Looking back at the end of Juventus’s strange, remarkable run

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Juventus went 49 Serie A games without a loss, but when they finally fell 3-1 to Internazionale yesterday, the reaction was less shock than confirmation, the feeling that an inevitability had come. Inter were clearly the better side – an advantage they needed after a wrongly allowed goal put them down one after 18 seconds – though they weren’t the first team to outplay Juventus over the league 18 months. That they were the first to beat them in league made the preceding 49 games all the more confusing.

“We came back out for the second-half with so much anger after the offside goal,”1 Inter striker Diego Milito admitted afterward, the Argentine having taken his customary place in the big stage’s spotlight. His two goals had Inter up in by the 75th minute, with Rodrigo Palacio’s late insurance handing Juve their first loss at Juventus Stadium.

“We are still proud of these lads, who didn’t lose for 49 games,” Juve general manager Guiseppe Marotta said. [N]ow we must look forward.”2

“The Nerazzurri will compete at the top right until the end. We accept this defeat and we’re not going to make any bones about it.

For some, it was a surprising moment of humility. In the days before the game, Marotta made the mistake of publicly chiding Inter’s preparation, his glib derision catching the Nerazzurri’s attention.

“I was annoyed by what Mr. Marotta said before the game,” Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni conceded after ending Juve’s run. “He made a sarcastic remark about our blithe approach. We work hard and you could see that.”3

The team’s formation symbolized that preparation. Stramaccioni took advantage of Juve’s two-forward approach by going three at the back, an approach they’ve used a various times this season, the team using both 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations. Surprisingly, Stramaccioni chose the more audacious approach on Saturday, Inter’s 3-4-3 seeking to pressure Juve high while taking advantage of the Old Lady’s lack of a top finisher.

Though Inter relinquished their clean sheet early, Juventus was held at bay for the next 90 minutes, a testament to both the Nerazzurri’s preparations and Juve’s lack of punch.

“We weren’t used to losing anymore, even if we played well,”4 captain Gianluigi Buffon said after the game, Juventus conceding three goals in league for the first time since last November. eventually noting another issue with Juve’s attitude. They’d never conceded three in their new home.

Buffon went on to note another issue which, like Marotta’s ill-advised criticisms, hints Juve took Inter for granted.

“I did not like our attitude after we went 1-0 up. I don’t understand why we sat there waiting for them outside our own box, we were far too carefree.”

Passivity is not a new problem for Juventus, a team whose 49-match unbeaten streak defied their approach. This year’s Champions League has highlighted the problem, the Old Lady sitting on a disappointing three points after as many matches. The team too often relies on opportunism in lieu of control, and while their streak shows the approach can be successful, it frequently leaves your success in the hands of your opponents.

The approach also leaves the team content to sit on a lead, an attitude that would have been difficult to maintain last year had Inter, Milan, and Napoli (thanks to their Champions League commitment) not all, simultaneously taken a step back. Udinese had sold Alexis Sanchez. Fiorentina was in disarray. As with all remarkable results, Juve’s streak required remarkable circumstances.

“In my view, we could’ve dealt with the game differently,” Buffon continued, “but after 15 minutes we just left the initiative to them.”

“Was our attack light,” Moratta asked, rhetorically, after the game. “Yes, maybe with a more clinical striker we might’ve had a different result.”5

The remark understates the difference between the sides. With better finishing, Juventus may have scored another goal, but they still wouldn’t have had an answer for Milito.

Coming into the game, Inter’s focal point had 113 goals in his 191 Serie A appearances, yet he’d never scored from open play against Juventus. He’d converted from the spot during his time with Genoa, and in the 59th minute, Milito did the same on Saturday, equalizing after a penalty on Claudio Marchisio.

Sixteen minutes later, Milito finally had his open play goal, putting home a rebound of a Fredy Guarin blast to give Inter the lead. With Palacio’s late goal, Inter had their 3-1 win, giving Andrea Stramaccioni the biggest victory of his young career.

“Is this the best day of my career? The best day of my career was when the president chose me to coach Inter,” the 36-year-old modestly explained after the victory, preferring to keep the focus on the club rather than himself. “I’m proud to be the Inter coach and I’m happy for our fans who can enjoy this win.”6

Stramaccioni’s appointment was almost a last resort in spring, with Inter having already gone through two coaches after Leonardo’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain. Gian Piero Gasperini was dismissed almost immediately after the 2011-12 season started. Claudio Ranieri failed to engineer the same turnout he’d brought to Roma. When he was dismissed in March, Stramaccioni was promoted from the team’s Primavera side, becoming Inter’s fifth coach since José Mourinho left after the team’s 2010-11 league, cup, Europe triumph.

“Stramaccioni doesn’t need to be compared to Mourinho,” Inter president Massimo Moratti explained. “He’s just good. He’s surprising.”7

The surprises mean Inter have adjusted their goals.

“I’m happy because what seemed to be a transition season is now starting to look interesting,” Moratti said, with caution. “[Let’s] wait a bit before talking up our title challenge.”

Moratti doesn’t have a choice. Eleven rounds into the season, Inter sits second, one point back of Juventus. After a win in Turin, the Italian press is sure to see Inter as a contender, and with good cause. On talent, they have the means to compete with Juventus and Napoli. If Stramaccioni proves to have move tricks up his sleeve, Inter is as capable of claiming the Scudetto as the league’s other two title hopefuls.

It’s an assessment that only underscores the strange nature of Juventus’s streak. One loss after a 49-game unbeaten run would normally be seen as a blip. Not so in this case. While that feeling could come from the strength of their opponents or the sense that all good things must come to an end, it’s more likely a reflects a more general feeling about Juve’s quality. Though their title earned them respect, there was always wonder at how a team could go from out of Europe to unbeatable – from redesign to reign in one summer.

That wonder was a euphemistic one. Nobody felt Juventus unbeatable, an attitude reflected in how Napoli beat them in last year’s Coppa Italia final. Inter was similarly aggressive on Saturday, and in doing so, they may have affirmed a blueprint for dealing with the Bianconeri.

Mid-way through last season, Napoli was similarly found out, Juventus helping to uncover an antidote Walter Mazzarri’s 3-5-2. Now it’s Juve’s turn to adapt, even if their adjustment will be more mental than tactical. Though Stramaccioni’s innovations trickled into his formation, the real epiphany in attidute. Like Napoli in the Coppa final, Inter proved you can go after Juventus.



1 – http://www.goal.com/en-us/news/86/italy/2012/11/04/3502194/milito-anger-at-offside-goal-motivated-inter-comeback
2 – http://www.espnstar.com/football/serie-a/news/detail/item885085/Inter-driven-by-Marotta-comments/
3 – http://english.gazzetta.it/Football/03-11-2012/strama-a-sign-of-our-strength-now-juve-should-show-us-respect-913112705397.shtml
4 – http://www.football-italia.net/26879/buffon-slams-juve-attitude
5 – http://www.soccerway.com/news/2012/November/04/marotta-rues-lack-of-marksman/
6 – http://www.espnstar.com/football/serie-a/news/detail/item884902/Moratti:-Stramaccioni-is-just-good/
7 – http://www.espnstar.com/football/serie-a/news/detail/item884902/Moratti:-Stramaccioni-is-just-good/

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

[ MORE: Full FIFA-Qatar report leaked? ]

Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

[ MORE: USMNT’s 23-man roster questions ]

That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?

Report: German publication has full FIFA corruption report

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The unedited 2014 report into World Cup bidding published by Michael Garcia has been ‘leaked’ into the press by German publication Bild.

FIFA had released a 42-page version of the report that claimed to clear corruption allegations against Qatar. This “suppressed” report is over 400 pages.

Garcia quit his job as investigator with the FIFA ethics committee in 2014, saying he believed progress in reforming FIFA had slowed considerably.

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Bild said it will publish more information and the full report on Tuesday, but the BBC notes a couple interesting facets of the initial release:

  • “Three Fifa executive members were flown to a party in Rio in a private jet belonging to the Qatari federation before the vote for 2018 and 2022 hosting rights.”
  • “Bild’s report includes details of a $2m (£1.6m) sum allegedly paid to the 10-year-old daughter of a Fifa official.”

Before you overreact, the 10-year-old is an incredibly gifted footballer.

The reporter who filed the story says the report shows no proof of a bought bid, but that it is like “a puzzle.”