Serie A Preview: Week 25

Napoli vs Spal

After a disappointing result in the Europa League Maurizio Sarri’s attention turns back to the race for the Serie A crown.  Despite suffering defeat at the San Paolo courtesy of German side RB Leipzig I doubt the Partenopei will have lost any sleep over the result.  The team selection and attitude during the game was further evidence of the clubs obsession with wrapping up their first Scudetto since 1990 and complete disregard for a European competition seen by many as second rate.

In many ways, Napoli’s imminent exit from the Europa League could be helpful in their quest for the title considering they don’t possess anywhere near the strength in depth rivals Juventus have at their disposal.  This weekend’s opponents Spal currently sit in 18th place and have only registered three wins this season; if I were a betting man I certainly wouldn’t be backing them to register a fourth this weekend with the hosts being the overwhelming favorites.

Napoli are at full strength and Sarri will be hoping they can race to an early lead giving him the opportunity to rest some key players going into a crucial part of the season.  In just a couple of weeks time the Partenopei take on Roma whilst Juventus will travel to Lazio so neither side will want to drop any points going into week 27.

Torino vs Juventus

The Derby della Mole takes place early Sunday between Turin’s two most prominent football clubs.  Juventus will be bitterly disappointed they surrendered a two goal lead to Spurs midweek and now face an uphill task to qualify for the quarter finals.  However, there is no time to dwell on the result and they must ensure they stay in touch with the league leaders.

A trip to the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino is never an easy one, especially for their bitter rivals Juventus who face a Toro side full of confidence having beaten Udinese 2-0 just last weekend.  Walter Mazzari is an experienced coach and despite having underachieved so far this season in many people’s eyes, to write him and his team off would be foolish.

How much will that midweek UEFA Champions League tie have affected Juventus?  That remains to be seen but what I will say is this, an away fixture at Torino is far from ideal given their current injury list and I wouldn’t be surprised if Juventus were to drop points here.

Genoa vs Inter

Inter have been in poor form of late and Luciano Spalletti’s side only ended their terrible run of draws as recently as last weekend with a victory over Bologna.  Genoa on the other hand are starting to click and will be relishing the chance to inflict further misery on the Nerazzurri at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

The Rossoblu have conceded just four goals in their last ten games and look a far more organized unit since Davide Ballardini took the reins back in November.  Inter have struggled to score in recent weeks, with the exception of Mauro Icardi the team overall have failed to find the net with the regularity required to sustain a title challenge.  Despite the fact their season has fizzled out disappointingly we should not forget they remain unbeaten this year and have only lost twice all season, hardly disastrous.

With strugglers Benevento up next for Inter this is a great opportunity to get a result and build some momentum ahead of the Milan Derby in a couple of week’s time.  Prediction: 1-1.

Other Fixtures:

Atalanta vs Fiorentina, Benevento vs Crotone, Bologna vs Sassuolo, Chievo vs Cagliari, Lazio vs Verona, Milan vs Sampdoria, Udinese vs Roma

Serie A Preview: Week 20

Fiorentina vs Inter

The Nerazzuri’s recent form has been a real concern for coach Luciano Spalletti but despite their recent struggles there is no doubt they’ve improved significantly under the former Roma boss.  Recent defeats at the hands of Udinese, Sassuolo and their arch rivals Milan in the cup have all contributed to a disappointing few weeks.

Borja Valero returns to his former club this weekend, the club he once said he wanted to retire at and all eyes will be on him given his unsavory departure.  The feeling among Fiorentina supporters is that he was miss-treated by the club and so it will be interesting to see what sort of reception he will receive upon his return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi.

The last five meetings between the two sides have produced no less than 26 goals and so you can expect an entertaining encounter.  Inter face a difficult fixture versus Roma in week 21 so picking up all 3 points on Friday night is imperative for Spalletti’s men.

Napoli vs Verona

The league leaders were eliminated from the Coppa Italia by Atalanta during the week but it’s fair to say Serie A was always their priority.  Long term absentee Faouzi Ghoulam remains sidelined and Mario Rui’s fitness is now in question.  Elseid Hysaj could move to the left hand side of the defense and that would see Christian Maggio slotting in at right back.

Verona, like their opponents are desperate for league points all be it to serve a totally different purpose.  They’ve won just 3 matches this season but given the abysmal form of some of their closest competitors they still have a real chance of survival.  Their recent performances have been encouraging and having defeated Milan and performed relatively well against the mighty Juventus they’ve not given up hope just yet.

Napoli in theory should register a comfortable home win and will look to talisman Marek Hamsik who will be raring to go having broken Diego Maradona’s goal scoring record for the club recently.

Cagliari vs Juventus

Juventus have recovered from their early season stutter and are turning up the heat on league leaders Napoli.  The Italian media have been full of praise for defender Medhi Benatia who has settled in extremely well and replaced the once indispensable Leonardo Bonucci.

Miralem Pjanic has also been instrumental in their significant improvement of late and the Old Lady are the firm favorites to leave the capital of Sardinia with maximum points.  Allegri’s side will be without Gigi Buffon, Juan Cuadrado, Mattia De Sciglio and Benedikt Howedes but we expect Gonzalo Higuain, Andrea Barzagli and Alex Sandro to return having been rested in the cup.

Juventus undoubtedly have the greatest strength in depth and the luxury of being able to rotate when necessary.  That is indeed why many still regard them as title favorites despite them having been chasing Napoli for the most part of the season.

Cagliari sit 5 points clear of the drop zone going into this fixture but unless they begin picking up points fast they could easily slip into the relegation dog fight, one of the tightest we’ve seen in years.

Roma vs Atalanta

Roma have won just 2 of their last 6 Serie A games and are now 9 points from the top.  It’s important to note they have a game in hand but nonetheless they will be disappointed with how things have gone of late.  This week’s opponents Atalanta find themselves in the semi finals of the Coppa Italia having disposed of league leaders Napoli but in the league their away form has been somewhat problematic.

Roma’s defense is the most stubborn Serie A has to offer having conceded just 12 goals thus far but Atalanta forward Papu Gomez will provide a stern test for the Roma rearguard.

My instincts point to a draw but given the gap that is starting to develop between the top 2 and 3rd place Roma you have to believe they will go out there desperate to claim all three points and stay in contention.  If the Giallorossi were to drop further points this weekend we could start to see the top 2 disappearing off into the distance.

Other fixtures:

Benevento vs Sampdoria, Chievo vs Udinese, Genoa vs Sassuolo, Milan vs Crotone, Spal vs Lazio & Torino vs Bologna.

Antonios Nikopolidis Interview

Antonios Nikopolidis won the European Championships with Greece back in 2004.  A national hero and one of the most iconic figures of a squad that stunned the footballing world.  He made over 400 appearances for Greece’s two biggest clubs Panathinaikos and Olympiacos and is his nations most capped goalkeeper of all time.  He has 11 domestic titles, countless Champions League campaigns behind him and a European Championship winners medal to show for a truly outstanding career and I had the pleasure of talking to him for Sofa Sports News.

Antonios, you had a fantastic career, you and the rest of the Euro 2004 squad.  The Greek people will no doubt always regard you as heroes.  However, in the lead up to the tournament did you believe that Greece as a nation had a realistic chance of going all the way to the final?

“We were always confident that we had a strong group, a group that managed to qualify for the championships in Portugal perhaps against the odds.  But if I am being totally honest we didn’t believe at that stage we were capable of winning the competition.  Every time we won a game we gained greater belief and so step by step we managed to achieve what we achieved.  But we never in our wildest dreams believed we would return from Portugal with the European crown.”

At what point in the tournament did you start to think ‘hang on a minute, we can actually win this’.

“I cannot speak for the others but I personally started to believe after we defeated France in the quarter finals.  Although we had already beaten the hosts Portugal and earned a draw against Spain in the group stages, it was that particular victory over France that sparked the belief within the camp.  I remember watching the game back the next day and I said to my team mates we can go all the way and win this thing expecting to be laughed at, but everybody agreed.  When you make it into the semi finals you have to believe you can win the competition and as I mentioned earlier with every victory the confidence within the squad grew.  Of course football is about ability and talent but it’s truly amazing what you can achieve with a bit of belief and the right approach.”

Having won the final against host nation Portugal you returned to Greece where you were welcomed by the Greek people, there were over 100,000 people around the Panathinaikos Stadium, fans lined the streets and you and the squad received a real heroes welcome.  Can you describe how you felt and the atmosphere in Athens that day?

“It was emotional, to see so many of your compatriots lining the streets to celebrate was moving and you could really feel how much this meant to the nation as a whole.  I felt proud and thankful that we were able to make Hellenic communities right around the world so happy and we could share this achievement with all of those people rather than just those who had made the trip to Portugal.”

The head coach at the time was the German Otto Rehhagel, there is no doubt he was an outstanding tactician but he was unable to speak the language.  Did you face any difficulties in terms of communication and how did the squad overcome this obstacle?

“We had a translator with us the whole time, Yiannis Balidis.  He had spent a great deal of time in Germany, spoke both languages excellently and fortunately for us he was able to get the managers points across concisely.  My concern was that the small details may be lost in translation and sometimes when you are working through a translator the feeling and passion of what is said can disappear.  Thankfully Yiannis Balidis was fantastic at his job and he was able to convey the feelings and every detail of Otto’s instructions.  For me, Balidis was just as vital to our success as any player that stepped out onto the pitch.” 

Greece were unable to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, unfortunately they were eliminated by Croatia in the play-off stage.  What did you feel went wrong?

“It was a difficult draw and unfortunately Greek football is not at its strongest right now.  Croatia were most people’s favorites to progress and that is because of the quality of players they have to pick from.  Rakitic, Modric, Perisic, just to name a few. However, going into the tie I felt Greece’s chances of progression were 50:50.  Unfortunately for us, the damage was done in the first leg and it gave us an almost impossible task to overcome in Athens.  Defensive errors cost us dearly and at this level, against opponents like Croatia you cannot afford to make these type of mistakes.  It’s as simple as that really.”

Going back to your career now, before the European Championships in 2004 you were playing your club football for Panathinaikos however after the tournament you signed for their fierce rivals Olympiacos.  How difficult was it making a move between the two rival clubs?

“Tough.  Moving clubs is always a challenge but to move from the Green side of Athens to the Red is a different thing all together.  I thought long and hard about it, I knew what I wanted and my mind was made up.  I made the choice I felt best for my career and for my personal life.  You have to learn quickly how to deal with the abuse and the threats that come your way but I believe all of that made me a stronger person and a better footballer.

I was already playing for a side capable of challenging for Greek titles but I felt a move to Olympiacos would allow me to reach the highest levels of the game.  By participating year in year out in the Champions League I was able to play at the highest level and that played a huge part in my decision to make the move.”

Throughout your career who would you say was your toughest opponent?

“I played against some fantastic teams, the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United for example.  I faced some of the very best the game had to offer but the ones that stand out for me would be Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo – don’t ask me to choose one of them because it’s impossible!”

Who would you say was the best head coach/manager you played under?

“Again, that’s another tough question but I would probably say Ernesto Valverde.  Then you have Michel too, these guys improved me as a player as a person and brought new training methods and ideas to the club.  For me, they are two of the worlds very best.”

I know that the English Premier League is widely followed in Greece, who are your favorite English team and why?

“Manchester United.  Because they are great football club who suffered some very difficult times before becoming the powerhouse they are now.  They were in Liverpool’s shadow for a very long time and emerged from the darkness to dominate the English game.  Their history and the way they picked themselves up after the Munich air disaster inspired me as a young kid and I instantly became a fan.”

Since your retirement from the game, what have you been up to?

“I am currently the coach of the Greece U21’s, I have been in this position for a couple of years now and I am really enjoying it.  It is a great opportunity to earn my stripes as a coach and give back to the nation that’s given me so much.  Prior to that I was Leonardo Jardim’s assistant coach at Olympiacos for two years,  Michel’s assistant coach after that and I learnt a great deal from the both of them, fantastic managers.  Coaching is the next stage of my career and I hope to give it my best shot and perhaps one day get the chance to manage Olympiacos.”

Antonios, here in the UK many people say you are a spitting image of Hollywood actor George Clooney.  Is this something you’ve heard before and what do you think?

“Lots of people tell me that!  Especially during the time I was playing in the Champions league and on the television it was something I used to hear often.  I get it, we have the same grey hair and I suppose I should take it as a compliment, perhaps George will have something different to say about that !   It’s one of those things we have always laughed about with my family and if it brings laughter I am all for it.”

 

 

Premier League Review & The Managerial Merry-Go-Round

Host @HarrySymeou is joined by regular panelists @DDL_SSN and @Alavi_SSN to discuss the latest action from the English Premier League, the managerial merry-go-round and the latest stories from beautiful game!

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