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.

Serie A Preview: Week 11

Whilst those in England had to make do with an underwhelming round of Carabao Cup action, Italian football fans were treated to a midweek installment of Serie A.

Mauro Icardi and Inter continued their fine form on Tuesday night with a 3-2 victory over Sampdoria at the San Siro which saw them temporarily climb to the summit.  Napoli saw to it that Inter’s reign at the top lasted less than 24 hours when they leapfrogged the Nerrazzuri having won 2-3 at Genoa. Juventus, Roma and Lazio also registered victories midweek and the battle for the Scudetto and the Champions League positions continues to heat up.

Looking ahead to match day 11 the standout fixture comes from Milan.  Juventus travel to Italy’s second city in a bid to chase down league leaders Napoli and simultaneously inflict further pain on under fire Milan boss Vincenzo Montella.  The former Fiorentina manager must feel as though the walls are closing in on him.  Having spent a vast amount of money during the summer the minimum expectation was for Milan to secure a Champions League place.  Given the way Napoli, Lazio, Roma, Inter and Juventus have started the campaign that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Juventus go into this one in a far richer vein of form, despite their recent defeat at the hands of Lazio they were able to bounce back instantly with convincing victories in Udine and then at home against SPAL.  Hardly the kind of opponent Montella would have wanted to face given his precarious situation.  Dybala, Higuain and co will be confident of leaving the San Siro with maximum points and you wouldn’t be surprised if this was to be Montella’s final game in charge.

With Carlo Ancelotti hovering in the background, unemployed and in search of pastures new could we see the Milan hierarchy turn to their former boss for inspiration?  Some food for thought.

Elsewhere Napoli entertain Sassuolo, Lazio travel to relegation threatened Benevento, Roma welcome Bologna to the Olimpico, Inter head to Verona and SPAL take on Genoa in an early season six pointer.

Remaining fixtures:

Crotone vs Fiorentina, Sampdoria vs Chievo, Torino vs Cagliari and Udinese vs Atalanta.

Another action packed weekend of Serie A football coming your way!

Ciao!

@HarrySymeou

Goalaaaaccccccciiiiiiiioooooooo! – Alavi

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Growing up as a “90’s” kid, I quite liked the Premiership but the real highlight of the weekend was football Italia and in particular shouting GOLACCIO. Serie A was the home of stars such as Zanetti, Baresi, Batistuta, Totti, Lombardo, Donadoni, Peruzzi and Boban. However, one man stood above them all for me (only narrowly piped by Mike Tyson as my childhood hero), namely Roberto Baggio. With a record of 291 goals in 643 games and a pony-tail to revere, I soon learnt that I could only copy the latter of these attributes, refusing to take off the hat I had bought with a tail attached to imitate my football icon. The hat still resides in my bedroom occasionally worn when the HeartBreak kid makes returns at Wrestlemania and my knee still bares the scar of running through a glass door to celebrate Pagliuca’s penatly save in the 94 World cup final, but sadly the state of Italian football means it is no longer the one I pay homage to.

FILE - In this July 17, 1994 file photo, Roberto Baggio of Italy looks disappointed after Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel saved his penalty shot, during the World Cup Final, in Pasadena, Ca., USA. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

For football fans over a certain age there is no greater fall in modern football than what has happened in Italy during the past fifteen years. Serie A, the top division of Italian football, seemed like an unstoppable force throughout the 1990s. Shown live on Channel 4 in the UK and Ireland every Sunday the league brought glamour and entertainment to a sport slowly emerging from the disasters of the 1980s and was a huge contributor to what football has become today. Serie A in the late nineties was, arguably, the greatest football league of all time. Even the preview show on a Saturday remains long in the memory of many of us approaching, or already within, our thirties.
It was all very different back in 1992 when Paul Gascoigne, undoubtedly England’s biggest football star of the time, signed for Lazio for £5,500,00. Let’s not forget where Maradona, cited by many as the greatest footballer of all time, enjoyed some of his best club playing years. Then, and for the rest of the decade, it looked like Serie A was untouchable. So many other great names played such historic clubs. From the superstars like Zinedine Zidane of Juventus to Ruud Gullit and Paolo Maldini of AC Milan and Ronaldo at Inter Milan to the greats of the decade like Gianluca Costacurta, Ivan Zamorano, Guiseppe Signori, Gianfranco Zola, Daniel Fonseca and dozens, if not hundreds, more.

Six of the ten Ballon d’Or winners of the nineties came from Serie A, two of the other four signing for an Italian side the season after they won it. There never was a league line up like it and often it seemed like even a mid table Italian side would be a match for the champions of England, Spain, France or Germany.So what happened? The short answer is poor management. The owners of Italian clubs in this era tended to treat them as an accessory and not as a business. The clubs rarely owned their own grounds and so allowed them to fall into disrepair by the end of the decade.The World Cup in 1990 has kickstarted interest in the sport and pumped funding in to selected stadia but that had not been maintained. It meant little match day revenue for the clubs and an over-reliance on investment from the owners and TV money. It also meant the league flagged behind their counterparts when it came to corporate sponsorship and merchandise selling at matches.

As money began to pour in to football from new sources it flowed towards the more family friendly English Premier League or the powerhouses of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain instead. The Spanish Liga has exploited the famous active nightlife, the immense prestige of the two biggest teams, Real and Barça, and especially the favorable tax regulations. Teams can spend more and offer better salaries, as the taxes on football are much lighter than elsewhere. Moreover Spanish major clubs have shown not to be scared of spending unbelievable sums (Real Madrid bought players for €250 million in one summer), or even getting into debt. On the other hand, Italian football teams, have to spend great amounts of money in taxes, and try to keep an active balance too.
The English Premier League has more and more fans from all around the world every year; it’s currently the biggest media market and moneymaking machine in football. This dominance is reflected on the field, where English clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool impose their strength in Champions League. Thanks to this, over the last few years, many investors have poured their money into the English Premier League, making it grow bigger and bigger. Chelsea squad for example, has been enriched by many players bought with Abramovich’s money, a billionaire Russian entrepreneur, and the same happened to other teams. Italian club presidents instead are reticent in selling their property to foreign groups, reducing the economic resources of Serie A. While in this time of economic crisis, caution when it comes to spending millions could be an intelligent move. In a field like football, a club can grow and be successful only through investments, and passionate Italian fans could face more disappointments if there isn’t a change in the passive attitude of those who run the clubs they support.

Instead of being able to respond to a decline by following the German Bundesliga’s increased focus on the fan experience Serie A instead just had to hope their fans would stick with them. And they did, for the most part, until the Calciopoli match fixing scandal of 2006 erupted and threatened the league from a new angle. The police investigation in to Serie A clubs leading up to the scandal had shown that numerous major Italian sides held cosy relationships with various referees. Major clubs like Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina were all accused and found guilty of coercing the referees in to favouring their clubs during matches and given various punishments from fines to points deductions. Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 league titles and automatically relegated to Serie B. Public confidence in the sport was severely harmed and it still has not fully recovered.

All of this happened in the wake of the world’s top players leaving Serie A for newer pastures. Ronaldo moved back to La Liga in 2002. Big name foreign players like George Weah, Didier Deschamps and Oliver Bierhoff all left and were never adequately replaced. But it was in 2001 that the biggest indication of the shift of power came when Zidane, the world’s greatest player at the time, left Juventus for Real Madrid. For the first time in over a decade it could be said that the best players in the world weren’t flocking to Serie A from other clubs. They were instead leaving it for the re-emerging superpowers in Spain or the new money clubs of England. While Zidane’s exit from Juventus for the Santiago Bernabeu can be seen as the end of Serie A’s dominance and the approval of La Liga’s ousting of the league as the world’s top division there have been arguments that the subsequent decline of the league has been exaggerated.

In 2003, Italy produced the first ever Champions League final between two sides from one country. AC Milan would defeat Juventus in Manchester to lift the European Cup for the sixth time in their history and in 2007 they would capture it for a seventh. Inter Milan would win it in 2010 on route to completing a historic treble of Serie A, Italian Cup and European Cup victories, the first Italian side to ever accomplish that feat. But these victories only hid the growing divide between Serie A and its counterparts from England, Spain and Germany. Outside of those three victories there was only one other occasion when an Italian side made it to a Champions League final post-Zidane, when AC Milan lost to Liverpool in 2005.

In comparison, the English Premier League has sent eight representatives to the final in the same timeframe, La Liga six. More worrying is the nation’s performance in the Uefa Cup, now the Europa League. An Italian side hasn’t been to the final of the competition since Parma’s victory in 1999. During the nineties, Serie A hosted six of the winners of the competition and the Uefa Cup also had three all-Italian finals, in 1991, 1995 and 1998. What was a surplus of great mid table sides has now fallen away completely and even the two current top clubs, Juventus and Roma, can barely make a dent in the Champions League.
During 2009’s summer transfer market two of the biggest Italian football teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan, lost their key-players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kakà, two of the best strikers of the world. Spanish domination of football has led to Real Madrid buying the Brazilian-born star Kakà, from Milan and Barcelona taking the Swedish striker from Inter. This loss seems to be just another step in the process of Serie A’s decline while many factors have started to prop up the growth and supremacy of both the Spanish Liga and the English Premier League.

But there is some hope that the league is slowly starting to get itself back in order. The success of Juventus’ move to a new stadium in 2011 has prompted other clubs to explore the same avenue. Udinese and Sassuolo are revamping their grounds whilst Roma plan on moving to a purpose stadium in the coming years. New owners are starting to trickle in to the country from abroad, Roma have attracted American investors in recent years whilst Erick Thohir, an Indonesian businessman, purchased 70% of Inter Milan in 2013. Inter are now one of the most supported football sides in Asia and 60% of their fan base are said to come from the continent.Television money also remains high, second only to the Premier League, so new investors could bring new expertise on running football clubs as businesses. The improved match day experience of new and revamped stadia would go a long way to generating more income for the entire league as well. None of this may be able to recapture the league’s nineties glory days and push Serie A back to the pinnacle of club football but it might, at least, make it competitive again. Getting James Richardson back presenting a football highlights show on Channel 4 would be an added bonus. And those enormous Italian deserts.

Alavi