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.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 35

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Premier League games continue to come thick and fast with 10 matches on the slate this weekend.

[ 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.

[ 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 longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Brom 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Man United 2-0 Swansea City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM

Crystal Palace 3-1 Burnley – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Stoke City 2-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 am. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Sunderland 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM

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

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

Watford 2-1 Liverpool – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Everton 2-1 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Zidane says people should stop Le Pen in French election

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) Former France great Zinedine Zidane says people should do anything they can to avoid having Marine Le Pen win the presidency.

Referring to Le Pen’s far-right party, the Real Madrid coach says he is “far from all these ideas, from this National Front. So we need to do everything to avoid this.”

[ MORE: JPW’s PL picks ]

Zidane, who was born in Marseille and comes from Algerian descent, took a similar stance when Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine’s father – made it to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

A former World Cup and European Championship winner, Zidane remains highly popular in France. He says the message “is the same, the one from 2002.”

Le Pen faces centrist Emmanuel Macron in the presidential runoff on May 7.

Conte aims to formalize UCL spot, find long-awaited clean sheet

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea is a point away from clinching a place in the UEFA Champions League, an academic number but one which will mark a return to Europe for the Blues.

Chelsea’s manager is pleased to stand on the precipice of this preseason goal (Watch Everton-Chelsea at 9:05 a.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com), though he’s certainly more interested in nailing down a Premier League title in his first crack at English football.

[ MORE: Verratti to Barcelona? ]

Conte, 47, notes the achievement will feel especially good given the strength and depth of the Premier League’s top-end clubs, though the short-term is also on his mind. From the BBC:

“Obviously, with six teams between Chelsea, Tottenham, City, Arsenal, United, Liverpool, two strong teams won’t play next season in the Champions League.”

“It’s 11 games that we are not able to keep a clean sheet and, for this reason, it’s important to improve, to work on the situations we’re conceding the goals. I’m not concerned about this, but at the same time, we are working on it.”

Everton is one of six clubs to score 60 or more goals this season, led by former Chelsea player Romelu Lukaku. If Conte adds another a clean sheet to his resume, it will be a second-successive blanking of Everton in the PL. Quite an achievement.

Full Premier League schedule – Week 35

Getty Images
Leave a comment

We are entering the climax of the 2016-17 Premier League season.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Kicking things off on Saturday Southampton host Hull City (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at St Mary’s with the visitors desperate for another big win to stay out of the relegation zone.

At the some time Sunderland host Bournemouth (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) and a defeat for the Black Cats could well confirm their relegation. Saturday ends with Crystal Palace hosting Burnley (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) at Selhurst Park with Sam Allardyce‘s side aiming to recover from a late defeat to Tottenham, while Burnley is still in search of its first away win of the season.

Sunday is another busy day as Manchester United host Swansea (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to kick things off with Jose Mourinho’s men aiming to go 25 games unbeaten and the Swans battling for their lives as they occupy the final relegation spot. Then comes a huge game at Goodison Park: in-form Everton hosting Chelsea (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Antonio Conte‘s men can stretch their lead atop the PL table to seven points once again but Everton have lost just once at home all season.

Then comes a huge game at White Hart Lane as Tottenham host Arsenal in the North London Derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with a win for Spurs guaranteeing that they’ll finish above Arsenal for the first time in 21 years. With Spurs’ title hopes still alive and the Gunners battling for the top four, this should be a classic NLD.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

On Monday the week finishes with Watford welcoming Liverpool (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to Vicarage Road. Jurgen Klopp‘s men are feeling the pressure in third place in the table as Manchester United and Manchester City hunt them down.

The full TV schedule for this weekend is below, plus you can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

You can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
10 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Bournemouth – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. West Ham – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Leicester City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Burnley — NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
7 a.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Tottenham vs. Arsenal – NBCSN [STREAM]

Monday
3 p.m. ET: Watford vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]