Italy’s drastic decline confirmed after qualification failure

Italy’s drastic decline confirmed after qualification failure

The floods of tears visibly streaming from Gianluigi Buffon after Italy’s goalless draw with Sweden were not the tears to herald the closing of a momentous career with his national team. They were a demonstration of the sheer desolation and grief that will haunt his nation after a 1-0 aggregate play-off loss to Sweden confirmed Italy’s first World Cup qualification failure since 1958; resulting in the swift, anticipated sacking of manager Gian Piero Ventura.

All that remains for the proud nation, who were crowned the World Champions barely eleven years ago, is to stew over where it all went wrong and to contemplate a fresh era under a new manager.

Many of the issues on the pitch prevalent throughout the qualifying campaign were encapsulated in last Monday’s final encounter against a tough disciplined Sweden at the San Siro.

They had dominated their Scandinavian opponents for the majority of the high-stakes tie, but simply lacked the quality and subtlety in the final third; an outgoing problem for Gian Piero Ventura’s side who had scored just three goals in their last six competitive fixtures.  Endless crosses into a packed penalty area, despite a clear height inferiority to Sweden, was symbolic of the lack of a coherent plan to gain the crucial leveller needed.

Equally concerning scenes were playing out midway through the second half on the bench where the polarisation between coaching staff and players was exposed. Daniele De Rossi was reacting angrily to being asked to warm up by one of Ventura’s coaches, gesticulating towards Lorenzo Insigne in the process, appearing to reply, “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win”. Insigne, who was sitting two places along from De Rossi, looking perplexed at the situation, is currently one of the most sought after wide forwards in Europe, having scored 18 league goals for Napoli last season.

Not only did this incident encapsulate the unhealthy dressing room atmosphere, but it was emblematic of rigid tactics and a lack of flexibility. Italy playing in a 3-5-2 formation, meant there was simply no space for a wide forward.

The 3-5-2 formation was a familiar line-up for the majority of these players, having been used to great effect by Antonio Conte throughout Euro 2016. But this is a side who are bereft of their confidence and identity that they possessed in abundance from two summers ago. They have been drained of the dynamism and shape-shifting synergy they oozed under the now Chelsea manager. Ventura’s Italy lost their fluidity with a desperate disconnect between defence, midfield and attack.

The 69-year old tried to accommodate other formations but all decisions proved poor errors of judgement. 4-2-4 was used away to Spain, but was made to look decidedly naïve by an imperious Spanish side who thrashed Italy 3-0 in Madrid. Even a 3-4-3 line-up could only yield a 1-1 draw in a frustrating encounter with Macedonia in Turin.

What many sectors of Italian media find unforgiveable, is that Ventura had more to work with than Antonio Conte before him.

Despite strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti being in scintillating form for their respective clubs in the Serie A over the last 18 months; the pair have been stale and have appeared lost under Ventura. Jorginho, one of the primary key assets to current Serie A-leading Napoli, was only handed his competitive international debut on Monday night.

Questions will go back to the integrity and sense behind Ventura’s appointment in the first place.

Despite his age, Ventura held a fairly modest CV.  Arguably, the biggest club he has ever coached was Torino, who he took to the last round of 16 in the Europa League in 2016. Appointed on a substantially lower salary than managerial predecessors, this is also a disastrous qualification failure that will be subject to much criticism labelled towards the Italian F.A.

A new manager will be at the helm for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign, and their first major task will be to accommodate a new era for Italian international football; to identify the long-term replacements for the seasoned 2006 World Cup medallists who will no longer be donning the Azzurri shirt. However, this is undoubtedly a national failure of seismic proportions that will painfully linger long in the memory and will not dissipate swiftly with time.

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Home loss to Girona cues the inevitable sacking of Pepe Mel

Home loss to Girona cues the inevitable sacking of Pepe Mel

Pepe Mel’s reign at Deportivo La Coruna ended last week after their 2-1 home loss to Girona proved to be the final straw for the Galician strugglers.

Club president Tino Fernandez reportedly broke the news to Mel via a phone call Tuesday (the morning after the Girona loss), before the club released a statement confirming the news.

Mel becomes the fourth La Liga Coach of the season to lose his job following the dismissals of Luis Zubeldia at Alaves and Fran Escriba at Villarreal, while Manolo Marquez resigned at Las Palmas.

The dismissal is Mel’s third in the space of four seasons (not including the short-term contract that ended by mutual consent at West Brom) and comes as no shock considering his record at Depor- 6 wins in his 24-match spell with only 2 coming in the 10 fixtures in this campaign (a run which included 5 defeats).

The fact that his spell across these last three clubs lasted only 95 matches combined only makes for more telling reading.

Of those 95 matches since the start of 2014, he has guided his teams to only 30 wins and 16 of those were in the 2014/15 season when he earned promotion from the Segunda Division in his second spell with his hometown club, Real Betis.

Mel began his post at Depor on the 28th February and inherited a squad significantly low on confidence and quality- sitting on the brink of the bottom three with only 4 wins from 23 games; having lost the previous 4 consecutive fixtures.

Their lowly position was not entirely unforeseen in Spain as the club had failed to replace attacking talents who had moved on from A Coruna- Lucas Perez  was sold in the summer of 2015 and Ryan Babel’s contract had expired on the 31st December.

The impact felt on the pitch from Mel’s arrival was immediate, rousing Depor to a four-game unbeaten run which included a shock 2-1 home win over title-chasing Barcelona and a crucial win at relegation rivals Sporting Gijon.

Safety was duly secured, but the early “honeymoon period” momentum soon faded as Depor only won twice from their final eleven games in 2016/17.

Mel’s short-term contract was extended in the summer along with a selection of pragmatic signings including the loan signatures of promising young midfielder Fede Valverde from Real Madrid and the return of Lucas Perez from Arsenal to compliment the permanent signings of Costel Pantilimon and Swiss defender Fabian Schar.

However, Depor’s form has continued to worry, earning only 2 wins from the 10 league games this campaign in a run that has included six of these games being played against fellow sides in the lower reaches of La Liga. With a far tougher set of fixtures on the horizon, the Depor hierarchy have decided now is the time to act, confirming that Mel’s position will be taken by B-team boss Cristobal Parallo until the end of the season.

Sampaoli must decide which forward to entrust for vital qualifiers

Sampaoli must decide which forward to entrust for vital qualifiers

The World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign has been a turbulent one for Argentina. A year after losing the Copa America and Lionel Messi briefly announcing his international retirement, the Albiceleste sit outside the automatic qualification spots in 5th place, having made two significant managerial changes that has made for a wholly unstable influence on the team’s performances in the past year.

Edgardo Bauza, the former Sao Paulo and San Lorenzo manager who had been brought into to replace Gerado Martino in August 2016; was sacked after just 8 games into the campaign (3 wins, 2 draws & 3 losses) on the 11th April 2017.

Bauza was swiftly replaced by the much-adorned former Chile and Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli. His first two qualifiers in the recent September international break have produced two frustrating draws; a 0-0 stalemate away in Uruguay and a 1-1 draw with Venezuela at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium. Both encounters illustrated a rather sterile looking Argentine attack (as incredible as that may be in a forward-line that boasts the likes of Lionel Messi, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala), that has resulted in the national media very much debating the centre-forward selection for the upcoming crucial fixtures.

Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan has thus far been Sampaoli’s chosen one since his appointment, but is yet to score in any of his 3 caps.

Many pundits and fans from the capital city are calling for introduction of another forward who has recently been awarded his first international call-up; Dario Benedetto of Boca Juniors. 26 goals in 29 games since his move to Boca Juniors in the summer of 2016, Benedetto was rated as the “MVP” that lead Boca to their 32nd national title last campaign. Furthermore, the fact that Argentina’s next tie is a home game against 4th placed Peru and is to be played at “La Bombonera”, the stadium of Boca Juniors, may well lead to convince Sampaoli that he will be worth the gamble.

The other option that Sampaoli has is to recall Sergio Aguero. An individual who (like Messi) has experienced the more unhappy moments of his career appearing for his country and has yet to score in the five appearances he made this in qualification campaign (3 being from the bench). Notably, he faced some stinging criticism from national media last October following his penalty miss in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay in Cordoba.

However, Aguero is to this day, one of the top Premier League strikers and even by his standards, has enjoyed a wonderfully prolific start to the domestic campaign where he has forged an impressive partnership with the exciting Gabriel Jesus. It was only a saved penalty in Man City’s 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donestsk on Tuesday night that prevented him becoming their all-time top scorer.

His recent tournament performances have been somewhat mixed; having enjoyed a productive 2015 Copa America tournament (beaten in the final by Chile) but a poor 2014 World Cup tournament that ended goalless for him. Nonetheless, his goal record (34) for Argentina certainly cannot be ignored as he is only surpassed by Hernan Crespo, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi.

With the imperative need for three points from the fixture at “La Bombonera” against Peru on Thursday the 5th October, Aguero’s guile, potency and big-match experience may well make him the best candidate for the encounter; although Sampaoli could be risking a fan backlash and his managerial honeymoon period will almost be over if anything but a win transpires.

La Joya reaches first goalscoring milestone for Juventus

La Joya reaches first goalscoring milestone for Juventus

“At times he’s just unplayable. He’s turning into an extraordinary player”. These were the sentiments of Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri on forward Paulo Dybala to the club’s official website after their 3-1 away win at Sassuolo on Sunday.

He had just witnessed his prized asset mark his 100th game for the club with a hat-trick at the Mapei Stadium to ensure “The Old Lady’s” return to the top of Serie A; albeit for a matter of hours until Napoli thrashed Benevento 6-0 in the later Sunday fixture.

This was not even Dybala’s first hat-trick of the campaign; having picked up the match ball in the 4-2 away win at Genoa last month and he is now the first Juventus player to score in each of the first four Serie A games of the season (eight goals in total).

It only took until the 16th minute for the Argentinian to register his account in the game and earn his 50th goal in the Black and White, curling a beautiful first-time shot from 25 yards that gave Sassuolo goalkeeper Andrea Consigli no chance.

La Joya doubled their lead four minutes after the break with a delicate, low, toe-punted effort from the edge of a crowded penalty area before Dybala wrapped up his hat-trick and the three points for Allegri’s side just after the hour mark with an exquisite curling free-kick.

Having witnessed their team been torn apart by such a devastating display of talent for 85 minutes, it was significant that the majority of Sassuolo supporters at the Mapei rose in unison to applaud Dybala when his substitution came with five minutes remaining.

During the summer, many Juventus fans and quarters of the Italian press had anticipated a possible move from Barcelona for Dybala post Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint Germain.

Although a formal bid was never forthcoming, the Juventus hierarchy took the correct steps to show their faith in their Argentine playmaker.  A new deal was presented to make him the highest paid player at the club and he was handed the No.10 shirt; formerly donned by the club and country national treasure, Alessandro Del Piero.

“I hope he goes on to do better,” remarked Del Piero.

Dybala’s own personal priority must be to take this imperious form into the big occasions.

Critics of the 24-year old have been intent to point out that younger stars like Kylian Mbappe (18) and Marco Asensio (21) have shown more composure and courage than Juve’s star man who came in for some notable criticism for a somewhat anonymous second-half display in the Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid in June.

Granted, “La Joya” was also outshone by his Argentine counterpart Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s recent 3-0 thrashing of Juventus in the Champions League at the Camp Nou. But Dybala is the first to admit he is not the next Messi: “Messi has his story; I have mine. We’re two different players.”

But this is a young man still maturing. He may not have been the teenage prodigal footballing genius that Messi was, but he is a supremely talented playmaker that is garnering a clinical scoring record.

It was his decisive penalty miss in the Italian Suppercoppa last year that paved the way for the “mask”- the celebration that we have seen so many times since that is a reference to “Gladiator;” one of his favourite films. “In life you have to get up and fight,” he maintains.

With this resolute attitude, we will no doubt be seeing plenty more of these exuberant celebrations and important goalscoring milestones.

Europa Play-Off Round Preview

Europa Play-Off Round Preview

To some it is the start to a long and arduous journey to the best chance many clubs will have of earning a place in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. To others, it is purely the opportunity to taste a sense of European Cup glory; this is the last round of ties to enter the Europa League.

A total of 29 winners from the third qualifying round and 15 losers from the Champions League third qualifying round will battle it out in a two-legged affair to earn a place in the Europa League Group Stage.

Whilst admittedly it may be a competition to split the neutrals interest, the intriguing nature of this stage of the competition is the matching of some of the continents recently risen minnows with a host of Europe’s so-called “fallen giants”, those clubs who boast a renowned history with an esteemed collection of honours to their clubs’ trophy room (notably AC Milan & Ajax).

The following is a brief preview rundown of each tie; summarising the key facts behind the clashes:

  • FC Utrecht (Netherlands) vs Zenit Saint Petersburg (Russia)- Utrecht are bidding to qualify for the Europa League group stage for the first time since the 2010/11 campaign and will have to be on top form to have any chance of overcoming Roberto Mancini’s Zenit who won the competition in 2008 (known at the time as the “Uefa Cup”) and currently sit at the top of the Russian Premier League.
  • AC Milan (Italy) vs Shkendija (Macedonia) – The only common theme to find between these two clubs is their red and black kit colours. Having completed a host of signings in this summer transfer window, Milan are looking to return to former glories (7 European Cup/Champions League titles). Shkendija, on the other hand have never made it beyond the Europa second qualifying round until this year and are looking to make history by reaching the competition by eliminating one of the giants of the tournament.
  • Ajax (Netherlands) vs Rosenborg (Norway)- Last year’s beaten finalists, Ajax are one of the most successful European clubs having won the European Cup/Champions League 4 times. Rosenborg have never got closer to European glory than when they were knocked out of the Champions League quarter-final in 1996/1997.
  • Altach (Austria) vs Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel)- SC Rheindorf Altach finished 4th in the Austrian league last season and are playing in only their second ever Europa League qualifying campaign, having eliminated Chikura Sachkhere, Dinamo Brest and Gent in the three qualifying rounds in the past month. Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s tournament best was qualifying for the round of 32 in the 2013/14 season.
  • Apollon Limassol (Cyprus) vs Midtylland (Denmark) – The Danish side will go into this tie seeking revenge for their elimination by Limassol in the 2015/16 Champions League third qualifying round.
  • Bate Borisov (Belarus) vs Olexandriya (Ukraine)- The reigning champions of Belarus will be looking to secure qualification to have a chance of beating their current Europa League tournament best which they achieved in 2011 when they were knocked out of the round of 32 by Paris Saint-Germain.  Contrastingly, FC Olexandriya are seeking group stage qualification for the first time in their history.
  • Club Brugge (Belgium) vs AEK Athens (Greece)- The runners-up in the Belgian Pro league last season reached the quarter finals of this tournament in 2015 and were beaten in the final back in 1976 by Liverpool. AEK have enjoyed any of their own success with their best efforts in this competition going back to 1977 when they were eliminated by Juventus.
  • Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) vs Skenderbeu (Albania)- Dinamo have made a record 101 appearances in UEFA qualifying competitions and last played Skenderbeu in their 6-2 aggregate victory over their Albanian counterparts in the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League play-offs.
  • FC Domzale (Slovenia) vs Marseille (France)- Domzale are competing in the Europa qualifying rounds for the fifth consecutive season and are seeking group stage qualification for the first time. A tough tie awaits them against Rudi Garcia’s side whose 2004 UEFA cup final defeat is the closest the French side have been to claiming the trophy.
  • Everton (England) vs Hadjuk Split (Croatia) – After a strong summer of investment, Everton will be confident about qualifying for the tournament for the first time in three years. Despite having competed in the qualifying stages of every season, Hadjuk Split have not reached the group stages since 2010/11.
  • FH Hafnarfjordur (Iceland) vs Braga (Portugal)- FH are looking to become the first Icelandic side to reach a major UEFA group stage and face Braga who have never come closer to winning the tournament than their 1-0 Cup Final defeat to Porto at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.
  • FC Krasnodar (Russia) vs Crvena Zvezda (Serbia) – The Russian side reached the last round of 16 last season (their all-time tournament best), where they were eliminated by Celta Vigo 4-1 on aggregate. Crvena Zvezda who are also known more traditionally as Red Star Belgrade, notably won this tournament in 1991 when they beat Marseille on penalties to lift the trophy.
  • Legia Warsaw (Poland) vs FC Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova) – Legia were the runners-up in the 2016/17 Ekstraklasa campaign and were beaten in the last round of 32 by Ajax last season. Moldovan side Sheriff have never progressed beyond the Europa group stages.
  • Ludogorets (Bulgaria) vs Suduva FC (Lithuania) – The Bulgarian league champions eliminated another Lithuanian side Zalgaris in an earlier Champions League qualifier this summer. Suduva have battled through three qualifying rounds to reach this tie and are as of yet to ever achieve group stage qualification in this tournament.
  • Maritimo (Portugal) vs Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) – Dynamo make the marathon 4,300km journey to Funchal in seek of Europa Group stage football for the first time since 2014. Maritimo are competing in this tournament for the first time since the 2012/13 season after finishing 6th in the Primeria Liga last season and beat Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv in the last qualifying round.
  • NK Osijek (Croatia) vs Austria Wien (Austria) – The Croatian side are bidding to qualify for the group stage debut, competing at the qualifying stage for the first time since 2012. En route to this tie, Osijek have not conceded a goal. Austria Wien are looking to qualify for the group stages for the first time since the 2013/14 campaign.
  • Panathinaikos (Greece) vs Athletic Bilbao (Spain) – Panathinaikos finished 3rd in the Greek Superleague last year and were eliminated from the Group stage of the competition. 2012 Finalists Bilbao reached the last round of 32 last season, only to be knocked out by Apoel Nicosia (4-3 on aggregate).
  • PAOK (Greece) vs Ostersunds FK (Sweden) – PAOK have consecutively featured in the last four Europa League group stages and face the conquerors of Galatasaray from the second qualifying round, Ostersunds FK; who are enjoying their maiden European campaign, having only climbed from the third tier of Swedish football in 2013.
  • FK Partizan (Serbia) vs Videoton FC (Hungary) – Partizan have not reached beyond the last round of 16 in this competition where they were last eliminated in 2004/05 by CSKA Moscow. Videoton last qualified for the group stages in 2012/13 and were beaten in the third qualifying round last season by FC Midtjylland. These two sides last met in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup third round where Partizan lost 5-0 in Hungary.
  • FC Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs AEK Larnaca (Cyprus)- Viktoria Plzen’s best Europa performance came in 2013/14 season when they were knocked out of the last round of 16 by Lyon. They face the Cypriat outfit AEK Larnaca who have only qualified for the group stage once in the 2011/12 campaign.
  • FK Vardar (Macedonia) vs Fenerbahce (Turkey)- This tie is Vardar’s first Europa fixture since their qualifying round 1 exit to Anorthosis Famagusta in 2007/08 and will be playing a Fenerbahce side who are under pressure from their own national press to step up after a poor domestic campaign last year. In the Europa competition, the Istanbul-based side were eliminated by Krasnodar in the last round of 32.
  • FC Viitorul Constanta (Romania) vs Red Bull Salzburg (Austria)- Viitorul were crowned Romanian champions last year and are notably owned by national footballing icon Gheorghe Hagi. They face Salzburg who have had to beat Hibernians and Croatian champions Rijeka to reach this final qualifying play off.

 

Have Barcelona finally solved their right-back crisis?

Have Barcelona finally solved their right-back crisis?

In a summer where many argue that new head coach Ernesto Valverde must spend big to return the Catalonian giants to former glories; some would point out that Barcelona have already ticked off the most essential and pragmatic of signings to repair the most obvious of last season’s squad faculties.

In the same week that PSG unveiled Dani Alves, Barcelona have identified their replacement for Alves, a year on from the Brazilian’s departure from the Camp Nou. Alves is the contemporary yardstick by which all future Barca right-backs are to be judged, such was his legacy in his 8-year period at the club.

The right side of defence was one of the key areas that was repeatedly exposed in an inconsistent season by Barcelona’s standards; with Alex Vidal falling out of favour with Luis Enrique and then being sidelined by a significant ankle injury; forcing Enrique to use Sergi Roberto as a makeshift right-back.

After many reports of a return for former Barcelona youth player Hector Bellerin, 23-year old Nelson Semedo has been acquired for €30m from Benfica.

Semedo fits the mould of a young Dani Alves, being a pacey, strong, attacking full-back with excellent defensive awareness. However, the young Brazilian’s career progression has been gradual and somewhat slow-burning rather than a rapid rise to stardom.

Having begun his career aged 17 at Sport Uniao Sintrense, the third division side based north west of Lisbon; Semedo earned himself a move to Portuguese giants Benfica only a year later in 2012, signing a five-year deal in the process.

After two years (with one season being spent on loan at Fatima), Semedo progressed to the first-team picture at the Estadio Da Luz by the age of 21 after Maxi Pereira’s move to Porto in the summer of 2015.

The young Brazilian has not looked back in the last two years, being an ever-present in the Benfica side of 2015/16 and receiving his first senior call-up to the Portugal team in October 2015 after a string of impressive early-season performances.

Helder Cristovao, who coached Semedo in Benfica’s B team, believes Semedo is the best long-term replacement for Dani Alves; “I think of all the players they were talking about, maybe Semedo is closest to Alves than the others…He is very fast and Barca play with a high structure and a very high defensive line…He’s very strong on the wing and he’s able to get good contributions with the players infield and on the outside”.

It must also be said that Semedo’s eye for goal is another understated quality in his game. His exceptional left-foot strike in Benifca’s away Champions League group-stage fixture at Besiktas last season is a perfect example of this.

Earning a move to the Camp Nou aged 23 years old is no mean feat for Semedo, but he must continue to develop his game at the pinnacle of the global football stage to ensure a problem area of the pitch is now one of stability, consistency and more for Ernesto Valverde and Barcelona.

What next for Leganes in second top-flight season

What next for Leganes in second top-flight season

Leganes are one of La Liga’s more modest sized football clubs, based in the south western suburb of Madrid at the Estadio Municipal Butarque; a compact multi-use stadium that holds just under 11,000 spectators.

Last season was their first ever in Spain’s top division where they secured their top-flight status in the penultimate fixture of 2016/17 after earning a 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao courtesy of a second-half strike from midfielder Alexander Szymanowski. The result exemplified their strong end to the season with Asier Garitano’s side earning seven points from their last four fixtures; the highlight being a 4-0 home thrashing of Real Betis on the 8th May.

Fans of Leganes will no doubt have to pinch themselves. Their recent rise has been nothing short of meteoric. Only three years ago, the club were playing in Spain’s third tier (Segunda Division B) and even in their 2015/16 promotion campaign from the Segunda Division, the club had one of the most modest budgets in the second tier.

Consolidation and stability are the priorities now for Garitano’s side as they look to invest in their squad whilst dealing with identity barriers associated to a football club lacking a certain allure for potential transfer targets moving to the Municipal Butarque.

One such attempt from the club’s hierarchy to enhance the club’s marketability was to incorporate “Madrid” into the official club name and was swiftly scraped following an internal consultation with fans. The idea was put forward by club sponsors that the name change would help raise the profile of the club onto a global scale. However, representatives of the Leganes fan base successfully negotiated their case to maintain the traditional club name as “Club Deportivo Leganes”.

The club must now work to secure their transfer targets as they strive for another season of survival. They have expressed a firm interest in Sporting Gijon goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar (33) and Watford’s Venezuelan Under-20 star Adalberto Penaranda (who has had loan spells at Granada and Malaga) whilst they have secured a further season-loan for defensive midfielder Ruben Perez who had made over 30 appearances for the club last season.