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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Europa League, LIVE: Arsenal, Marseille host first legs

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Diego Costa brings a solid career record against Arsenal back to London in a bid to ruin Arsene Wenger‘s farewell season at the Emirates Stadium.

[ FOLLOW: Arsenal vs. Atleti ]

The now-Atletico Madrid forward returns to England on Thursday as his La Liga outfit aims to stop Arsenal from reaching next month’s Europa League Final in Lyon.

[ FOLLOW: Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg ]

That’s a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff, the same as Marseille’s date with Red Bull Salzburg in France.

ARSENAL-ATLETICO MADRID LINEUPS

Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Wilshere, Ramsey, Welbeck, Ozil, Lacazette. Subs: Cech, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Kolasinac, Iwobi, Nketiah.

Atleti: Oblak, Lucas, Godin, Gimenez, Vrsaljko, Saul, Thomas, Koke, Correa, Griezmann, Gameiro. Subs: Werner, Savic, Gabi, Vitolo, Olabe, Torres, Costa.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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It is that time of the week again, folks. Prediction time!

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Ham 0-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 4-0 Watford – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM ]

Swansea City 0-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Man United 3-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Newcastle 1-1 West Brom – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Huddersfield 1-2 Everton- (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-0 Brighton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

 


Southampton 2-1 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Chivas’ Almeyda exhales after CCL win: “I finished last season with five ulcers”

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Matias Almeyda’s body didn’t need the intensity of penalty kicks, though he’ll gladly accept the outcome after Chivas Guadalajara clinched a Club World Cup berth by beating Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League final.

“I finished last season with five ulcers,” Almeyda told ESPN’s Tom Marshall, noting his grandmother is ill as well.

Chivas reached a pair of finals before this tournament, and had a number of other obstacles including protests of the club’s owners and disappointment in player recruitment.

[ MORE: TFC’s “heart has been ripped from chest” ]

Still, the long-haired Argentine put together a winning CCL team. The former River Plate and Banfield manager spent most of his playing career in Spain, Italy, and Argentina, and is happy to pick up a big win in a new(ish) country.

“It’s beautiful. When I gave my first press conference I was unknown in Mexico and it wasn’t easy,” Almeyda said. “I spoke that day about what I wanted to achieve here and God has helped me achieve what I promised.”

The 44-year-old won Serie A as a player with Lazio, and has two Copa MX and a Liga MX title to go with his CCL crown. He’s a name to watch moving forward, and — as the kids say, don’t at me — a sneaky interesting name for the USMNT given his ability to marshal an undermanned unit.

Turkey hands bid plans for Euro 2024 to UEFA

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) Turkey has given UEFA its hosting plan for the 2024 European Championship, citing “unprecedented state support” to help beat Germany to stage the 24-team tournament.

Turkish soccer federation president Yildirim Demiroren says the latest attempt is “our best bid ever.” Ten stadiums proposed include two in Istanbul.

Turkey bid with Greece for EURO 2008, then alone for the 2012 and 2016 editions.

[ MORE: TFC’s “heart has been ripped from chest” ]

Before UEFA chose a multi-nation EURO 2020 hosting plan, Turkey was strongly favored before focusing on Istanbul’s failed 2020 Olympic bid.

Turkey has never hosted a major soccer tournament. West Germany hosted the eight-team EURO 1988 and a unified Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup.

The UEFA executive committee will pick a winner on Sept. 27 in Nyon.