AS Roma: A Strong start to the Season, but a Stuttering finish

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October 5 2014, Juventus beat Roma 3-2. This is what Roma manager Rudi Garcia said after the match;

“This game made me realise who will win the Scudetto. We are stronger than Juventus, Because we are stronger, we have to win tomorrow (versus Chievo), because we have to talk about results.”

That was a huge statement to make after just seven matches played, but you could appreciate Rudi Garcia’s confidence, his team won all their matches in Italy prior to that loss to Juve, conceding just the once.  Let’s not forget that they also held the reigning Premier League champions Manchester City to a draw in the Champions League before they travelled up to Turin. Roma were playing some exhilarating football at the time.

Over 5 months on, the gap between Juventus and Roma is an enormous 14 points, meaning that Juventus are strolling towards a fourth consecutive Scudetto.  So, what went wrong?

Before the Christmas break, Roma were just 3 points behind Juventus, so since the turn of the year, Roma have declined significantly. The side have won just three times in the league since January, as well as being eliminated in the Europa League to rivals Fiorentina.  That form meant that Roma have to look behind them with Lazio, Sampdoria, Napoli and Fiorentina all looking to clinch second place. Lazio have won four of their last five games, which puts them just a point behind Roma.

Rudi Garcia’s men have drawn an awful lot this year, 10 draws since the turn of the year. With that many stalemates, you simply can’t brush it off as a one off, there are deeper problem which need rectifying.

There is no balance in the team, the passing has been poor, as well as the finishing. Many of their ‘top’ players who were crucial last year often failed to turn up, which include the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Maicon and Iturbe.

I think there needs to be a sense of realism, Rudi Garcia’s statement about winning the Scudetto may have conveyed false hopes to the fans.  Some could argue that the Roma team is weaker than last season.

The side sold one of the best defenders in the league, Medhi Benatia to Bayern Munich last summer. Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman played a vital role, he made 25 appearances and was a fundamental player last season. Unfortunately, he’s been injured for the majority of this season.

Mattia Destro was their top goal scorer last season with 13 goals to his name. Although not suited to Rudi Garcia’s style of play, he often came up with the goods when the side weren’t playing well. Consequently, the young Italian was sold to Milan in January.

Last year Roma finished second, 17 points behind Juventus. So arguably, the side are weaker – which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a large gap is still evident.


Written by Serie A Writer

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Franco Vazquez: This season’s Serie A revelation

Franco Vazquez has been something of a revelation in Serie A this season. The 26-year old Argentine attacking midfielder is contributing to a fine season for his club Palermo, the Sicilian outfit sit tenth in the table – after achieving promotion from Serie B just last season.

He was bought to Sicily in 2011 to replace Javier Pastore, who was sold to PSG for approximately €23m that summer. While succeeding his fellow countryman was not an easy task, Vazquez is finally proving that he has the abilities and talent to take over the reigns.

Vasquez and attacking team mate Paulo Dybala have formed an outstanding partnership up front. To put it into perspective, Palermo have scored 38 league goals so far this season — these two players have been responsible for 35 of them.

Dybala has received most of the praise for Palermo’s terrific season thus far, but for me, Vasquez is equally as important to Giuseppe Iachini’s side.

Franco has notched up 7 goals and 9 assists so far this season.  When you compare those statistics to other top performers (in his position) in the league, it’s rather impressive. See the graphic below:

A wonderful performance against Napoli demonstrated what a talented young man Vasquez really is. He was unstoppable in that league game last month - he struck a superb goal and created another in their 3-1 victory over the Champions League chasing Napoli. Below are the highlights from that performance, in which Vazquez labelled himself as ‘the perfect performance’.

Still yet to represent Argentina, there is talk that Italy head coach Antonio Conte may call him up. Vasquez qualifies to represent Italy because his mother is from Padua (North East of Italy).  Franco is more than open to the idea;

“My mum would be delighted. But she always told me to do what I felt was best for me. She didn’t have to do any convincing. I’ve always said that I feel half Italian. My mum is from Padua and I’ve got lots of relatives there. It would be an honour.”

He then added,

“For me, he’s (Conte) one of the best coaches in the world. You don’t win three scudettos in a row by fluke. He emits such a motivational air, just like our club coach [Giuseppe Iachini]. If Conte asked, I would even play in midfield — I’ve done it at Palermo so of course I’d do it for the national team.”

Vazquez may get to do it in March when Italy face Bulgaria in a Euro 2016 qualifier. If his performances continue, Franco could find himself at a big club come next season.


Written by Serie A Writer

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Lazio: The Biancocelesti could be on their way back to the glory days under Stefano Pioli

Stefano Pioli spoke excitedly after witnessing his team negotiate a difficult trip to Torino and come away with a 0-2 win. “I think we’ve gained a winning mentality, built thanks to positive results which gave us confidence” said Lazio’s coach and if winning mentality is a phrase a little overused among the buzzwords of modern football, it is definitely true in the case of the Biancocelesti. Torino had lost just once at home since September but Pioli’s Lazio would record their fifth win in a row to move 3 points clear of Napoli in the race for the third Champions League qualifying spot.

Lazio would be without the suspended Antonio Candreva who with 37 chances produced and 7 assists is their most creative outlet, but attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson would step into the void with 2 goals.

The Brazilian now has 8 goals, making him the club’s joint top-scorer with Stefano Mauri and Miroslav Klose, and 6 assists, leaving him one short of Candreva. After struggling in his first year in Italy following an €8 million move from Santos in June 2013, few have been left with doubts over the ability of the 21 year old who continues to enjoy a remarkable second season.Felipe Anderson has enormous potential,” Pioli said, “He can become a player who will be unstoppable for his opponents.”

Shorn also of long-term injury absentee Filip Djordjevic, the main centre-forward who had scored 7 goals before fracturing his ankle against AC Milan in January, Pioli has relied on experience to take-over the goal-scoring mantle left behind by the Serbian and hasn’t been let down, with 35 year old Mauri and 36 year old Klose still producing the goods at a ripe old age.

The versatile Candreva meanwhile, nicknamed “The Moped” for his reliability and work-rate, has continued his excellent form on the right side of the front 3, making a mockery of the £4.5 million it took for the Rome club to sign the 28 year old from Udinese in 2012.

Recent performances have included that thrashing of Milan as well as handsome victories over Sassuolo and far more impressively Fiorentina, fellow challengers to the Serie A’s top 3 places and Champions League qualification. Pioli has also guided them into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, where they are poised 1-1 with Napoli ahead of the second leg in Naples.

The season has marked a breakthrough for Pioli who has previously failed to make his mark in Serie A despite some relative successes down the Italian football pyramid. A 3 year spell at Bologna was undermined by budget restrictions and poor form which culminated in the relegation campaign of last season and he was set free to replace Edoardo Reja at the Stadio Olimpico last June.

Though met with initial disillusionment by Lazio supporters he was cited as the antidote to Reja’s inflexibility and overriding caution, a low-cost manager with a reputation for entertaining football and developing young talent.

The football has undoubtedly been entertaining, only league leaders Juventus have scored more than Lazio’s 49 goals and nobody has netted more times on the road than the Biancocelesti. “Lazio are playing with pace, intensity and an overwhelming dominance which make it very enjoyable to watch. I have not seen such exciting matches in Serie A for some time” is the verdict of former coach Dino Zoff, who says this current Lazio team is the best since the Sergio Cragnotti-funded Scudetto winning side of 1999-2000 under Sven Goran Eriksson.

Pioli has stuck invariably to a 4-3-3 which operates with a high defensive line designed to force opposing teams back and to put pressure and establish possession in the opponent’s half. A driving force behind that is Marco Parolo who has made his £4.8 million summer move from Parma look a bargain with his energetic displays and attacking runs which have got him 6 goals. The midfielder has featured the most under Pioli, missing just 2 of Lazio’s 27 league games so far.

Alongside him Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia has missed only 6 games and provides his competitive edge and experience in the engine room while fellow 29 year old Senad Lulic provides an option on the left of a midfield three, another who possesses stamina, energy and dynamism, traits that are so appealing to Pioli’s philosophy. Meanwhile veterans Lorik Cana and Christian Ledesma remain indispensable squad options on hand to provide their wealth of know-how should it be required.

Pioli’s style also preaches adventurous full-backs so it is perhaps no surprise that first choice pairing Dusan Basta and Stefan Radu have combined to create a total of 26 chances while cover options Luis Pedro Cavanda and Edson Braafhied have got forward to make 7 and 12 chances respectively. That can leave them vulnerable on the counter attack but when they have time to get in shape Pioli’s men stay extremely well organised and resilient, their rate of 20.7 tackles and 19 interceptions per game are league highs in the respective columns.

Only the top 2 of Juventus and Roma have conceded less than Lazio’s 27 and this recent 5 game winning run has been geared by a stingy defence that has shipped just 1 goal in that period. Pioli’s most expensive signing last summer, the £5 million Dutch centre-half Stefan De Vrij, has been a huge success in his first year in Italy and the 23 year old has plenty of time to improve even further while Mauricio, loaned in from Sporting Lisbon in January with the option to make it permanent in the summer, has settled in well alongside him.

It has all made for a successful mix that has given Pioli cause to set his sights not only a return to the Champions League for the first time in 8 seasons but on overcoming city rivals Roma and finishing in the top 2. “What exactly is our target? To win every game and get back into Europe. Is second place a taboo?” asked Pioli. “No, it’s not. If we win all our games, then we’ll finish high up the standings.”

With the dazzling youthful qualities of De Vrij, Felipe Anderson and the highly-rated 20 year old Keita Badle Diao mixing with the imperious experience of Klose, Mauri, Cana and Ledesma, then glossed with the skills of Parolo and Candreva, there should be no limit to the ambitions Lazio harbour under Pioli.

In the white and blue half of Rome, the glory days may be coming back again.


Written by Adam Gray

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Di Natale and Quagliarella show ageless class as they remain as dangerous as ever in Serie A

There was a certain inevitably as to the identity of the opening two goal-scorers in Sunday’s meeting between Udinese and Torino. With Udinese’s lethal strike-force of 2007-2009 reunited at the Stadio Fruili, albeit on opposing teams, it was no surprise to see Fabio Quagliarella’s 15th minute opener cancelled out almost immediately by Antonio Di Natale. It would take the pair of evergreen strikers, at a combined age of 69, up to 10 goals each, just five goals behind Serie A’s leading scorer Carlos Tevez.

Such was the brilliance of Di Natale’s performance, named man of the match as he also assisted Molla Wague’s winner, his coach Andrea Stramaccioni issued a plea to his 37 year old frontman to reconsider his end of season retirement plans. “It makes no sense to retire now and I will try to convince him with these remaining games” he said, “He can’t be a player for 38 matches per season, but in 20 he still makes the difference.”

That Di Natale remains so integral to Udinese after 409 games for the club over a spell that is now into its eleventh season is both suggestive of the Zebrette’s failure to find a replacement and the brilliance of the striker who is seventh on the Serie A all-time top scorers list with 203 goals from 411 league appearances. The erstwhile striker is current top-scorer for Stramaccioni’s side with 10 and is also the leading assist-maker with 5, having failed to start just 5 of Udinese’s 25 league games so far.

Di Natale is a relative late-comer to prolific goal-scoring, previously tallying as much as 17 before the 29 he registered in 2009-10 began four straight seasons where he would manage in excess of 20 league goals as Udinese would break into the Serie A top 4 under Francesco Guidolin.

As he entered into his 30s, the age when many strikers see their goal-scoring powers begin to wane, Di Natale would thrive, hitting 67 league goals in 85 matches between August 2009 and December 2011. That was as many goals as he had managed in his previous six seasons.

Many would put his sudden conversion into such a potent striker to Guidolin’s introduction of the 3-4-3 and the ruthlessly efficient counter-attacking system that he preached. Though more of a cause was his conversion from a winger, he was often perceived as being too small to play the role as a centre-forward, after the departure of Quagliarella to Napoli in 2009.

“Playing in a more central role, he didn’t have to do the work that wide men are required to do, so he is sharper in front of goal” said the then-Udinese coach Pasquale Marino. What followed was successive capocannonieri (Serie A top-scorer) awards for 2010 and 2011 and the Italian Player of the Year award for 2010.

Quagliarella, who hasn’t quite managed to replicate the same kind of form that saw him plunder 21 goals for Udinese in 2008-09, has seen his career path take a slightly different path to his former team-mate’s but he remains as equally important to his club as he enters the autumn of his nomadic career.

Now in his third spell with Torino, the club he started out with in 1999, the 32 year old is also top-scorer with 10 and a regular face in Giampiero Ventura’s side that sits 7th in Serie A after going 12 games unbeaten, a sequence broken at the weekend by Di Natale and Udinese.

Four more goals have come in the Europa League where Torino are preparing to face Zenit St Petersburg in the quarter-finals and his total of 36 appearances so far (he has failed to start just 1 of Torino’s 26 league matches) marks his highest amount of appearances since managing the same number for Napoli in 2009-10.

Despite a trio of Serie A titles, the striker would experience 4 underwhelming years at Juventus on a personal level, only managing as much as 23 league goals from a total of 83 games and would find himself overshadowed by the likes of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Mirko Vucinic; his resurgence at Torino resembles a Quagliarella reborn. He would also make a return to the Italy squad last September after an absence of four years, earning a call from his former Juventus boss Antonio Conte.

The race will be on now to see who finishes on top of the scoring battle between the former Udinese teammates and they are both one goal behind another veteran in Verona’s 37 year old Luca Toni. In fact, Serie A is proving an appealing place to go for an ageing striker with Tevez leading the charts at 31, the 36 year old Miroslav Klose has 8 for Lazio and Massimo Maccarone has 7 for Empoli at 35. The 38 year old Francesco Totti meanwhile, second on the all-time Serie A scorer’s list with 240, has 5 and remains central to Roma’s challenge at the top of the division.

One may offer a series of reasons for why the elderly strikers are still going strong in Serie A including a slower style of play, a declining standard and deeper defensive lines leading to a lower reliance on attacking pace, but much more likely, perhaps with Quagliarella and definitely in the case of Di Natale, it can be put down to class that time just can’t erode.


Written by Adam Gray

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Sardar Azmoun: The Iranian Messi?


Iran haven’t always been rated as one of football’s superpowers, but the nation has been on a bit of a rise recently. A very promising 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign in Brazil was followed up by an impressive Asian Cup performance this year, as they made the quarterfinal stage after topping their group with nine points. Indeed that Asian Cup performance raised many eyebrows, as a certain 20 year old stood out from the crowd.

That 20 year old is Sardar Azmoun, a talented and rather slightly built forward who has been ruffling a few feathers in the Russian Premier League. After moving into football at the age of nine he was offered his first professional contract with local side Sepahan, and although he didn’t made an appearance for the first team he did win the national title in 2012.

Despite never actually taking to the field two time Russian champions Rubin Kazan saw enough to take a punt on the 17 year old, and that’s where his rise really did begin. In his first season in Kazan head coach Kurban Berdyev opted to train him up with the youth team, and he eventually made his first team debut in July 2013 in a UEFA Europa League qualifier.

His first goal didn’t take long to come either, as in just his second game against Molde he found the net. That persuaded Rubin to give him more playing time, and he slowly became a first team mainstay scoring in the Russian league for the first time in October of the same year.

His gradual progress was already attracting attention from all around Europe, as Rubin came out and publically stated that he wasn’t for sale despite offers from the likes of Arsenal and Internazionale. Newspaper reports in Britain have been touting him as the ‘Iranian Messi’, and while that may be a bit steep, you can see the comparisons.

Just like his Argentinian counterpart Azmoun has a low sense of gravity, and is exceptional with the ball at his feet. A perfect example is his wonder goal against Qatar in the Asian Cup group stages, where he quite beautifully twisted away from his marker. His raw technical talent has pushed him to the fore of Asian talent, and just in January this year Liverpool and Tottenham were rumoured to having offered Rubin £5 million for his services.

And then something rather strange happened. In late February Rubin decided that for whatever reason he would be sent out on loan to struggling Rostov, a team that are languishing in 16th and last place of the Russian league. Why? Even I am struggling to work this one out. In Russia it made very few headlines, as few seemed bothered by the move.

The only problem in his game though, and a potential reason for the loan deal, is his lack of goals. Yes, he’s full of talent and ability, but this campaign he has hit the target only once (and that was back in August 2014). Rubin are a team that traditionally struggle for goals, and they will be hoping that Sardar can start scoring with more regularity with Rostov.

Even the fact that Rubin were prepared to loan him out shouldn’t put off potential buyers. He is still only 20 years old, and those flashes of potential which we have seen have been enough to show what he is capable of. The main question for him is when to make the move abroad.

In Russia you can progress to a certain extent, but to realise his potential to the full a move to Western Europe will be needed. Some players though go either too early and get lost somewhere along the line, or opt to go too late when nobody wants them. His technical ability would suit a team like Arsenal perfectly, however his small frame would make it difficult to compete in such a physically demanding league.

This summer will surely see more offers coming up, and if the price is right, Rubin will have no other option than to give up their hottest talent. The only issues that remain are when the right time to go is, and where is the best place to let his talent flourish. Two issues that are going to decide how big he is going to become.


Written by Shaun Nicolaides

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Andrea Stramaccioni: Former Inter manager struggles under weight of expectation at Udinese

The past few weeks haven’t provided the smoothest of rides for Andrea Stramaccioni at Udinese, first blaming the anger and tension within his squad for a 0-1 loss to Lazio before losing his own calmness after a similar defeat to Cesena.  “I am furious and tomorrow there will be no day off. We’re going to all come in and train” he said,  “we have to get back on track and quickly reach 40 points to secure safety”.

The loss to Cesena required Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzi to give Stramaccioni assurances that his job was safe, issuing a statement to deny reports that he had subjected his manager to an ultimatum. From being in the dizzy heights of 3rd after a 2-0 victory over Atalanta in October, a run of only 2 wins from the next 16 matches had left the Zebrette at risk of being dragged back into the relegation fight.

Strama and his men would remain 8 points clear of the bottom 3 in Serie A but for a club that had recently become accustomed to high-placed finishes under Francesco Guidolin, it would be understandable if Pozzo’s patience was beginning to wear thin.

Guidolin, who last summer relinquished his role as head coach to become a technical supervisor to the three clubs (Udinese, Watford and Granada) which are owned by the Pozzo family, was always going to be a tough act to follow after he guided the northern Italian club to the lofty reaches of fourth, third and then fifth in consecutive seasons between 2011 and 2013.

It was a miracle act, given Guidolin constantly had to rebuild his teams in the face of losing his star players, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Christian Zapata, Gokhan Inler, Kwadwo Asamoah, Mauricio Isla and Samir Handonovic all leave for big money fees, the majority of which were not reinvested into the side. After losing Juan Cuadrado to Fiorentina and Medhi Benatia to Roma in the summer of 2013, Guidolin’s golden touch diminished and Udinese would finish down in 13th the following season.

To replace Guidolin, Stramaccioni was a curious choice having been out of work for a year following his dismissal from Inter Milan in 2013. Successful spells as a youth coach at Roma then Inter would still be an appealing part of his C.V but for a 39 year old who could only boast an underwhelming campaign in charge of Inter as his experience of senior coaching, it would be a bold choice in replacing the hugely experienced Guidolin.

However he would be significantly backed, for the first time since 2004 Udinese would spend more than they recouped in transfer fees, outlaying a total of £22 million as Strama put his personal touch to squad renovation. Over 35 players would be moved on- not to mention the numerous loans which are utilised by the Pozzo family to boost their portfolio of clubs- for just a total of £8 million as Stramaccioni strived to trim the wage bill as well as clear the deadwood that had been behind Udinese’s struggles of the previous season.

Plus, of course, he would he be motivated by his own personal desire to show that Inter and owner Massimo Moratti, amidst steep transition during Strama’s time in charge, may have been hasty in sending him packing after just 14 months. On a personal level December’s 1-2 win over Inter, who still continue to falter under Roberto Mancini, in the San Siro would have been especially sweet.

Those moments however have been all too rare for Stramaccioni who, after starting brilliantly with 5 wins from his first 8 games in charge, has experienced that winning season in the 17 following games. The most recent of those victories, the 3-2 win over Torino at the weekend, was both huge for manager, who earned some relief from the pressure that appears to be building, and for the club who got their first win at the Stadio Fruili since October 26th.

The fall-out from the match saw Stramaccioni use the media to beg Antonio Di Natale to reconsider his decision to retire at the end of the season. The 37 year old would bag his tenth goal of the season in Sunday’s win and the importance he still carries to the squad would not be lost on Stramaccioni.

“He can’t be a player for 38 matches per season, but in 20 he still makes the difference” said the manager and that should be indicative enough as to where his side are going wrong. Di Natale is top-scorer with 10 (and leading assist-maker with 5) and only Cyril Thereau, who has never been prolific during his time in Italy, has come close to that tally with 8. From a lack of goals within the squad, only five teams in Serie A have scored less than Udinese’s 29 goals and they are still extremely reliant on Di Natale who is just months away from bringing an illustrious career to an end.

Comparisons with Guidolin are as inevitable as they unfortunate for Stramaccioni who is essentially in charge of a mid-table side that have had expectations altered by three sensational seasons under his predecessor. Though signings like Guilherme, Panagiotis Kone, Allan and Thereau have settled in reasonably well while the likes of Lucas Evangelista, Rodrigo Aguirre, Melker Hallberg and Agostino Camigliano were all acquired with the future clearly in mind.

The batch of talented teenagers are likely to thrive under Stramaccioni’s guidance and nurturing, whose work with youth development has never been doubted given his success at Inter.  Though they will all have to be afforded time and patience, much like the manager who aims to make this Udinese his own in the shadow of Guidolin.


Written by Adam Gray

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Italian football: A reflection of the nation’s rich, dramatic history

1982 World Champions

Italy is a beautiful, complicated, passionate country filled with a rich and dramatic history. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the country’s favorite sport of Italian football, or “calcio”, would be steeped in rich history… and drama, as well.


History of Italian Football

In 1898, the Federazione Italiana Giuco Calcio  was started in Turin, Italy. It was created to serve as the governing body for Italian football.

With Mario Vicary at the helm as the first president, the budding organization provided Italian football with the structure it needed to be taken seriously. In fact, according to FIGC.IT, their first championship, the “tri-colored championship”, was won by Genoa in Turin in 1898.

Having won the title for four World Cups in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, today’s Italian National Football Team – the Azzurri - is the second most successful national team in the world. They are second only to Brazil, who has just one more World Cup trophy under their belt.

They also won the UEFA European Championship in 1968; took first place for the gold medal in the 1936 Olympic football tournament; and was a two-time winner of the Central European International Cup in 1927.


Game of the Century

One of the most notable and hard-fought games in Italian football history is the “Game of the Century” that took place between Italy and West Germany during the semi-finals of the 1970 FIFA World Cup. Played in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in the company of more than 100,000 fans, Italy won that game 4 – 3, after five goals were scored in extra-time. That was the first – and only - time in World Cup history that has happened.

Unfortunately, after such an exciting game, Italy fell to Brazil in the finals of that World Cup competition.


Scandal rocks Italian football

Over the years, Italian football has had its share of scandal. The most recent of which is the news of the betting scandal that broke at the end of June, 2011. Also, in that same month, a match-fixing corruption scandal hit the headlines, overshadowing the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing case.


Italian National Football Team gets new management

Former Juventus manager Antonio Conte recently replaced Cesare Prandelli as the manager of Italy’s National Football Team, following the team’s disappointing elimination in the first round at the 2014 World Cup competition in Brazil. Another disappointing World Cup campaign for the Azzurri, which doesn’t match up and hold a candle to its glorious and memorable history in the game.

Here’s hoping to better times for Italian football.


Written by Ann Tiller

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Mohamed Salah: The Egyptian Messi grabbing his chance to prove his worth at Fiorentina

Chasing a Champions League spot, Inter Milan backed Roberto Mancini in January with the loan signings of Lukas Podolski, Davide Santon and Xherdan Shaqiri as well as the permanent signing of Marcelo Brozovic for £2.5 million from Dinamo Zagreb as Inter looked to close the gap on a flagging Lazio in third. Fiorentina meanwhile, sitting in sixth as the January window closed, were weakened by the loss of Juan Cuadrado who moved to Chelsea for €33 million.

Mohamed Salah would come in on loan as a makeweight but it was expected that La Viola, now bereft of Cuadrado’s energy and dynamism on the flank, would fade away in the race for third while Inter’s strengthening would see them mount a significant challenge. However that script hasn’t quite been followed, with Fiorentina now unbeaten in their last 8 and now just 3 points off third-placed Napoli after beating Inter in the San Siro at the weekend with a goal from Salah.

It just had to be him. The Egyptian scoring has become a regular sight in Italy since he made the move as Jose Mourinho’s bargaining chip in the move for Cuadrado. The goal against Inter was the winger’s 4th goal in the 6 games since moving to Florence and his winner followed a trend of netting vital goals; openers in the win over Sassuolo and the draw with an in-form Torino, plus the decisive second in the 2-0 Europa League victory over Tottenham Hotspur.

It was no wonder why manager Vincenzo Montella leapt at the chance to introduce Salah, whom he started on the bench following his mid-week excursions, for the injured Kouma Babacar once the Senegalese striker limped off with injury in the 13th minute. “I wanted to make the most of Salah’s extraordinary form that is why I chose him ahead of Alberto Gilardino” he said, “I know that when a player is going through that kind of form, it’s the duty of a coach to encourage it.”

Encouragement is a commodity Salah didn’t really receive from Jose Mourinho who would hand him just 18 appearances in the 12 months following his £11 million move from Basel in January 2013. The 22 year old would be limited to only 4 starts for Chelsea this season, in the two meetings with Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League and one against Shrewsbury in the League Cup which first exposed the signs of Mourinho’s growing frustration with the Egyptian.

His fourth, in the embarrassing FA Cup capitulation to Bradford City, was the final straw and together with Andre Schurrle, he was packed off as a new stringent Chelsea made room for the £26 million to be spent on landing Cuadrado.

Cuadrado’s relentless energy and work-rate made him appealing to Mourinho as those traits made the Colombian defensively diligent as well as an effective attacking option. Both Schurrle and Salah failed to offer enough in the defensive side of their games and so Mourinho’s patience tired. The difference in dynamic between Salah and Cuadrado has seen a small shift from Montella’s 3-5-1-1 to a 4-3-3 which has given the Egyptian more scope to focus on attack. The January recruitment of Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino to accompany the likes of Mario Gomez, Josip Ilicic and Babacar in a talented front-line has also helped Salah to settle in seamlessly.

After the victory over Spurs, Montella was perhaps being mischievous when he reflected on January’s swap deal. “Who did better out of the Cuadrado exchange?” he asked, “Fiorentina earned a lot of money and, on the pitch, they are similar players.” Salah’s scant defensive contributions suggest they are not that similar, but his new manager is left under no illusion where the Egyptian is most dangerous. “Salah is a player that, even if he takes some breaks, is devastating over 40 or 50 yards,” said Montella.

The 22 year old has been operating mainly from a preferred position on the left-side for La Viola, while in the San Siro he showed the confidence and fitness to produce an impressive display as an emergency centre-forward. Montella, who knows a thing or two about playing as a forward, said “I think he can play any position in attack. He attacks the space well and is very good at getting straight into the tempo of a game when coming off the bench.” For a team that has struggled with injuries to Giuseppe Rossi and Gomez, in Salah they may have stumbled upon an unexpected solution.

It has been reported that the manager has instructed his directors to keep Salah at the club, with €1 million the price to keep him at the club on loan for next season while a further €18 million is the agreed buy-out clause due in the summer of 2016.

If the Egyptian continues the resurgent form he has started with in Florence, it will turn out to be a bargain.


Written by Adam Gray

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Simone Zaza: Can the Sassuolo star be the man to solve Antonio Conte’s Azzurri striker crisis?

When the Italian national football team return to action at the end of next month manager Antonio Conte faces an attacking dilemma as he seeks returning the Azzurri to a team capable of competing for a major honour at Euro 2016 after disappointing showings at the past two World Cups.

Italy would score just 2 goals last summer in Brazil as they exited the World Cup at the group stages, spelling the end for manager Cesare Prandelli, and under Conte the troubles in front of goal have continued. Although they on course to qualify for next summer’s European Championships in France, Conte’s Italy have managed just 6 goals in four games, relying on centre-half Giorgio Cheillini to sneak past Azerbaijan while against Malta, ranked 149th in the world, they earned a narrow 0-1 victory with a goal from Graziano Pelle.

Conte has called on 10 strikers during those 4 matches, while also turning to a couple more against the Netherlands and Albania in the 2 friendlies he has faced so far, as he looks to move Italy on from the disastrous experience of last summer’s World Cup and the era of Mario Balotelli, who once again led the team, and struggled, out in Brazil. With Conte announcing concerns over Balotelli’s attitude amidst his poor form for Liverpool, the 24 year old has been called up under Conte just once, for November’s qualifier with Croatia in which he pulled out from the squad with injury.

Of those considered for Brazil by Prandelli, Giussepe Rossi and Lorenzo Insigne are now side-lined with injury while Antonio Cassano is without a club after being released by Parma last month. Alessio Cerci endured a wretched spell in Spain with Atletico Madrid after moving from Torino in the summer and has yet to score for AC Milan since returning to Serie A in January, and although Mattia Destro has fared slightly better at the San Siro since joining-up with Cerci in Milan, his campaign still only reads 6 goals in 23 games after his early-season struggles with Roma.

The Azzurri have explored various other avenues and will continue to do so before next month’s games with Bulgaria and England, though a solution is not obvious to Conte. Ciro Immobile seems a constant choice under the former Juventus boss but his struggles in-front of goal for Borussia Dortmund has left-him confidence-sapped, whereas Sebastian Giovinco’s 2 goals in 13 games for Juventus is hardly an irresistible advertisement.

Pelle endeared himself with his debut goal but he has just 1 goal for Southampton since late-December. Stephan El Shaarawy’s seemingly constant troubles with injury continue, Dani Osvaldo was shown the exit-door at Inter Milan after his well-documented off-field problems once again flared-up, while Fabio Quagliarella would represent a regressive step at the age of 32 despite 9 goals for Torino putting him fourth on the Serie A goal-scoring charts. Incidentally Quagliarella is tied with the erstwhile duo of Antonio Di Natale and Luca Toni, both aged 37 and still prolific. How Conte could wish he had the same qualities coming through in the new generation of Italian strikers.

With a goal less than that trio of veterans is Simone Zaza, the 23 year old Sassuolo striker who scored in Conte’s first competitive game as Italy coach in the 0-2 win over Norway. Since then the goals and the caps have steadily flowed, featuring in 3 of Italy’s 4 qualifiers to date and missing only the win in Malta where he was a sub. It has marked a sensational rise for the striker who just two years ago was playing in the third-tier for Viareggo.

A nomadic introduction to his career saw Zaza signed up by scouts at Atalanta at the age of 15 after impressing for his local sides Stella Azzurra and Valdera but after failing to make the grade at Bergamo, he was shipped on to Sampdoria following a contract dispute.

From there he was loaned out to Juve Stabia where he disappointed but then Viareggo became a pivotal point in Zaza’s progression, his 11 goals in 18 games restoring the confidence that had been eroded since joining Atalanta. He took that form up a level to Serie B with Ascoli where he became the sixth-highest scorer in the 2012/13 Serie B with 18 strikes.

Sampdoria would then sell him to Juventus in a deal that saw Sassuolo acquire 50% of the player’s rights for €2.5 million and an agreement to send Zaza on loan to the latter for the 2013/14 campaign saw the striker become a revelation in Serie A, scoring 9 goals and helping the northern Italian minnows escape relegation with a series of brilliant all-round displays.

Sassuolo now own Zaza outright and he celebrated the €7.4 million move with a stunning volley against Cagliari to earn the club a point in this season’s opening round of matches. That convinced Conte to partner Zaza alongside Immobile as he looked for a partnership to head his 3-5-2 system that had brought him success with Juventus. His replacement of Balotelli, scapegoated by Italian media for his nosedive in form since Euro 2012, inevitably drew numerous comparisons between the two strikers and their difference in background.

Zaza has been particularly appealing to Conte because of a work-ethic that together with Immobile’s energy allows the Azzurri to press from the front, not allowing the opposition defenders to settle on the ball and dictate the pace of the play, a style that is integral to Conte’s high-intensity, constantly-interchanging system. Contrast this with Balotelli, who can so often appear lazy and unwilling to make the off-the-ball runs or close down defenders.

Zaza stands just 2cm shorter than Balotelli and both possess gifted technical skill and a fine touch and control, though the Sassuolo man is more mobile than the Liverpool striker. Some put the difference in work-ethic and style down to the dissimilarity in career development, with Balotelli being indulged in as a prodigy by Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan’s academy while Zaza was learning his trade in the roughhouse setting of Italy’s lower leagues.

A dogged hunger for success that has been forged in constant competition has left Zaza with a bit of a toxic edge, suggested by the 10 yellow cards he has picked up this term as well as the 59 fouls he has committed. While his desire to press defenders is admirable, especially to Conte, it can often be over-zealous and he needs to calm that edgy side of his game down.

Another criticism can arrive in the form of accusations his left-foot can be one-dimensional, with 6 of his 8 goals coming on the same foot, chances can go begging due to his habit of trying to get the ball onto his more comfortable side. Furthermore, the 63% of the 113 headers he has lost indicate his problems in the air, not ideal for a lone centre-forward in Sassuolo’s 4-3-3 system, though he much-prefers to receive the ball into feet so he can utilise his upper-body strength and fine technique to create opportunities in the final third.

As a child Zaza used to constantly watch videos of Marco Van Basten and like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, took up Taekwando as a past-time. There are certain similarities to both strikers in the way Zaza bustles around the pitch but Gigi Delneri, the coach who originally signed the forward for Atalanta, thinks he is most like Christian Vieri. “A pure centre-forward, like Christian Vieri”, Delneri told Corriere dello Sport, “he makes the same movements and is left-footed, but Simone is better technically than Vieri.”

Despite a distinguished scoring career Vieri only managed 23 goals in 49 games for his country, though Zaza can possibly better that if he continues to persuade Conte he is worth a place in the side with his form.

Competition for striking places will come in the form of Napoli’s Manolo Gabbiadini and Sampdoria’s Stefano Okaka, both recently capped by Conte, though if Azzurri team-mate Leonardo Bonucci’s prophecy rings true, then Zaza will be the preferred choice. “He may be young, but he is mature. He has excellent technique as well as being physically strong. He has everything to become a great striker.”


Written by Adam Gray

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The Boys in Green: The top 10 best players ever to don the Irish green jersey

Ireland may well be a small country but it is certainly not short on footballing talent. Over the years, many great players have donned with pride the green jersey of the Republic of Ireland. From the many years spent in the football wilderness to the heady days of Italia 90 and beyond, the Irish have, without doubt, had their fair share of football legends.

The Top 10, in no particular order…


Liam Brady

Liam was born in Dublin on 13 February 1956. From 1972 – 1990, he was capped 72 times for the Republic and scored 9 goals. He spent most of his domestic career as a midfielder with Arsenal from 1973 – 1980, making 235 appearances before leaving for Italy and playing for Juventus, Sampdoria, Inter Milan and Ascoli. He returned to Britain to end his playing career with West Ham before retiring in 1990.

Liam progressed into management positions with Celtic (1991 – 1993) and Brighton & Hove Albion (1993 – 1995) before rejoining Arsenal in 1996 as head of Youth Development, a role he still holds.

In 2008, he was appointed assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland soccer team under Giovanni Trapattoni.


Packie Bonner

Packie was born on 24 May 1960, in County Donegal, Ireland. The goalkeeper made his debut for the Republic in 1981, the first of 80 appearances. He played 642 times for Celtic from 1978 – 1995, winning 4 League Championships, 3 Scottish Cups and 1 League Cup.

In 2003, Packie took up the position of technical director with the Football Association of Ireland and also currently works as a soccer pundit on Irish television.

He is probably best remembered internationally for his penalty save against Romania in the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy.


Johnny Giles

Johnny was born 6 November 2021 in Dublin, Ireland. He joined Manchester United in 1957, playing 99 times before leaving for Leeds United in 1963. He played 383 games for the side and became one of the all time Leeds heroes during their golden days under Don Revie.

In 1975, he joined West Brom, followed by player manager posts with Irish side Shamrock Rovers and in USA.

He spent 19 years as a member of the international squad and has gained many awards and accolades, including a position in the 100 League Legends and the best Irish international player of the past 50 years.

Johnny is currently a football pundit on Irish radio and television.


Ray Houghton

Ray was born 2 January 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. He began his playing career with West Ham in 1979, making only the one appearance before moving to Fulham in 1982. He spent the majority of his career with Liverpool, from 1987 – 1992, where he scored 28 goals in 153 appearances.

He also spent time with Oxford United, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Reading and Stevenage Borough, retiring in 2000.

He played his first game for Ireland against Wales in a friendly on 26 March 1986, went on to play 73 matches, and scored six times. He was in two World Cup squads, which travelled to the finals, in 1990 and 1994.

Ray now works as a football commentator on both radio and television.


Roy Keane

Roy was born 10 August 2021 in Cork City, Ireland. He began his somewhat controversial career with Irish side Cobh Ramblers in 1989 before moving to Nottingham Forest in 1990, Manchester United in 1993 and Celtic in 2005 where he stayed for one season before retiring from the game. He was one of the all time favourites at Old Trafford where he played on 452 occasions, scoring 51 times.

Roy was chosen to play for Ireland in 1991, going on to captain the side and made international headlines when he was sent home in disgrace from the 2002 World Cup Finals after a bust up with manager Mick McCarthy. He made a comeback to the team under new manager Brian Kerr in 2004, although not as captain. He announced his retirement from international soccer in 2006 after 66 games and 9 goals.

After hanging up his boots, Keane moved into management and is now currently the assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland’s national side.


Niall Quinn

Niall was born 6 October 2021 in Dublin, Ireland. The lofty striker began his professional career with Arsenal in 1983, staying with the club for 7 years in which he made 67 appearances, scoring 24 times. He moved to Manchester City where he stayed until 1996, playing 204 times and hit the back of the net 90 times. A move to Sunderland followed, with another impressive 91 goals in 203 appearances before retiring from playing in 2002.

Internationally he made his debut in 1986 and on retiring in 2002 he was the all time top scorer for his country with 21 goals, a record since broken by Robbie Keane.

He received an honorary MBE in 2002 after donating the entire proceeds of his testimonial between Sunderland and Republic of Ireland to charity. Quinn played for both teams during the game.

After retirement from the game, he had a short coaching spell with Sunderland before buying a stake in the club with a business consortium. He was chairman of the side until 2011.


Mick McCarthy

Mick was born 7 February 1959, in Barnsley, England. He began his career playing for Barnsley in 1977 for whom he made 272 appearances. He moved to Manchester City in 1983, followed by Celtic in 1987. He moved abroad to play for French side Lyon in 1989 before returning home to Millwall in 1990, retiring in 1992.

He played his first of 57 games for the Republic in 1984, going on to captain the side and becoming known as ‘Captain Fantastic’. He was in the Euro 88 squad and World Cup 1990 team, where he gained the dubious honour of committing the most fouls in the tournament.

After retiring both domestically and internationally in 1992, Mick went into management, firstly with Millwall from 1992 – 1996. He then managed the Republic for a spell until 2002, resigning after coming under constant criticism that had mounted since his bust up with Roy Keane.

He then managed Sunderland from 2003 – 2006, before taking other management roles with Wolves and Ipswich Town, which he currently holds.


Paul McGrath

Paul was born on 4 December 2021 in Ealing, London. Brought up in Ireland, he began his playing career with local side St Patrick’s Athletic in 1981 before moving a year later to Manchester United. The defender made 163 appearances for the team and scored 12 goals. He moved in 1989 to Aston Villa, scoring another nine times in 252 games and was christened ‘God’ by the fans.

In 1996, he spent a year with Derby County, followed by another year at Sheffield United before retiring from the game.

Internationally his career spanned from 1985 – 1997, with 83 appearances and 8 goals, captaining the side 4 times. Football pundit Eamon Dunphy named him as one of his all time Irish top three players in 1997.


Steve Staunton

‘Stan,’ as he is affectionately known by the fans, was born 19 January 2022 in Drogheda Ireland and began his career with Irish side Dundalk in 1985. He moved to Liverpool the following year, spending 5 seasons at Anfield with 65 appearances, including a short loan spell at Bradford in 1987.

In 1991, he joined Aston Villa and played for them 205 times before moving back to Liverpool for another 2 years in 1998. 2000 saw a loan spell at Crystal Palace, followed by another 73 games at Villa where he remained until 2003.

The next 2 years were spent at Coventry City and his final year as a player was with Walsall in 2006.

Internationally, Steve gained 102 caps between 1998 – 2003, including playing in two World Cups and captaining the squad for the 2002 tournament. He is the only player to have played in over 100 matches for Ireland.

After his playing career ended, Staunton took up a management position with the Republic of Ireland. It was a short-lived post and ended in 2007 after much controversy over the side failing to qualify for Euro 2008.


Frank Stapleton

Frank was born 10 July 2022 in Dublin, Ireland. The striker joined Arsenal in 1974, playing 225 times and scoring 75 goals. He netted another 60 for Manchester United, who he joined after leaving the Gunners in 1981.

He spent short periods with another nine teams – Ajax, Anderlecht, Derby, Le Havre, Blackburn Rovers, Aldershot, Huddersfield Town, Bradford City and finally Brighton & Hove Albion before retiring from the game in 1995, after spending 21 years as a professional player.

He won his first international cap with Ireland in 1976 and played 71 games for the squad until 1990. He was captain of the Euro 88 squad and is considered one of the all time greats of the national team.


Written by Julie-Anne

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