159 posts tagged serie a
159 posts tagged serie a
Maybe there was a full moon over the San Siro on Sunday night. Some kind of collective madness seemed to sweep across both Milan and Roma and their respective supporters. On a weekend which had been full of mellow and melancholy farewells, they gave it a frenetic and frustrating finale.
Whatever the reason, the bozos were out in force inside the stadium. Giallorossi supporters were warned for racist jeers towards Mario Balotelli which later saw the match suspended. Then the home fans got in on the act by flashing a laser pen in the eyes of Bodgan Lobont. Clearly bringing at least half a brain is not yet an entrance requirement at Serie A matches.
“When an Italian tells me it’s pasta on the plate, I check under the sauce to make sure. They are the inventors of the smokescreen.”
“They come out with the ‘English are so strong, we’re terrible in the air, we can’t do this, we can’t do that’. Then they beat you 3-0.”
Thus spake Sir Alex Ferguson in his assessment of Italian football. It is a judgement based on experience of taking on Serie A sides numerous times during his reign at Old Trafford. They may appear, at first glance, to be a bit insulting. But if you push the sauce to one side - to pinch his own analogy - there is surely a Parmesan-like sprinkling of respect.
That’s because it took him some time to get a handle on how to beat sides from the peninsula. Now that his managerial career is drawing to a close, the statistics show he eventually got to grips with the challenge. But, at least at the outset, it was definitely a struggle.
It was Marcello Lippi’s Juventus who gave him his first harsh lessons in how Serie A sides operate. Between a cigar and a glass of red wine or two the silver-haired tactician from Viareggio beat the Red Devils home and away in the group stage of the 1996/97 Champions League. The following year the English side won 3-2 at Old Trafford against the Bianconeri but lost the group game in Italy thanks to that man who was “born offside”, Pippo Inzaghi.
It would be the 1998/99 edition which would really see the Scotsman graduate with honours in terms of seeing off Italian opponents. Inter were eliminated 3-1 on aggregate at the quarter final stage before his old adversary, La Vecchia Signora, stood on his path to the final. That semi-final produced two matches which underlined the feeling - which proved to be true - that United’s name was on the cup.
A 1-1 draw in Manchester - courtesy of current Juve manager Antonio Conte and the eternal Ryan Giggs - gave the Bianconeri the advantage. When Inzaghi struck twice in the opening dozen minutes of the return match it should have been game over. Instead, Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole turned the tie on its head. From that point on, any psychological advantage Serie A sides had previously enjoyed had been entirely banished.
Fiorentina enjoyed a famous win over the English side in 1999 thanks to Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo but were vanquished 3-1 at Old Trafford after a Batigol beauty had given the Viola the lead. But home and away wins over Juve in 2003 underlined just how much the club had progressed. At least until a new adversary emerged.
Another bon viveur, Carlo Ancelotti, proved a tough nut to crack with his Milan side. Hernan Crespo gave the Rossoneri home and away wins over Sir Alex’s side in the Champions League in 2005. Things were more expansive a couple of years later when the Milanese giants overturned a 3-2 deficit in the semi-final first leg with a 3-0 triumph at the San Siro courtesy of Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino. Prior to that game, however, the Manchester side had dished out their heaviest ever hammering to an Italian side with the 7-1 destruction of Roma.
As the fortunes of Serie A have slumped in Europe, Manchester United have stayed strong. They defeated and drew with Roma in the 2007/08 Champions League group games and then beat them home and away in the quarter-finals. A year later, Inter were their second round victims after a goalless draw in Milan and 2-0 home victory.
The last chapter in the Fergie versus the Italians story came three years ago and it emphasised how far he had come. Milan were defeated 3-2 on their own turf and then dismantled 4-0 at Old Trafford. If he had once had trouble getting at his pasta, he could now pretty much dine on the Italian delicacy whenever he pleased.
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It was a game which would become, in the space of a few years, a Scudetto classic. But, back in April 1986, the teams involved were still under construction. What magnificent edifices Diego Maradona’s Napoli and Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan would ultimately become.
This springtime clash was one of the first games for the Rossoneri under new ownership. The media mogul had only just taken over the club from the debt-ridden reign of Giuseppe Farina. He had promised to build them into the greatest side in the world but, in the meantime, he brought dancing girls, a marching band and a Formula One racing car as part of the pre-match entertainment.
Napoli, for their part, looked a lot more like the finished article. Three points clear of their opponents in third place they were, nonetheless, a fair distance adrift of Juventus and Roma who were locked in a tussle for the title. Still, the Azzurri travelled to the San Siro with a justifiable degree of confidence.
That would only be boosted by a total emergency in the home defence. Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassotti were both suspended while Filippo Galli was ruled out with injury. It meant ex-Roma legend Agostino Di Bartolomei was expected to play as a makeshift sweeper to try to shore up the back line.
“The game with Napoli will be decisive to keep us in line for a UEFA Cup place,” said Rossonero boss and former playing hero Nils Liedholm. “It is not a position I would have expected us to be in at the start of the season but we must try to keep a hold of it.
Image via magliarossonera.it
“But if we miss out I could not criticise my players because they have already had an amazing season,” he added.
One man particularly under pressure was goalkeeper Giuliano Terraneo, whose errors had been blamed for recent defeats by Inter and Roma. There was also talk, which proved to be true, that he would move on at the end of the season.
“My mistakes against Roma and Inter were not decisive,” he insisted. “I just had some uncertainty and I take responsibility for that. But at my age (he was 32 at the time), I don’t think I have to prove anything to anyone.”
The squad selection emergency prompted Liedholm to go for all out attack with a team featuring Mark Hateley, Paolo Rossi, Pietro Virdis and future San Marino international Marco Macina. The midfield was patrolled by Ray Wilkins, giving a distinctly English accent to the side. It proved to be an imbalanced formation which Napoli quickly swept aside.
Ottavio Bianchi already had the backbone of what would be a team which would win the title the following year. Maradona pulled the strings and ended up “enchanting” the San Siro with his play. Liedholm’s plans to try to play on the attack were in tatters after less than half an hour.
Bruno Giordano was first off the mark. He sped through a motorway up the middle of the Milan defence to roll the ball past Terraneo. The space being afforded the Napoli attackers was a major concern to the home support.
Then it was time for the a bit of Diego magic. Faced with a pack of Milan defenders on the edge of the box he produced a little shimmy to work a bit of space. Then, with minimum backlift, he stabbed a shot between them and past the sprawling Rossoneri goalkeeper. It would have been goal-of-a-lifetime stuff for many, but for Maradona it was run-of-the-mill.
It was enough to persuade Liedholm that his tactical efforts had failed and he made a switch before half time. Macina was sacrificed to let jobbing defender Carmelo Mancuso try to shore things up at the back. It worked, to some extent at least, and Milan had two shouts for a penalty - one for a tug on Hateley, another for handball - before half-time.
In the second half, the visitors appeared to relax a bit too much and the home side finally put Claudio Garella in the Napoli goal to the test. He was found wanting from a low-drive of a free-kick on the hour mark struck by Di Bartolomei. He may have seen the ball late but his howls at his defenders suggested he knew he could have done better and was trying to shift the blame.
The netminder more than made up for it after that, mind you. A string of fine saves ensured Napoli came away with a precious win which is their last Serie A league triumph against Milan in the San Siro. They would finish an impressive third while the Rossoneri folded to seventh and out of the European spots.
“We got things wrong at the start when we were piled up in the opposition box,” said Liedholm. “I sent four forwards out but they were supposed to take turns to work back into midfield but Napoli got the lead before we had time to sort things out. That, for me, is why we lost but I don’t think we deserved to - they shot twice and scored twice, while we created at least ten good chances.”
“There were three penalties for us,” lamented Hateley. “But the referee gave none of them. That is football I guess, even if we did miss a few chances when we didn’t take advantage of good passes.”
As for Diego, he was beaming post-match. “I said we would win in San Siro,” he purred. “This success crowns our season which sees us finish third and in the UEFA zone. We have achieved the club’s goals. Now to aim for the Scudetto, we need to strengthen the squad.”
He was to get his wish, more or less. Fernando De Napoli and Andrea Carnevale brought the salto di qualita’ - leap of quality - needed to secure the league title - and Coppa Italia - the following year. In the process, Maradona’s revered status in the city was secured. Not that it was ever in much doubt.
As for the Rossoneri, there was a revolution on the horizon. Arrigo Sacchi and the Dutch masters were set to arrive soon and transform their fortunes from midtable strugglers to probably the greatest team on the planet. And that would produce some epic clashes with the boys from the San Paolo in the years to come. For much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, their encounters in Campania and Lombardy were some of the most memorable matches in the European game.
There are some questions we will probably never know the answer to. What is the meaning of life? How many Coaches will Maurizio Zamparini sack in his lifetime? Why did Juventus sign Nicolas Anelka? These are the kind of queries which it is hard to furnish with a satisfactory response. And, after Sunday’s Serie A clashes, we could probably add another poser to the list. What might Milan have achieved if they had signed Mario Balotelli in the summer?
It could have been the perfect week for Silvio Berlusconi. Defeat Barcelona, win the derby and emerge victorious in the Italian elections. He may yet get two out of three – but a tenacious Inter denied him a triumph in the Madonnina.
Nothing could have looked less likely in the first half in the San Siro as his Milan team bossed a pulsating clash. A sweet, outside-of-the-foot finish from Stephan El Shaarawy was scant reward for their superiority. The Nerazzurri had Samir Handanovic to thank for the fact that they still had a foothold it the game at half-time.
This time, it was personal. I was a man on a mission, my goal to see Gabriel Omar Batistuta score for Fiorentina. Of course, he did not let me down.
It was November 1995 and the Viola were one of a bunch of sides trying to keep pace with league-leading Milan and Parma. It was Roy Hodgson’s Inter who were coming to town but they were sitting in a pretty miserable midtable position. The Florentines were in the unusual condition of being narrow favourites for the match.
I had flown out from Scotland for a double-header at the Artemio Franchi. The Milanese giants at the weekend, followed by a midweek Coppa Italia quarter-final first leg with Palermo. All I asked for a pre-Christmas treat was to see my hero get among the goals.
They were cold days with winter closing in and I was booked in a little pensione in the heart of Florence rather than taking the commute from the family home in Garfagnana. At nights I dined in fixed-price menu trattorias, people-watching and trying to blend in. I was never awkward and picky enough with the waiting staff, however, to pass myself off as a true Italian.
But my little mini-carafes of local wine gave a glorious afterglow. Could life get any better than this? Two games in the space of a few days, good food and the attractions of the Renaissance city at my disposal. Now it was time for Batigol to deliver.
I watched the Inter game on a Football Italia ticket. Channel 4’s coverage was in its pomp and they were screening the match and happy to put my name on the list for press passes. It produced the traditional pantomime it almost always does.
“Rinaldi?”, I asked at the ticket window and was met with a blank response. “Football Italia?”, I suggested and got a similar look. “Giancarlo?”, I tried, optimistically, but still without any joy. Luckily, each question prompted a cursory flip through the accreditation envelopes. I spotted one with what looked like “Channel 4” scribbled on it and pounced. “Eccolo!”, I trumpeted with as much confidence as I could and snatched the prize before too many questions were asked.
Paul Elliott was on pundit duty that day with James Richardson - in a little corner of the press section tucked away under the very roof of the Stadio Artemio Franchi. I kept hoping Jimbo would ask for my expert input, but my starring role never happened. The closest I got was a call from my uncle saying he had seen my back on a live satellite stream he was picking up on his monster rotating dish back home in Scotland. I brushed with fame at last.
My recollections of the actual match are sketchy. I do recall Fiorentina slipping behind to a delightful lob from Maurizio Ganz, living up to the banner Inter fans regularly unfurled in his honour declaring, in their dialect, “El segna semper lu!” (He always scores!). It was a statement they quickly shelved when he transferred to Milan a couple of seasons later.
The Nerazzurri had the better of that opening period. Paul Ince was patrolling the midfield to some effect and Benito Carbone linking up well with Ganz in the attack. And, of course, there was Javier Zanetti doing his usual impeccable job of bridging the gap between the defence and the forward line. They were a decent side.
And they should really have gone two ahead but Marco Branca had a shot cleared off the line by Pasquale Padalino. It was a let-off for Claudio Ranieri’s men and one which they took advantage of. In the second half, they stepped on the gas and Inter fizzled out. There was only one possible outcome.
I remember (or am I fooling myself?) a feeling of expectation and anticipation rippling through the whole stadium. It was not a question of “if” Batistuta would score, it was more a matter of “when”. We awaited, ready to explode when the moment arose. He teased us until about midway through the second half.
It was at that point that the slender figure of Spadino Robbiati sliced through the visiting defence on the left flank leaving Lo Zio, Beppe Bergomi, trailing in his wake. He clipped a perfect back post ball to where the Florentine avenger was awaiting. He rose at the perfect moment and powered a header back across Gianluca Pagliuca’s goal which he had no prospect of saving.
It could have felt like a long journey without that strike but, instead, I went back to my pensione with my head still buzzing with how he had lit up a dark winter’s day. The streets of Florence were pulsing too with excitement for a team which was sitting at the top end of Serie A and still in the hunt for the Coppa Italia too.
I got my second helping of Bati magic a few days later. Palermo - stuck in Serie B but performing well in the cup - were the visitors. The Argentina great won and converted a penalty to give the Viola a slender first leg advantage to take to Sicily. It was enough to take them through and on to eventually lift the cup - beating Atalanta over two legs. It sparked crazy scenes of celebration in Florence with a first trophy in more than 20 years. I felt I had played my own little part with my pilgrimage to see a goalscoring hero in action.
Fiorentina finished fourth in the league that year as Milan were crowned champions. Inter were seventh and qualified for the UEFA Cup. Batigol ended up a few goals shy of the top scorer’s crown which was shared by Lazio’s Beppe Signori and Bari’s Igor Protti - who I once met at Fiumicino airport in Rome, but that is a story for another time. Inter’s top scorer for the season was Branca with 17 strikes for the Nerazzurri that league campaign.
That was 18 years ago. Since those games were played, the Viola have been through relegations, promotions, scandal and Champions League football. Batigol has long since hung up his boots. It sometimes seems to me that the Franchi rocks a little less raucously these days. And yet, if you pour me a carafe of wine and let me take a sip and close my eyes I swear I can still hear that song.
“Corri alla bandierina, bomber della Fiorentina!”.
If the match had been a meal, then that goal was its grappa moment. A searing, stinging conclusion to help digest what had gone before. And, depending on your colours, it left either a brutish burning sensation or a gentle afterglow.
Everything about the game seems, now, like a prelude to such an exquisite finish. But although it was part digestivo for an epic encounter stuffed full of goals, it was also part aperitivo to a sumptuous career to come. An Aperol-infused taster of the delicious strikes which would light up the playing days of Alessandro Del Piero.
But let’s go back and set the table first before we get to the liqueurs. It was December 1994 and Fiorentina and Juventus were set to resume hostilities after a year’s ceasefire due to the Viola’s relegation to Serie B. Claudio Ranieri’s side had already shown they were smarter than the average newly-promoted side. On the opposite bench, Marcello Lippi was charged with fulfilling the Bianconeri’s habitual fixation - securing the Scudetto. It had been, in La Vecchia Signora’s terms, nine long years since the last one.
The Turin giants were not, however, top of the table by the time the season’s 12th round of matches fell to be played. That honour went to Parma with a slender, single-point advantage over Gianluca Vialli and company. Fiorentina were just a point back in third. A game which really needs no spicing up had an extra dash of peperoncino that year.
There were notable absences for both sides - much more so for the Bianconeri. The visitors were without ex-Roma man Fabrizio Di Mauro but the home team’s missing list was lengthy. For one reason or another Roberto Baggio, Didier Deschamps, Angelo Di Livio, Luca Fusi, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Kohler all had to skip the match. Makeshift would be a bit of an understatement.
For all their lack of familiarity, Juve enjoyed the best of the opening exchanges before the Florentines began to flourish. The catalyst for the goal that broke the deadlock could be no other. It was, of course, Gabriel Omar Batistuta - who had scored in each of the opening 11 weeks of the season.
This time, unusually, he did not find the net but his defence-splitting run spread panic in the Juve ranks. Angelo Peruzzi spread himself well to smother the Argentinian’s initial shot but he could do nothing about the rapacious follow-up. Francesco “Boom Boom” Baiano swept the ball home with 24 minutes on the clock.
If there was incredulity at that moment then spectators would be downright dumbstruck 11 minutes later. Midfielder Angelo Carbone scampered onto a long through ball and did not think twice before thumping a shot over Peruzzi. The boys of the Onda d’Urto who had made the trip to Piedmont were in ecstasy. It would not last.
But it took everything Juve could muster to find a foothold in the game and it stubbornly refused to come until 17 minutes from full-time. Vialli met a cross from old White Feather, Fabrizio Ravanelli, with a bullet header and the speed with which he wrestled the ball free from Francesco Toldo’s grasp suggested he believed a comeback was possible. It was his 100th Serie A goal.
Number 101 was not long in coming. The ball rattled around in the penalty box and Vialli swivelled sharply to draw his side level. Lippi puffed on a big cigar and seemed to transmit a confidence that he knew the win was there for the taking.
It came a few minutes from time with the match’s iconic moment. Alessandro Orlando hit a seemingly hopeful ball forward from left back which came dropping towards earth just inside the penalty box over Alberto Malusci’s shoulder. Del Piero anticipated that trajectory to perfection and - with the outside of the boot - invented a finish which left Toldo no chance. The young Juventino fell flat on his back in amazement and delight at what he had just achieved.
“This was an emotional and beautiful game, the boys showed great character to come back,” said Lippi afterwards. “We did not deserve to be 2-0 down at half-time.”
“It was a tough game, I’m destroyed,” added Vialli. “It was hard from both a physical and a mental point of view. But I’m going through a good spell and everything is going right. I hope it continues both for myself and for the team.”
Ranieri, for his part, was understandably dejected.
“We knew at the end of the first half we had the second half to play,” he said with an uncanny knack for stating the obvious. “We played well in the first half and they did in the second. They got a goal back and after that they could not be contained.”
The win did not allow Juve to overtake Parma at the top, that would happen a week later with another epic triumph - 4-3 away to Lazio. They lost their lead a week later but reclaimed it in the following round of matches never to look back. The Scudetto ultimately arrived with 10 points to spare.
As for the Viola, their season never quite recovered. They slithered down the table to 10th place, a long way off the positions their early form had suggested. There was the consolation of Batigol finishing the campaign as top scorer with 26 strikes but it was a meager one.
And the boy Del Piero? He went on to be a bit of a player for club and country stacking up honours like the layers on a slice of lasagne. A swansong in Sydney the closing chapter in a glittering career. And yet he scored few, if any, which were better than that magnificent strike which downed Fiorentina nearly two decades ago. And Juventini probably still raise an after-dinner glass or two in its honour to this day.
A few weeks ago we were calling them Ammazza-campionato – the Championship Killers – such was the ruthless manner in which Juventus were dispatching their rivals. But that was before the trigger jammed against a seemingly stricken Sampdoria and a relatively routine hit at Parma went awry. Could the cold-hearted executioners of Serie A have suddenly gone soft?
Of course, a mission to the Ennio Tardini is no easy one to put away these days. But, nonetheless, this Juve side has made a hallmark of smothering the life out of Italian football’s lesser lights with terrifying efficiency. Two successive failures to win after taking the lead are about as rare as Antonio Conte finishing a match with his voice intact.
Image via freedigitalphotos.net
David Platt? Maybe. The two Pauls, Ince and Gascoigne? Perhaps. Trevor Francis and Gerry Hitchens? Probably. The success stories of English players in Serie A would make a volume slimmer than Des Walker’s chances of catching Faustino Asprilla with a five-yard start. So any thoughts of Frank Lampard at Fiorentina have to be tempered with a huge degree of caution.
I’ve often thought the Chelsea man, among international players with the Three Lions, might be one of the few who could see his skills translate to the Italian game. A bit like David Beckham, who arrived in Italy very long in the tooth, he seems to have the professional approach necessary. His playing position and style, too, might just combine with the possession passing game currently being favoured in Florence.
But, nonetheless, it seems a bit of a stretch.
For one thing, there’s the wages. Lampard reputedly earns about four times the salary of Viola top-earner Stevan Jovetic (an estimated £150,000 compared with £40,000). He might be willing to take a pay cut at this stage of his career but surely not one of 75%?
Of course, Tuscany has its attractions. There would be worse places to play out the closing passages of your career. And, perhaps, he might have spotted that the Viola are an ambitious side once again, producing some attractive football. But, even then, it is hard to see such a deal progressing.
It would undoubtedly be a bit of a coup for the Florentines and Serie A if it did go ahead. Perhaps not the attention-grabber of Gazza’s move to Lazio but, nonetheless, a profile-raiser on this side of the English Channel. And, who knows, it might even persuade ESPN to give Italian football precedence over darts.
Still, I won’t be holding my breath on this one. The potential for thunder and lightning puns from Lamps and Toni playing together would be great fun for the fans on the Curva Fiesole. But, I suspect, it is a word game they are probably never destined to play.
Emotions were running high in Italy at the weekend but, for once, it was not just the match officials who were to blame. There was a poignant edge to a number of goals which flew in over another net-bulging weekend. The cheers were mixed with tears right around the peninsula.
There was probably no more touching moment than when David Pizarro thumped home a penalty in Florence. Il Pek leapt in the air and then fell to the ground before being enveloped in a group-hug from his Viola companions. Having just lost his sister to illness, the feelings of joy and sorrow were almost palpable at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.