Juventus And Napoli Carry The Hopes Of Serie A, As Others Fall Flat.

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And then there were two…After the round of 16 in both the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, just Juventus Football Club and SSC Napoli remain as Calcio’s representative in European competition. From a contingent of seven teams, only the Bianconerri and the Partenopei remain, proving these two are indeed the best two teams in Italy.

Last week, Roma crumbled under the Porto pressure to go out with a whimper, costing manager Eusebio di Francesco his job and ushered in the return of Roma born and bred Claudio Ranieri, who himself, recently got the sack as well at Fulham. Probably even worse, was Inter’s elimination at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt. After a 0-0 draw in Germany, which included a missed penalty from Marcelo Brozovic, they lost 1-0 at home. It was not necessarily that they got knocked out, but how.

The Giallorossi carried a 2-1 first leg lead to the Dragao, and made amateur errors, to lose 3-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate, as the memories of last season’s semi-final run was a distant memory. The Nerazzurri, missing the still “injured” Mauro Icardi and the suspended Lautaro Martinez, began their second leg at the Guiseppe Meazza, with Keita Balde, who just returned from injury. They were slow off the blocks, Stefan De Vrij made a horrendous error and Luka Jovic punished the Dutch international, to send il Biscione crashing out.

Juventus and Napoli are in the Quarter-Finals in their respective competitions, and if the wait for an Italian winner in the Champions League since 2010 and the Europa League since 1999 is to end, they will need to do it.

Even getting to the last eight was a task in itself for both clubs…

La Vecchia Signora had to mount a comeback from 0-2 down to Atletico, normally deemed insurmountable, however, they played their best game in years. Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed a hat-trick and he rightly deserves an immense amount of credit for his performance. Apparently, he had predicted as much, as former team-mate and ex-Juve player Patrice Evra has since posted a whatsapp conversation, he and the Portuguese international had recently.

Also, of note, was the club’s social media accounts, which launched a campaign in the build up to the second leg, with the hashtag #GetReadyToComeback . It was appreciated by some, mocked by others, but whether or not it had any affect on the Juve players on Tuesday night in Turin, it was keeping with the club’s vision of becoming more and more visible to a wider audience.

From the onset, the two time European champions, were like a rabid dog chasing a bone. They pressed high up the pitch, sometimes leaving just two or three of their defenders in their own half. It worked to a tee and they soon had the ball in the net, as Giorgio Chiellini scored from a rebound off a corner,however, the referee ruled that Ronaldo had fouled the goalkeeper in the build up, and it was chalked off.

The home side were not to be denied though, as Ronaldo rose over Juanfran to head home to set his side on their way. Atletico were uncharacteristically porous in defense, the bedrock on what their success has been in the Diego Simeone era. Early on in the second half, the tie was all square, as Ronaldo again scored with another header. Joao Cancelo crossed and even with a crowded penalty box, the five time European Cup winner was the one who met the ball, headed it towards goal, Jan Oblak saved it, but with the use of goal-line technology, it was confirmed that the ball crossed the line.

Score one for technology, and that should quiet the naysayers who are against it.

One of Piedmont’s clubs most exciting prospects is Moise Kean. The 19-year scored a brace in the club’s last game versus Udinese and won a penalty and he was brought on for Mario Mandzukic and less than a couple of minutes later, he had a great chance. Chiellini sent a ball that completely bypassed the entire Atletico defense and with just the goalkeeper to beat, the Vercelli born player, scuffed his shot just wide.

However, just a few minutes later, Juve got the goal that they needed. Federico Bernadeschi, who was a torn in the side of the Los Rojiblancos defenders all night, drove into the box, cut inside and Angel Correa pushed the former Fiorentina player and the penalty was given. Ronaldo lives for these moments…Ronaldo wants these moments…Most importantly, Ronaldo thrives in these moments…

He duly dispatched the spot kick, giving Oblak no chance as the keeper went the opposite side! There was never any doubt was there???

The encounter was signed, sealed and delivered by the Madeira born star and he sent his club to the next round. Last season, he sent them crashing out with a late penalty, this year, in 2019, he did the opposite.

Juve’s reward for their incredible comeback is a meeting with Ajax, whom they have met in two European Cup finals, losing in 1973 and winning in 1996.

708 kms away in Salzburg and almost 48 hours later, Napoli carried a handy 3-0 lead against Red Bull Salzburg. However, I told everyone who I talked too, this tie was far from over and it proved to be the case.

Not only was the Campanians missing their best three center backs, Raul Albiol with injury and Kalidou Koulibaly & Nikola Maksimovic through suspension, but just last season, this same Austrian club knocked out Lazio at a similar stage, after losing by 3-1 in the first leg in Rome.

Napoli needed an early strike to if nothing else, calm the nerves of the players, and it arrived courtesy of Arkadiusz Milik, scoring a spectacular bicycle kick from just five yards out, after the home team failed to clear a cross from Mario Rui.

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Salzburg, re-named after the energy drink company took it over in 2005, got one back before the break. Allan, arguably, Napoli’s most consistent performer in recent times, gave the ball away in his own half, it found it’s way to Moanes Dabour, and he finished inside the box.

Comeback on!

Carlo Ancelotti may have had flashbacks of La Coruna in 2004, when his Milan team took a 4-1 first leg lead in the Champions League, to crumble 4-0 to Deportivo and throw away their chance at back to back European Cups.

Soon after, the away side came close to going ahead again, as Fabian Ruiz hit a shot from 30 yards, but it hit the post. Napoli would not come so close again for the rest of the match. The teams headed to the interval at 1-1, and the team talks would have been interesting in the locker rooms.

As expected the Austrians came out flying from the break, and 20 minutes later they took the lead for the first time. Ulmer stormed down the left, sent in an inviting cross and Fredrik Gulbrandsen was there to guide the ball into the net. At this point, Napoli were pushed right back on the edge of their own penalty, defending with two blocks of four, leaving Dries Mertens and Milik up front to feed off scraps.

 

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The time now reached the 90th minute, it was stoppage time and Salzburg struck again. Christoph Leitgeb picked up the ball inside the Napoli area from a free-kick and calmly slotted the ball between Kevin Malcuit’s legs and into the goal. There were five minutes added on at the end of the match, but Napoli held on in the end to book their spot in the next round.

It was not pretty or stylish, but Carletto’s team got the job done, but despite missing key players in defense, they will need to be more professional if they are to harbour any hope of a first European trophy for 30 years.

The draw for the Quarter-Finals were held earlier today, and Napoli were paired with Arsenal, as glamorous as tie as there is in the Europa League this year.

So, we are at the business end of the European football season, and the next round of fixtures are a month away and it will be a hectic time for teams involved, which includes an international break as well. As Juventus are virtually guaranteed another Scudetto and Napoli safe in the top four for next season, I expect both teams to go all out for European glory and rotate their squads as such.

Can the long awaited wait for European glory for Italian teams end?

Well, it is up to the two best teams currently in Calcio to break the curse.

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Champions League Battle Heats Up As Milan & Lazio Gain Momentum Over Their City Rivals.

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Today’s headline in both the Milano based La Gazzetta Sportiva and the Roman based Corriere dello Sport summed it up perfectly…

Gazzetta went with Il Sorpasso with a photo of Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso behind the wheel of a car with striking sensation Krzysztof Piatek, meaning “The Overtake.” It was an oh to the fact that the Rossoneri have leapfrogged city rivals Inter, to take over third spot in the table.

Corriere showcased the front of their paper, with a photo of Lazio players Sergey Milinkovic-Savic and Danilo Cataldi, with the caption “Delirio Lazio”, translated as Lazio Delirium! This after, the Biancocelesti destroyed arch-rivals Roma 3-0 in the latest installment of the Derby Della Capitale.

These results were all the more significant given the Nerazzurri’s shock 2-1 loss to Cagliari on Friday night. Inter headed to Sardinia needing a win to maintain their hold on the third spot, but caved in under the pressure of Gli Isolani. The home team pressed and hurried the away team into countless mistakes and fully deserved their win. All the goals came in the first half, as a deflected Luca Ceppitelli header and a superb first time finish from Leonardo Pavoletti condemned il Biscione to defeat. This despite a Luataro Martinez strike in between Cagliari’s goals and Nicolo Barella skying a penalty.

More pressure on Inter boss Luciano Spalletti!

Their city rivals duly took advantage, earning a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Sassuolo at the San Siro. Truth be told, the seven time European champions did not play well. They had to thank, and not for the first time this season, goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma, who pulled off a brilliant one handed stop to deny Felipe Duricic. A little over 10 minutes later, the home team took the lead. From a corner, and with Lucas Paqueta being clearly man-handled by a Sassuolo defender, Matteo Musacchio got on the end of the cross, it took a last touch of Pol Lirola and it bundled into the net.

The Neroverdi hit the post through Jeremie Boga with a splendid curling effort from just on the edge of the area, Donnarumma could only look on and was eventually thankfull that the ball did not go into his goal. I am a big fan of Sassuolo manager Roberto De Zerbi, and his team’s play in this game further illustrates why, as the Emilia-Romagna side played a lovely style of football. Quick passing of the ball, pressing the Milan players, but at the same time sticking to the Italian ideals of an organized defense.

His tactics took a major hit in the second half, as goalkeeper Andrea Consigli was sent off after pulling back Piatek, after mistiming the bounce of the ball and not allowing the Pole to go in on goal. This forced De Zerbi’s hand into making a change, removing midfielder Francesco Magnanelli to bring on substitute goalkeeper Gianluca Pegolo. Despite the away side being down to 10 men, they still managed to dominate most of the play.

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What was curious to me, was how Milan basically stopped playing after they scored the go ahead goal. Was it that they wanted to just hold on? Was it, that this group of players not having won much, not knowing how to manage a lead? Whatever the reason, they looked devoid of any ideas or apparently did not see the need to push for a second goal, to kill off the game.

Despite the struggle, the Lombardians held on for a vital three points…It was not pretty, it was not stylish, however it was effective, and should Italy’s most successful club make a return to the Champions League, we may look back at this result as the key moment in their season. Gattuso eluded to the performance of his team afterwards, saying that while he will take the win, he was not pleased with the performance. He said “We are doing well defensively, but that’s it, we seem a bit chaotic in possession.”

We are just two weeks from the Derby Della Madonnina, and I suspect that Gattuso will be demanding of his players a marked improvement when they head to Verona to face Chievo next week.

Having seen the results of the Milanese sides, the Rome teams would have known that three points were of paramount importance to aid their own Champions League ambitions as Lazio and Roma played the 188th Derby Della Capitale on Saturday night. I tweeted out that this match, in my humble opinion, should always be played at night time instead of the day time. There is just something special about Serie A and Calcio on the whole, when they games are played under the lights.

The stadium has a better buzz about it, the stands are fuller, the passion seems to encapsulate the entire occasion.

Le Aquile, who were the designated “home team” at the Stadio Olympico that both clubs share, dominated the clash from start to finish. They never allowed the Giallorossi to gain any momentum whatsoever, as they played with a desperation of a side that were fully aware, that anything less than a win, would probably end their top four hopes!

Felipe Caicedo, who was starting in place of the unfit Ciro Immobile, who was on the bench, opened the scoring in just the 12th minute. Joaquin Correa picked up the ball half-way into the Roma half, carried it forward 15 yards, was not challenged and threaded a lovely well timed ball to the Ecuadorian, who rounder Robert Olsen, to slot the ball into the net. He ran away towards the stands to celebrate with the Lazio tifosi, the excitement etched all over his face, showing just how much it meant to him to have scored in such a worldwide watched event.

Almost immediately after, the 13th minute was reached and like at all matches across Italy this weekend, a moment was held in memory of Davide Astori, who passed away just a year ago. That BOTH sets of fans stopped to pay tribute to the former Fiorentina captain, was a testimony to the player, and more importantly, the man.

What struck me, was how poor il Lupi was, one would have expected a reaction, but there was none! No change of tactics, no change of tempo, no change of even an elevation of a fighting spirit…This was the Derby Della Capitale after all, and if the players were not going to raise their play for this game, when will they??? Were their minds on the upcoming clash versus Porto in Europe?

The only player who showed anything of quality was Nicolo Zaniolo, but unfortunately, the 19-year old had to be taken off at the hour mark with an injury, hopefully, he is fit enough for the trip to Portugal in mid-week. It was only a matter of time until Lazio added to their goal tally, and it duly arrived mid-way through the second half, with a penalty.

Federico Fazio clumsily fouled Correa and Immobile, having replaced Caicedo 10 minutes earlier, converted the spot kick. Roma’s defense, again looking very porous without their Greek defender Kostas Monalas. Again, there was no reaction from Roma, and it was another Lazio substitute, Danilo Cataldi who got his name on the scoreboard. A lovely worked move involving some superb one touch play, was finished off by the Lazio youth product. Olsen should have made a better effort to stop the shot.

We almost went through the entire Derby without a red card, but ironically former Lazio player, Alexander Kolarov, now with the colours of Roma, was given his marching orders picking up two yellow cards in the space of 30 seconds to make it 34 red cards in this fixture in the last 25 years!

As you could expect, the celebrations by the Lazio fans, players and all concerned with the blue half of Rome, was passionate and it went long into the night. Following the match, Roma captain Daniele De Rossi, was graceful in defeat, saying “Lazio played better, there is no doubt about that.” Not an easy thing for him to acknowledge about his arch-rivals, but it just further highlights how dreadful his team performed.

Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi, so often criticised for his team’s inability to win the big games, said this result will remain in Lazio history forever, and he is right, as it’s the biggest victory for his side over their city rivals since 2006.

So as things stand, Milan are in third on 48 points, with Inter on 47 followed by Roma on 44 and Lazio a further three behind. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed it was a fight for forth, with Inter seemingly solidly in third, but after their defeat in Sardinia, they are struggling right now. Milan may have some momentum, while the Rome clubs will need to probably run the table to get the last Champions League spot.

There are still 12 games to play for these four clubs and I am sure there are many twists and turn yet and the next three months will be tension filled as fans of the clubs continue to look on as the race for Europe comes to a climax.

Get your coffee, get your chocolates, get what you need to clam your nerves, and just sit back and try to stay calm…and enjoy the Champions Calcio Chase.

No Champions League, No Scudetto, No Coppa Italia, Inter & Napoli Must Give All In The Europa League!

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The above photos are of Inter & Napoli respectively the last time each won the UEFA Cup.

Entering into the 2018-2019 campaign, the conciseness was that Inter and Napoli were the two teams best placed to end Juventus’s domestic dominance…..However, after both clubs were knocked out of the Coppa Italia last week and with the Serie A title virtually gone, they must now focus on the Europa League.

The Nerazzurri had seemingly recruited well enough to make a title tilt against their bitter Derby d’Italia rivals, while the Partenopei, had hired managerial legend Carlo Ancelotti, in the hopes of him taking them to the next step, having gone so close last season. Not only were the people that joined both clubs were of good quality, but they both managed to hold on to their best players.

There were rumors and reported enormous bids for the likes of Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic, Milan Skriniar, Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens etc…and all stayed. Both clubs suffered heart-breaking UEFA Champions League elimination, finishing on the same number of points and goal difference as the teams that pipped them to qualification, but went out on goals scored. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the clubs pride, prestige & reputation.

On the domestic front, while Juve continued their march towards another Scudetto, Inter & Napoli continued to drop vital points. Through 22 match-days, the seven time defending champions are unbeaten, while Inter have already lost six times, while Napoli have suffered defeat on three occasions. To overcome the juggernaut that is La Vecchia Signora, a team simply cannot afford such slip ups.

With the Champions League gone and the Serie A title a bridge too far, they still had the Coppa Italia right??? NO! Both teams were eliminated from Italy’s domestic cup in the last eight, with Napoli losing at the San Siro to Milan by a 2-0 scoreline, while Inter were beaten by Lazio on penalties after a 1-1 scoreline after extra-time. To be quite frank, both clubs were nowhere near their best last week, and were both deservedly knocked out.

We are now just a week away from the re-start of European competition and with the clubs about to enter the Round of-32 on Valentine’s Day, will Inter & Napoli show the tournament some love? IF they want their season to be a success they better!

il Biscione have been paired with Rapid Vienna, while the Campanians have been drawn with FC Zurich. Both Inter & Napoli have the second leg at home, which is what most teams normally favour, but they must make sure they get solid results in Austria & Switzerland respectively.

I am wondering how SERIOUS will both clubs take the competition?

I believe this is a genuine question to ask…..After-all the last time an Italian club won the Europa League or it’s pre-cursor, the UEFA Cup was 20 years ago, when Parma triumphed over Marseille in Moscow. Not only have there been zero victories for teams from the peninsula, but no team has even managed to make it to a final!

Quite a poor record in the last two decades…..

Former Inter & Napoli player and Azzurri hero Fabio Cannavarro was part of that Parma side and his confusion of the poor performance of Italian teams in the competition was damning. The 2006 World Cup winner said “I was at Parma, and at that time we(Italians) dominated the UEFA Cup like the Spaniards do now. I don’t know why over time, Italian teams have snubbed the competition. Winning it brings great joy.”

Two teams who certainly can’t afford to snub the competition this year are Inter & Napoli.

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Nerazzurri manager Luciano Spalletti’s position at the club has come under increased scrutiny, as following the Coppa Italia elimination, they lost at home to 18th place Bologna. Following those defeats, there have been rumors of Inter looking to replace the Tuscan, with the likes of Antonio Conte and even former boss Jose Mourinho, while former player Esteban Cambiasso is also been touted for the job.

Napoli boss Carletto is a lot more stable than Spalletti, but having been knocked back on three fronts for potential silverware, Napoli and especially his ego would have taken a hit. Ancelotti has won a trophy as every club he has been to since Milan in 2003, and he would certainly not want Napoli to be the exception to that rule.

Winning a trophy is paramount for both clubs!

Inter’s last one was the Coppa Italia in 2011, while the last time Napoli lifted silverware was also the Coppa Italia in 2014. It’s been too long for both clubs, and Inter & Napoli need to add to their trophy cabinet, so giving their all to the UEFA Europa League would be a great start.

West Indies And Trinidad & Tobago Win On The Same Day! Cricket, Lovely Cricket.

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As a long suffering Trinbagonian & Windies cricket fan, it has not been easy in recent times! Sure both teams have done well in limited overs cricket, and I celebrate that along with the team….The Trinidad & Tobago Red Force were the 50 overs winners as recently as 2016 coupled with the three peat of T20 titles between 2011-2013(before the Caribbean Premier League came into existence) and the West Indies won the last T20 World Cup in 2016; however, First Class & Test cricket success is of paramount importance!

Yesterday was the 2nd February 2019, and at both the Queen’s Park Oval in Port-of-Spain & the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound, it was sunny and the players on both my teams shone brightly!

The day itself started off on a somber note, with the news that Windies pacer Alzarri Joseph’s mother had passed away in the early hours of Saturday mourning, and let me send my heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones….

Entering into the 3rd day’s play of both matches, both T&T & WI were relatively comfortable, with the former batting at 264-5 a lead of 222 runs, while the latter, on 272-6, a lead of 85 runs. Both needed to pile on the runs to give themselves, especially the bowlers, a significant score to defend. However, things did not pan out as I personally would have liked to with my team’s batting….

As the Test match finished first I will start with events in Antigua.

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Windies skipper Jason Holder & star batsman Darren Bravo strode out onto the field, bats in hand, a night’s rest and looking to push their team’s lead as far as possible. I was personally hoping for at least a lead of 250 runs, for me and my blood pressure, anxiety etc…to be at a normal level….However, much to my chagrin, our batsmen did not last out the morning session, but there was two significant moments that did happen.

The first was that Bravo, playing in his first Test for two years reached his half century and the team itself reached the milestone of 300 runs. Now, in the vacuum of today’s cricket, it might not seen as high, but in the context of this particular Test, it was golden. For Bravo, it was not only the runs he made, but the length of time he stayed at the crease!

He batted, and batted and batted….He wore down the English bowlers, to the point where you could see they were visibly frustrated, the hot Caribbean sun were draining their energy and mentally they were becoming fragile. He was eventually last out on 50, stumped off the bowling of Moen Ali. Secondly, the psychological fact of crossing the 300 mark would have further invigorated our players and had the opposite effect on England.

There were just a few overs until lunch and England’s openers Rory Burns & Joe Denly negotiated the initial onslaught well enough, to enjoy their meal. However, soon after the avalanche that was the Windies fast bowling started coming down! The first to go was Burns, caught by new man Campbell at slip off the bowling of Holder, and the wickets of England would fall often.

Their batting in this series has been mediocre at the best times and quite pathetic at the worse. The skipper struck again soon after getting Johnny Bairstow bowled. Joseph who was brave to actually come out and play, and was given a rapturous applause by the English supporters when he came out to bat earlier in the day, got in on the act, removing Joe Root and Denly with only three runs added in between.

The Windies bowlers were dealing in pairs as Kemar Roach, who has led this attack superbly this series, bowled out England’s two top class all-rounders Ben Stokes & Ali. It must not ever be lost on us how significant a contribution Holder has made in this series, and he proved so again, by reviewing a call that eventually got England wicket-keeper Ben Foakes out after he had been initially been given not out by the on field umpire.

Sam Curran came in, played a couple of nice shots, but the wickets fell at the other end and the Surrey all-rounder was left stranded on 13, as the Windies wrapped up the tail, fittingly with Holder getting the last scalp. With just 13 needed to claim the win, the openers did it in style, with Campbell hitting a 6 off Jimmy Anderson. The home team clinched the match, the series & with it the Wisden Trophy.

Not for 30 years, which is when I started following sports had my team beaten England by such a wide margin, and I and ALL Windies fans were celebrating in our living rooms, in the bars, in the restaurants etc…as our team has started off the year 2019 in fantastic fashion!

Our captain & leader of men Holder said “We’re hungry for success”, so all I can say to him is, we as fans are hungry too, so let us never be full!

RALLY ROUND THE WEST INDIES!

Now onto the 2nd part of my Saturday cricket joy!

The T&T Red Force cricket team have to put it mildly, been struggling in first class cricket for most of the last decade. Since we won the 4-day regional title back to back in 2006 & 2007, we have hardly made it into the top 3, so yesterday’s win was significant, especially as it was against rivals Guyana.

With a lead of 222 runs already, the hope was to see our team bat on and possibly get close to giving the Jaguars around 350 to chase, however, just like the international team, T&T did not make it to lunch being all out for 317, meaning Guyana had to make 276 to win. Odean Smith did came in and smashed a quickfire 27 with four 4’s & a huge 6 and his score seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of the Guyanese.

Throughout the day, it was uncanny how both the Windies vs England & T&T vs Guyana matches mirrored each other. Both home sides batting finished around the same time & both seemed to take their wickets around the same time, was it faith I wonder???

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The above photo is of T&T spinner Imran Khan bowling against Guyana

Guyana started their run chase well, with a well constructed opening partnership of 44 runs. Smith, still probably had the adrenaline rushing through his veins, picked up the 1st wicket having Hemraj caught behind! It was the turn of veteran Ravi Rampaul who picked the other opener Chanderpaul, no not THAT one, Tangerine LBW.

With the openers now gone, the Red Force ran through the middle order like a Wrestler at last Sunday’s Royal Rumble!

The score was now 89-6, and with my joy of watching in anticipation etched on my face, Romario Shepard came to the crease and took the attack to the home team. He played shots all around the lush Oval ground in the capital and partnered with Man of the Match Kemo Paul, they put on 32 runs in quick time to halt the breaks of the T&T team.

Imran Khan(yes another with a famous name), got the prized wicket of Paul, and despite Shepard eventually completing his half century, which included seven 4’s and one 6, the match ended soon after. The last wicket to fall was indeed Shepard, trapped LBW by Khan on exactly 50, he got out as soon as he had reached the landmark. Similar to how Bravo had done for the Windies earlier, however, unlike the man from Santa Cruz, there would be no joy for Shepard’s team.

The South Americans made 182, T&T had won by 93 runs, and with it claimed their 2nd victory of the tournament, after defeating Jamaica a few weeks ago. Overall, they are still 4th in the 6 team tournament, but a win is a win, and for a Trinbagonian cricket fan as myself, I will take it!

 

So yesterday was one of the best days in my life as a cricket fan, with both my home team’s winning, and even if there is still a long way to go for either to re-capture their past glories, Trinidad & Tobago and the West Indies gave me a glimmer of hope!

Both teams had new coaches for yesterday’s matches, with the West Indies having the mush maligned Richard Pybus and Trinidad & Tobago recently hiring former fast bowler Mervyn Dillon and we must give credit where credit is due, so THANK YOU to both men on their management of both teams!

Serie A’s Performance In Europe Was Shocking, Was This The Worst Week Ever For Calcio?

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It all began so well in September, only for it to come to a crashing halt in December.

Arguably the worst week ever in the long and storied history of Italian football clubs in Europe has just happened, and there many things to ponder and figure out for Calcio…..

I have thought long and hard about how exactly to dissect what we have just seen from Serie A’s representatives on the continent this past week. It’s one thing if one or two or even three of Italy’s teams failed in their missions this past week, but the fact is that ALL six of them dropped off significantly.

The picture above are of Milan’s players after their 3-1 loss to Olympiacos, that meant that the Rossoneri were knocked out of the UEFA Europa League, but truth and in fact, I could have used a picture from just about any of the matches in which Serie A teams were involved in. I really choose this particular photo as it was the last match to be played, and the Milan’s players basically sum up the mood of Serie A fans this week.

Disappointed, angry, sad, *insert negative confutation word here* etc…..

Calcio’s record this week was played six, lost five, drawn one…..Not. A. Single. Win.

Following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League fixtures, where both Inter and Napoli went out of the group stage and subsequently, dropped down to the UEFA Europa League, I wrote an article entitled “Inter And Napoli Fall At The Group Stage In The Champions League, On To The Europa League.” I tried my best to put a positive spin on the Nerazzurri and Partenopei’s failure in Europe’s most prestigious competition.

Below is the link of the article

https://vijayrahamansports.wordpress.com/2018/12/12/inter-and-napoli-fall-at-the-group-stage-in-the-champions-league-on-to-the-europa-league

I tried to see the silver lining, that at least both clubs still had something to play for, a trophy to chase, some much needed prestige and honour to acquire, but following the inability to win of their rivals Roma, Juventus, Lazio and Milan, it’s hard to see many positives right now. Not least of which is that instead of having six teams in Europe in the knock-out stages, Serie A will only have five.

So what happened?

AS Roma headed to the Czech Republic to face Vitoria Plzen, with their passage to the knock-out round secure, however, the same can’t be said of the position of manager Eusebio Di Francesco. The former Giallorossi player has been under pressure all season, and that was compounded by their meltdown away to Cagliari on Saturday. Last season’s Champions League semi-finalist were leading 2-0 and had a two man advantage, but still managed to only draw as the Sardinians scored a last second equaliser.

They needed a performance if only to show to the President James Palotta(who has reportedly wanted to fire EDF sooner rather than later), that they were not just playing for the fans and themselves, but their manager as well. Sadly, that was not the case as they fell to a 2-1 defeat and also had promising youngster Luca Pellegrini sent off meaning he will miss the club’s first match in the second round, however, how much longer the Romans will be in Europe and if Di Francesco will even be there on the bench is left to be seen.

The euphoria and optimism of last season’s stellar European run is well and truly over!

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Juventus are without doubt Serie A’s best chance to win a trophy this season, but even by their high standards, they were not on top of their game this week either. The warning signs were there though, as they lost at home to Manchester United and barely eecked out a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford, despite dominating the match.

They like Roma had already qualified for the knock-out rounds, but first place and the potential of an “easier” match up was still up for grabs. Manager Max Allegri rested several of his key players such as Giorgio Chiellini, Paulo Dybala etc….however, it was the latter who had to come on and give La Vecchia Signora an impetus and goal, after the away side missed several chances through Cristiano Ronaldo, Douglas Costa etc…

They allowed two avoidable goals, including a needless penalty and lost in Switzerland, but thankfully for their sake, Manchester United also lost against Valencia, so the damage was minimal. However, their lack of urgency and clinical nature in this match will be a cause for concern, if they are to end 23 years of European failure.

Lazio, their fans and the Roman police on the other hand had to deal with Eintracht Frankfurt and their Ultras who invaded Rome and caused havoc, both in the city and in the Stadio Olympico. The German fans left rubbish all over Rome, threw flares and other debris at Lazio fans, invaded the pitch after they went behind and fought police!

Never a dull moment in the Eternal city….Below is a photo of part of the trouble they caused.

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Despite all of this the Biancocelesti took the lead, but allowed their visitors to storm back and win. Yes, they played largely a second string side, but there was no excuse for such a damp squid of a performance and them just like their bitter rivals Roma seemed to almost look at this final game as a nuisance on their calendar, instead of using it as a stepping stone to improve certain aspects of their play.

Lazio’s one and only European triumph came 20 seasons ago in the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners Cup, and only major upgrades to this team can stop them from making it 21 seasons.

Lastly I saved the worst for last, Milan…..

The club have had some infamous meltdowns in Europe, the most shocking was off-course Istanbul 2005, when after leading 3-0 in the Champions League final, they somehow contrived to give it away, and last night in Athens, they suffered yet another humiliation!

It is strange how faith and statistics are looked at, and I use it as a reference to Milan whenever they play in the Greek capital. il Diavolo have played three European finals there, the 1973 Cup Winners Cup and the 1994 & 2007 Champions League, and they have won them all! However, when they play non-finals in “The City of the Violet Crown”, they have never come out victorious, and last night they continued that trend suffering a 3-1 defeat.

It was not just that they lost, but the manner in which it happened. They kept the score at 0-0 for the first half, but it was evident that as soon as the second started and the home team put more pressure on them, Milan crumbled like a biscuit in Goliath’s hand. Their lack of concentration on the first goal, their poor finishing especially from the likes of Gonzalo Higuain & Hakan Calhanoglu and their lack of a clear plan of tactics was disappointing to witness.

We could talk about the penalty that gave Olympiacos their all important third goal, which was a farce, we could talk about the Olympiacos ball boys throwing balls onto the field while play was going on etc…but the fact was Milan were simply not good enough and manager Rino Gattuso has failed again in an objective for the club.

 So what does these six teams do going forward for the rest of the season?

Juventus after splashing out a fortune for Ronaldo, must make a deep run, anything other than a final is a failure.

Roma look like a club devoid of any motivation and no matter who they get in Monday’s draw, it would be a minor miracle for them to get to the Quarter-final stage.

In terms of the Europa League contenders, Inter & Napoli have strong enough squads to win the whole thing. However, I sense that neither would take it seriously, despite their words, and maybe one of them may make it to the last eight. Lazio on the other hand should look at this competition as their way into the Champions League, but their squad is limited.

And so lastly again to Milan, Serie A’s biggest club in Europe, with seven European Cups, two each of the Cup Winners Cup & Latin Cup and a whole host of other International trophies in the cabinet. They just have domestic matters to attend too now, and they must, no excuses, ifs, and’s or but’s, make it into the top four and Champions League.

In closing, I will say that despite making strides in recent years, Italian football is still behind La Liga & Premier League. Stadiums are outdated, marketing of the league is being done in a 1980’s way, television money is not up to it’s value and the cowardly & defensive tactics of the like of Gattuso & Spalletti are outdated and not befit of 2018 football.

There is still the possibility of Serie A teams winning in Europe this season, but this week has hit the league’s reputation the hardest I have seen in my 30 years of watching it.

Inter And Napoli Fall At The Group Stage In The Champions League, On To The Europa League!

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It just was not meant to be…..after great starts to their UEFA Champions League campaigns, with several chances to progress, both Inter and Napoli have failed to progress to the knock-out rounds of this season’s competition. They will now play in the UEFA Europa League, and they should not take it lightly or will they?

For purely alphabetical order, I will comment on Inter first.

Inter 1-1 PSV :

Inter started off well enough, pressing their Dutch opponents, passing quickly, and playing between the lines. They created a couple of chances early on, with Ivan Perisic coming the closest when he met a Mauro Icardi cross, however, despite being all alone and only seven yards out, the Croatian could only hit the post.

Right after, there was a loud cheer at the Guiseppe Meazza, as word got through that Barcelona had taken the lead versus Tottenham, meaning that as things stand, the home team would qualify!

To the shock of the Nerazzurri faithful, it was the 1988 European champions from Eindhoven who took the lead. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano was one of the break out stars at the World Cup in Russia, and he continued to show why as he got the go ahead goal. Bergwijn broke free down the right while Inter’s left back Gerard Asamoah was caught up field, he darted into the box, cross the ball, and the Mexican international was there to score.

After dominating the opening exchanges, Inter’s lack of concentration here was poor to say the least.

Inter’s reaction was not of a team that was playing in a calm way, as they were harried, dis-organised and seemingly without a clear plan of attack. They created a couple of half chances, but they failed to capitilise and it was visibly clear that the players were getting frustrated with each other as the half ended.

The three times European champions came out firing in the second, and captain Icardi had a chance early on, but his left footed shot was saved by PSV goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet . Strangely, with nothing other than pride to play for, PSV started wasting time early in the second half, and Zoet was given a yellow card for his part in that tactic.

il Biscione finally got their goal and it was not a surprise who the two players involved…..Politano was afforded some space and crossed into the box for Icardi and the Argentine headed the ball into the net, and the pendulum swung in Inter’s favour. I and many other people have been highly critical of manager Luciano Spalletti’s substitutions and he made another fatal error yet again!

He took off Politano versus Juve in the Derby d’Italia, and that cost them in my opinion the match, and at the 83rd minute, he choose yet again to take off the former Sassuolo player and bring on the more defensive Sime Vrsaljko. This obviously meant he was hoping to hang on for a draw and hoping Barca would hang on for the win at the Camp Nou.

How wrong he would prove to be!

Vrsaljko barely had a touch of the ball and Spurs had tied up the game through Lucas Moura and it was the Londoners who were now in the driver’s seat. Inter were now desperate and threw caution to the wind and put as much pressure on the away side as possible. However, subs Keite Balde and Lautaro Martinez missed point blank chances in stoppage time, when they really should have done better and Inter were out!

What a disappointment………

Was it Spalletti to blame? Was it the players? Was it the management team not complying with Financial Fair Play, limiting Inter’s team, forcing them to leave out in form Roberto Gagliardini and Joao Mario? The inquisition has started and will continue, but what is clear now is that Inter will be playing UEFA Europa League football in 2019.

If a team can’t beat an already eliminated team at home to qualify, maybe they don’t deserve too.

Liverpool 1-0 Napoli :

A poor performance overall from the Partenopei and they, like their Serie A counterparts are confined to Europe’s second tier competition in the new year.

Napoli had several different permutations for qualification, however none of them came through and they also only have themselves to blame. The Reds were the better side and gave the away side a warning of things to come, when they scored a goal that was correctly ruled out for offside in just the 11th minute. Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk was fortunate to not have been sent off for a horrendous tackle on Dries Mertens soon after, he did receive a yellow, although with the use of VAR, that could have changed the entire complexity of the tie.

Things got worse for the Campanians as the five time European champions took the lead and it was main man Mohammed Salah who gave them the advantage. The Egyptian skipped past Mario Rui and Kalidou Koulibaly and beat goalkeeper Davide Ospina at his near post. The Colombian made a quite poor and frankly Sunday pub team error here, as he dived expecting a cross, however Salah put it just where Ospina should have had covered.

Should Napoli’s manager Carlo Ancelotti started the back in form Alex Meret who made his debut in the weekend’s league encounter?

What struck me about Napoli’s performance was how lacking in urgency it was, almost if they did not believe in themselves in overcoming the world renowned Anfield crowd…They could have easily been 3-0 down, as Liverpool missed chances through Salah and Sadio Mane, both around the 80th minute.

Apparently when Napoli got word that PSG were beating Red Star in Belgrade was when they decided to play some football. They created one really guilt edge chance, however just like Inter, they missed it and just like Inter, it was a sub that was the guilty party.

Ardi Milik was all alone with just Alisson to beat from just seven yards out, however the Polish striker hit his shot straight at the Brazilian shot stopper and the chance was gone….

The night’s results means that just two of the four Italian teams have made it out of their groups, Roma and Juventus, who just like last season, will carry the flag for Serie A in Europe’s most prestigious competition.

For Inter’s and Napoli’s part, they now play in the Europa League come 2019 and it would be interesting to see how seriously they will take the competition. Not only that, with players now not being cup tied anymore, I strongly sense that Europe’s big boys will be coming after both teams most prized possessions, so the likes of Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic, Milan Skriniar, Kalidou Koulibaly, Dries Mertens, Allan etc…could all be subject to massive bids in January.

Who knows what team either club will have when European play resumes in February…..

Inter And Napoli Head Towards Europe After Very Different League Results.

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The photos above are of the last time both Inter and Napoli won in Europe, and both will be need special performance like those in Madrid and Stuttgart tomorrow night if they are to progress in Europe.

Inter vs PSV :

Football Club Internazionale have won Europe’s most prestigious trophy three times, in 1964, 1965 and 2010, however, their participation past the group stage of this year’s competition is not entirely in their hands. Simply put, they need to better Tottenham’s result, who play away to Barcelona at the same time.

The Neazzurri however are heading towards Tuesday night having lost to biter rivals Juventus in the Derby D’ Italia by one to nil. Their performance was decent, but not great, as they missed a few guilt edge chances, that could have potentially given them an outside chance of a Scudetto challenge. However, following manager Luciano Spalletti’s fatal error of taking off the in form Matteo Politano and bringing on the out of shape Borja Valero, they fell apart.

Spalletti was rounded and rightly cristicised for his substitution, although he has defended it by saying “He needed Valero’s characteristics at that point in the game.” With the Serie A now out of reach, all attention turns to Europe, and he must find a way to at least make it out of the group stage, otherwise questions will be asked of his position at the club.

Latest reports are that he will re-unite the successful Stefan De Vrij-Milan Skriniar center back pairing, however, there are big questions about his midfield. Valero was a good player, now he is just a liability, but given that both Joao Mario & Roberto Gagliardini are not on the European roaster, the former Roma manager has little choice, but to start the former Fiorentina player.

At least the usually reliable pair of Marcelo Brozovic & Matias Vecino should be there to cover for the Spaniard. That leaves the front three, expected to be captain Mauro Icardi, flanked by Politano and Ivan Perisic, to create and score the goals, although, I have a feeling that Keite Balde will have a roll to play at the Guiseppe Meazza.

The Dutch 1988 European champions for their part are out of Europe all-together, so they will just try to play spoiler and with former Milan man Marc Van Bommel at the helm, he may just see this as a sort of personal Derby della Madoninna.

The real problem for il Biscione, is that should Spurs beat Barca, they will go through, no matter what Inter do, based on a better head to head. Barca manager Ernesto Valverde has stated that Barcelona will play to win at the Camp Nou, but also said that he would rest “some” players. Who exactly those players are, and if in includes a certain Leo Messi is another matter.

Despite Valverde’s words, I personally see a troubled night for Inter, and that lack of being pro-active at the game away to Spurs at Wembley could very well be their undoing.

Liverpool vs Napoli :

Unlike Inter, the Partenopei had a stroll in the park as their comfortably took care of Frosinone by a 4-0 scoreline, and they barely had to get out of second gear to do it. They are eight points off Juve in the league, and while is it extremely difficult to see them overcoming that deficit, it is not entirely impossible.

Their manager Carlo Ancelotti loves European competition, and he takes his team into as he put it “the best stadium in the world for atmosphere” cauldron of Anfield. Napoli are in a slightly, and I stress, slightly better position than Inter. Their destiny is actually in their hands, as they know, a win or even a draw will see them through to the knock-out rounds.

Something that Ancelotti said in his press conference before the game that struck me was about his tactics for the game. He said that he wants to “Repeat the first Liverpool game.” When the teams met the first time around, the Campanians dominated the match, but it was not until a Lorenzo Insigne goal very late on did they get their just rewards. Does he intend to play the same attacking way in Liverpool, his words seems to suggest that, however, I expect him to set his team out slight more conservatively.

There is a reason that the Reds have won the European Cup five times, and it is because of having been involved in numerous nights like the one their fans are going to create. Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp is a manager who knows how to play one main way, attack, press and score goals! There are no secrets to the German’s approach and given that Liverpool need to win, that is just what I am expecting them to do at home.

Carletto has a full squad to choose from except Simone Verdi, and he welcomed back the likes of goalkeeper Alex Meret & left back Faouzi Ghoulam, while being able to rest the likes of Dries Mertens & Jose Callejon, both of whom are likely to start Tuesday night. Liverpool also won on the weekend 4-0 and have pretty much a fully fit squad excepting long term absentee Joe Gomez.

Anfield will be rocking, can Napoli handle the pressure?

We are just under 24 hours from kick-off in this final match-day and Inter & Napoli have it all to do….Will both, one or neither qualify???

Damn I love this drama!