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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.

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.

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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.

FA in “advanced talks” with Tottenham over move to Wembley

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 04:  An aerial view of Wembley Stadium on November 4, 2009 in London, England. The UK's capital city is home to an population of over 7.5 million people, it has the world's oldest and most extensive underground train network and it's airspace is the busiest of any city.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
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Tottenham Hotspur look set to play at Wembley Stadium while White Hart Lane is reconstructed.

Spurs will be without a stadium for the entire 2017-18 campaign as their current home will be demolished and a new $600 million stadium holding 61,000 will be built in its place.

[ MORE: Mourinho forced to wait? ]

The Chairman of the English FA, Greg Dyke, believes a deal with Spurs will get over the line soon and he also claims they Spurs are also in talks about playing their UEFA Champions League games at the 90,000 capacity stadium next season.

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ]  

Speaking on Sky Sports News in the UK on Thursday, Dyke revealed that talks with Tottenham were at an advanced stage.

“We’re in discussions with Tottenham that they should come in for a full season when they’re building their new stadium, and we are a long way down the path on reaching agreement,” Dyke confirmed.

“I think there are some discussions about whether they will play Champions League games at Wembley next year but I don’t know much about that. But on the full season (2017-18), I think we’re quite close to a deal.”

So, as expected, Spurs will likely pay the FA a fee to rent the stadium — the FA then plan to reinvest it at the grassroots level — and play temporarily away from White Hart Lane.

That’s pretty standard and the only issue will be if Chelsea’s plans to renovate Stamford Bridge go ahead (the Blues are also looking to temporarily relocate to Wembley) but they’ll likely use it for three seasons and may not need to until 2018-19, such is the magnitude of their stadium project.

However, the real juicy bit of news here was that Spurs is looking to host Champions League games at Wembley next season.

With Mauricio Pochettino‘s men missing out on the title to Leicester, they are still guaranteed a spot in next seasons UCL and will return to play among Europe’s elite after a five-year absence.

I’m sure Spurs will get close to a sellout of 90,000 at Wembley for their UCL games and make a lot of money from it but does something about that seem a little strange? Having a season of UCL action in the old White Hart Lane stadium seems fitting and the cozy surroundings and electric atmosphere (it’s one of the loudest and best venues to watch a game in the PL) would certainly intimidate some of Europe’s big boys who may roll into town.

Yet, the fact that the Lane will only hold just over 32,000 fans next season, due to some seats being taken out for construction work, means that almost trebling crowds for big European nights makes sense. It will also give both the FA and Tottenham a chance to test out how things will work for the 2017-18 season.

Ranieri’s Champagne press conference: “I’m Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!”

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Claudio Ranieri raised a glass of champagne in his first press conference as the manager of Premier League champions Leicester.

After being applauded into the room Ranieri, 64, spoke with the assembled media on Thursday ahead of Leicester’s clash with Everton this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on USA Network and online via Live Extra)

The Italian manager confirmed that legendary Opera singer Andrea Bocelli will perform before the game and, of course, after the Everton game captain Wes Morgan will lift the PL trophy.

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

The Foxes, in case you’ve been living under a rock, won their first-ever top-flight title in 132 years as a club on Monday.

They were 5000-1 shots with the bookies at the start of the season and speaking on Thursday, Ranieri revealed he didn’t expect any of this when he took charge last summer at the King Power Stadium.

“Never could I have imagined this,” Ranieri said. We work so hard. Everyone does, but only one can win. This year it happened to me! It’s my karma. I’ve fought so hard to achieve so this is special. I want to thank my players, chairman, staff and fans. Our Chairman gives to us calmness and positivity. Never have I seen him nervous. That is important to me.

“To the fans. They were dreaming. I say dilly-ding,dilly-dong, they woke up and the dream was a reality.”

He then delivered a line which sums up his charismatic nature perfectly.

Ranieri was asked about his previous nickname “The Tinkerman” which was given to him at Chelsea for his constant lineup changes during his time in charge of the Blues from 2000-04.

“I am the Thinkerman, not Tinkerman!” Ranieri laughed.

Now that the “Thinkerman” has delivered one of the greatest sporting stories of all time, naturally plenty of questions have turned to which players well arrive and depart this summer as the Foxes prepare to play in the UEFA Champions League for the first-time in their history and also defend their crown.

“I don’t want big names,” Ranieri said. “I don’t want it in my dressing room. My lads are special. Who arrives must have the same spirit.”

What’s that Claudio, you want some spirits to go with your Champagne?

Fair enough, you’ve earned it…

Report: Man United offer job to Mourinho but there’s a catch

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Manchester United want Jose Mourinho to become their new manager.

But hold your horses, Jose. You will have to wait a while.

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

With Louis Van Gaal‘s current contract as United’s boss running out in the summer of 2017, it is believed that executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has been sounding out Mourinho’s camp for quite some time.

Mourinho, 53, has been without a job since he was fired by Chelsea last December following a disastrous start to the Premier League campaign which saw the reigning champs lingering above the relegation zone

Journalist Duncan Castles is well known as being close to Mourinho’s camp and he reported the following late on Wednesday:

Numerous other reports are stating similar things and it is believed Mourinho isn’t happy about been asked to wait another year. Previously he’s stated he will be in a new job this July.

Mourinho is also said to have held talks with United recently and has concerns about their transfer policy and the structures in place at Old Trafford.

With Van Gaal, 64, currently steering United to fifth place and within four points of Manchester City and having a game in hand, if he manages to finish in fourth and also win the FA Cup — they play Crystal Palace in the final at Wembley on May 21 — then he could well remain at Old Trafford for another year. He’s told journalists recently that he will be back for another season and as far as he’s concerned he will honor his contract.

However if United fail to finish in the top four and qualify for the UEFA Champions League it would be a huge shock to not see Mourinho replace his old mentor, LVG, this summer.

If these antics — asking Mourinho to wait around for another year — from Woodward and United’s board are true, then it could scupper their chances of getting the “Special One” to take charge altogether.

It’s a delicate, tricky situation and after nearly six months of speculation we don’t seem any closer to seeing Mourinho taking over the Red Devils.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.