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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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Oranje bowl over Brazilians, while Black Star misses mos’ def(initely)

Wesley Sneijder - Holland v Brazil: Wesley Sneijder the hero in 'fantastic' performance

What a cracking day to sit on the couch and do nothing except watch footie.

World Cup favourites Brazil lost to the Netherlands… and I’ve desperately tried to write in a Dutch oven joke.  No luck, feel free to write in your answer below.

This game was the Felipe Melo show. First he set up Robinho’s goal to send the Samba Kings flying. But in the second half, he collided with his own goalkeeper and headed in a Wesley Sneijder cross. The goal tied the game and rattled Brazil. Then, Melo’s frustration with uber-pest Arjen Robben boils over. He kicks Robben to the ground and then inexplicably stomps on the Dutchman’s thigh.  Red card and it was “Boa noite” for the Brazilians.

Here are some interesting facts from the game:

  • For the first time in its World Cup history, Brazil loses after leading at halftime (now 35-1-2) and loses for only the third time after scoring first (now 53-3-4). The other two losses were the 1998 group stage versus Norway and the 1950 final versus Uruguay,
  • Melo’s own goal was Brazil’s first in its 97-match World Cup history. It’s just the second own goal in a knockout-stage match in the last 40 years,
  • Sneijder, who is 5-foot-7, became the shortest player to head a goal in at this year’s World Cup,
  • Brazil loses under Dunga for the first time when both Kaka and Robinho play (now 30-1-4),
  • Melo’s red card was 11th ever for Brazil, putting them one ahead of Argentina for most in WC history.

I think’s it’s off the mark to call this result an upset. Netherlands have not lost a competitive match since the Russians beat them in extra time in a Euro 2008 quarterfinal. That’s a streak of 13 matches.  And they are on a run of 24 games without a defeat, since a friendly loss to Australia two years ago.

Image: Uruguay v Ghana: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Quarter Finals

Meanwhile, Africa’s dream of a home-grown World Cup winner died after Ghana lost to Uruguay with a bizarre finish. Just before the end of extra-time, Uruguay’s goalkeeper was caught out of position during a goal-mouth scramble. Luis Suarez kicks the ball away, only for Dominic Adiyiah to head the ball back towards the net… where Suarez raises his arms to deflect the shot.  Red card for Suarez and a penalty for Ghana.

But then Asamoah Gyan sends the jabulani sailing into the crossbar… and sends the Ghanians home in tears, after Uruguay win a penalty shoot-out.

Now the Uruguayans have to manage the high-flying Dutchmen (ho ho!) without the rambunctious Suarez, who is definitely suspended for the semi-final. They’ll also have to do without Paris Hilton, who was arrested for allegedly passing the Dutchie on the left-hand side.

The build-up to tomorrow’s game between the Argies and Ze Germans has been downright nasty. Somewhere, there are a bunch of old RAF commanders giggling into their Pimm’s…

Late game: Spain plays Paraguay.

Brent Lanthier

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Dr. Z’s World Cup Predictions: Group E

Dentist by day, football prognosticator by night, our own Dr. Hadi Zogheib is scouting out each group at World Cup 2010 and predicting first round scores and standings. Here’s what the good doctor expects in Group E:

Netherlands:  With all the talk about Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and England, it seems the Dutch have been overlooked.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, injuries were threatening to derail their tournament aspirations, but most of the players have recovered in time for the big show.  Goalkeeping and defence are a little questionable, but with Dirk Kuyt, Robin Van Persie, Rafael Van der Vaart, and the sensational Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, anything less than a semifinal showing will be considered a big disappointment.

Japan:  Perennial Asian powerhouse Japan will feel a little better going into the competition having played England very tough in a 2-1 loss.  Speedy and crafty, the Japanese must tighten up in defence if they hope to progress out of the group stage.  They’ll need some magic from former Celtic midfielder and free kick wizard Shunsuke Nakamura along the way.  The Japanese may also be bolstered by the fact that they have a stellar record in recent years against African countries, going 5-0-1 since 2007.

Cameroon:  And the award for tightest uniforms go to… but I digress.  The West Africans will be hoping to repeat the success of Italia ’90, and much of the pressure will fall on the captain’s shoulders.  Former great Roger Milla stirred up a little controversy recently, criticizing Samuel Eto’o for playing great for club but not country.  Perhaps he was looking to light a fire under the Inter superstar: time will tell if it worked. As a big fan of la Liga, I must also mention the play of Espanyol goalkeeper Kameni, who perhaps single handedly helped his club avoid relegation with his sensational play this season.

Denmark:  The most underrated team in the World Cup, the Danes beat out Hungary, Sweden, and mighty Portugal to win their qualification group.  Meticulously organized and solid (though not spectacular) at every position, this may be the team to pick as the darkhorse to go deep in the tournament.  That is, if the maddeningly inconsistent Nicolas Bendtner decides to play consistently for a change.

Predicted Results:

Netherlands 2-1 Denmark

Cameroon 2-0 Japan

Netherlands 3-1 Japan

Cameroon 1-1 Denmark

Denmark 2-0 Japan

Cameroon 0-2 Netherlands

Group Standings:

Netherlands  9 pts

Denmark 4 pts

Cameroon 4 pts

Japan 0 pts

Related: Dr. Z doubts the host’s chances in Group A, expects Greece’s defence-first philsophy will pay off in Group B, predicts an opening-round sweep for England in Group C, and expects a three-way dogfight in Group D.

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Race against time for Dutch

Hadi Zogheib

Take a quick glance at the World Cup qualification tables from the European zone and the record of the Netherlands in Group 9 immediately jumps out. Eight wins, no losses, not even a draw. Seventeen goals for and only two against. Not too shabby, eh? With just weeks to go before kickoff in South Africa, it’s easy to see why the Dutch have powered up to number four in the world rankings, behind only European champions Spain, five-time world champions Brazil and, curiously, Portugal. 

But not everything is looking rosy for the Oranje, especially if you look at the struggles of their wonderful attacking talent. In recent months, many of the players Holland will rely on to lift the trophy in Johannesburg have been struggling for form, fitness or both. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has barely seen first team action for AC Milan. Dirk Kuyt has had a season to forget with Liverpool. Robin Van Persie has only just recovered from a horrific injury in a friendly versus Italy and will be short of match fitness come June. And Rafael Van der Vaart just damaged his left thigh muscle in Real Madrid’s match at Zaragoza on Saturday.

Adding to Holland’s woes, midfielder Wesley Sneijder looked anything but match fit in this week’s Champions League semi-final battle with Barcelona, having to be substituted early in the second half after a largely ineffective performance in the first 45 minutes.

The only good news for the Dutch is that time is on their side. All the above players still have time to heal and improve their fitness before the World Cup commences. In the meantime, Dutch football fans are holding their breath and hoping for the best.

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