European football round up: The year so far in Serie A Part III
JOE finally gets around to looking at how things are going for the last few teams in our European round up.
Italy has been back in action for a few weeks, and there have been big changes already, including the hiring of the inexperienced (at least in managerial terms) of Clarence Seedorf at Milan, but that seems to have been paying off for the rossoneri so far anyway as he still has a 100% record in the league.
However, there are plenty of other sides in Serie A, so what's going on in the rest of the league? JOE casts our eye over the rest of the league, and there are a few great stories (like that of small-town Sassuolo) and some familiar names from a few years back that you might have lost track of. Don't worry if you've missed the first part of our round up or even the second part, as you can click on those there links to read up on them.
Roberto Donadoni moved early in the window to state that Parma wouldn't be losing any of their big name players, chief among them the brilliant Antonio Cassano. He only joined from Inter in the summer so it was clear to see why they didn't want to let him go, but it is perhaps easy to forget that just a few short years ago Cassano spent several months out of the game with a heart condition, so the fact that he's still playing at all, never mind at a high level and scoring goals is frankly amazing.
Another of the names on that list of possible departures was Marco Parolo, and the midfielder has been in brilliant form this season. With six goals to his name, as well as two assists, he even managed to catch Prandelli's eye and may well be exploring his options at possibly finding a route out (that is a pun, we hope you get it) come the summer. However, while he was linked with clubs like Roma in the window, guaranteed first team football in a World Cup year has a value well beyond what an increase in wages can offer.
Liverpool fans may remember the name of Garbiel Paletta, who moved from Banfield to Anfield under Benitez, and has found his way to Parma after a spell back home in Argentina. He has struggled to get minutes on the pitch, but defending hasn't been the problem for Parma. Consistency in front of goal has been, but if they can perform like they did against Torino on the resumption of the league a few weeks back, they have a chance, as they ran out 3-1 winners, getting their first win in five. Amauri finally got off the mark in that game, however Alessandro Lucarelli grabbed all the headlines with this audacious flick. Not bad...
Since then, Amauri has been in fantastic form, and has gone on to add three more goals in the next two games, including the decisive winner against Udinese last week. If he stays in this type of form, and with only one point separating them and Inter in fifth, they could well be a force to be reckoned with.
The summer was a time of change for Roma, who lost three of their most important players from the previous season, Erik Lamela and Dani Osvaldo as well as Marquinhos at the back. The feeling was that they might have lost a lot of their goal scoring talent, and perhaps they might not have solidity at the back as a platform to build on. Add to that the fact that they got in Rudy Garcia, who was quite obviously not their first choice manager, and fans of the team from the capital weren't feeling so confident in September.
Ten weeks later when they had the only 100% record in Europe and were playing some fantastic football, scoring freely and conceding only one goal, things began to look very, very different. Gervinho, an undoubted flop at Arsenal, was looking a bit more like Ronaldinho, while Kevin Strootman, Adem Ljajić and Miralem Pjanić all looked to be playing very comfortably and were in outstanding form.
At the back, Benatia has replaced Marquinhos and looked very solid, playing no small part in keeping all those clean sheets. While they did finally drop points at Torino in week 11 with a draw (and a mistake from Benatia allowed Cerci to score), they have still only conceded 11 goals in their 21 games so far. The young José Dodô also has a bright future ahead of him too, and although he has only made ten appearances, he's already scored three, which is not bad return from a defender.
It began to look a few weeks ago that their title challenge was fading but with Lazio taking points off Juve last week and Roma keeping the wins coming, there is now only six points between them and the bianconeri at the top of the table. They also have to face Inter this weekend, which will be a difficult fixture even if the side from Milan aren't in the best of form at the moment, that will still be a huge game.
Roma were active in the transfer market over the winter break, bringing in a few decent signings that grabbed plenty of headlines, including highly sought after midfielder Radja Nainggolan, and Michel Bastos whose controversial team scarf was an inspired choice.
Their recruiting policy this window has focused on bringing in some talented young players, signing Lazio's Vlad Nicolae (an 18-year-old left-back) as well as 17-year-old Tomas Vestenicky and Brazil U20 defender Rafael Toloi, not to mention Antonio 'Tonny' Sanabria, a product of La Masia who they have sent on loan to Sassuolo for the rest of the season. It certainly seems that they're building for the future, but while they do that, their current season form sees them still in the race for the scudetto, but only just.
Free kick expert Siniša Mihajlović is the new man in charge at Sampdoria, after he replaced Delio Rossi earlier on in the season, so there should be no excuse for the set piece routines not being up to scratch for the rest of 2014 for the blucerchiati. They find themselves in the middle of the table, and although they are only a few points clear of danger, their results against teams such as Lazio and Inter suggest that they could push on and challenge a little higher up the table.
The problem has been in getting goals, and they were certainly looking for a support for striker Éder (who has had a decent return with nine goals this season) in the window. Catania's Maxi Lopez has joined to link up once again with Mihajlović, and hopefully bring some goals up front, as he was clearly unhappy and out of sorts in Sicily. Manolo Gabbiadini, who they brought in during the summer, is beginning to get to that stage where he needs to turn his youthful potential into some results on the pitch. Under Rossi, creativity was lacking and both Éder and Gabbiadini didn't get many opportunities to get goals. Mihalović has changed that dull set up slightly, and they have both flourished. That said, they're no Barcelona.
Pedro Obiang is a central component of their midfield, and definitely one to watch for the future. He has made appearances for the Spanish youth set up all the way through, from U17 to U21, and during a period of unprecedented success at under-age and senior level, he clearly has a lot to offer any side. Tottenham apparently tried to take him to London during the window, and they won't be the last team who are keen to sign him come the summer.
While they might have hoped at the beginning of the season that this season's main objective would not be merely avoiding relegation, that must be their focus for the rest of the year. Despite a relatively weak squad, they should be safe, and stringing a few wins together can assure that sooner rather than later. The Derby della Lanterna against Genoa awaits them on Monday night, and a win there could be the platform for them to build from.
If you've read the first and second parts of our Serie A roundup, then you might have noticed that we have, perhaps unfairly, been using Sassuolo as a measuring stick of sorts, given that this was the first time they had ever made it to the top flight. While they sit in the bottom three, they are just one point away from getting out of the drop zone, and have surprised a few teams already this term. Not Inter, mind...
There is a great story behind this small-town club, and when we say small we really do mean it. The population of their sleepy ville in the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of the country is just 41,000. The San Siro holds nearly twice that number alone. They play their games in Modena, a little bit outside their home town, and they are close to the home of Ferrari, although given that they run their club well from a financial standpoint, we're not sure how many of their players own any cars from that particular manufacturer. In the mid 2000s, Giorgio Squinzi, CEO of the club's main sponsor MAPEI began to invest, and the board made some great managerial appointments (including hiring Massimiliano Allegri a few years back) that helped them to become one of those very rare success stories. If you're interested in learning a lot more about their rise and rise, then the lads Football365 have a pretty great run down available.
Before the break, all of their three wins came against sides who are close to them in the table in the form of Atalanta, Bologna and Sampdoria, which could be very telling when the end of the season comes around. What has been most impressive have been the shock draws that they've managed to pull off against Roma, Napoli and Lazio, meaning that while Inter did embarrass them, they look like they're not planning on letting that happen again.
Juve did stick four past them a few weeks before the break, but aside from that, they have shorn things up at the back a little bit. Manager Eusebio Di Francesco (some people are simply born to play football, and with a name like that we've always thought he was one of them) has done a good job of trying to stop them conceding at the back, and made a tough decision to change 'keepers and put Gianluca Pegolo in goal, who has rewarded his confidence. Outside of football, Francesco Acerbi has been diagnosed with a recurrence of his testicular cancer, which is clearly terrible news, and a reminder that staying in Serie A isn't the be all and end all.
Goals have come from Domenico Berardi, who is a very promising young talent that is co-owned by Juve, and is currently the second highest scorer in the league. There were rumours that he would return there in the transfer window, but with plenty of striking talent in the form of Llorente and Tevez already in Turin, he is perhaps better served by staying and getting as much game time as possible. He proved that he has a very bright future ahead of him though in an amazing game against Milan, where his side went two goals down after just 12 minutes, before he slotted home four (yes, that's right FOUR) to see Sassuolo emerge victorious. Allegri got the sack as a result, but he confirmed, if anyone was still doubting, that Juve have a star on their hands. Everyone would be rooting for them to survive this season, as they are definite underdogs, and if they do manage it, they will have achieved something truly remarkable.
Torino have one notable Irish celebrity fan in the shape of Mick Wallace TD, and he's not shy about letting people know that he has a soft spot for the Serie A side, even in the Dáil chambers.
This season, Mick and his mates have had a lot to cheer about, as Il Toro are high up the table within touching distance of a Europa League spot sitting just two points behind Hellas in fifth. Their biggest asset has been their goals up front, which have come from Alessio Cerci, and he has been one of the best players in the league in the entire calendar year of 2013. He is scoring freely and Cesare Prandelli called him up earlier this year and it looks almost certain that he will have a role to play in the World Cup for the Azzuri. It's not only his goals that mean he's so important, but his seven assists too mean that he has had a direct hand in just under half of his side's goals.
It would be simplistic to say that he is the only reason for their success of course, as Ciro Immobile has also scored ten so far this season, and has been in particularly great form too, and could even be up front for the national side in Brazil too, which speaks volumes about just how potent their attack has been. The experienced coach at the helm, Giampiero Ventura, deserves his fair share of credit too as he adapted this year and has clearly improved from a side that struggled towards the end of last season and got too close to the drop for his liking.
Matteo Darmian has been an ever-present in the side, and he merits being the first name on the team sheet with his relentless tackling. He is also very versatile, and can be deployed in midfield as well as at the back, making him a huge asset to the team. He might be called on a lot more frequently now as Danilo D’Ambrosio joined Inter in the transfer window just gone, who was without doubt one of finest full backs in the league. How they will cope with his absence remains to be seen, but he could prove a huge loss for the club.
As the second half of the season progresses, they will hope that they don't fold like they did in 2012/13, and the experienced heads in the team such as Giuseppe Vives (who has also been very impressive this year) and Emiliano Moretti to help them stay focused.
One of the teams in the stable of Giampaolo Pozzo, along with Watford and Granada, Udinese find themselves floating around mid-table, six points clear of the drop at the moment. Their run of form in the last few games has been a concern for their fans, and having had such success in recent times, this is one of their poorest seasons for a while.
With that in mind, fans of the Zebrette would have been hopeful that there would be some movement in the transfer window, bringing in some players to shake things up and help them to maybe begin to move back up the table and pull clear of any fear of relegation. However, the transfer window came and went with nothing happening for the side from Udine, bar bringing in Hassan Yebda from Granada, another one of Pozzo's clubs, on loan until the end of the season.
While that is good for consistency, it's not great when your team is struggling and needs some new blood to get them up and running. They continue to lean on their policy of signing players from South America on the cheap in bulk, and hoping that they turn out to be successes, mainly so that they can sell them on for profit. That's evidenced by the presence of 11 players in their squad from South America, not all of whom are performing to their potential.
Roberto Pereyra is a player who could be a big talent, but Nicolás López, the young Uruguayan who they signed from Roma, is the man on whom their hopes will rest. He is quick, has an eye for goal and despite being pretty small, is a definite hand full for defenders. He has already been dubbed 'the next Alexis Sanchez', realistically only because he is at Udinese, but at just 19 he still has a lot to learn. He's scored only once this season in his five appearances, but we expect to see much more from him in this second half.
The focus for the whole team must be on getting to safety, and with a win this weekend, they have stopped a run of four defeats on the trot. That must be continued if they hope to find themselves in the comfort of mid-table closer to the end of the season, which is their realistic goal now. While we might have focused on young talent at the club, the legendary Antonio Di Natale is their star player this season. However, he has announced his retirement come the end of the season in typical Di Natale style, and having been at the club since 2004 despite interest from huge clubs at home and abroad, it will surely be painful for him to leave, as well as for the fans. He announced that it will hurt because "I’ve scored more goals for Udinese than I’ve gone out for dinner with my wife. I care about Udinese, as this club is like my family". If one thing can't be doubted, it's that he does score goals, and pretty decent ones at that
This year's incredible surprise package has been the newly promoted Hellas Verona, and while no one expected to see them sitting in sixth place as the action in Serie A kicked off again a few weeks ago, they were definitely worth their spot high up the table. Another win this weekend has seen them get to the lofty heights of fifth, as they beat fellow promoted side Sassuolo.
Luca Toni, the man whose moustache made him look like Mario and has been at some of the world's biggest clubs in his career, is their man up front and the man who got them the win yesterday, ending a run of three defeats on the trot where it began to look as if the wheels had come off a little. Jorginho, probably their star performer this season, left to go back to Napoli during the transfer window, and since the resumption of action they did seem to lack a bit of creativity that he brought to the side.
The transfer window did threaten to take some of their best players that have been so important this season, but they have held on to some key figures. Rômulo Souza Orestes Caldeira, or simply Romulo if you like, has been a stand out performer and Juve were rumoured to be interested, and while Emil Hallfredsson's contract situation is still an issue, he is still with the club as we move into February.
At just 20-years-old, Juan Iturbe has moved around a bit already (Porto, River Plate and Hellas), but he has had buckets of potential from a very young age, leading to him being dubbed 'the new Messi'. That didn't help him either, but he has been very strong this season so far, and Verona may well depend on him a little bit more in this second half of the season. The sky is the limit for the side from Verona for now, but as the second round of games comes around and teams perhaps taking them as more serious opposition, there are some tough times ahead for them before the season's end.