Italy at the break: Five lessons from the first 17 rounds of Serie A

Leave a comment

It’s 2013, and Francesco Totti is still the league’s most important player

After two months sidelined with thigh injury, Francesco Totti returned to Roma’s starting lineup on Sunday, looking like his typically Tottian self. Creating five chances for this teammates, Totti was at the center of Roma’s 4-0 win over Catania, the team scoring more than twice for the first time since their talisman got hurt (Oct. 5).

With him, Roma has not lost, winning nine of 10 games. Without him, Roma also has not lost, but they’re only won three out of seven, the four draws the Giallorossi suffered between Nov. 3 and Dec. 1 allowing Juventus to build a five-point lead atop the table. In the seven games Totti missed, Roma — averaging 2.8 goals per game when Totti is healthy — has scored seven goals.

The man is 37 years old, and Roma still hasn’t found a way to live without him, a prospect that’s both thrilling and terrifying. That Totti can be this good, this important to a team at such an advanced age ads is utterly beguiling yet is utterly forgotten anytime you actually watch him play. He’s still that good.

That Roma can’t hold off Juventus without him, however, means Totti’s health may be the only thing  keeping the Serie A title race alive. And for Roma fans and Serie A followers who want a title race, that’s where the fragile 37-year-old gets terrifying.

source: Getty Images
Sidelined for the bulk for two seasons, Giuseppe Rossi has returned to lead Serie A in goals after 17 games, scoring 14 times as he re-enters the frame for Brazil 2014. (Source: Getty Images)

GIUSEPPE ROSSI’S READY TO MAKE AN IMPACT IN BRAZIL

The €10 million Fiorentina paid for Giuseppe Rossi looked pricey at the time. After all, the Villarreal star had played nine games in the preceding 18 months, two knee injuries threatening to ruin the career of player that had developed into one of Spain’s brightest stars. Given it would be another five months before the Italian international took the field, fans had plenty of reason to ask whether Rossi was worth the risk when la Viola procured him just over one year ago.

Nobody’s asking those questions now. After a league-leading 14 goals through 17 rounds, the debate’s shifted. Now everybody’s focus is on what role Rossi should play for the Azzurri for next year’s World Cup.

On the surface, the question seems a little absurd, especially considering Rossi had been impressive for Italy in the first days of Cesare Prandelli’s tenure. Given that Italy played with Antonio Cassano in support of Mario Balotelli while making the finals of Euro 2012 (a pairing that’s unlikely to be replicated at Brazil 2014), the national team could use somebody like Rossi up top. It seems like a perfect fit, even if Rossi doesn’t end up among the 11 starting when Italy opens next summer’s tournament against England.

Only now, as Rossi’s moved three clear in the race for capocannoniere, are people starting to look beyond the comeback. For much of the fall, there’s been a kind or no-hitter jinx approach to the story, people not wanting to speak too loud lest they be blamed for Rossi’s wane. Still, the conversation is starting to pick up, with Prandelli using November’s international break to speak wishfully of a Balotelli-Rossi for Brazil 2014.

At this point, there may not be a better Italian goalscorer, let alone two. Although there were doubts about Rossi entering the season, the fall’s set us straight. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the first part of the Serie A’s 2013-14 campaign, it’s that Giuseppe Rossi’s ready for more. He’s ready to be a factor in Brazil.

source: AP
Among the most scrutinized players last season, Inter’s Ricardo Alvarez has been integral to the Nerazzurri’s 2013-14 resurgence. (Source: AP)

Ricky Alvarez IS MORE THAN a lost cause

The most maligned player in Serie A last season was Argentine Ricardo Alvarez, the then-23-year-old’s poor play distinguishing himself on a massively underperforming Inter Milan side. Whereas the former Velez creator looked like a key link between the 2010 European Champions and the group that would replace Inter’s aging stars, by 2013, Alvarez was being written off ala Philippe Coutinho, both considered Nerazzurri busts.

But just as Coutinho has proved doubters wrong after moving to Liverpool, Alvarez has resurrected his career. Under Walter Mazzarri, the five-time Argentina international has settled back into a playmaker’s role, his performances integral in countryman Rodrigo Palacio’s 10 goals in 17 games. Alvarez has added some impressive numbers of his own, his four goals and six assists crucial to the league’s second-best attack.

The turnaround is just a reminder of how bad things had gotten at Inter. From Mourinho’s heights to Benítez, Gasperini and Stramaccioni, with a little Leonardo and Rainieri in between, Inter’s had six different coaches since Alvarez was bought in 2011. From title contender to mid-table irrelevance, Inter had squandered Massimo Moratti’s commitment. Only now, having lured Mazzarri, do the Nerazzurri seem to have some semblance of stability.

Of all the positives Mazzarri has brought to Inter, revitalizing Alvarez is among his most remarkable. A player that was panned as one of the worst in the league last year is now one of the circuit’s most productive, with a bright future having been restored for the still 25-year-old star.

source: Getty Images
CEO Barbara Berlusconi saw Adriano Galliani’s transfer policies as causing Milan’s downfall. Problems, however, persist at every level of Milan’s organization. (Photo: Getty Images)

Milan WILL not turn this around

First, let’s define what “turn this around” is. It’s getting into Champions League. This is a club that defines itself by continental success as much as domestic, so there’s no way a season where a seven-time European champion misses Champions League for the first time since 2008-09 can be considered successful. It can’t even be considered acceptable, or a push. Milan, currently in 13th place (having won four of 17 league matches), needs to finish third to meet expectations. And that’s not going to happen.

Beyond being 17 points back of third place, the mere competition between that spot and theirs means next year’s Champions League will start without the Rossoneri. Max Allegri’s team would have to drastically outplay all of Napoli, Fiorentina, Inter and seven other teams to claim that spot, and while this week’s results against Roma (2-2 draw) and Inter (1-0 loss) hint they can be competitive, they’ll need to be dominant to pull off this miracle.

Allegri just doesn’t have the horses. There’s a reason the team has conceded 26 goals at the back. There’s a reason nobody’s scored more than six goals. Where they lack quality in defense, Milan also lack consistency and maturity up front. In between, the team is no better than the overall squad: Decent, but little more.

You can see why Barbara Berlusconi (pictured) is letting Adriano Galliani go, and while that may have taken some heat off Allegri by settling one debate, it won’t be long until the head coach is seen as contributing to the problems.

If 17 games have shown us anything, it’s that there’s no one quick cure for Milan. Their transfer dealings were poor. The coaching’s lack inspiration. None of the playing staff have distinguished themselves. From the top of the organizational chart to the product on the field, this may be Milan’s worst effort in 15 years. Over the course of 19 games, there is no turning this around.

source: Getty ImagesJUVENTUS IS THE BEST OF THE GOOD

After 17 rounds, seven teams in Serie A have already scored 30 goals, a statistic that happens to coincide with the entertainment value of the league. Somehow, beyond all reason and evidence on the field, the Italian league maintains a reputation for being a stuffy circuit prone to tactical deadlocks (a misconception that also gets mistakenly applied to the national team). But with Rudi Garcia’s Roma chasing goals, Walter Mazzarri haven taken his adventurous style to Inter, and teams like Napoli and Fiorentina adding scorers this summer, Italy continues to defy its long-defunct expectations. Maybe better international television deals would start to dispel old notions.

The real question is whether any of these teams are any good. I’m not talking about ‘good’ in the sense of entertainment value, or are they above average in the cosmic, absolute sense. I mean ‘are they good’ in the most naive yet applicable way possible. Are these teams good in relative to what we see at the tops of other leagues? Relative to what we see in Champions League?

It’s hard to say yes. Juventus, a team often more drilled and consistent than convincing or brilliant, went out of Champions League at the feet of a Turkish club. Napoli ended up in the wrong half of a very tough group, while Milan — the only Serie A team to advance in Europe’s biggest tournament — went through clinging for dear life in one of the draws easiest groups. Meanwhile, Roma — a team that didn’t even qualify for Europe this year, was the league’s best team for fall’s first half, while clubs like Inter, Hellas Verona, and Torino have been able to shake last year’s results (or, in Hellas’s case, stature) to be competitive this season.

And at the end of December, we’re left where we finished the last two seasons, with Juventus on top. Winners of 10 in a row, Juve finally conceded a goal this weekend, the first time they’ve done so in league since October, and while the additions of Carlos Tévez and Fernando Llorente (as well as the emergence of Paul Pogba) give the impression of an improved squad, you can’t help but wonder: How good is Serie A? And is the okay-but-not-great quality of the league the reason why Juventus, while they struggle for significance in Europe, are still on track for the third straight scudetto?

In some leagues, none of this matters. The league is either enjoying, watchable, entertaining, or it’s not, and to a certain point, Serie A’s gotten there. But for a circuit as steeped in tradition as the Italian league, it will always be a lingering question. How good is this league compared to others? Through half of 2013-14, it’s unclear the arrow’s pointed in the right direction.

Results

Livorno 1, Udinese 2
Cagliari 1, Napoli 1
Bologna 1, Genoa 0
Torino 4, Chievo 1
Sassuolo 0, Fiorentina 1
Sampdoria 1, Parma 1
Roma 4, Catania 0
Verona 4, Lazio 1
Atalanta 1, Juventus 4
Inter 1, Milan 0

Standings

1. Juventus, 46 pts.
2. Roma, 41 pts.
3. Napoli 36 pts.
4. Fiorentina, 33 pts.
5. Inter, 31 pts.
6. Verona, 29 pts.
7. Torino, 25 pts.
8. Udinese, 20 pts.
9. Lazio, 20 pts.
10. Genoa, 20 pts.
11. Cagliari, 20 pts.
12. Parma, 20 pts.
13. Milan, 19 pts.
14. Sampdoria, 18 pts.
15. Atalanta, 18 pts.
16. Chievo, 15 pts.
17. Bologna, 15 pts.
18. Sassuolo, 14 pts.
19. Livorno, 13 pts.
20. Catania, 10 pts.

Pochettino’s Spurs put on show for Maradona, Kobe

Leave a comment

Post writers, us included, were drawn to Liverpool’s continued defensive woes following Tottenham Hotspur’s 4-1 demolition of the Reds at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

With Jurgen Klopp‘s personality and post-match quotes regarding uncapitalized goat Dejan Lovren, that’s understandable, but it would be a big mistake to not celebrate the class of Spurs on Sunday.

[ MORE: Match recap | Klopp, Matip reaction ]

Harry Kane is world class, scoring twice and providing a clever assist on another goal as Mauricio Pochettino‘s men showed the well-oiled nature of their machine.

And he was glowing on a match day that saw Kobe Bryant and one of Pochettino’s Argentine heroes, Diego Maradona, at Wembley:

“I spoke to Diego Maradona before the game, it was very emotional. He brings very good energy. He is the best player ever in football history.”

That the win is coming after a draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu is even more notable, considering the manners of each match. Hugo Lloris joined Kane as a star of the show of a more defensive-minded away midweek, but was merely a component as Spurs went for the jugular against the dicey defense of Liverpool.

Margins are small in the Premier League, but you could easily make an argument that Spurs are unlucky to sit five points behind Manchester City. Their star goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made gaffes in their lone league loss, to Chelsea, and a failure to finish myriad chances allowed Chris Wood‘s late goal to stand as an equalizer against Burnley.

“It is the third season that we are trying to catch someone. Manchester City are doing very well, they have an amazing squad and one of the best managers in the world. We see what happens, we believe, we will try to catch them. We are focused every day.

There’s another rough stretch ahead for Pochettino’s men, who don’t face City until Dec. 16. Presumably it’ll be second choice at West Ham in the League Cup this week before a trip to Old Trafford, and Spurs have the luxury of making that tough visit without fearing Paul Pogba on the other side of the pitch.

Then, it’s Real Madrid at home in the Champions League, a visit from Palace, and the international break. The North London Derby follows away, and Spurs will hope to have the UCL group sewn up before a trip to BVB days later.

The remaining schedule, save a trip to currently tricky Watford, would set them up to move within touching distance of City following the Dec. 16 match at the Etihad. The interim sees Man City facing Arsenal and Manchester United, so it wouldn’t be absurd to think Spurs could make up ground should City stumble (as unlikely as that looks right now).

Follow @NicholasMendola

Klopp, Matip react to another rough Liverpool defensive showing

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Joel Matip is shouldering the blame for Liverpool’s defensive collapse against Tottenham Hotspur, while the Reds’ manager is placing it on at least partially on Matip’s partner for the first half hour.

“Most teams at home with the stand in their back are always stronger,” Matip said after the 4-1 loss at Wembley Stadium.

[ RECAP: Spurs 4-1 Liverpool ]

“I am a defender and I should take care of this. We don’t think about the title race at the moment, we only try to get back in a good mood for next week.”

As for Klopp, he’s angry as expected following the shipping of four goals to Spurs. That verb works doubly here, as giveaways and mistakes were common place amongst the Reds’ backs and midfield.

Dejan Lovren had a rough day, subbing out after 31 minutes. The injured center back played a big part in Spurs first two goals, including leaping for and missing a Hugo Lloris long ball. From the BBC:

“If I am involved in this situation on the pitch, then Harry cannot get the ball.”

“We have to realize that we are responsible for this and nobody else. Of course we can fix it and we have to fix it as well.”

Klopp also detailed what went wrong with each of the four goals, then proffering that “the game was finished then.” Right.

There’s a lot to love about Klopp, who can be a tactical wizard. But he’s also struggled to convince players of their roles, and has shipped some very decent center back depth out-of-town. The latter is the reason Klopp used a less than fit Lovren on Sunday, and it burned them against a well-oiled Spurs side.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 Liverpool: Spurs superb at Wembley

1 Comment
  • Spurs up 2-0 after 12 minutes
  • Salah pulls one back
  • Lovren struggles, subbed after 31
  • Kane with four brace of season

Tottenham Hotspur ran all over visiting Liverpool on Sunday, riding another star turn from Harry Kane to a 4-1 win at Wembley Stadium.

The win boosts Spurs level with second place Manchester United on points, and slips Liverpool ninth behind Burnley on goal differential. The Reds are three points back of the Top Four.

Kane scored twice, and assisted Heung-Min Son‘s goal. Dele Alli added the fourth in the second half, while Mohamed Salah continued his sparkling season with a goal for Liverpool.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It was 1-0 early, as Kane cut into the center of the attacking third and took advantage of a Dejan Lovren error (prepare for a lot more of that term, sans first name) to hit a left-footed shot into the goal.

It was 2-0 when Lovren leapt to meet a Hugo Lloris clearance and… totally missed it. This Lovren error sprung Kane, who was patient with his dribble and snapped a pass to Son to make it 2-0.

Salah made it 2-1 when Jordan Henderson spied his back post run and his a diagonal ball. Salah put it by an unusually out-of-sorts Hugo Lloris.

Son had a good chance to restore the two-goal lead when he raced past Lovren, but Mignolet blocked his shot and collected a rebound off Lovren’s body.

Lovren left the match in the 32nd minute for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. That barely stemmed the flow, as Dele was alone to collect and deposit Joel Matip’s attempted clearance of a Christian Eriksen stoppage time free kick.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Perhaps a riot act was read, because Liverpool came hot out of the second half gates. Spurs dealt with havoc in the first 120 seconds.

Kane made it 4-1 in the 56th minute, off a free kick. Mignolet collided with Matip while trying to collect an Eriksen free kick, then Roberto Firmino blocked a Jan Vertonghen shot off the line before Kane lashed in the third crack.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Barcelona chief backs Catalan leaders in clash with Spain

Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images for FC Barcelona
1 Comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu says Barcelona backs the leaders of Catalonia in response to the Spanish government’s decision to take over the regional government.

Bartomeu said on Saturday “the fact that people have been imprisoned for their political ideas is unacceptable in the 21st century. No one can question Barcelona’s commitment to Catalan society and its democratic institutions.”

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

To block the Catalan independence push, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wants the Senate to give him direct power to dissolve the regional Catalan government and call an early election.

Bartomeu says Barcelona sides with those who defend the Catalan people’s right to vote in a referendum for independence. He also says the club aims to remain in the Spanish league.

Barcelona leads La Liga, defeating Malaga late Saturday.