Saturday, August 22, 2015

Your Italian Soccer Primer: Is Serie A Elite Again?

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

Ciao! Amico!

Everyone knows Italians love pizza, fashion and cat-calling your girlfriend. But there's one thing they love more; Calcio, or Italian football.

Earlier in the week I previewed Spain's La Liga, and now in the second installment of our soccer previews, we take a look at the 86th season in Italian top flight- Serie A.

History Lesson

Climbing out of the doldrums of the 2006 match fixing scandal that rocked Italian football has been a slow and arduous process. For years, pundits have criticized the league for a lack of scoring and top flight talent- outside the big 4.

The country's lagging economy has also done a number on attendance, with most stadiums rivaling the stands of my high school football games. Luckily, the most successful club in league history, Juventus, has regained its standing among Europe’s elite.

[La] Vecchia Signora won their 31st league title and 4th in a row last term. Italian sides have always been extremely feared in European competitions as well- having reached the final on a record twenty-six different occasions, winning the title twelve times.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case in recent history. Over the last five years, Serie A is ranked 4th among European leagues according to UEFA's league coefficient, behind La Liga, the English Premier League (EPL) and the Bundesliga. That said, nothing did more to improve the league's standing than Juve’s march to the Champions League final in Berlin.

In the process, they dispatched defending champion Real Madrid, and gave Barcelona all they could handle before running out of gas in the final 20 minutes.

In addition, both AC Milan and Inter have seen an influx of funds make their way into their respective treasure chests, allowing them to bring in players that should squarely place them back among the league’s top-5. With a surging Roma and a talented Napoli, Italy should provide one of the most exciting, and unpredictable title races this season.

The Contenders


When manager Antonio Conte departed last July and it was revealed that he was being replaced by Massimiliano Allegri, Juve fans were ready to storm "the Vinovo" with pitchforks and firebombs. To the east, fans of AC Milan were laughing harder than a tickle attack. Allegri managed i Rossoneri for three and a half years, and his tenure was rocky to say the least.

Juventus finally seemed vulnerable after three years of dominance, but it was Allegri who was left laughing with two trophies secured (Scudetto/Coppa Italia) and a 17-point gap between his squad and second place Roma. If there was any trepidation last summer, the current has left fans asking for a change of underwear. The departures of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo, and Arturo Vidal are a blow, in more ways than one.

Their collective talent is undeniable, but more important was the tenacity, focus, and cool confidence they exuded each and every game.To replace those players directly would be impossible. Juventus’ sporting director Giuseppe Marotta has worked to help cover the losses in an effort to reload, while still retaining his principles.

The rest of Italy smells blood, but it remains to be seen if they will jump in the water.

Key Transfers In: Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandžukić, Sami Khedira, Roberto Pereyra, Simone Zaza.
Key Transfers Out: Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal.



The Romans are coming, the Romans are coming!

Through 19 games last season Juve fans were screaming just that, but that’s why they play 38. The Giallorossi endured a disastrous second half of 2014-15, narrowly retaining second place, while needing binoculars to see first place Juve. Sporting director Walter Sabatini, aware of his blunders in the January transfer market, has not stood pat.

When healthy, the capital side has arguably the strongest midfield in all of Serie A., comprised of standouts Radja Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic, Daniele De Rossi and the returning Kevin Strootman. In terms of possession, passing precision, and dribbling not many sides were better. But, to the chagrin of its supporters, much of that possession and passing went for naught.

Enter Edin Džeko: With a prolific scoring rate and a 6'4'' stature, the Bosnian is just what the doctor ordered.

The new number nine will team with the soon to be 39-year old (check that man's birth certificate) club legend Francesco Totti. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny comes over on loan from Arsenal, and provides a wealth of champion’s league experience to a side that desperately needs it.

With key players on defense returning from injury and a hardened belief that their time is near, Roma have never been closer to bringing the Scudetto back to the eternal city.
Key Transfers In:
Edin Dzeko, Mohamed Salah (Loan), Wojciech Szczesny (Loan).
Key Transfers Out: Alessio Romagnoli, Andrea Bertolacci, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.

AC Milan

I traveled to Italy in April on an adventure that took me through five cities in nine days. My final day in the boot was spent in one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milano. I had two choices while there: Go to the San Siro and watch a Milan game, or try on some designer clothes that I could make mine only through theft.

Playing Sampdoria, sitting middle center, surrounded by chain smoking Italians- what could be better.

Instead of a dream, it was more like a nightmare.

The stadium, approximately 30% full, was decked with the teams ULTRAS waving a banner of “Save Milan.” The team was disorganized and lacked an offensive identity that was evident, even from the nosebleeds.
Click to enlarge
 What a difference a year makes.

Mounting pressure and supporter protests prompted longtime owner and unapologetic sleazeball Silvio Berlusconi to sell 48% of the club to billionaire Thai investor Bee Taechaubol for a reported €485m. Out as club manager was the laid back Pippo Inzaghi, who was replaced with Sinisa Mihajlovic, a coach known for his fiery and divisive character, and as a strict disciplinarian similar to Diego Simeone.

Mr. Bee then proceeded to make it rain millions- something Milan fans haven't seen in years. Forward Carlos Bacca comes in from Sevilla off a 28 goal season and a Europa league title for €30m. More importantly, the defense was finally given the attention it desperately needed.

Alessio Romagnoli was signed from Roma, giving Milan a 20 year old center back with boatloads of potential and energy to burn. Expectations are raised, and that can be dangerous, but hope is contagious, and this mix may just be what's needed for a run at the title.

Key Transfers In: Alessio Romagnoli, Carlos Bacca, Andrea Bertolacci, Luiz Adriano, Jose Mauri.
Key Transfers Out: Stephan El Shaarawy (Loan), Giampaolo Pazzini, Adil Rami.

On the Hot Seat

Roberto Mancini (Inter)

Resembling more of a fashion model than soccer coach, Mancini was originally hired as Inter boss back in 2004 because of his great success at Lazio, despite limited resources. With an abundance of money and a household name, Mancini worked wonders. The club won three consecutive Serie A titles- an Inter club record- and a European record 17 consecutive league game victories, a stretch that lasted nearly half a season.

Mancini became Inter's most successful manager in the last 30 years. So how did the club hierarchy decide to reward him? With a letter of termination. Mancini then spent some years in England and Turkey before returning to Inter last season.

The results weren’t pretty.

Inter went 13-11-11, despite what many would argue is one the leagues most talented rosters. With reinforcements brought in, the onus is on Mancini to deliver a winner. If not, he could be facing another lonely walk down the via Novara.

Giuseppe Rossi (Fiorentina)

The Benedict Arnold of soccer- at least to USA fans, that is.

Despite being born in New Jersey and living there until he was 12 (Can you blame him for wanting to move?), Rossi moved to Italy. When it came time to pick sides, Rossi famously spurned the USA for the Italian national team. His club career has been a mix of tantalizing potential and an inability to stay healthy. When on form, the left footed Rossi is known for his overall attacking and creative style of play.

He has often been compared to Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero- fair or not.  More than ever, Rossi will be counted on to provide the scoring that will be essential to the viola remaining competitive.

Gonzalo Higuaín (Napoli)

Since the end of last season, no one has had a rougher few months than El Pipita (Well, maybe the subway guy). The Argentine was pivotal in guiding his side to third in the table with a win against Lazio on January 18th.

Since that point, Napoli were mired in Mediocrity, culminating in a shattering defeat to Lazio in the league's final game. The loss not only relegated them to fifth in the table, but also cost them a spot in this year’s Champions league. Many supporters placed the blame squarely on Higuaín for missing a penalty that could have put the game out of reach.

If that wasn’t bad enough, internationally, he was coming off a brutal miss for Argentina in the final of the 2014 World Cup against Germany. In a chance to redeem himself at Copa America 2015, Higuaín’s nerves struck again when he blasted a ball from the spot that went closer to outer space than the actual goal.

Subsequently, Argentina lost in the final to Chile and the label of choker was all over the media.

This season is pivotal in determining if the title of superstar is deserved- or if we are dealing with a talent who crumbles in big moments.

Players to Watch

Edin Džeko (Roma) 

Fans of the Premier League are very familiar with the Bosnian's work.

With 50 goals scored in a 130 appearances for Man City, Džeko has never been accused of not having an eye for goal. Finally out of Sergio Aguero's long shadow, he will receive the starter’s minutes he so desperately craved. His height will finally provide Roma a lethal target from crosses and set pieces that was lacking all of last term.

His addition could finally be what  pushes the Romans over the top.

Paul Pogba (Juventus) 

In each respective sport around the world there are a handful of players whose physical attributes and combined athleticism defy most logic. In basketball you immediately think of LeBron James. In football its most likely J.J Watt. In soccer, that man is Paul Pogba. Nicknamed Il Polpo Paul (“Paul the octopus”) for his long frame and legs, Pogba combines the explosion of an atom bomb and the energy of a jack rabbit.

At only 22 years of age, Pogba was recently given the pressure packed number 10 jersey. Beyond his talent, his teammates will look for him to supply leadership gone with the departed Andrea Pirlo. As with any great player, the rumors have been swirling all summer that an exit was near. Barcelona reportedly had an agreement to bring the Frenchman to Catalonia next summer, while English papers are claiming that Chelsea is attempting to make a move as we speak.

The uncertainty will only lead to the legend of Paul, so sit back, get your popcorn, and enjoy the show.

Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo) 

Labeled by some as one of the best young players of his generation, Domenico Berardi has sure done his best to prove them right. Playing for a team most die hards outside of Italy have probably never heard of, Berardi has scored 42 goals in 103 games with all of the attention focused on him.

A versatile player who can man the center or the wing, the Italian reached 30 league goals in 59 games, noted by UEFA to be quicker than the 70 matches needed for Lionel Messi to reach the same milestone. At the tender age of 21, his potential is limitless and on full display for us to witness.

Under the Radar

Nikola Maksimović (Torino) 

The Serbian center back is a gifted athlete with the ability to fill in at midfield when needed. Standing 6'4'' , Nikola provides tremendous marking in the air while drawing comparisons to fellow legend and countryman Nemanja Vidić.

If he proves to be anything close, Torino fans will have to enjoy him while it lasts, because a step up in club is most certainly in his future.

Felipe Anderson (Lazio)

Remember the road runner? Yeah, well this guy just might be faster. After a forgettable debut campaign for Roma’s fierce rivals, he exploded on the scene in year two with 10 goals and 9 assists in leading Lazio to a remarkable 3rd place finish.

More importantly, Lazio will participate in the Champions League, giving the 22 year old Brazilian his moment to shine on Europe’s biggest stage.


Serie A- Juventus
Coppa Italia- Roma
Champions League qualifiers- AC Milan, Juventus, Napoli, Roma.
Relegation- Atalanta, Carpi, Frosinone.

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