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)


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.


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.


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


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.

Mexico has to solve 2 major questions before the World Cup

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Eighty-seven days before taking on Germany in its first match of Russia 2018, Mexico appears to have only two major lingering questions for the final 23-man roster that will try to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in a tournament away from home. Is veteran defender Rafael Marquez going to be called? And if Giovani Dos Santos’ lackluster performances put his spot in jeopardy?

Manager Juan Carlos Osorio said recently that he already knows who are going to join him in the quest to play in the fifth game of a World Cup, something that Mexicans achieved only as hosts in Mexico 1970 and in 1986.

Currently, 20 of the 28 players that were called to play friendly matches against Iceland and Croatia appear to have their ticket booked for Russia, leaving a handful of players fighting for three roster spots.


With over two decades playing for the national team, Marquez might not play in a fifth World Cup for two reasons, the major one off the field.

Each week, the 39-year old Marquez shows signs of his demise. His team Atlas is the worst in the league and has a defense that has allowed 22 goals in 12 matches.

In Mexico there’s a big debate on whether it’s worth calling a player whose best moments are behind him.

Marquez is worshipped in the locker room because most of his teammates grew up watching him when he won the Champions League playing for Barcelona (2005-06 and 2008-09).

Besides that, Osorio has to weigh in that Marquez was sanctioned last August by the U.S. Treasury for allegedly acting as a front person for a Mexican drug lord.

Marquez stopped playing for three months to take care of the issue and returned to action in Mexico but the Treasury has not lifted the sanctions yet and Marquez is unable to play in the United States and that’s why he was not called for the friendly matches.


A 28 year-old player as talented as Giovani Dos Santos should be a lock to be on the final roster for Mexico but that’s not the case. Dos Santos, who played in South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, has not performed well for Mexico under Osorio, who loved the player and has given him opportunities to return to form, but that has not happen.

A recent injury left Dos Santos out of the squad that will play against Iceland and Croatia and that opened the doors for Rodolfo Pizarro, who has been playing great for Chivas and has a good chance of taking the spot if the L.A. Galaxy striker continues with his lackluster performance.


Taking the qualifiers and the Confederations Cup as a reference, Osorio pretty much has his roster set for the World Cup. Guillermo Ochoa and Jesus Corona will be two of the goalkeepers and Alfredo Talavera is probably the third. The defenders Nestor Araujo, Jesus Gallardo, Miguel Layun, Hector Moreno, Diego Reyes and Carlos Salcedo are also favorites of the Colombian manager, as well as the midfielders Jonathan Dos Santos, Marco Fabian, Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera and Javier Aquino. On the attack, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, Javier Hernandez, Raul Jim�nez, Hirving Lozano, Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela appear to have their spots secured leaving only three spaces.

Fighting for that chance are: Hugo Ayala, who’s been stellar for a Tigres team that has won two of the last three titles in Mexico; Oswaldo Alanis (Chivas), who played in last year’s Confederations Cup and Edson Alvarez (America), who’s not playing much for his club but Osorio loves his style of play and the fact that he can also play as a midfielder.

Midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez is also on the mix after declining to play for the U.S. and Omar Govea, who plays for Royal Excel in the Belgium league, has gathered interest from Osorio.

All five players will have a chance to present their cases in the upcoming friendly matches.

Battle-tested United could turn attention to Neymar this summer

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Last summer’s drama surrounding Neymar could be nothing compared to what is in store for the Brazilian in 2018.

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Diario Gol is reporting that Manchester United is exploring the possibility of making a bid for Neymar this summer, which would come at a record fee for the Premier League side.

The report suggests United would be willing to pay over $367 million for the Paris Saint-Germain star, while possibly sending Paul Pogba to the French giants in the swap.

Neymar, who joined PSG in 2017 after a messy ending at Barcelona, has been heavily linked to his former’s side bitter rival Real Madrid

Man United boss Jose Mourinho is reportedly keen on the move for Neymar after the club’s signing of Alexis Sanchez didn’t live up to the billing.

The Chilean international has scored just once in 10 appearances for the Red Devils, and Mourinho has let it be known that he wasn’t pleased with the player after United crashed out of the UEFA Champions League against Sevilla.

Meanwhile, Pogba’s relationship with the Portuguese manager has been anything but steady in their time together at Old Trafford, making the reality of the French midfielder leaving Manchester a strong one.

Nothing has been indicated for certain that Neymar will leave PSG following the World Cup in Russia, but all signs are pointing to the currently-injured attacker moving from the Parc des Princes.

Report: Conte, Pirlo could spearhead Italy managerial team

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Various nations are still mourning their failure of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but arguably none bigger than powerhouse Italy.

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The Azzurri, who lost to Sweden in a UEFA playoff series in 2017, will not take part in soccer’s most-prestigious competition in Russia for the first time since 1958.

Former manager Gian Piero Ventura has received heavy criticism for the nation’s failure, and stepped down from his role as head coach immediately after Italy’s dismissal from World Cup qualifying.

A familiar face could now be in line to replace Ventura though, as Football Italia reports that Chelsea manager Antonio Conte could make a return to the Azzurri.

Conte remains under contract at Stamford Bridge, however, Chelsea’s dip in form this season after winning the title in 2016/17 has many speculating that the Italian won’t survive to coach the Blues next year.

Meanwhile, Italian legend Andrea Pirlo has also expressed his interest in joining the technical staff if Conte is appointed.

The two have a close history together from their days with the national team and at Juventus.

In addition to Conte, Carlo Ancelotti is reportedly being considered for the job as well, and Pirlo is believed to be willing to join the managerial staff is the former Bayern Munich coach is hired.

Former Sevilla player Diego Capel training with Sounders

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A former Sevilla star is training in MLS, as the veteran midfielder looks to continue his career stateside.

Diego Capel was spotted training with the Seattle Sounders on Thursday, despite club manager Brian Schmetzer initially playing coy on who the player was.

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“We have a player that’s in camp,” Schmetzer said. “He’s a good player. He’s probably worn the number 10 in his career. Maybe as a youth player. Maybe it’s just a player borrowing Nico’s jersey.”

The Sounders have suffered several major injuries in their attack to start the 2018 MLS season, which also contributed to the team’s derailment in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

While Capel traditionally has played on the wing throughout his career, the Sounders could use all the help they can get in the attacking third.

Jordan Morris has already been ruled out for the season with an ACL tear, while Nicolas Lodeiro and Will Bruin are currently sidelined for the club with respective injuries.

Capel came up through the ranks of Sevilla, while also playing for notable European sides such as Sporting Lisbon and Anderlecht.

The 30-year-old last played for the Belgian side in 2017, but has been a free agent since.