so.  Clinically, it only left one option behind, and for Milan it was possibly the worst.

The incubo, or the nightmare, had thrown up a phantasmagoria all week: Brandao's off-the-back goal in the dying seconds against Inter, Bransilav Ivanovic's thumping shot in the roof of the net against Napoli, and Erik Falkenburg's improbable goal against Udinese.  Breitner contributed another traumatic image.

Gazzetta issues the rallying cry
"I am looking at the positives," said Allegri in the aftermath of the draw.  "We beat Barcelona, and then it will be easier to get into the Final."  Fair enough, with all due respect to Chelsea and Benfica.   Milan's pink paper La Gazzetto dello Sport reinforced the coach with a daring title of "Milan, niente paura," or "Milan, no fear."  If ever there was a time for bravado, false or genuine, this is it.

Milan fans would never enjoy taking the same route as their despised rivals Inter to success.  However, at this stage they wouldn't mind if events conspired similarly to 2010: a volcanic eruption in Iceland that caused Barca to arrive at the San Siro tired and lose 3-1, a 1-0 loss at the Camp Nou that was characterized by a monumental hang-on job, and of course the sprinkler treatment.

From potential conflagration to being drenched in victory's water, that Inter-Barcelona tie proved that the elements can indeed conspire in a Barcelona loss.  But Milan can also take heart from their own exploits at the Camp Nou this season when they came home with a 2-2 draw during the group stage.  Even allowing for the fact that they were second best for most of the game, that score would nonetheless suit them immensely in the quarter-final.  Even the 3-2 loss in the return showed that Milan can indeed hurt Barcelona.

Of course, the key for Milan is to make sure Thiago Silva, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are healthy for the encounter.  Mark van Bommel is instrumental to a game like this, but he is suspended for the first leg, depleting an already vulnerable midfield.  However, if Milan can keep a clean sheet at home in the first-leg, there is a decent chance for them to progress.

Indeed, Silvio Berlusconi is immodestly confident: "We are not afraid of Barcelona or Messi, and we know how to handle them."

Many have said it.  Few have done it.  Milan must give it their entirety on March 28th and April 3rd--for themselves and Italy.