Milan & Gattuso Face A Season Defining Week!

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Few people knows what it means to be a Milan person more than Gennaro “Rino” Gattuso…He lives and breeds the Red & Black colours of il Diavolo, he was a Milan fan growing up, he played for and won many honours with the club, became the Premavera manager and is now the first team boss, however, recent times have not been kind to him or the club.

One win in their last six games since a narrow victory over Chievo in early March, which included losses to arch-rivals Inter and Juventus, barely hanging on to the fourth and final UEFA Champions League spot, fined by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), for their players making a seemingly harmless joke, UEFA wanting to open yet another investigation into the club’s finances etc…

The atmosphere at the seven times European champions is not a happy one right now, and they now enter a week that can make or break their season, as they face Lazio in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-finals and a daunting away trip to Torino in the dogfight for the last UEFA Champions League place.

NOW its the time for the manager and the players to stand up!

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The game against the Biancocelesti is tantalizingly poised at 0-0 after the first leg in Rome, with the second leg taking place at the San Siro on Wednesday. They then travel to Turin to face the Granata holding onto the last Champions League spot by just one point and having just a three point cushion over their hosts.

Following the team’s 1-1 away draw against Parma in the league, Gattuso said “Maybe I am not good enough a coach yet to let the players realise the importance of these small details.” This was in reference to the inexcusable free-kick given away by Fabio Borini, that led to the Crociati’s equalizer, a quite brilliant free-kick by Bruno Alves.

My problem with those words are two fold, one, Gattuso saying he is not good enough, if HE himself has doubts about himself, how are the players, directors like Leonardo & Paolo Maldini, fans etc…supposed to take him seriously now? Secondly, how could the players not have known the importance of the minor details can affect a match? Surely, this is something that Rino has been or at least one would think, been, for the lack of a better term “pounding into the players head” ever since he took over as the manager 16 months ago?

Gattuso’s brute honestly is commendable, but it does raise serious doubts about his position at the club, and with Milan entering such a crucial point of the campaign, the last thing that is needed is any form of doubt. Rino’s status at the club has been the subject of many rumors, with reports that even with Champions League football, he may not be there next season.

It has been widely reported that the club are exploring several different options for the bench next year, with the likes of Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pocchetino and Maurizio Sarri all being muted as possible candidates for the hot seat at the San Siro. I have been personally critical of Gattuso and certain aspects of his managerial style, in particular, his in game management, use of substitutes and just the dour football that the team produces week in, week out.

He must and I believe can do better, and this week is just the tonic, him and the club can use to catapult the club back among Italy’s elite and with the vision of competing with Europe’s big boys again. I have tweeted this out a couple times, that this season felt somewhat similar to the 2001-2002 season when Milan finished in the top four, got to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and that led to the last great period of success for the legendary club.

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Above is a photo of Milan celebrating after winning their seventh European Cup in 2007. Can Gattuso lead the club back to the top of European football?

Heading towards the Coppa Italia semis, there has and will be lots of talk about the last time the clubs meet. In a controversial, contentious and at times quite farcical series of events, the Rossoneri won 1-0 on a Franck Kessie penalty. Following the match the Ivorian and Bakayoko held up Lazio defender Francesco Acerbi’s shirt as a joke, but it was blown out of proportion but all and sundry.

Back and forth on social media, phrases like “formatting hatred” and “small men”, FIGC investigation and subsequently fining Milan of $86000 Euros for the “incident”, Lazio Ultras making racist remarks at Bakayoko in their last two home games etc…It all leads up to what should be a highly intense, no holds barred & extremely competitive encounter on Wednesday night.

The tactics and team selection by Gattsuo for this match will be interesting…

Does he play his full team in what could be a bruising clash, that could go all the way to penalties and risk player burnout with the Torino match just four days later or does he try to be clever, and make a few changes and keep a few players fresh for the trip to the Stadio Olympico Grande Torino?

What may also play a part in Gattuso’s thinking is that with this being a knock-out tie, any goal the away side score will count double. He may therefore decide to play a cautious and counter-attacking game, hoping to hit Lazio on the break and exploit any deficiencies in their defense, which can be breached as evidenced in their last match, as they lost to already relegated Chievo at the Stadio Olympico.

I suspect that according to how the Coppa Italia tie goes, will influence his thinking for the Torino game, not just in terms of tactics, but in terms of team selection. This is at the end of a long season for these players, some of whom would have played in last year’s World Cup and quite frankly, a number of Milan’s players have looked tired in recent games. Whether that is simply physical or mental is the question.

Personally, I would like to see Gattuso go for it and just play his very best team, whatever he may deem that to be, in all the remaining matches for the rest of the season. There are potentially seven more games for the club, with the five remaining in the league and a final in the Coppa Italia, should they progress, there is ZERO point in him and the players holding anything back at this point of the campaign.

This is the time of the season when ambitions are either reached or not and the status of Milan is at stake, both in the short and long term.

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Serie A Relegation Battle Is As Intense As Ever!

Everyone from last placed Chievo to Spal in 15th place all carry hopes of Serie A safety, and with just eight games to go, the battle is expected to go down to the last day.

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For simplicity, I will go through each team who are involved, their remaining matches, the key players and throw in some tactics as well.

Chievo :

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The Flying Donkeys are seemingly just playing out the season until their inevitable relegation down to Serie B. The Veronese have been in the top flight of Italian football for the last 11 years, after previously first making their debut in Serie A in 2001, even managing to qualify for Europe. Despite being mathematically still in with a chance, having to face the likes of fellow struggles Bologna next, as well as UEFA Champions League chasing Lazio & Inter, means they need more than just a miracle to avoid the drop. Manager Dominico Di Carlo has brought a better team chemistry and some improved results, but his task to salvage Chievo’s Serie A status was doomed from the start.

Upcoming matches : Bologna (A), Napoli (H), Lazio (A), Parma (H), Spal (H), Inter (A), Sampdoria (H), Frosinone (A).

Frosinone :

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I Canarini’s promotion to the top flight was rife with controversy, as their play-off last season in Serie B had a few unsavory incidents. Their recent wins over Sampdoria, and Parma this past mid-week suggest that there is still some fight in the Lazio based team and manager Marco Baroni has the club playing an entertaining brand of football, employing a 3-4-1-2 formation. Inter loanee Andrea Pinamonti has scored a respectable five goals, while Camillo Ciano has provided creativity and Ghanaian Raman Chibsah has given the team the steel and work rate. Unfortunately for them, they are eight points off safety and just like with Chievo, I expect them to go down as well.

Upcoming matches : Fiorentina (A), Inter (H), Cagliari (A), Napoli (H), Sassuolo (A). Udinese (H), Milan (A), Chievo (H).

Bologna :

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The Rossoblu currently occupy the last relegation place of 18th and have made a marked improvement since firing Fillipo “Pippo” Inzaghi in late January, and bringing in Sinisa Mihajlovic. It was a return for the former free-kick specialist, as he had been in charge of the Emilia-Romagna side 10 years ago. They have arguably the hardest run-in with virtually every game, their opposition having something to play for, excepting maybe Napoli on the last day. Last game, they were blown away by UEFA Champions League chasing Atalanta, allowing four goals in just 15 minutes, so they will need to tighten up their defense. Having said that, the Serb has employed an attacking approach to the club, not just in terms of the formation, but the playing personnel. In addition to January signing, Nicola Sansone, he has fully utilised the talents of Italy Under-21 attacking midfielder Riccardo Orsolini, who was under-used by the previous manager.

Upcoming matches : Chievo (H), Fiorentina (A), Sampdoria (H), Empoli (H), Milan (A), Parma (H), Lazio (A), Napoli (H).

Empoli :

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The Tuscans did themselves a massive favour by beating Napoli on Wednesday, in a quite impressive display. They took the lead twice, and held on the second time out. Empoli off-course were Serie B champions last year, confirming their promotion with four games remaining. Like Bologna, they have arguably the hardest fixture list, including all their rivals for safety and European chasing clubs.

It gets going right from this weekend, as they meet Udinese away from home. In what seems like a theme in Calcio circles, they fired their manager that they started with, Andrea Andreazzoli, only to re-hire him after the man replacing him did not get the job done. The club cited that while Empoli were pleasing on the eye, the results were not there, so ironically they brought back the man they let go, Italian football eh?! Empoli have scored 38 goals, which is the best in the lower half of the table except for Sassuolo. Andreazzoli employs a 5-3-2, that provides width with the full-backs, while Rade Krunic, Francesco Caputo and January signing Diego Farias provide the fire power up front. If they can tighten up at the back, I can see them avoid going right back down.

Upcoming matches : Udinese (A), Atalanta (A), Spal (H), Bologna (A), Fiorentina (H), Sampdoria (A), Torino (H), Inter(A).

Udinese :

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Udinese re-hired their interim manager from last season Igor Tudor to salvage their season, after parting ways, with not one, but two managers in a bid to keep their Serie A status. Since his reign began again, he has gathered four points, including a well earned draw against Milan at the San Siro. The former Croatian international has used a 3-5-2 formation, that has given the team a width, but also, given the playing personnel, a speedy team, as evidenced by their equaliser versus the Rossoneri on Tuesday. Interestingly, the man in the photo above, Rodrigo De Paul has been used in the midfield five, instead as a Trequartista/Attacking Midfielder, as used by previous managers. This has allowed the 1980 Mitropa Cup winners, to have at least three players in the attacking third in both of their games so far.

In midfield, Seko Fofano has been a revelation in recent times, being that box to box player, that managers just love. The Ivorian can do just about everything on the pitch and his work rate is second to none in the league. Goalkeeper Juan Musso has been a solid acquisition and has impressed so much so, that he made his Argentina debut last month. In the Frulians favour, are their games versus Empoli & Spal are both at home, so the direct clashes could work in their favour.

Upcoming matches : Empoli (H), Roma (A), Lazio (A), Sassuolo (H), Atalanta (A), Inter (H), Frosinone (A), Spal (H).

Spal :

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Gli Estensi had avoided the drop on the final day last campaign, and they may need to do so again for a second season in succession. Unlike so many of their direct rivals, they had the same manager for a significant period of time, as Leonardo Simplici has been in charge of the Ferrara side for four years now, guiding them up the ranks, and to their first Serie A season in 49 years. Like Udinese recently, they also employ a 3-5-2 formation, also using two out and out strikers, in an almost yesteryear formation. However, the strength in my opinion lies in the middle of the park.

Jasmin Kurtic, Mohamed Fares and Manuel Lazzari have been involved in everything that is good about the club, while at the back Thiago Cionek, has been a rock at the back. Besides their identity of play, one of the best aspects that Spal has brought to Calcio is their fantastic choreography at their homes games. It is usually entertaining, well put together and at times even funny. They will be hoping their four remaining home games, their fans can will them on to safety once again. What may not work for them though, is that their three games versus their direct rivals are all away from home, and that is where their stay for another season could lie.

Upcoming matches : Cagliari (A), Spal (H), Empoli (A), Genoa (H), Chievo (A), Napoli (H), Udinese (A), Milan(H).

Besides the above teams listed, there are also Parma, Cagliari and Genoa who are all tied in 14th place on 33 points, who’s safety may not be a foregone conclusion either. Even if, it’s unlikely for either of those three to go down to Serie B, that they are only just five points above the drop zone, it is worth keeping an eye on those teams as well.

Serie A is heading to the finish line, with the Scudetto sealed, second place Napoli comfortable and focusing on the Europa League and while the race for European places is heating up as well, the fight just to stay in the top flight maybe the most intriguing.

Mancini Making Moves As Italy Revolution Continues.

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Following Italy’s 6-0 win over Liechtenstein, manager Roberto Mancini said “We had the right approach from the start, the win was probably assumed, but it was important to keep the right concentration levels and score a lot of goals.”

Just by these words alone, there is a different feel to the Azzurri than previous generations…

The old way, of “doing just enough”, seems to have been thrown out the window by the former striker, who in his playing days was known for his invention, creativity and as a scorer of spectacular goals. The Lesi native has constantly used phrases like “make the fans enthusiastic about us again”, “we must have our own identity”, We have to be aggressive” etc…

The words and more importantly the implementation from his players in their opening couple of games in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, have at the very least, gotten back some tifosi interested in the national team again and at best, have some dreaming of ending their 50 year wait for a European cup.

Yes, it was “just” Finland and Liechtenstein and both games were at home, but after the four time world champions missed the FIFA World Cup last year, nothing should be taken for granted. Mancio eluded to this himself, referencing Brazil’s shock draw versus Panama. He said “The game isn’t a foregone conclusion. We saw it during Brazil-Panama.”

I can’t stress enough just how significant the former Fiorentina, Lazio & Inter manager’s words are to today’s current climate in international football. Mancini’s Azzurri has and should continue to play each game on it’s merit and after being knocked down to earth following the debacle that was the play-off versus Sweden, the players are wary of making the same mistake twice.

One key element that Mancini has employed so far in his 10 months in charge, is of maximizing the talent at his disposal, something that previous managers Gianpiero Ventura and Antonio Conte were guilty of not doing. Too often, they tried to “only” pick certain players to fit a system, while ignoring so many talented, raw and exciting players.

Mancini is not making that mistake!

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One classic example is the player in the photo above, Moise Kean. There is no way he would have been picked by previous managers, and the reason would have been purely because “he was too young”, which is quite frankly utter rubbish! Mancini knows his value, threw the Juventus sensation right into the starting line-up, and the 19-year repayed his manager’s faith in him, by scoring two goals in the qualifiers.

Off-course, he is the not the only one…

Leonardo Spinnazola, so brilliant in the Bianconeri’s comeback win versus Atletico in the UEFA Champions League, started the second game, put in a solid performance and he can make the left back position his own. In midfield, Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi scored their first goals for their country, and complimented Jorginho and midfield conductor Marco Verratti very well. There was also time for Roma starlet Nicolo Zaniolo as well to make his national debut.

A midfield conundrum for Mancini going forward, but a good “problem” to have.

At the back, Gigio Donnarumma seemed, at least for the moment, made the number one starting position in goal his own. However, with the likes of Mattia Perin, Alessio Cragno and current under-21 starter Alex Meret, the Milan man knows he will have to continue to keep his performances high to maintain that status.

In front of him, I have personally been critical of the center back pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, and I still maintain, until they win a trophy in Europe with Juve or something with Italy, they would not have fulfilled their potential. However, their experience is nonetheless, invaluable, with Alessio Romagnoli, Gianluca Mancini and Daniele Rugani looking to replace them sooner rather than later.

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Up front, there are a plethora of options, as besides the aforementioned Kean, there is the returning Fabio Quagliarella. The Sampdoria striker had not made an appearance for his country since 2010, and not only did he return, he scored a brace. Who cares if there were penalties, someone has to score them, and the 36-year old has proven to be a very effective exponent of the spot kick in recent times.

What I love about “Quags” being picked is that Mancini has shown a willingness to pick players based solely on form, as it should be. Forget about age, tactics, formations, once you can bring something of substance to the national team, you have a chance with Mancini. This again, is something that previous managers were stubbornly and frustratingly not doing.

I have said of Qualiarella getting picked “If you are good enough, you are young enough.” Feel free to use that in your own conversation when discussing similar situations.

Unfortunately, the two usual starters up front Mancini has used since taking over, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa got injured before the qualifiers, but them, along with the likes of Federico Bernadeschi and Matteo Politano will have important roles to play moving forward.

I do wonder what Ciro Immobile must have been thinking as Italy were going about their business of dismantling Liechtenstein? He started the Finland game, struggled throughout, was benched or officially “rested” in the second game and had to look on as Italy were awarded two penalties and created tons of chances, of which he must have know one or two would have fallen his way.

Mancini for his part defended the Lazio forward, saying “He did well and played in a difficult situation.” It was commendable and honorable for his manager to stick up for him, but after no goals in 10 games now and others around him scoring seemingly at will now, he must be feeling the pressure.

So Italy’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign if off to a successful start and while nobody should go over the top about these two wins, there was much evidence to suggest that Roberto Mancini’s moves and his revolution can take Gli Azzurri back to the top.

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.

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!