Wednesday, June 02, 2010

On the move

Just for a change, I have moved my blogging to Tumblr now. It's still in the experimental stage but hopefully it might work out as a one-stop shop for all the nonsense I write...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Coppa Italia: Fiorentina's last dream

From Bleacher Report

In terms of prestige it is pretty much accepted that the Coppa Italia ranks somewhere between the European tiddliwinks championship and the World conkers title.

It is almost always compared very unfavourably with its English equivalent, the FA Cup. Crowds are small, most big teams field understrength sides and you can count the number of shocks on the prongs of your pizza fork.

Poor scheduling, two-legged ties and an often cumbersome seeding system have never really given the competition a chance. It is in need of the kind of emergency makeover that could even kill the undying enthusiasm of Ty Pennington. It needs demolition and complete reconstruction.

This week, however, it has thrown up one of its more intriguing ties. The reason, quite simply, is that it means quite a lot to one of the participants and not very much to the other.

So all of the elements are there for an exciting semi-final clash between Fiorentina and Inter.

The reigning league champions won the first leg by a single goal in the San Siro but a packed Stadio Artemio Franchi will be hoping the Viola can turn the tie around on Tuesday. They warmed up with a thrilling 2-2 draw when they met in the league on Saturday.

Cesare Prandelli shocked a few pundits by fielding an apparently weakened side for that game. The Tuscan team has little hope of finishing in a top four spot in Serie A and getting back into the Champions League. He seemed to favour the cup clash.

That might seem puzzling given the lack of stature of the Coppa but look a little closer and it starts to make more sense. Fiorentina have a strong tradition in the tournament with six victories to their credit. More importantly, their coach has yet to win a trophy with this side.

Praise for their fine performances in Serie A and Europe has been nice, but there is really no substitute for a bit of silverware.

Up north in Milan, however, the TIM Cup (to give it its sponsor's name) is a less welcome distraction. Jose Mourinho's side are still in the hunt for the league and Champions League. There is little doubt this is the least attractive leg of their potential treble.

Yet they would be well advised not to snub the competition too much. Imagine how they might feel if they went out to Fiorentina and then missed out on their other two goals? Bad results can be contagious and the cup would at least be a small consolation if everything else goes wrong.

The Milanese, of course, have a squad designed to cope with such situations. Even their reserve side is one which most Serie A managers would love to have at their disposal. Defending a single goal lead should not be beyond them.

Even with Dejan Stankovic, Davide Santon and usual Coppa goalkeeper Francesco Toldo missing there is a formidable look to the Inter team. Fringe players like Marco Materazzi, Macdonald Mariga and the recently rehabilitated Mario Balotelli will all hope they get a chance to shine. There may even be room for young talent like Rene Krhin and Marko Artaunovic.

Fiorentina hope to respond with a trio of important returns. Cristiano Zanetti, Marco Marchionni and Juan Manuel Vargas are all likely to be reappear after missing the weekend clash.

The match comes, of course, at an unwelcome time for Inter. They face Juve in the league on Friday and Barcelona in the Champions League after that. That may just trip them up.

Mourinho will not be too worried about elimination if his side can secure at least one of its other seasonal targets. For Fiorentina, a final spot against either Roma or Udinese would be a major consolation for European and Serie A heartache.

The script should be that the game matters so much to the Viola that they grab the victory they need. But since when has football ever followed any kind of logic?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inter: The Real Deal At Last?

From Bleacher Report

They celebrated as if they had won the trophy itself.

Everyone at Inter Milan knew they had achieved an important result, knocking out one of the most fancied sides in the competition. In the process, they went some way to overturning their reputation as one of European football's biggest failures.

Make no mistake, the Nerazzurri have a score or two to settle with the Champions League. While they have been the dominant force in Italy for the last few years, they have consistently failed to deliver in continental competition.

Not any more.

Defeating Chelsea carried a symbolism which will not have been lost on Jose Mourinho. He failed to lift Europe's biggest prize while at Stamford Bridge, now he has a chance to produce the goods at the San Siro.

However, the key for Inter will be using the victory over the Blues as a building block, not merely an end in itself. There are three more games to go, after all, if they hope to win the trophy which has eluded them for more than 40 years.

It was not always pretty to watch but few Interisti will have been bothered about that. At long last their team stood toe-to-toe with one of the continent's best and did not wilt under the pressure. Beauty can wait.

Hats off to the Special One who passed his first crunch test of the season with flying colours. His tactics proved perfect at thwarting Chelsea's attacks and threatening on the break.

He showed once again that the Serie A title is Inter's to lose. They are streets ahead of Milan and Roma in terms of power, pace, commitment and depth of squad.

Now they are starting to punch their weight in Europe too.

But are they serious Champions League contenders or was this just a flash in the pan? A glance around what remains in the competition would suggest the former rather than the latter. Inter finally have the tactical nous to go along with their undoubted talent.

They don't have the flamboyance of Barcelona or Arsenal or the choral teamplay of Manchester United but they do have organisation, heart, class and character. Only time will tell if that is sufficient to progress.

Much will depend on which side they land in the quarter-finals. Having beaten Chelsea they are entitled to expect a "softer" draw in the last eight. However, nobody will relish meeting the boys in blue and black.

Inter Milan showed this week that they are a resolute, composed and gifted team. Almost from the outset there was an air of confidence about the side which has been sorely missing from previous European escapades.

The biggest danger is thinking that after Tuesday night the job is done. Club President Massimo Moratti will settle for nothing less than winning the Champions League. Reaching the later stages is good, but it is unlikely to leave him feeling satisfied.

The Nerazzurri's triumph was also an important one for Serie A as a whole. Italian football was in need of a tonic and, although a side packed with foreigners is not to everyone's taste, it at least did the business.

In the process, it took the head-to-head record with the Premiership this season to an impressive played nine, won six, drawn one, lost two. Juventus could complete the job against Fulham on Thursday.

As for Inter, they will face further tests of their European maturity. They picked up a number of suspensions against Chelsea which will weaken their quarter-final first leg team. But they look like they might have the character to cope with it.

One result does not make your season, of course. Nor does it turn you into a great team overnight.

Nonetheless, Inter deserved their victory over one of England's top teams this week and were entitled to celebrate. Once the festivities die down, however, they must realise there is more work to do. There is a Champions League out there to be won, and Mourinho's men must use this triumph as the foundation for a serious challenge.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Martino Uno Di Noi!

They know how to say goodbye in Florence...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Say It Ain't So Adrian

I have always thought that when life gives you a second chance you should seize it.

Think about Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol who gets the chance to see how little the world would mourn his passing.

You would cherish every day after that experience, wouldn’t you?

And, more importantly, you would surely never make the same mistakes again.

It struck me that the same was true for Fiorentina’s errant striker Adrian Mutu, a man who has known his share of sporting turmoil – some of it self-inflicted.

He was banned from the game for taking cocaine but he served his time and looked to be completely rehabilitated.

Indeed, it seemed there was a renewed zest in his approach to enjoy the sport which had been denied him for some time.

Just one text message changed all that. “Have you seen your man Mutu has tested positive again?” it said.

I hoped the information would prove incorrect but confirmation soon followed with a news story outlining the outcome of checks following the recent Fiorentina match with Bari.

The Romanian had indeed tested positive for sibutramine, an appetite suppressant, and could face a four-year ban.

It is news which has left Fiorentina fans reeling.

The best case scenario is that there turns out to be some fault with the tests and he is cleared of any offence. But the worst case could effectively end his career.

If he did take a banned substance, it smacks of sheer stupidity given the price he already had to pay for a previous infringement.

He will have let himself, his club and his supporters down and thrown away a second chance which some people are not lucky enough to get.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Inter Milan's Great Escape: Jose Mourinho's Magic Or Just Good Fortune

From bleacher report

Inter Milan made a huge withdrawal from the Bank of Lucky on Saturday night.

Or, if you prefer, Jose Mourinho pulled off another managerial masterstroke.

Whatever your viewpoint, there is little doubt that the Milan giants completed one of the most amazing comebacks of the season to overcome Siena. The fact that they needed to produce such a performance is worthy of some reflection.

So let's work this through from back to front.

League-leading Inter defeated bottom-of-the-table Siena 4-3 with a Walter Samuel goal in injury time.

That was the equivalent of a kicker catching a winning touchdown pass or perhaps a pitcher thumping a vital home run.

The big Argentinian defender does not score many goals and those that he does are usually with his head, not a sweet turn and shot worthy of his countryman Diego Milito.

It was a finale fitting for such a crazy game.

Massimo Maccarone had given the visitors the lead only for Milito and Wesley Sneijder to turn the game on its head. That should have been the end of the story.

Instead, Albin Ekdal and Maccarone struck again to put the little Tuscan side on the brink of victory.

Jose Mourinho's famous unbeaten home record, which has lasted longer than most modern marriages, was suddenly under threat.

Inter looked tired, jaded and out of sorts. Siena were worth their win, or so it seemed.

The final minutes, however, were cruel to Alberto Malesani's side. Firstly, Sneijder curled home another beautiful free-kick to equalise. Then Samuel, put up front to help hunt an improbable winner, stuck the knife in still further.

It was a script we have seen several times before.

Mourinho loves to shove men forward in a desperate attempt to win a match, often asking his defenders to improvise an attacking role. It worked out perfectly this time.

The question is just how long can it go on working?

Inter's squad has been hurt by injuries and Sammy Eto'o heading off to the African Cup of Nations, but still they should have brushed Siena aside with ease.

But for much of the weekend's game, the side with the best attack in Italy looked unable to beat the nation's weakest defence.

Spectators were left struggling to decipher what the result actually meant.

Was it a sign of weakness that Inter nearly lost to one of the poorest sides in Serie A? Or did their never-say-die attitude send out a signal of intent to their rivals?

Maybe it was a bit of both.

The side from the San Siro have been far from convincing of late and have a tough run of matches coming up.

So far, they have shown enough resilience to maintain a healthy lead at the top of the league and the Siena game demonstrated they will not give it up easily.

Indeed, if there is a lesson to be learned, it is possibly a simple one.

If Juve and Milan are serious about taking Inter's crown they will have to show the same hunger as Mourinho's men did on Saturday night.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mancio's next mission

From Bleacher Report

Watch out England, the Italians are taking over.

The national team is in the hands of Fabio Capello, the league leaders belong to Carlo Ancelotti, and struggling West Ham is under the guidance of Gianfranco Zola.

Now the biggest of your big spenders have Roberto Mancini.

If things keep going at this pace, we’ll be able to change the Premiership brand into Serie A by the end of the next decade or so. But what are Manchester City getting for their many million pounds?

Well, Mancio was certainly one heck of a footballer. His elegance, class, and improvisational skills made him a star performer for Bologna, Sampdoria, Lazio, and Italy.

The less said about his brief spell with Leicester City the better.

As for his coaching career to date, it has certainly carried one key component more than any other—trophies.

He started out as assistant to Sven Goran Eriksson (where have I heard that name before?) at Lazio but got his first proper job at Fiorentina in 2001. In something of an emergency situation due to their financial difficulties, he took a patched-up Tuscan side to the Coppa Italia final and won.

He also ensured their Serie A survival, but with the club in turmoil off the pitch, he moved on to pastures new just a year after taking his first managerial trophy.

It was, however, out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The big-spending days at Lazio had gone and Mancio once again found himself trying to manage a club obliged to sell its best players. A Coppa Italia was delivered again as he triumphed in adversity.

It was only in his third coaching position, at Inter, that he got a bit of money to spend.

With Italian football in the eye of the Calciopoli storm, he delivered three league titles in a row.

His supporters saw that as confirmation that he was one of the finest young managers of his generation. Detractors complained that he had been handed one title and won the others because his major rivals were either not in the league or significantly penalised.

Manchester City fans can reach their own conclusions.

It was Europe, however, which ultimately proved fatal to Mancini in Milan.

All conquering at home, he could not deliver a team which performed to the same levels in the Champions League. Mind you, it has also proved beyond Jose Mourinho so far.

Now he takes up the fresh challenge of the Premiership and, presumably, trying to break into the top four some time soon.

As a player he was known for attacking flair and he likes his teams to play with a certain panache too. However, over time he has learned to give them the bite necessary to produce results.

Only time will tell if he can prove himself in a different country.

But one thing is for sure. If he can put Manchester City into the Champions League it would rank alongside anything he ever achieved in Italy.