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.

Celtic’s Griffiths tears into Rangers chairman after “gulf” comments

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Celtic star Leigh Griffiths took the Old Firm bait and promptly swallowed the fisherman.

If you missed it, Rangers chairman Dave King said Celtic should’ve been even further ahead of their rivals given the setbacks handed to Rangers, who finally climbed back to the Scottish Premiership this season.

Celtic went unbeaten, drawing just four of 38 matches and finished 39 points ahead of Rangers on the table.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

If Celtic won all 38, they could’ve finished 47 points clear of Rangers. So, we guess the gulf could be bigger.

Here’s what Griffiths had to say:

“What was the gulf? 30-odd points. How does he expect that to be bigger? They were touting at the start of last season that they were going to win the league and this and that.

Joey Barton was coming up and saying he was going to be the best player in Scotland – he lasted a few months. In the first [Old Firm] game, they got hammered 5-1 and they got hammered 5-1 at the end of the season. So, the gulf couldn’t be any bigger. This season, they’ll be trying to bridge the gap.

“Ultimately it’s about what we do and if we are at our best nobody in Scotland can live with us.”

It was absurd talk from King, who doesn’t need to amp up one of the world’s best rivalries and also doesn’t have a leg to stand on considering the dominant season from the Bhoys. Wow.

San Jose adds Designated Player from Legia Warsaw

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Valeri ‘Vako’ Qazaishvili is the latest MLS Designated Player, as the Georgian will hit the pitch for San Jose this season provided his visa and ITC go through.

Qazaishvili comes from Legia Warsaw after five seasons with Vitesse in the Eredivisie. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder has been capped 24 times, and scored in Georgia’s 2-2 draw with Moldova earlier this month in World Cup qualifying.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Equally adept at right or left wing, Qazaishvili posted a goal and two assists for Legia following his transfer from Vitesse. He scored 28 goals and added 13 assists in 121 matches for the Dutch side.

From SJEarthquakes.com:

“We were looking for a player, a younger, offensive player, that really excites the fans and has the possibility to stay with us for a long period of time. That’s what we found with Vako,” said Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli. “We wanted a player that knows how to take on a defender one-on-one, that sees the goal and that also wants to bring a spark to our game.”

San Jose sits seventh in the Western Conference table, and only two teams — Colorado and DC — have scored fewer goals in MLS. Jahmir Hyka and Cordell Cato have been fine, but San Jose needed a better chance creator.

Qazaishvili, in theory, fits the bill. If he has half the impact of fellow Legia export Nemanja Nikolic, San Jose is cooking with gas.

Transfer rumor roundup: Van Dijk to Chelsea, Ox to Anfield

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More and more players are being linked with Manchester United, but — believe it or not — the Red Devils aren’t the only club seeking talent.

DiMarzio is reporting that Antonio Conte is close to securing the services of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, insisting the Dutch back is Conte’s top choice ahead of Juventus power house Leonardo Bonucci (which isn’t to say there isn’t room for both). The price? An eyebrow-raising $77 million.

[ MORE: Confederations Cup scenarios ]

Meanwhile, Conte is selling talented Bertrand Traore outside the Premier League. A solid season on loan at Ajax upped interest in the 21-year-old striker, and L’Equipe says it’s a $22 million move to Lyon for Traore.

How much do you think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is worth? Liverpool may think his value is as high as $32 million, as The Independent reports that Arsenal is prepared to sell the Southampton Academy product to the attacker-heavy Reds.

Meanwhile, Serge Gnabry‘s wild journey looks to have another stop despite a purchase from Bayern Munich this summer. Gnabry was one of Germany’s heroes at the Olympics and left Arsenal for Werder Bremen last summer. He thrived, and earned a deal to Bayern, but Kicker brings quotes from a Hoffenheim player that are hopeful of a loan for this season.

Messi offers to pay $558,000 to avoid 21-month jail sentence

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has offered to pay an additional fine of 500,000 euros ($558,000) to ensure he avoids a 21-month prison sentence for tax fraud that a judge is expected to suspend, a Spanish state prosecutor said Friday.

State prosecutor Isabel Lopez Riera told The Associated Press the fine-for-time deal was presented by Messi’s lawyers to the judge who will rule on whether to suspend Messi’s sentence – as is widely expected. Lopez Riera said she has told the judge that her office is not opposed to the deal.

[ MORE: Fabinho has interest in Man Utd ]

Lopez Riera said Messi’s lawyers have made a similar offer for the Barcelona player’s father, Jorge Horacio Messi. He is offering to pay 360,000 euros ($402,000) to avoid his 15-month sentence for helping his son cheat on his taxes.

In Spain, prison sentences under 24 months for first-time offenders can be suspended by a judge.

The government attorney representing Spain’s Tax Office in the case will also be able to weigh in on the proposed deal. As state prosecutor, Lopez Riera is impartial in the case as a defender of the public interest.

Last year, a court in Barcelona found Messi and his father each guilty of three counts of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros ($4.6 million) from 2007-09. The unpaid taxes were from money made through endorsement deals, not Messi’s salary paid by Barcelona.

Messi was fined 2 million euros and his father 1.5 million euros. Both were originally sentenced to 21 months, but his father’s sentence was later reduced to 15 months.

In the last two weeks, Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho have been accused by a Madrid-based state prosecutor of having defrauded Spain’s Tax Office of millions of euros (dollars) in unpaid taxes.

Both have denied wrongdoing.