Category Archives: Serie A

Wheel of Gaffers (Unemployed Managers, Part III)

tim-sherwood-449897

Even Tim Sherwood can’t believe he has a job before these five guys.

Tim Sherwood is now in charge of former European Champions Aston Villa.  Tim Sherwood.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Now look at these guys who aren’t working.

I'm sure that scarf is hanging above Juande's mantle...

I’m sure that scarf is hanging above Juande’s mantle…

Juande Ramos
Age: 60
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2006 & 2007 UEFA Cups, 2007 Copa del Rey with Sevilla; 2007 League Cup with Tottenham Hotspur

If there is a manager who personifies the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” epithet, it’s Juande Ramos.  Any other manager would have been lauded for his accomplishments.  But unfortunately, the Spaniard made his mistakes under two of the footballing world’s most intense spotlights.

Ramos’ career started well.  After almost a decade of managing lower-level clubs, he took over a second division Rayo Vallecano in 1998 and led them straight into promotion… and kept them there. He did even better with a newly-promoted Real Betis, steering them to a decent sixth place.  But a switch to Espanyol the next season ended badly;  Ramos was fired after only six matches with the club sitting in 19th.   He then did a season at Málaga, before joining the club that would make his reputation.

Sevilla was a consistent mid-table side when Ramos arrived in 2005; he took the Andalusians and made them winners.  They only improved by a single place in their first season, but with eight more points, they only barely missed out on a Champions League spot due to their inferior head-to-head record against Osasuna.  More importantly, they won the UEFA Cup, beating teams like Lille, Zenit St. Petersburg (who were semi-finalists the year before), and Schalke before demolishing Steve MacLaren’s Middlesbrough 4-0.  After beating Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup, they finished the next season on a mega-high, retaining the UEFA Cup by beating Ramos’ old side, Espanyol.   Los Rojiblancos then ended at a very strong third place, falling only two points short of giants Barcelona and Real Madrid (Barça won the title on GD), and challenging the Big Two’s league hegemony.  The annus mirabilis ended by beating surprise finalists Getafe to win the Copa del Rey, Sevilla’s first in almost 60 years.

After Tottenham sacked Martin Jol in October 2007, Juande Ramos slipped into place in North London, having faced Spurs in the UEFA Cup semi-final just five months before.  The club fell to 11th, after finishing fifth the previous season: not a great return.  But Spurs took two significant scalps, beating the hated Arsenal and then Chelsea in their march to win the League Cup.   The semi-final was their first derby win in nine years; as was the trophy that followed.  But after making a hash of the summer transfer market, two points in their first eight games left Spurs in dead last… and that was it for Ramos.

Not that it mattered.  Six weeks later, Ramos was the head coach of the world’s biggest club.   Real Madrid went on an incredible run, winning all but one of 18 games (the single stumble was a draw) and pulling themselves back into the title race.  But then Madrid lost 2-6 against Barcelona and proceeded to lose their last four after that.  The Catalans had the title and Ramos’ contract was not renewed.   After that, he pulled a Brian Clough in Moscow, lasting only six weeks at CSKA, before spending four years at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.   He left in the spring after eastern Ukraine blew up.

Ramos is a winner… you can’t say otherwise.  But his rough ride by the English media may have tarnished his reputation, despite a trophy.

claudio-ranieri_1384968cClaudio Ranieri
Age: 63
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1996 Coppa Italia with Fiorentina, 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia

Perhaps the opposite of Juande Ramos is The Tinkerman, Claudio Ranieri.   After 11 top-flight clubs, and one disasterous stint on a national team, Ranieri is an example of someone who’s acquired new positions on his past successes, but has never been able to replicate them.

Like so many young managers, Ranieri first garnered attention by leading a club through to promotion. He did it in successive seasons with Cagliari, taking them from Serie C1 to the top flight.  But when they finished just above the drop zone in 1991, he jumped ship to Napoli.  Here again was the same pattern: a great initial season followed by decline.  The southerners finished in fourth in 1992, and then 11th the next season; so back down to the lower leagues he went, taking over at Fiorentina and getting them promoted.    He secured their place in Serie A, and then brought them to fourth the next year.  More importantly, he won the 1996 Coppa Italia… their first trophy in 21 years.  But even that has a mental asterisk after it: La Viola didn’t face top-flight opposition until the semi-final against Inter, and both they and finalists Atalanta struggled in the league that season.  Still… silver is silver.

Fiorentina declined the next season, finishing ninth and Ranieri left for Sunny Spain, albeit still a hero in Tuscan eyes.   The Tinkerman landed in Valencia, where he reversed his pattern.  His first season was middling, but the next season, Los Che jumped into fourth spot and into a Champions League place.  However, it was the Copa del Rey campaign where Valencia really shone.  Jumping in at the Round of 16, Ranieri’s side pumped their derby rivals, Levante, 4-0.  Then they overcame Barcelona in a goal-scoring slugfest, beating the Catalan side 7-5 on aggregate.  In the semi-finals, they embarrassed Real Madrid at The Mestalla, 6-0; a 2-1 loss back at the Bernabeu became meaningless.  A 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in the final was almost anti-climatic.  Claudio Ranieri’s Valencia scored 21 goals over five games… and he now had more silver and more accolades.

That was 16 years ago, and after nine more jobs over 15 seasons, the Italian has yet to win anything else.   Atlético Madrid were relegated in his sole season in the Spanish capital.   He then took over from Gianluigi Vialli at Chelsea, slipping backwards in the league, but taking them to an FA Cup final and a Champions League semi-final.  A stint back in Valencia ended badly, after he took over the Spanish champions from Rafael Benítez… and finished in seventh.   He moved to Italy, taking over at Parma and then a newly-promoted Juventus (after their relegation for the Calciopoli scandal), followed by stints at Roma and Inter Milan.  He helped AS Monaco win promotion back to Ligue 1, before a disastrous stint as Greece national manager, with the side losing to the Faroe Islands in Athens.

At 63, the Tinkerman may not be able to tinker with the machinations of Time.

Frank-RijkaardFrank Rijkaard
Age: 52
Nationality: Dutch
Honours: 2005, 2006 Spanish Champions, 2006 Champions League winners with Barcelona

There might not be a more decorated unemployed manager in the world than Frank Rijkaard. As a player, the Dutch star was a member of some of the best squads that ever were, including the Ajax sides of the 80s and 90s, along with a stint at Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side that dominated the late 80s (speaking of unemployed managers, this might explain why Sacchi is no longer employed).   He was also a member of that golden Dutch side that won the 1988 European Championship.

Rijkaard’s big management break came early, when at 36 years old, he took over the Netherlands national side.  The Oranje only missed out on a trip to the Euro 2000 final after losing on penalties to Italy.  He then moved into club management, suffering relegation with Sparta Rotterdam before moving to Barcelona.  Like his famous compatriot, Johan Cruyff, he helped Barcelona develop its “Golden Generation” of young Masia graduates, including Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Victor Valdes… and  a certain Argentinian midfielder.  By 2005, Barcelona had their first La Liga title in six years; the following season, they would repeat as champions.  But more importantly, Rijkaard’s Barcelona would win the first of three Champions League titles in six seasons.

Then things started to go south.  The Catalans missed out on the following season’s title due to its head-to-head record with arch-rivals Real.  The following season, Barça finished third, and were knocked out of the semi-finals in both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.  Barcelona President Joan Laporta finally pulled the plug, removing Rijkaard and replacing him with Pep Guardiola.   The Dutchman then spent a decent season at Galatasaray before taking over as manager for Saudi Arabia.  But a poor showing in World Cup qualifying and then in the Gulf Cup of Nations meant another exit.

The same rumours of arrogance and prickliness that surround his  former teammate, Ruud Gullit, also permeates Rijkaard’s reputation.  But the man won the Champions League and now he’s working at a Florida prep school.  Come on…

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes...

Rossi wins friends wherever he goes…

Delio Rossi
Age: 55
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 1999 Coppa Italia with Lazio

Delio Rossi’s first taste of Serie A managerial life began when he gained promotion — and subsequent relegation — with Salernitana in the late 90s. However, that single solitary season was his only stint in the top-flight for the first 13 years of his head coaching career. It’s when he took over at Lecce that his career took off… sort of. After guiding them to a decent 10th place, he jumped ship to Atalanta in 2004, and was promptly relegated again. Undeterred, he joined Lazio, where his side played decently, but they were prevented from playing in the following season’s UEFA competition because of the club’s involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. But the following season, the Romans made good, finishing third… good enough for a qualifying spot in the Champions League.

After that, it was tough for Rossi.  The club finished in a miserable 12th place and came dead last in their CL group.  Their league form barely improved in 2008-2009… and there were rumblings that Rossi’s infamous temper did not sit well with Lazio chairman Claudio Letito.  But their Coppa Italia run that season was inspiring.  The Biancocelesti took out Rossi’s old club, Atalanta, before beating Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan side in extra time, then won against Turin’s big clubs in three straight games: a 3-1 victory over Torino, then subsequent 2-1 victories in the two legs of the semi-final against Juventus.  In the final, it took six penalties to beat Sampdoria to take the cup.

But trophy or no trophy, Letito had enough of his manager by the end of the season.  Rossi had to wait until November for another gig, this time in Sicily with Palermo.  He guided them from 12th to fifth, only missing out on a Champions League spot by a point.   The next season, they slumped in the league and dropped out of the Europa League in the group stage, leading to Rossi getting fired for two months before being rehired again.  Then cup lightning almost struck twice, as he reached the 2011 Coppa Italia final, going through eventual champions Milan again to lose 3-1 to Inter.

But the moment that will define Rossi — and probably a big reason why he is out of work — is an incident in Fiorentina.  He joined the Tuscan club in November 2011 but they struggled, sitting just six points above the drop zone at the beginning of May 2012.  Fiorentina were losing to Novara 2-0, when Rossi substituted Adem Ljajić. The Serbian sarcastically applauded his own manager, which made Rossi lose. His. Mind. He attacked his own player on the bench… and was dismissed the next day.

Rossi’s last job was at Sampdoria in 2012-2013, where the Genoese side finished 14th and were humiliated in the Coppa by Serie B side, Juve Stabia. He was relieved of his position in December 2013, with Samps sitting in the drop zone.  Rossi was replaced by the man he took over from at Fiorentina, Siniša Mihajlović, a man who is no stranger to fisticuffs himself.

FOOT - RCLJacques Santini
Age: 62
Nationality: French
Honours: 2002 Ligue 1 winner with Olympique Lyonnais

Jacques Santini is considered the architect of the mighty Lyon team that dominated French football at the dawn of the millenium.  As the club’s technical director, he built up the club and took over as manager in 2000.  The next season, he led the club to what would be the first of its eight straight league titles.  So it’s no surprise the French national team came calling, after the defending World, European and Confederations Cup champions failed to score a single goal in South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

Under Santini, Les Bleus were an unqualified success, losing only single match — a friendly — to the Czech Republic in early 2003.   The French team sailed through Euro 2004 qualifying, and won the Confederations Cup again along the way.  In the actual tournament, there was the infamous opening win against England in Lisbon, when Zinedine Zidane scored a monster free kick in the 90th minute to tie the match, followed by a converted penalty three minutes later.  The French would draw the Croatians and beat rivals Switzerland to earn a quarterfinal against unassuming Greece.  The rest is history… and so was Santini as France’s manager.

Really though, the former St-Etienne star had already agreed to take over at Tottenham Hotspur from caretaker David Pleat.  But 13 games into the season, Santini quit… apparently because the former football executive couldn’t agree with his higher-ups at the club.  Of course, it didn’t help that Spurs were sitting in 14th spot at the time.  He took over at Auxerre in 2005-2006, but was sacked after losing the last five games of the season and dropping out of a European spot.

Recently, Santini has been linked with jobs in Africa, including the top spot at 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-finalist Equitorial Guinea.  But he is 62, he hasn’t managed a team in almost a decade and he has a reputation for conflict with his bosses.

Still… if Tim Sherwood can get a job…

Brent Lanthier

 

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Filed under Champions League, English Football, Europa League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Premier League, Serie A

Boss or No Boss (Managers, Part II)

So long, 'Arry!

So long, ‘Arry!

Harry Redknapp’s resignation as Queens Park Rangers’ boss likely means the end of his 32-year managerial career. Despite his colourful quotes and allegedly dubious transfer dealings, the man was still a winner… sometimes. He did take a flailing Portsmouth team, save them from the drop, and then went on to win the 2008 FA Cup (the last English manager to win a major English trophy). While ‘Arry found work… these guys are still looking for jobs.

vahidd1Vahid Halilodžić
Age: 62
Nationality: Bosnian
Honours: 2004 Coupe de France with PSG

Vahid Halilodžić is probably known more in the present day for what he didn’t win than what he did. The Bosnian should be feted in Algeria for bringing that country farther than it’s ever gone in a World Cup. The men in green played well in Brazil, pushing Germany to extra-time before the eventual champions came out ahead, 2-1. He then resigned in tears, blaming a resentful populace and media for unconscionably castigating him, despite his results.

Halilodžić’s accomplishments have been quiet, yet solid. He coached Lille OSC through promotion in 2000, and then into third place the next season; they’ve been up and competitive almost every season since (except this one). His move to PSG in 2004 resulted in winning the Coupe de France at first go, and propelled the club into second place. Although his second season resulted in his dismissal, his stints as coach of the Côte d’Ivoire (where he was dismissed despite qualifying for the 2010 World Cup) and Algeria national teams showed that he is capable of leading teams on the big stage.

glacombe_921161139

France’s answer to Tom Skerritt…

Guy Lacombe
Age: 59
Nationality: French
Honours: 2006 Coupe de France with PSG

Guy Lacombe became something of a cup specialist, winning the 2004 French League Cup with Sochaux in their second straight final. He then moved to Paris Saint-Germain and won the Coupe de France in his first season in the capital. However, his league results were middling at best… but he moved onto Rennes and Monaco, leading each side to the French Cup finals in 2009 and 2010, respectively. By January 2011 though, Monaco was in 17th place and Lacombe was fired.  Les Rouges et Blancs never recovered and were sent to Ligue 2.  Lacombe now works for France’s National Technical Director, François Blaquart.

Felix-Magath_EPA_2846160bFelix Magath
Age: 61
Nationality: German
Honours: 2005 & 2006 Bundesliga titles, 2005 & 2006 DfB Pokal winners with Bayern Munich; 2009 Bundesliga title with Wolfsburg

Few managers have as much pedigree as both a player and a coach as Felix Magath. Few managers inspire as much dread amongst players as well. As a player, Magath won every major European trophy, save the UEFA Cup (although he was in a final), with the mighty Hamburger SV team of the late 70s and early 80s.  He was also a member of the West German side that won the 1980 European Championship.  As a coach, he won successive league-cup doubles with Bayern Munich in 2005 and 2006; three years later, he won the league again, this time with Wolfsburg.

But then you hear the stories about his training regimens, his falling out with players, his desire for absolute control. Fulham loanee Lewis Holtby was reportedly aghast when he found out that his former tormentor was taking over at Craven Cottage. But “Saddam” could not save Fulham from the drop, and now no club in Germany wants him back.  Still… some English club must need a good ol’ fashioned spanking.

MazzarriWalter Mazzarri
Age: 53
Nationality: Italian
Honours: 2012 Coppa Italia with Napoli

Before Walter Mazzarri, Napoli’s recent history was not great. Relegated in 1998, promoted in 2000, and then relegated again right away, Gli Azzurri slipped into insolvency and oblivion. The team reformed in 2004 in Serie C1 and took four years to climb back into the top flight. Enter Mazzarri a year later. He brought them into the Europa League at his first go. The next year, it was the Champions League.  The year after that, Napoli won the Coppa Italia.  He topped that by leading Napoli to second place; they were never going to challenge Juventus, but they certainly beat traditional powerhouse AC Milan, along with upstarts Fiorentina.  After that season, Mazzarri bizarrely decided to take over at diminishing Inter Milan.  That lasted five months.  Cavoli!

VictorMunoz-reacts121201R300Victor Muñoz
Age: 57
Nationality: Spanish
Honours: 2004 Copa del Rey with Real Zaragoza

Victor’s managerial league record is not great. The former Barcelona, Sampdoria and Spain star couldn’t replicate his success as a player. He was in charge of several middling La Liga teams, along with stints in Greece, Chechnya (replacing Ruud Gullit at Terek Grozny) and Switzerland. But in January 2004, he stepped into the manager role mid-season at his boyhood club, Real Zaragoza and led them past Barcelone in the 2004 Copa del Rey quarterfinals, before taking out Real Madrid in the final. He would return to the Aragonese side last spring and then leave only eight months later. But for a brief moment 11 years ago, Victor was the King of Spain.

Coming Up: A man who’s name is synonymous with collapse in London and Madrid, and another who’s name means collapse everywhere else!

Brent P. Lanthier

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Filed under Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A

The New Gentlemen of Verona

img-en-9-mois-de-serie-a-cette-saison-on-a-vu-1400713649_y500_articles-184062One of European football’s most pleasant surprises last season was the performance of Italy’s forgotten side, Hellas Verona.  The team had its heyday in the 80’s, with the Nicklas Bendtner-esque Preben Elkjær leading them to their only Scudetto in 1985.  Last season, they were promoted after a decade in calcio purgatory, and proceeded to remain in the running for a European spot until the final weeks of the season.

The main reason for that improbable run was the improbable resurgence of evergreen Luca Toni.  The Gialloblu rescued the then-36-year-old from the five-year nomadic existence he endured after Bayern Munich cast him aside.  He rewarded his saviours by scoring 20 goals for Verona, good enough for second in the league (behind young Ciro Immobile, who Torino sorely misses).  Toni’s rediscovered form — along with the efforts of winger Juan Iturbe and playmaker Rômulo — helped Verona’s offence tie Inter Milan for fifth in the league.

But as good as the Venetian club were at scoring goals, they were equally awful at the back.  So when Iturbe left for Roma, and Juventus picked up Rômulo on loan, long-time coach Andrea Mandorlini knew he had to take a different approach.

Enter Verona’s shock signing: MLS reject and Mexican bad boy, Rafael Márquez.  The former Monaco and Barcelona defender left New York under a cloud, returning to the Mexican Liga with León.  But his 11th-hour move to Serie A in August sent gasps through North America’s soccer media.  Surely the surly defender would be bad for the dressing room.

Well, so far so good.  Márquez’ partnership with Greek international Vangelis Moras seems to be working.  Mandorlini also brought in Moras’ compatriot, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, on loan from Catania to play in front of the back four.   Pair these moves with the solid play of Rafael (the Brazilian keeper, the second of three Rafas on the books; the other two are named Rafa Marques and Rafa Márquez… but I digress) and you have a club that has only conceded a single goal in three matches.

Of course it’s still early… and Verona have yet to find the scoring touch from last season.  Toni has a single goal and that was a penalty.  Meanwhile Mandorlini has been playing with the four positions between Toni and Tachtsidis, rotating new boys Lazaros and Boško Janković with long-time players Juanito and Emil Hallfredsson.  The correct combination is still forthcoming: substitute Artur Ioniță’s goal against Torino on Sunday was their first from open play.  But their defensive work has left Hellas Verona in third place in this infant season.

Mandorlini’s side face Genoa at home tomorrow, before facing Iturbe’s Roma on the weekend, who sit top of table.  By then, we should have some idea if the new look Verona is ready to stay in the top-flight.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Llorente Gets His Wish

Fernando-Llorente

Fernando Llorente started.  Fernando Llorente scored.  Happy now?

So much ink/cyberspace has been dedicated to the saga surrounding the Basque player’s prolonged transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Juventus.  Llorente demanded a move after the 2012 Europa League final, didn’t get it, and then paid the price with Marcelo Bielsa starting him on the bench for most of the season.

Meanwhile, Juventus fans and media types demanded that the club sign him, saying they needed more forwards.  They got their wish on July 1st.  But then the clamouring changed in tone, from “Where is Llorente?” to “Why isn’t Llorente playing?”.  Before Sunday, his only competitive appearance in the Bianconeri shirt was seeing out the clock for a couple minutes at Sampdoria.

So the inevitable reaction from the European press is that Llorente is unhappy, that he is already looking towards England in January.   But on Sunday, the Number 14 appeared on both the team-sheet and the score-sheet.  The response from the press and the fanzines? Llorente played well, but the rest of the side “needs work”.

The hype that surrounds a new arrival at big clubs almost always takes on a life of its own.   The longer the transfer is drawn out, the greater the myth that accompanies the incoming player.  In reality, Llorente needs Juventus more than Juventus needs him.

Before last season’s drama in Bilbao, Llorente was the go-to guy at his ancestral club, their top scorer for five straight seasons.  But Llorente only broke the 20-goal mark in two of those campaigns (including that Europa league final season).  He’s thrice been in La Liga’s top 10 scorers, coming in at 9th, 5th and 6th in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  If you were to find an English comparison, Llorente is the Spanish Emmanuel Adebayor: a guy who can be lethal when he wants, but not someone to build your whole team around.  Since he’s left, Bilbao have had no problem finding an adequate replacement, bringing in another Basque player (of course), Aritz Aduriz from Valencia.

arturo-vidal-juvenus-300x159

Scoring comes to Vidal so soon…

Despite the common wisdom, Juventus have been finding the back of the net.  Last season, they finished their Serie A campaign with the third-most goals in the league, only two behind high-flying Napoli.  In the Champions League, by the end of the Round of 16, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had scored more goals.  No one had a better plus-minus, but critics point to the quarter-final matches against Bayern Munich, when they were outscored 4-0 over two legs.  This is the same Bayern that put seven unanswered goals past mighty Barcelona in the following round.

To say that Juventus needs strikers is to misunderstand how Antonio Conte has set up his team.   The manager likes to play a 3-5-2 (closer to a 3-5-1-1), which means that the midfielders are the stars of the show.  It’s hard to argue with a group that could be the best in Europe: Andrea Pirlo quarterbacking the likes of Arturo Vidal,  Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Liechsteiner, and Paul Pogba through the middle.   It allows them to remain disciplined defensively, while trying to keep possession until they can open up the pitch for the forwards.

Those attacking players haven’t been idle either.  They may get outshone individually by, say, Vidal or Pirlo, but they have done their part.  If someone has the right to be miffed, it’s Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella.  Normally slotted in the Number 10 role, the pair have been displaced by the club’s other high-profile signing, Carlos Tevez.   The energetic Argentine has already scored four in six matches, including that beauty on the weekend.

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Conte has probably waited this long to start Llorente because the player simply hadn’t appeared that much over the last 15 months.  Conte also had no reason to displace Mirko Vucinic up front until now.  The Montenergrin injured himself on international duty and Conte is easing him back in, using him to replace Llorente in the 69th.

Llorente should be a good foot soldier for the Italian champions.  He will have to compete for his job with Vucinic, but if he gets the minutes, he should contribute to the club’s goal count as they defend their title.  What he will not be is a game changer, the way that Tevez can take control of a match.

In Bilbao, Llorente was the proverbial big-fish-in-a-smallish-pond.  But now he’s in a different league, in the metaphorical as well as the geographical sense.  So if he gets a game here and there, and happens to notch a few goals, we should all be happy for the man who finally got his wish… and for the fans and pundits who got theirs as well.

Brent P. Lanthier

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by | September 24, 2013 · 8:00 am

Inter Tinkers with their Manager… Again

Gasperini: Don't look back in anger

It took five matches for Internazionale to fire Gian Piero Gasperini… the fifth manager to leave the club in three years.  But only in the world of sport does a organization hire its leaders from a steady pool of failures.

The rumours are that Claudio “The Tinkerman” Ranieri has been given a two-year contract to take over from Gasperini.  No stranger to football’s revolving door, Ranieri has managed 10 teams over the last 20 years; this will be his seventh Serie A club. In that time, he has only won two major trophies: a Coppa Italia with Fiorentina… and a Copa del Rey with Valencia.  Yet this is the man who has allegedly been chosen to lead one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Inter fans and management must be perturbed that their recent domination of Italian football has come to a jarring and screeching halt.  Long known as “the other Milanese club”, i Nerazzurri shook off its inferiority complex by winning five consecutive Serie A titles under Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho, topping off the run by winning the quadruple: the league title, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa, as well as being crowned both European and world champions… defeating mighty Barcelona along the way.  Life was good for Inter Milan. Then Rafael Benitez arrived.

Rafageddon unleashed again

Sure, Rafa led them to a World Club Championship. But they did it by beating club teams from South Korea and the Congo… one of the poorest nations in the world.  Not so fast, cry Inter fans.  They beat the world’s best to get there.  But Rafa’s infernal reputation of maniacal stubbornness is well deserved, and it didn’t sit well with the club’s superstars.  By Christmas, Inter would be down by 11 points from their San Siro rivals and Benitez was shown the door.  He has yet to manage in a single match since.

While not a bad choice, the Spaniard’s replacement was perhaps difficult for Inter fans to accept.  Not only did Leonardo play over a hundred matches for hated AC… he was also part of the Brazilian team that beat Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994.  No matter: the new gaffer lead Inter on a run that pulled them to the brink of another championship.  But in the end, the club failed to defend the league, and were laughed out of Europe by a mediocre German side. While Inter managed to hold onto the Coppa, the writing was on the wall.  Leonardo left Italy for the bright lights — and a big pay cheque — in Paris.

Enter Gasparini and an immediate cloud of suspicion. Rumours abounded that the former Genoa gaffer was only chosen because others refused the job.  Fabio Capello is still under contract to the England FA.  Young Andres Villas-Boas snapped at the chance to manage Cha-ching! Chelsea, after only one season at Porto.  Even Marcelo Bielsa followed up Chile’s impressive display at last year’s World Cup by signing up to manage the Spanish powerhouse… of Athletic Bilbao.

It all must have been secretly humiliating for owner Massimo Moratti.  If it was, it only got worse as the season got underway.  After succumbing to their hated rivals in the SuperCoppa, Inter emerged from the one-week players’ strike to lose to up-and-coming Palermo… one of the teams leading a Southern renaissance in Italian football.  That was followed by a CL league loss (at home!) to Turkish side Trabzonspor, who weren’t even supposed to be there.  A draw against Roma might have been acceptable, if it was not for a humiliating defeat Tuesday night to newly-promoted Novara.  Gasperini uscita… Ranieri entri.

Zanetti: Is it exit time for Inter's Iron Man?

There are some — including the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson — who argue that Moretti should never have hired Gasperini… not because he is a bad manager, but because his system doesn’t gel with Inter’s squad.  Gasperini favours variations of 3-4-3.  But at Inter, that meant using an ancient back-five of Samuel, Lucio, Maicon, Cambiasso and Zanetti as defensive anchors (the average age of the South Americans is 33).  Gasperini let his fullbacks roam just behind the wingers, and the aforementioned central players like to play up-field…. leaving Inter vulnerable on the counter.  Consequently, ball after ball has gone sailing over the heads of the defenders, with only an increasingly erratic Julio Cesar to stop it.

Offensively, the club is only marginally better off.  The “Will He Leave, Won’t He Leave” speculation surrounding Wesley Sneijder had to have been a distraction, considering the Dutchman’s pivotal role in the formation.  Plus, the fiasco signing of cup-tied Diego Forlan from Atletico Madrid is unforgivable.  If you believe in omens, it does not portend well for The Big Grass Snake.

Obviously, the scudetto is still too young to start picking out trends.  But with non-traditional leaders like Palermo, Napoli, Fiorentina and Udinese continuing where they left off last season, Inter may have to look deep within itself and try to decide what it needs to do to turn itself around.  Ranieri will likely perturb players with his constant manipulation of the side, not unlike Benitez.  We will see if The Tinkerman soothes or chafes raw egos at the club.

From my perspective, Inter fans can take solace in two things:

1) Super Sneijder and Forlan seem to be developing an understanding, despite the recent run of form.  Both players were magnificent in South Africa, with Forlan leading what could be considered South America’s new powerhouse.  If they can get service, look out.

2) AC Milan is only playing marginally better, stealing a draw last week against Barcelona in the CL.  Italy’s axis of power may be shifting.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Champions League, Copa America, Serie A, World Cup

AC Milan: Il Diavolo is in the Details

C'mon Thiago, give us a kiss...

One club is considered the best in the world; the other is a team that has found its way back to the top of its domestic league.  Both were surprised this weekend by so-called lesser sides.  Tonight, it was Barcelona that showed its quality over AC Milan.  Unfortunately for Barca, the scoresheet didn’t reflect it.

Two goals by Milan’s Brazilian stars bookended the game and stole a point for the Rossoneri.  The World Champions dominated up until that point: Barcelona had 80% possession at the 75th-minute mark… a calling card for the Catalonians.  Gaffer Pep Guardiola says he’s not worried… nor should he be.

It’s the Italian club that should be wringing its hands.   The consensus is that AC Milan will have a tough time defending the scudetto…  and judging by their last two performances, they may prove the pundits right.  Not only did Barca’s tiki-taka have Milan on the back heel for most of the match, but the Italian champs kicked off the Serie A season on Thursday by having to fight back against a new-look Lazio.  Add the Roman club to Milan’s growing list of league rivals:

– Internazionale is aging but still potent.
– Juventus may be an Old Lady, but she may find a sabbatical from Europe rejuvenating.  
– Udinese was the better team against Arsenal in CL qualifiers, and could build on last year’s success.
– The South seems to be rising again with Palermo beating Inter 4-3 (again, the Nerrazzurri looked slow and old)… and Napoli being picked as a dark horse for the title.

Zlatan the Terrible

And while he didn’t play tonight, Milan still has its good luck charm: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Every team he has played on since 2004 has won its domestic title (if you include Juventus’ revoked trophies).  He is a big, black belt-wearing nutter who has a goals-per-game average of at least 50% in the last six seasons.  Plus, NOW he’s eating his Wheaties.

Brent Lanthier

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Untangling Mario Balotelli

I have something of a bizarre fascination with Mario Balotelli. Watching him is like waiting for a train wreck that you know is going to happen. Plus, I haven’t stopped laughing since seeing his Battle with the Bib. But his back-firing backheel in Los Angeles last weekend renewed my interest in the troubled City striker.

This week, in my Egos and Icons column for TORO Magazine, I wonder whether the talented Italian will be able to overcome his bizarre behaviour, unravel his tangled bib from the riddle that’s wrapped up in his enigma and win a kiss from Lisa Simpson become a successful and trouble-free footballer.

Ian Harrison

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Filed under Premier League, Serie A