Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Divin Jojo

Twenty years have passed since a frail-looking youngster with long dark curls lit up European nights in a purple shirt. His virtuoso performances put a huge smile on the faces of Fiorentina fans. I can feel echoes of Roby Baggio in Stevan Jovetic.

Back in 1989 I was living in Borgo San Lorenzo about 20 miles from Florence and the city's visceral love for its idol emanated across Tuscany. The club had helped to nurse him back from serious injury and was now beginning to see that faith earn its reward. He dragged the Viola all the way to the UEFA Cup final.

Fast forward a couple of decades and it's Jojo in the Champions League. Last season Cesare Prandelli kept the boy snuggled up in cotton wool and used him as sparingly as Luciano Spalletti works a hairbrush. This term that softly, softly approach has allowed the young Montenegrin to grow.

This Fiorentina side is streets ahead of the team that lost its UEFA final to Juve. That year the talk in the bars around Campo di Marte was all about avoiding relegation and hoping for a brighter future. Nowadays, some supporters get grumpy if the club drops out of Serie A's top three or four.

Yet a similar magic links Baggio and Jovetic. Each one sends a frisson of anticipation through the fans which nobody else can match. The ponytailed one did it with his breakneck dribbling. The young pretender manages it with a first touch as gentle as a snowflake brushing your face on a winter morning. And then a crack of imagination like a hypnotist snapping his fingers to end his victim's slumber.

One night does not a career make, of course. But we should all be allowed a little indulgence from time to time. Sinking Liverpool was the football equivalent of one of those giant ice creams that makes your daughter's eyes light up with glee. There's time enough for indigestion - let's savour the flavours for now.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Sick Men of Europe

If ever you needed a feeling of impending doom, then our European candidates provided it at the weekend. Of all seven Italian sides involved in the Champions and Europa Leagues, just one of them recorded a victory. And that was courtesy of a Stevan Jovetic penalty.

You could argue, I guess, that what is Europe’s loss is Serie A’s gain. The top of the table has an interesting look with Samp sitting pretty, Fiorentina and Udinese in the hunt and Inter and Juve already losing precious points. But while the domestic battle is entertaining, the omens for continental conflict are decidedly grim.

Certainly, there was no shame in Jose Mourinho’s men losing by a single strike to Samp (Vai Pazzo!). They tried their hardest to get back on level terms but could not muster a goal. However, having quietly accepted a draw in their opening clash with Barcelona, surely nothing more than a win will do this week. Rubin Kazan might sound more like the magic words of a sorcerer than a football team but they would love to make Inter’s Champions League dreams disappear.

Our other two “big guns”, Juve and Milan, were both held at home by the BB gunners – Bologna and Bari. I tend to think Juve’s result was the more disappointing, only because the Bianconeri have shown more promise this term. It was very unlike them to throw away a lead and an away trip to Bayern is never a simple prospect. The least said about the Rossoneri, the better. I like little Bari’s attitude – with pace and flair on the break – but they should have been no match for Leonardo’s men. Even Zurich must think a trip to the San Siro is not as daunting as it once was.

The only weekend winners were Fiorentina – courtesy of the talismanic Jojo. They were far from impressive against Livorno while their Tuesday night opponents, Liverpool, were dishing out a summary thrashing. Mind you, as my father pointed out, it was only against Hull.

In the Europa League corner, Roma left it late to salvage a draw with Catania. Lazio could do no better than a share of the spoils at home to Palermo and Genoa slumped to defeat against in-form Udinese. Our capital teams both face sides from Sofia this week and must get back to winning ways. The Grifone, I suspect, would be happy with a draw away to Valencia.

It does not look good, I admit. But hope still springs from somewhere in my soul. Every so often Italian football produces the goods in adversity. I hope this turns out to be one of those weeks.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Addio Andrea

I admit, at first, I had some trepidation. I felt a bit like somebody on the rebound from a bad relationship not wanting to get hurt again. How could I know if their intentions were good?

Over time, of course, Andrea and Diego Della Valle have won me over. Yet, at the outset, even their names caused me concern. I had just watched another set of double-barreled names almost kill the club I love. It seemed like a short step from Cecchi Gori to Della Valle. OK, this time they were brothers but it was not such a big difference from the previous father and son team.

In truth, they could not have been more different. While Cecchi Gori Snr was a figure of some substance, his son was more concerned about appearance. The Della Valles are no slouches in that department either - as befits shoe-making millionaires - but that is where the similarities end. They helped to rebuild Fiorentina without the smoke and mirrors of the last regime.

It has taken time, however, to warm to ADV as president. He comes across as a slightly cold character and a little bit timid under the harsh stare of the television cameras. But, if you listened to what he had to say, it always seemed to make plenty of sense. In a cauldron like Florence post-collapse and Serie C2, he was just what was needed.

No doubt, the club's involvement in Calciopoli tarnished his reign. Nonetheless, he seemed to emerge from it stronger and more determined to learn the lessons which it had taught. Eventually, he gave us a Fiorentina worthy of the Champions League once again.

I await an open letter to fans which is apparently in the offing. It is unclear whether Andrea's decision to step down as president is a question of reorganisation or an actual distancing from the club. The former would be perfectly acceptable but the latter could prove highly harmful.

These things have a habit of having repercussions for a team, no matter how much people protest they should not. On the one hand, the owners seem committed to building their new Cittadella training ground. On the other hand, they may have got sick of a rump of fans for whom even getting to fourth place in Serie A was not enough.

I signed up this afternoon to the Facebook group saying thanks to Andrea Della Valle. My memory is not so short that I don't recall where Fiorentina have come from in the last few years. He can't take all the credit but he at least deserves his share. It's the end of an era, that's for sure. But, as one fan wrote in a typical piece of dark Tuscan humour, "Come on now, he's not actually dead or anything!". We owe the Della Valle a debt of thanks but if it's time to move on then so be it. Comunque e per sempre, Forza Viola!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Grim viewing

The evening was clear, the children in bed and a nice espresso sitting at my right hand. Everything in place for a sporting battle between Roma and Fiorentina. It was all going so well ... until the game started.

Obviously, from a Giallorosso perspective it was a fine match. After a few setbacks, they are back on track in Serie A with a resounding victory. But the wheels came off the Viola campaign spectacularly.

The opening phases were well balanced enough but once Roma went ahead through a penalty it seemed like Prandelli's men lost all cohesion. They were three nil down before half time. Never before has my coffee tasted so bitter.

I guess I should be used to it by now, following Fiorentina. They always give you more pain than pleasure. Yet I had a sneaky feeling they could have got something out of this game. Instead, they put in their worst display of the season so far.

Now the job is to bounce back against high-flying Samp. Giampaolo Pazzini could really make us regret selling him, Antonio Cassano can send out another message to Marcello Lippi and Angelo Palombo may make us wonder what might have been if he had stayed. I feel pessimistic again. Back to normal service, I guess.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dead and buried?

It's the first real chance to take the temperature of Italian football in a European context. Many have been rushing to pronounce the patient dead already. Over the next three nights we will get a better diagnosis.

The departures of Ibra and Kaka have been cited as symptoms of our illness. Well, the Swede-you-would-most-like-to-slap is coming back to the San Siro - all attitude and arrogance. The rest of Italy's Champions League contenders will go up against the best that France has to offer.

I fear for Milan and Fiorentina, I am hopeful for Inter and optimistic for Juve. They could all deliver a real tonic for Serie A if they manage to grab any kind of positive result. Then we will get an indication of our strength in depth when the Europa League takes centre stage.

By late Thursday night we will have the readings from the heart monitor. Is Italian football's decline terminal or is it responding to treatment?

ROUND ONE: He may be old but Super Pippo still knows where the goal is. His second strike was pure class to defeat Marseille. Juve got a draw which was probably fair on balance of play - but annoying after taking the lead.

ROUND TWO: Inter content with a draw, I reckon, typical Jose Mourinho approach - happy to hold Barca at bay. Still seething about Fiorentina. With 11 men against 11, we produced a very efficient display - better than last year's 2-2. Gila sending off compromised the whole night. Still, take it on the chin and move on.

ROUND THREE: Maybe the worst night of all. Genoa record a handsome win but Roma and Lazio lose to the might of Switzerland and Austria. Deary me...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Harbour hopes

It was Genoa's weekend, no doubt about that, and not just the Rossoblu half of the port city. With Sampdoria also recording a third victory out of three the two teams from the Stadio Luigi Ferraris top the Serie A table. Along with Juventus, of course.

The Doriani had to sweat for their victory - Gigi Del Neri admitted they were fortunate to beat his old team Atalanta. And, although, the scoreline suggests otherwise, Genoa had to work hard against Napoli. They went behind to a Marek Hamsik beauty when down to ten men. But, luckily for them, referee Tagliavento decided to even things up by sending off Campagnaro and giving them a penalty. At ten versus ten, they upped the tempo and a beauty from Giandomenico Mesto swung the game in their favour. Hernan Crespo and another penalty completed the destruction. The man in black got pretty much every major decision wrong, harming both teams in the process.

On Saturday, the Bianconeri saw off Lazio thanks to goals from Caceres and Trezeguet (with a little help from Muslera). If I was a Laziale, I would not despair, the team played OK. It was a tough encounter with plenty of bookings but Juve simply had more hunger for the win. The signs are good for Ciro Ferrara.

Elsewhere, it was Gila goal to the rescue for Fiorentina against a stuffy Cagliari side (half the team they were last season). Milan struggled to a drab draw with Livorno, Tony Christmas smashed a hat-trick to give Udinese a first win and Roma got their first points with a come-from-behind win over Siena to give Claudio Ranieri a triumphant debut.

Oh, and I almost forgot, Samuel Eto'o struck a sublime goal to help Inter see off a resilient Parma outfit. He will hope to reproduce the same when Barcelona come calling later in the week.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

That'll do nicely

At last, we looked like World Champions again. Well, at least for 45 minutes. After all the pessimism surrounding the Italian game in general and the Azzurri in particular, we got a real top class performance.

Fabio Grosso delivered the same goal he scored against Brazil in a friendly in London, only this time it was not disallowed. And our strikers - yes, our strikers - combined beautifully for big Vinnie Iaquinta to get the second. Along the way, we spurned a number of other good chances.

In the second period we definitely eased up too much and that remains a worry. Nonetheless, the job is almost done. A draw in Dublin or a victory over Cyprus in Parma will be enough to see us safely to the World Cup 2010. It is no less than we should expect.

What was particularly positive, apart from the result against Bulgaria, was the performance. Daniele De Rossi gave the midfield some bite and character, Claudio Marchisio looked like he was born in the Azzurri blue and the old stagers like Pirlo, Camoranesi, Buffon and Cannavaro put in star turns.

Still not entirely conviced old Zambro is the force he was at right back and I always cringe when Pepe is brought onto the pitch. Also little Giuseppe Rossi did not have the desired effect - but then he came on when we were having our poorest period of play.

Just the same, this was no night for dwelling on the negatives. ItalJuve, as they have been christened, performed admirably. It all brings back memories of 1978 when there was only really Giancarlo Antognoni and a bunch of bianconeri. That team did OK, for itself. Maybe this one can follow suit.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Io sto con Mario

Novara should be ashamed of itself. Or at least, a small section of Novara should be ashamed of itself. Or, possibly, the whole of Italy should be ashamed of itself.

There is no use trying to hide it or sugar-coat the facts, there was a section of the crowd at Italy's Under 21 game with Luxembourg which jeered Mario Balotelli. And it wasn't the opposition fans - given that there were hardly any. It was a painful aspect to what should have been a pleasant and victorious night.

Some people have got an issue with a black man playing for the Azzurrini and, eventually, the Azzurri. It is one thing to hope he fails when he is playing for Inter, that goes with the territory for talented footballers. However, it crosses a line, to my mind, when you start whistling your own country.

There must be a section of Italian society which can't accept Super Mario - which is pretty rich from a country which has seen its own populace emigrate around the world. I have written before about how questionable I have sometimes found Balotelli's attitude on the field of play. But now, I feel, I am beginning to understand it.

The Nerazzurri starlet was ready to walk off the pitch last night as his own fans howled when he rocketed a free-kick over the bar. Thankfully, Gigi Casiraghi talked him round and moments later he was on hand to thump home Italy's second. It was the best answer to the morons who had been whistling a few moments earlier. Long may he continue to respond to them in that way.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Twin wins to secure South Africa trip

Let's put it simply. A win on Saturday away to Georgia and another at home on Wednesday against Bulgaria will ensure we defend our world title. Even if we went and lost to the Republic of Ireland, a win at home to Cyprus in the final match would see us home.

It is a straightforward enough equation but the Azzurri rarely do things easy. The Confederations Cup was a debacle but the young generation looked alright in the Switzerland friendly. Now is the time to show everything can click together.

I don't really care about personnel. Yes, I would probably have liked to have seen Cassano get a call up but, as with all such omissions, he will only be missed if results go wrong. Even without him we should be able to get the twin wins.

After Fiorentina sneaking into the Champions League this would be another chance to blow away the cobwebs around Italian football. Are you too fed up reading that Serie A and the Nazionale are dead? If we could be sitting nicely clear at the top of our group by Wednesday night it would be the best answer to that possible. Vai, Italia!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Spalletti spurned

Just spotted that Roma have parted company with Luciano Spalletti after two defeats in the opening two games of the Serie A season. I have to say I am disappointed. The man surely deserved a bit more time to turn things around.

His first loss at Genoa was a ding-dong clash that could easily have gone right for the Giallorossi. In his second game, he lost to a powerful Juve side. It maybe did not help his position that Lazio currently sit top but, just the same, he had earned a little more respect.

The fact that he looks set to be replaced by Claudio Ranieri is even more surprising. Vabbene, he is Romano de Roma, but everybody knows his record. Nice guy, good interviews but not a prolific trophy winner. It seems like a backward step.

There are deeper troubles at the Olimpico, I feel. The financial struggles and boardroom politics are doing nothing to help a team which still has the potential for a top four finish. Sacking Spalletti, a baldy man with a typically Tuscan sense of humour, was not the way forward.