The Rebirth of Serie A

The end of Juventus’ reign at the top was a vital moment for the Italian Serie A towards becoming entertaining again. With the league finally disassociated from a sense of winner predetermination caused by Juve’s nine consecutive Scudettos, there is a general feeling that its anyones game now and competition has returned. There is no guarantee that the 20/21 season wasn’t just a blip in Juventus’s era of domestic dominance but with rivals clubs growing in stature over the past few years and narrowing the gap on the I Bianconeri, many are touting a new dawn in Italian football and the rebirth of Serie A.

Juventus’s failure went hand-in-hand with the reignition of Inter Milan, which can only increase the interest towards Serie A long term. Antonio Conte, who ironically began Juve’s streak of Scudettos in 2011-12, came as close as one point to win the league with Inter in 19/20 before comfortably running away with it in the latter stages of last season. He may have now departed from his role as head coach of Inter but his legacy is secure having stopped the Juventus dominance of the league.

Another good sign for Serie A was that it was AC Milan who gave their local rivals the most competition for the first spot on the table. One of the biggest derbies in world football, the Derby di Milano which had lost some of it’s magic until last season, was played with high stakes and simmering tensions. The occasions were encapsulated in a heated moment between the self proclaimed king and god of Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Inter’s Romelu Lukaku which was later turned into a beautiful mural in Milan. The reemergence of this derby works as a crown jewel for Serie A which has been searching for a way to reinsert itself into the mindset of fans across the globe. By finishing second I Rossoneri, the second most successful club in Champions league history, booked a return to the top echelon of club competition after seven years of absence which in turn will help to boost Serie A’s relevance worldwide.

Last season, there was also a nail biting race for the top four until the dying stages which could have left Juventus without Champions League football for the first time in a decade. So in light of the Old Lady’s fourth place finish there is a fact to be remembered that Serie A is a league with a precious mixture of big and exciting clubs. Apart from the already mentioned three, Napoli, Roma and Lazio are clubs with respected pedigrees and good potential. In Atalanta, the league has someone who can win the heart of neutrals through their attractive football, underdog nature and capability of beating anyone on their day. Arguably, Serie A has a ‘big 7’.

There have been more positive signs in the off-season for Serie A. Apart from Italy winning the Euro 2020 which would bring some more light to the domestic league, the players from the Italian league combined to score 37 goals at the European Championship, at least nine more than players from any other league. Juventus players scored 12 goals, the most by players of any club with star player Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Golden Boot. However, these are more like fun facts than any statements of weighted benefit for the league. It’s the will shown by some Italian clubs to keep their national stars in the league that would be making the Serie A executives excited. Juventus rejected Chelsea’s €100 million bid for Federico Chiesa, declaring him “untouchable”, the same term has been used by Inter for Nicolo Barella amid interest from Premier League clubs.

Federico Chiesa is staying in Serie A after impressing at Euro 2020

A host of other top players have stated their loyalty to the league. Manuel Locatelli, another star for the future, prefers to stay in Italy and play for Juventus next season over a move to Arsenal. Lukaku has declared he wants to stay at Inter despite being on the wanted list of a host of top EPL clubs. With Ronaldo also likely to stay, these are all favourable signals for Serie A, which hosted the biggest football names in the 1990’s. However with the departures of Hakimi and Dunorumma to PSG demonstrate, there are still plenty of obstacles for Serie A to overcome and fierce competition from other leagues for their star players.

Financial woes led to complications between Antonio Conte and Inter and Serie A losing one of the best managers in the world. Conte ambitiously wanted to strengthen the team after disastrously finishing bottom of the Champions League group but that didn’t align with Inter’s need to raise funds. For a league to shine it needs it’s clubs to do well in Europe and it’s been more than 10 years since an Italian club won the UCL trophy. There also might be a couple of worrying signs for Serie A in Juve’s reappointment of Allegri. Arguably one of the key reasons behind Juventus’ previous dominance, the return of their former coach could signal another long spell of dominance for Juventus which would not be good news for the league as a whole. Whether Juventus leadership has changed its stance on Allegri since his last spell is yet to be determined. After all they sacked the manager who brought them numerous league titles and got them to two European finals for failing to win the Champions League.

Serie A, which has an image of being a slow and technical league, has to compete with other big leagues for top tier footballers as well as the eyes of global fans. English Premier League has greater commercial and financial value, more entertaining football and arguably the best managers. Long-term and consistent investment is needed in diverse sectors to compete with them as well as La Liga and Bundesliga who continue to jostle for dominance. So, there remain plenty of hurdles to be tackled but the Italian league is moving in the right trajectory and away from it’s dull self of the past several years.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Serie A Prepares To Restart After Pandemic, But Not Without Concerns

We are living in dark times and on unfamiliar territory. With the current epidemic, COVID 19 has taken away the thing we love most, football. In doing so, it has stopped some really enticing title races throughout Europe from reaching their conclusions especially in Italy.  Before the shutdown, Juventus and Lazio were only separated by only one point having both played 26 times. Juventus haven’t really been the same as maybe previous seasons but the stardom of Paulo Dybala has made the difference for the league champions. Meanwhile against all the odds Lazio have found themselves in title race for the first time in decades.

Dybala has been in incredible form but will he and Juventus get to finish the season? (Image from Tumblr)

Dybala has been in incredible form but will he and Juventus get to finish the season? (Image from Tumblr)

Beyond that title race, the Champions League race is really tight with Inter Milan, Roma, Atalanta and to a degree Napoli fighting for the final two Champions League spots. This has been one of the best years of Italian football in recent memory. The coronavirus has put a stop to all that and we’ve have been waiting months for the league to resume and for the final places to be settled. Who will win the league? Will Lazio manage to dethrone Juventus after seven years on top? Or will the brilliance of Paulo Dybala be enough to earn yet another title for Juventus.  Or will Inter upset everything by clawing their way back into title contention?

We have been sitting on these hypothetical questions for the last two months while the coronavirus has hit hard throughout Europe as well as the United States and beyond. It has left fans waiting for the day matches can resume and we can feel ‘that’ feeling again. That day however appears to be coming it has been announced that Serie A is looking at June 13th as the date to reopen Italian football. It will follow the German Bundesliga which restarted earlier this month much to the delight of its fans. It certainly is the right move but that doesn’t necessarily mean it comes without risk. Even without fans there was going to be a risk that someone can still catch the virus. The risk is obviously something that the Federation needs to take seriously and appears to be. Clubs are obviously conflicted about the league restarting. This decision will benefit some teams and it will deeply upset others. However we must find a way for the league to return it has to come back eventually. If the league is not restarted then the alternative is that its cancelled and will be deemed a lost season. The safety of the players is incredibly important but canceling the league or suspending it until next season just doesn’t sound like a productive way of handling this situation and wont resolve the unknown questions that only come from the league being up and running. This is the tightest title race we’ve seen the last couple years  so throwing away the season will frustrate more than just the fans.

Preparations are being made to make it safe for the league to restart (Image from Tumblr)

Preparations are being made to make it safe for the league to restart (Image from Tumblr)

This year Lazio made a massive step forward after finishing 8th last season. They without doubt have been the biggest story of the season. They didn’t add all that much and still have drastically improved since last year. It’s hard to say what the future will hold for this team because this might be the only chance for Lazio to win the title in the next 20 years. Stripping them of that warranted chance would be a travesty regardless of how much Lazio winning would hurt me they deserve to see how the story ends this season; it would be would be cruel to the sport itself. Equally though the safety to the players has to be taking into consideration and made a priority. If there’s a way that the league can continue this season and conserve their safety they must find a way to make that happen; cancelling the season just isn’t an option.

The matches will probably have to be played without any fans for at least a year. Unfortunately the impact of the coronavirus is going to change sporting events for at least the next two seasons at the very minimum which will be sad because of the value that fans bring in football. They are why we play the game especially; during derbies it hard to fathom them without fans. We will eventually get to go to games again and see our teams score goals and win big matches but in this time we are living in that seems to be far from where we are now. The impact of this virus will take some of the passion and emotion from the game unfortunately but there’s no way around this. All the leagues need to prevent stuff like this happening again; safety has to be the number one priority. Which means for at least a year the Milan Derby, the Roman Derby, the Derby del Mole and others will have to play without fans in attendance setting a heartbreaking precedent. Sadly we’re just going to have to abide by these rules. One day football will be more or less back where it was a few months ago before all this stuff happened but that day unfortunately is not today.

Serie A will play its games with no fans in the stadium likely for the foreseeable future (image from Tumblr)

Serie A will play its games with no fans in the stadium likely for the foreseeable future (image from Tumblr)

The fall out of the virus long term is not only going to impact the fan support but it could impact the seasons of many teams in the league’s top flight.  Essentially when the year kicks off again it will be a fresh start or a new season. Teams like Inter Milan and Roma will greatly benefit from this because both teams have really struggled as of late. Inter seemed to bow out of the title race with a second loss to Juventus that has damaged their bid for a league title. Meanwhile Roma had won two in a row but prior to that lost three on the bounce. Neither have been experiencing their best moments of late. It will allow them to reset and chase down the Champions League spots. Juventus is a team I just feel will always figure it out and maybe in some way they’re going to benefit from the struggles the other teams may endure because of the virus. Juventus may not be the best team but they may end up winning the title despite that. Lazio and Atalanta will be the most affected. Before the break Lazio were unbeaten in their last 21 and Atalanta were in incredible form. They could suffer which will give an opportunity for Inter Milan to reset and find a way to fight back in the title race. The right decision is clearly opening the league up with safety precautions. If there is a way for them to play out the rest of the season they should exercise this option. If safety is at stake for the players and then they have no choice but to cancel it but as long as they can provide safety to the players the team and the league June 13th should go forward the open up the gates to Italian football.

Post by Eliot Ben-Ner, writer for the EverythingRoma blog.

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Serie A 19/20 Preview

Just like that another season of Serie A is upon us, this means you can hear calcio fans rejoicing across the world. The season kicks off today with Parma hosting last season’s Scudetto winning Juventus. This match is followed by last season’s runner up Napoli making the trip to Florence to take on a much rejuvenated Fiorentina. Many are predicting Juventus to be the favourite to win a ninth consecutive title, which can be hard to argue against with the signings of former Ajax central defender Matthijs de Ligt for £77 million. This paired with the free transfers of the Welsh and French internationals Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot makes them the definitive title favourite.

Ramsey follows in the footsteps of two other Welsh icons, John Charles and Ian Rush I’m joining Juventus (Image from Tumblr)

However, title contenders Inter and Napoli have also done their best to ensure that Juve’s reign at the top is contested until the last match day. Inter have strengthened their leadership in the form of new manager Antonio Conte, and strengthened the squad with the notable signings of attacker Romelu Lukaku, midfielder Nicolo Barella, and defender Diego Godin. Napoli on the other hand have added attacker Hirving Lozano, and defender Kostas Manolas from Roma to partner with the Koulibaly, whom many consider as one of the world’s best. The signings by these squads show intent but questions surrounding the Icardi drama (for Inter), and if Napoli can challenge with injury prone striker Milik.

Several new faces at Inter including new boss Antonio Conte should make them competitive this year (Image from Tumblr)

Furthermore, the battle for fourth place and the final Champions League place should be interesting with Milan, Roma, and Lazio projected to be fighting for the spot, and the other two playing in the Europa League. Last season’s shock third place finishers Atalanta are in a tricky situation with them lacking squad depth and being in three competitions, many predict them to take a step back. With it being tough to rate this team we will have to see if they take this step back or shock everyone again and exceed expectations.

Atalanta will struggle to reach the same heights as last season (Image from Tumblr)

Moving down the table with Fiorentina, and Torino, their objectives should be to battle for seventh place which grants access to the Europa league qualification round. Fiorentina has made many big moves this summer such as the signings of Franck Ribery, and Prince Boateng and should greatly improve on their 16th place finish last season. Torino mainly kept their strong squad together which should keep continuity as they hope to improve on their eighth place finish. Whilst Parma, Sampdoria, Caligari, Bologna, and Genoa should make up the midtable. They have all made improvements and should all avoid relegation, but won’t be able to challenge for European places this season, barring a shock. Newly promoted Lecce, and Hellas Verona accompanied with Udinese and SPAL should be seriously worried about being relagated. Also, Sassuolo (sold everyone) and Brescia (even though they signed Balotelli) should be concerned with their squads quality and could be occupy a relegation place with an injury or two, but time will tell.

Balotelli is back in Serie A with Brescia (Image from Tumblr)

Nonetheless, excitement is in the air and many pundits are curious to watch if contenders Inter or Napoli can finally knock Juventus off the top and prevent them winning for a ninth consecutive season…or could it a be a dark horse similar to Leicester City in the Premier League? All that can be said is good luck (in bocca al lupo in italian) to the all the squads and let’s make for an exciting season in Serie A.

Post By That Serie A Guy

One On One with: Benito Carbone

There are few players in the world that are as highly revered as Benito Carbone. During a 22 year playing career, Carbone weaved his magic across a variety of clubs in Italy and England, building a reputation as an entertainer, goalscorer and fan favourite. Indeed such is Carbone’s favour that in a recent Twitter question-and-answer session with fans, the most asked question that kept popping up was would Carbone come back to their club. That is a huge indication of how loved and respected he was as a player.

Now retired, Carbone has taken his knowledge and passion into coaching, both as a manager in his own right with spells at Pavia, Varese and Ternana and now as assistant manager to Walter Zenga at Crotone. We caught up with him recently to talk about his career, his shinguards and why he gave up millions to save Bradford City.

Back Of The Net: You began your career at Torino at an interesting time in the club’s history (Torino were relegated to Serie B for only the second time at the end of the 1988-1989 season). As a player trying to break through, was it harder to break into the side because they were fighting against relegation?

Benito Carbone: For me it was a special emotion, because I came from Calabria and after 3 years of youth sector, I found myself to debut in Serie A and be relegated in the same year. It was the dream of my life, because when I was training, I saw the first team doing the same not too far from me and I dreamed of one day being able to be part of them. It was however a very unlucky year, but I always remember it as an indelible moment of my career. An emotion too great to describe. I grew up there, Filadelfia’s son.

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Carbone at Torino (Image from Carbone’s Instagram)

 

BOTN: You spent a few seasons out on loan where you managed to play fairly regularly. Do you think that those moves helped you develop as a player? What are your memories of that time?

BC: With the relegation and the arrival of Luciano Moggi to Turin, many things changed. Dino Baggio and I were important parts of the project, but he remained, and I was loaned to Reggina. I would have expected to stay longer there, I was treated very well at Turin. I played for several teams before returning there, but I did not feel the need to experience elsewhere.

BOTN: Let’s talk about your move to Napoli. You actually signed for Roma but days later were sold to Napoli as part of a move that saw Daniel Fonseca moving the other way. Do you remember what happened over those few days? Were you pleased to end up at Napoli?

 BC: The Torino from which I came was very strong, with Silenzi, Francescoli, Aguilera, Marchegiani and Mondonico on the bench. I was able to play very well in Serie A and again I would have stayed there. But when there are changes on the bench or in the club, many situations could be reviewed, and often the new management prefers to rely on people they trust, changing the balance in the team. Many players have been put on the market. I only spent an hour in Rome, I did not sign anything, because I was immediately sold to Napoli. Over time, I enjoyed the city and its inhabitants, who gave me so much, and that was one of the best years of my career.

benito-carbone

In his youth at Napoli (Image from Carbone’s Twitter)

 

BOTN: At Napoli, you wore the famous number 10 jersey that was also worn by the great Diego Maradona. How did that feel? A lot of players have a preference over the shirt number they wore, did you have a favourite number?

BC: It was a very heavy shirt; the strongest player ever wore it. I did everything to wear it with honor. I think I did well there and left a nice memory. I have in mind the choirs that the fans were addressing me and even today I hear them. My favourite number was and will always be 10.

BOTN: That side also contained a very young but promising defender named Fabio Cannavaro. Looking back now, was it obvious to you what a special player he was?

BC: I met Cannavaro when I was in Turin, before I arrived in Naples, and already there I realized how special he was. I was in excellent shape, but he always managed not to leave any space. I often find myself talking to him about this again today. Surely, we knew he would have reached the top of the world. Formidable, aggressive, explosive player.

Cannavaro

Formidable – Fabio Cannavaro (Image from Carbone’s Instagram)

BOTN: After deciding to leave Inter, you moved to England to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. Why did you choose that club and what challenges did you face in those initial first few months having joined?

BC: England represented a whole new football and culture for me, so I knew it would be a different experience. I did not expect to do it so soon. Sheffield Wednesday was the ideal place to start my English career, the atmosphere was perfect. At the beginning, I had a hard time, also from a linguistic point of view, but all my teammates were very willing to help me, also because I was not the only foreign player on the team. It was not easy, it took time, but in the end, it went all right.

BOTN: At Sheffield Wednesday you formed a great partnership with Paolo Di Canio. What was it like playing with Paolo and did his arrival make your time at Hillsborough easier?

BC: Sheffield Wednesday acquired Paolo Di Canio the year after my arrival, and it was me to advise David Pleat (who trained us at the time) to bid on him. He was a great talent. We were very good together because we completed each other. We were friends off the field and it helped. No doubt about it.

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With Di Canio at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Carbone’s Instagram)

BOTN: You also played for Aston Villa and Bradford and are widely seen by all three English clubs as one of the best foreign imports to have played for them. Why do you think your time in England was viewed so positively?

BC: I’m glad to be remembered like that by English fans, and I still notice it even from their gentle messages on social media today. I was among the very first Italian players to come to England and my style of playing was a bit different from the one you had here. It represented a new challenge for me and players like Gianfranco Zola: we were very agile players and we had to adapt to new styles of play, types of players. I think we gave that bit of technique that was missing during that period and people loved it. They still remember all the goals I scored, especially the best ones.

BOTN: You finished your playing career back in Italy with spells at Como, Parma, Catanzaro, Vicenza and finally Pavia. How important was it for you to finish your career back home?

BC: Honestly, I was not expecting this career ending. I had imagined a different one, despite having gone through important stages like Pavia, which I consider almost a second home for the fantastic people I met there.

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Carbone with former teammate Javier Zanetti (Image from Carbone’s Instagram)

BOTN: Your manager at Parma, Cesare Prandelli, is credited with influencing your decision to go into management. What was it in particular about Prandelli that influenced this? What did you learn from him?

BC: I was bought by Parma on the last day of the transfer market and the team was full of talents. I proved that I wanted to play with all my strength and Cesare appreciated it. He managed to create a fantastic group, both among us footballers and with the staff members. It was the year of the Parmalat crack and despite everything we were very close to qualifying for the Champions League. An unforgettable year for me. With him I learned that if the team that you are training is united, you can get any result. And this is what I try to communicate to each team that I train or contribute to coaching. We were a family.

BOTN: You played for Italy at various youth levels and won the Under 21 European Championship in 1994 but never gained a full cap at senior level. Is that your biggest regret from your career? What do you remember from that win in 1994?

BC: It did not depend very much on me. I left Italy to go to England at the peak of my career, and footballers who went abroad came out a bit from the National Team radar. There was not the same response as there is today. Moreover, I was born in an era in which the phenomena we all know have blossomed in Italy, so the struggle to succeed was great. The victory of ’94 is the best memory I have in the Italian National Team, at that time our national youth teams went very well. We have won many tournaments around Italy and Europe. The future was ours.

Italy beat Luis Figo's Portugal to win the Under 21's European Championship (Image from UEFA)

Italy beat Luis Figo’s Portugal to win the Under 21’s European Championship (Image from UEFA)

BOTN: After retirement, you moved into management and have managed a variety of Italian sides. How would you categorize your style of management? Do you have ambitions to manage abroad, perhaps back in England?

BC: My coaching style is very personal. I have a vision of football and my way of relating to footballers. Having experienced football on several levels and being able to think with the footballer’s mind help me a lot to understand their needs even before they ask. The coach for me must be like a psychologist and relates in a different way according to the player in front of him. Everyone is different from the other, they have different thoughts and different football visions. The skill is being able to understand these situations, even before the modules, tactics and types of training. And yes, I would love to manage in England.

BOTN: You had a spell working as a consultant for Leeds United under Massimo Cellino which evolved over time to include first team and Academy duties. What did you learn from that experience and why did you leave in the end?

BC: The experience I had with Leeds was beautiful. I grew up on a human and managerial level, being basically President Cellino’s trustee. I have covered many roles in a short time, even training the U21 team (which was my original objective). It was a pity that it ended so quickly, but it was a fundamental experience for my career.

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Carbone, the manager (Image from Carbone’s Instagram)

BOTN: Throughout your career you have been used in a variety of different positions including out on the wing, as a central attacker or in an attacking midfield role. What was your most comfortable position and at what position do you think the fans saw you at your best?

BC: My favorite position on the pitch was always next to a striker, I’ve never been an offensive midfielder. Sometimes I played as a midfielder on the right, but I was not comfortable, I could not give my best. As a supporting forward, several strikers I played with became top scorers in that season or played for the national team.

BOTN: You famously gave up £3.3 million that was owed to you by Bradford City FC which in turn saved them from going into administration. That’s a lot of money to give up. What made you do that?

 BC: I made that choice to save the club. I left the team 2 years and a half before the end of my contract. I don’t want that money back because I decided with my heart and I would never do that, especially to a team that I respect a lot. Passion and respect always came before money and fame.

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Carbone played for a variety of English clubs (Image from Carbone’s Instagram)

BOTN: Finally, some quick questions: Is it true that you wore specially created shin pads with the faces of Maradona and Roberto Baggio on them during your career?

BC: True. They were my idols. I wanted to know everything about Maradona once I arrived in Naples, all the details, even talking with his personal historical masseur. For me Roberto Baggio was the strongest Italian player ever, I have an immense admiration of him.

BOTN: Best goal you ever scored? The overhead kick for Sheffield Wednesday vs Newcastle?

BC: That is without doubt one of the most beautiful goals. There are others of which I have good memories, like the lob against Nottingham Forest or the one against Bolton. If I have to choose one, the most significant was the third goal against Leeds in the 3-2 that allowed Aston Villa to qualify for the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. That never happened in 25 years before.

BOTN: Toughest manager you played for?

 BC: I have not had very tough coaches. As I said before, the one who taught me the most was Cesare Prandelli at Parma, who really knew how to work with every type of player, regardless of his experience. I still consider it one of the best ever.

BOTN: Thank you Benito and good luck for the rest of the season.

You can follow Benito on Instagram and Twitter

With thanks to Maurizio Russo at NF Sport Management

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The Uninspiring Italian Hired As Leicester Boss

Claudio Ranieri's appointment was so uninspiring that they even announce his hiring with him sitting down  (Image from Getty)Former England striker Gary Lineker is never short of an opinion about anything these days. The BT Sport host uses the marvels of social media and his uncanny ability to be wherever a TV camera or radio mic happens to be when something occurs in football. He has become the medias go to man for comments, one liners and headline grabbers. So when Leicester City, one of Linekers former clubs announced the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as their new manager, there was only ever going to be one man who the media called. And once again Lineker delivered calling the well-travelled Italian “an uninspiring choice” and an indication of a growing problem in football which sees the same group of old tired managers clambering for all managerial appointments that become available. For once he may have a point but we hesitate to admit that just in case it goes to Linekers already swollen head.

Always with an opinion - Gary Lineker  (Image from AFP)

Always with an opinion – Gary Lineker
(Image from AFP)

After the sacking of the ostrich quoting former manager Nigel Pearson, speculation over who would take over the foxes went into overdrive with the British press and football gossip blogs wetting the bed in excitement. They threw the usual set of candidates into the mix:  a former player (Neil Lennon), a former manager (Martin O’Neill), a current player with no managerial experience (Esteban Cambiasso) and a well-traveled British steward of the managerial game (Sam Alladyce). They even did some back of a napkin math figuring out that Guus Hiddink’s departure from the Dutch national team meant only one thing; that he was bound for Leicester. There was no way that Hiddink’s failure in recent months to inspire the Dutch to qualification wins had anything to do with it nor his intention to step away from the game the moment he left the Holland job. Including Hiddink’s name gave the media what they wanted – a name to play on, a big star who would excite the foxes fans enough that they part with their hard-earned cash in order to buy their newspaper for the exclusive details behind his imminent arrival.

One for the fans - Guus Hiddink  (Image from PA)

One for the fans – Guus Hiddink
(Image from PA)

But in the end the Leicester board pulled a fast one, appointing “a highly respected coach with both club and international experience”. The well-traveled Italian has managed primarily in Italy (Cagliari, Napoli, Fiorentina, Juventus, Parma, Roma and Inter) and Spain (Atletico Madrid, Valencia twice) as well as stints as boss of Chelsea, Monaco and Greece along the way. The perfect fit for Leicester it would seem apart from a few minor details. Firstly Ranieri’s success at the various clubs he has been limited to say the least and his international experience is less than impressive having been sacked by Greece after failing to win a single game. At club level, the last trophy Ranieri picked up was the French Ligue 2 title with Monaco back in 2012 which was his first trophy since 2004. Managers should be judged on their success and for Ranieri the judges are still very much in debate chamber. He has won 9 trophies in a 27 year managerial career but most are lower league titles: 1 each from the Italian Serie B and C leagues and that French Ligue 2 crown with Monaco. He did find some success early on in his career at Fiorentina and Valencia (during his first stint in charge) securing the Copa and Supercopa Italia titles and the Copa Del Rey, Intertoto Cup and Super Cup respectively. But apart from this, Ranieri has fallen short on a too frequent basis.

Monaco under Ranieri seal the Ligue 2 title (Image from Getty)

Monaco under Ranieri seal the Ligue 2 title
(Image from Getty)

His success at Monaco was expected given that the team was funded by a billionaire and had a squad that was earning ten times what their nearest league rivals were making.  It’s a familiarly story throughout Ranieri’s managerial career with the Italian lucky on more than one occasion; inheriting a good squad but failing to move it forward. His time at Chelsea for instance coincided with a change in their financial fortunes with Roman Abramovich rolling into town, bulging suitcases of money firmly under both arms. After failing to impress the Russian, he left to re-join the then reigning La Liga and UEFA Cup champions Valencia but couldn’t inspire his talented side to perform and was sacked eight months later. Spells at Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan followed, all of which had strong enough squads to challenge but in typical Ranieri style, he fell short on all three occasions. Escaping to the south of France was supposed to repair Ranieri’s damaged reputation and things looked good for the Italian as he guided them back to Ligue 1. But the jump appeared to be too hard to cope with and again Ranieri was sacked after failing to make the grade.

Ranieri has failed to win anything since 2012  (Image from PA)

Ranieri has failed to win anything since 2012
(Image from PA)

Then came a switch to national football with the surprise appointment to the Greek national team managers position. Greece were on a high after reaching the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, narrowly missing out on a quarter-final spot thanks to an agonizing penalty shoot out defeat to Costa Rica. Ranieri’s arrival heralded a different approach and one that the Greeks believed would take them to the next level by sailing through qualification for Euro 2016 but instead the country slid backwards. His strange tactical alterations and lack of ability to speak the language lead to confusion among the players who looked like an amateur team in an already weak qualification group. Defeats to Romania, Northern Ireland and the lowly Faroe Islands was enough to end Greece’s hopes of qualifying and with it led to his sacking for which Hellenic Football Federation’s president, Giorgos Sarris publicly apologized for his “unfortunate selection of manager”.

Confusion reigned during Ranieri's spell in charge of Greece  (Image from Getty)

Confusion reigned during Ranieri’s spell in charge of Greece
(Image from Getty)

Ranieri’s reputation is in tatters which makes his appointment at Leicester so baffling. Leicester’s survival last year was down to consistency under Pearson who found a tactic and team mid way through the season that worked and stuck with it. That resulted in the most dramatic of turnarounds which saw Leicester fly up the table to safety. But now in his place the board has hired a man known ironically as the Tinkerman due to his constant need to alter tactics and team selection making consistency almost impossible. Hardly what Leicester needs going into the new season. Ranieri is dramatically different from Pearson which is maybe why the board selected him. He is quiet, reserved and polite unlike Pearson who made a name for himself last year with his brash, bully like approach. Quite simply he is vanilla, plain and simple which by itself is very uninspiring so perhaps Lineker was right after all.

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Is This The Most Exciting Europa League Ever?

Goals galore in this seasons Europa League as teams look to emulate last years winners, Sevilla (Image from Getty)Once considered the poorer little brother to the Champions League, the Europa League appears to be on a quest to show just how good a tournament it can be. With the stakes raised this season (with the winner given an automatic slot in the Champions League), teams appear to be taking the tournament more seriously than ever before with several top sides still in contention. It has been a thrilling tournament to date with a plethora of goals to keep the fans entertaining. After a goal filled group stage (379 goals over 144 games, an average of 2.6 goals per game), the knockout stage had much to live up to and did not disappoint. Russian sides Dinamo Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Dnipro join Ajax, Dynamo Kiev, Sevilla and Villarreal in the last 16 after a series of strong performances and once again a barrage of goals. From the 32 matches played, a total of 88 goals were scored or an average of 2.75 goals per game which bodes well for the tournament as it enters the last 16 stage.

British participation however will be limited to only Everton after Liverpool, Tottenham and Celtic all crashed out last night.  Everton will now play Dynamo Kiev after dispatching Young Boys 7-2 on aggregate. It’s not an ideal draw for Roberto Martinez’s team with the first leg due to be played in Kiev in mid march.  Across the city, Steven Gerrard’s dream of leaving Liverpool after lifting the Europa League Cup were dashed after a 1-0 score line after ninety minutes in Turkey against Besiktas sent the game to penalties with defender Dejan Lovren missing the decisive one. Manager Brendan Rodgers defended his team saying that they had played well throughout but in truth Liverpool lacked the cutting edge to make it past an ineffective Besitkas side.  Also poor in front of goal was Tottenham who rested the inform Harry Kane for Sunday’s League Cup Final against Chelsea and replaced him with Roberto Soldado. To say that Soldado has been a flop since his arrival from Valencia two seasons ago is an understatement and after another confidence sapped performance from the once prominent striker, you have to wonder how long he has left at White Hart Lane. Two goals from Mario Gomez and Mohamed Salah were enough for Fiorentina to secure a 3-1 aggregate win over their Premiership competitors.

Fiorentina are joined in the last 16 by four other Italian sides – Rafa Benetiz’s Napoli, Roma, Torino and Celtic slayers Inter Milan. Inter’s nervy 1-0 win at the San Siro proved to be enough after a hard fought game that swung in the Italian side’s favour after the dismissal of Celtic’s influential centre back Virgil van Dijk. Making up the three places are Club Brugge, Besiktas and Wolfsburg, who secured passage through by knocking out Aalborg, Liverpool and Sporting Lisbon respectively. The draw, made earlier today, has thrown up some interesting matches with an all Spanish clash as Villarreal take on Seville and an all Italian clash with Fiorentina taking on Roma. Elsewhere Inter travel to Germany to face Wolfsburg whilst Brugge entertain Besiktas and Ajax make the long trek to Dnipro. Zenit vs. Torino, Napoli vs. Dinamo Moscow and Everton’s trip to Kiev completed the draw with the first leg to be played on March 12th and returns seven days later.

 

The draw for the last 16 has thrown up some interesting clashes  (Image from UEFA)

The draw for the last 16 has thrown up some interesting clashes
(Image from UEFA)

Given that the tournaments highest goal scorers Villarreal (20 so far in the group and knockout stages), Everton (17). Napoli, Wolfsburg, Brugge and Kiev (all 16) are still in contention again bodes well for the fans who are likely to see even more goals. Predicting a winner at this stage is almost impossible with all 16 remaining sides in with a chance. Current holder Sevilla will be hoping to become the most successful team in the competition by winning their fourth title. If they can secure back to back title, they will also become the first team to do so since the tournament was renamed from the UEFA cup to the Europa League. They will face stiff competition with five other former winners still left in the competition.  With the final set to be played in Warsaw on May 27th, the race for Poland is now on and what a race it is set to be.

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Will Aguero’s Latest Injury Derail City’s Season?

A tearful Aguero leaves the field against Everton (Image from Matt West/BPI)With the pain visible in his face and the tears rolling down his cheeks, Sergio Aguero trudged off the pitch at the Ethiad Stadium on Saturday and straight onto Manchester City’s now heaving injury list. Scans have confirmed that the Argentine striker has a twisted medial ligament meaning he is likely to be out of action until early next year. The injury to arguably City best player this season is a bitter blow as they compete on multiple fronts for honours. It’s not quite been the start to the season that many expected from the current English champions. Slow out of the blocks in the league and struggling to find their footing in Europe, the pressure was building on Pellegrini as Aguero slowly returned from a hamstring problem that hindered his displays at this year’s World Cup. His reintroduction to the starting eleven has seen resurgence in form that has propelled City back up the table and back into contention, both at home and in Europe. Aguero has been in blistering form so far scoring 19 goals in 20 matches in all competitions. But this latest setback – his third knee injury in as many years could threaten to derail Manchester City’s season.

Aguero fell under the challenge of Everton's Muhamed Besic, injuring his knee  (Image from Getty)

Aguero fell under the challenge of Everton’s Muhamed Besic, injuring his knee
(Image from Getty)

With injuries to key personnel like David Silva and Vincent Kompany as well as a drop in form for several other instrumental players, the news that Aguero could be out for a considerable period of time is hardly what was needed. City face a make or break game against Roma in the Champions League tomorrow with no less than a win needed to secure their passage into the next round. Roma need a win to progress so it will be a winner takes all scenario. However there is a chance that both teams could be disappointed if CSKA Moscow can go to Germany and convincingly beat table toppers Bayern Munich meaning that they would progress. Whilst unlikely that the Germans would roll over, the chance to progress and eliminate both Roma and City in one go may tempt them to field a reserve side in this match. Failing to advance would be seen as a failure by City’s owners who after tasting success domestically now pine for similar success in Europe. The Europa League may offer a chance at redemption for Pellegrini if his side can finish third in the group but it’s certainly not the prize that the clubs wealthy owners had in mind.

City scraped a draw against Roma the last time that they met  (Image from Getty)

City scraped a draw against Roma the last time that they met
(Image from Getty)

Back home in the league, City are chasing down leaders Chelsea who stumbled to their first defeat of the season on Saturday against Newcastle. Pardew’s side are going through a positive spell as late that has seen them leap back up the table after spending a few hair raising weeks rooted to the bottom of it. The defeat helped to cut the gap at the top between City and Chelsea to three points with the pair set to meet at the end of January. Before then City have seven matches to play, all of which are very winnable against sides much further down the league. In stark contrast, Chelsea’s next seven games pit them against more formable opponents such as Stoke, Southampton, Tottenham and Newcastle so by the time the two meet, City could already be top and in a commanding position. However doing so without their talisman Aguero may make the task harder for Pellegrini’s men. The extent of his injury is still being assessed by generally this type of injury could rule a player out for up to three months, potentially longer if surgery is required. For City’s sake, they will be hoping that Aguero responds well to treatment and will come back sooner but rushing him back could have long term detrimental effects to the players knee, given that this is not the first time he has hurt it. If he is to be out for longer, dipping in to the January transfer window to buy or loan another striker may help Pellegrini in the long run. City has the funds to do so and with the owners demanding success, it may be the only course of action if City are to finish this season with silverware.

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There’s Only Two Claudio Caniggias

Wait a second? Even the mascot didnt believe it was Caniggia as Cordone tries to pull a fast one (Image from Reuters)The unmistakable figure of Claudio Caniggia stood motionless in the tunnel, waiting for the call to take the field for Sunday’s friendly veteran’s game between Argentina and Brazil. The match in Natal, Brazil was billed as a clash of the greats with 1986 World Cup winning Argentina centre-back Oscar Ruggeri, Argentine midfielder Ariel Ortega and Brazilian duo Junior Baiano and Adilio all on show. But arguably one of the star attractions was Caniggia, a pacey winger turned striker that in his day excited crowds wherever he played. As the teams took to the field, Caniggia’s name was read out over the loud speaker and his photo flashed on the big screen to a barrage of applause and cheers. Wearing the number 7 shirt, Caniggia looked good for his 47 years with his famous long blond locks blowing in the wind. But in closer inspection, something just wasn’t right. Caniggia appeared to have gotten a tattoo on his right forearm, which did not look like a recent addition. Added into this, his style of play was slightly different and his passing somewhat off. As the game began fans began to wonder if the player on the field was in fact Claudio or instead an imposter?

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year  (Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year
(Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

They were right to question this as it was in fact not Caniggia but instead former Newcastle and Velez Sarsfield striker Daniel Cordone who was on the pitch. The former Magpie striker was pretending to be Caniggia who it was later revealed had missed his flight. Cordone, who was deemed a flop on Tyneside played the full ninety minutes before quickly scurrying off the field into the dressing room ignoring the waiting media. This caused suspicions to arise in the press core as Caniggia was usually more than willing to speak to reporters, especially given his status in Argentina as a legend. Unlike Cordone who never represented his country, Caniggia appeared over 50 times, scoring 16 goals during a 15 year international career. He played in two World Cups (selected for three but didn’t take the field during the 2002 World Cup) helping Argentina to the final in 1990 but his finest hour was leading Argentina to Copa America success in 1991. His dynamic play and gritted determination to own the ball during that tournament steered Argentina to its first Copa win in over 30 years. Caniggia is also fondly remembered for his club career and the many teams that he turned out for. After starting his career in Argentina with River Plate, he moved to Italy where he would play for Verona, Atalanta and Roma before moving to Portugal with Benfica. After a single season, he returned to Argentina with Boca Juniors before being persuaded three years later to return to Atalanta for a final swansong. Caniggia was happy to escape his homeland after a troubled three years which including losing his mother who commited suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of her apartment building. The event affected Caniggia deeply who considered retiring after spending almost a year out of the game in mourning but when the offer from Atalanta came in, he decided to give it one last shot. It was a move that would eventually see him move to Britain but strangely not to one of England’s big clubs who had been chasing him his entire career but instead to Dundee in the Scottish Premiership. In Scotland he regained his passion for the game and after a fantastic debut season, he secured a lucrative move to Glasgow giants Rangers where he would gain cult status with the fans over a two year stay. He would eventually leave Scotland for a single season in the money laden Qatar league but in truth Caniggia had by then called it a day. Now retired from the game and in an effort to maintain his fitness, he takes part in exhibition matches like this one, but for reasons unconfirmed was not in Natal come Sunday.

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby  (Image from PA)

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby
(Image from PA)

An investigation has been launched into why the organizers would allow Cordone to play in place of Caniggia and more importantly lie to the fans about it. The event organizers, Phoenix Sports insisted when questioned that there was nothing to hide and that it was Caniggia who took to the field on Sunday. ‘This is the Caniggia, the real Caniggia. There is no other Caniggia,’ insisted Andre de Paula, promoter of Phoenix Sports after the game.  But he quickly retracted this remark later on and admitted that Caniggia had failed to turn up so they were forced to field Cordone.  In the end the result of the match was not important, with it finishing in a 3-3 draw. But for the fans it was a bitterly disappointing day as some had paid good money to come and see Caniggia play in particular. Several fans left in disgust before the match had finished after working out that it wasn’t Caniggia on the field, with many more feeling angry about being lied to. There has been no word yet about whether further action will be taken against the promoter or against Cordone himself for his part in this fraud. Caniggia has yet to reveal his side of the story and has remained silent as the controversy over why this happened continues.

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La Masia Legend Krkic Signs On At Stoke

Krkic owns the record for all time leading goalscorer at La Masia (Image from Icon/Maddenfoot)As far as summer transfers go, the decision by Bojan Krkic to move from La Liga to the English Premiership is hardly unexpected. But what is surprising is his choice of club to move to. Stoke City announced yesterday that the 23 year old has completed his move to the Britannia Stadium for an undisclosed fee on a four year deal. Krkic finalized his switch to The Potteries on Tuesday afternoon after passing a medical and speaking in length with manager Mark Hughes. The transfer will be viewed as somewhat of a coup for Stoke given Krkic’s reputation and past career history.

Mark Huges is revamping his Stoke squad ahead of the new season  (Image from Getty)

Mark Huges is revamping his Stoke squad ahead of the new season
(Image from Getty)

Born in Spain to Serbian father (former Red Star Belgrade midfielder Bojan Krkic Snr) and Spanish mother, Bojan Jnr joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth system aged eight and quickly went on to establish himself as one of the most exciting prospects to ever come through their ranks. With notable dribbling skills and lighting quick pace, Krkic became a goal scoring phenomenon and the all time highest scorer in La Masia history, scoring more than 400 times for the various youth teams. He eventually made his first team debut at 17, breaking yet another record becoming the youngest Barcelona player to feature in a La Liga match. Over the next four years he made 104 appearances for Barca scoring on 26 occasions earning him a call up to the Spanish national team. But despite his promise, he was unable to hold down a permanent spot in the first team, leading to his eventual departure to Italian side, Roma. The sale was agreed by Barcelona on the provision that a buy back clause be inserted into the deal, which they would active two years later. In the meantime Krkic grew his reputation in Italy with a fine debut season for Roma followed by a yearlong loan deal at AC Milan. His return to the Nou Camp was welcomed by the fans who still remembered the player with fondness from his first time at the club. However under new boss Gerardo Martino, Krkic was unable to displace the inform trio of Neymar, Pedro and Messi leading to another loan move, this time to Ajax. Under the management of Frank De Boer, Krkic played his role in helping the Ajax secure a domestic double in the form of the League and Super Cup.

Krkic moved to Italy with Roma  (Image from Getty)

Krkic moved to Italy with Roma
(Image from Getty)

With his stock rising and still aged only 23, Krkic returned to Barcelona this summer for talks with new boss Luis Enrique about his future only to be told that he was unable to give Krkic a starting spot. Having acquired Luis Suarez from Liverpool, Krkic knew his time was up at Barcelona and his agent started work in an attempt to engineer his move away from the Nou Camp. Krkic’s decision to join Stoke is an indication of his desire to play in England and get regular first team football. With Hughes revamping his squad, Krkic will be given this chance as a key component of his new look squad. Having lost his way slightly over the past few years, Krkic will have a chance to resurrect his career and show Barcelona the error of their ways. This time however Barcelona have not inserted a buy back clause meaning that if they are to regret letting Krkic go, they will likely face paying a hefty fee to get him back. Krkic however has no thoughts about returning to Spain right now and is focused on making his move to England successful. If he can recapture the form he showed during his time at La Masia, Stoke may have snapped up the bargain of the season.

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Pochettino Installed To Breathe Life Back Into Lamela and Spurs

New Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino (Image from Getty)

After an extensive search following the departure of Tim Sherwood, Tottenham announced yesterday that they had appointed Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino as their new manager. Whilst the fans may have preferred another appointment, with Ajax’s boss Frank De Boer one of the names touted, the news will be received greatly by one Spurs player in particular. Since his arrival from Roma last summer, the weight of expectation has rested firmly on Erik Lamela’s shoulders. Spurs fans would have been forgiven for having high hopes about a player that the club chose to spend just over £25million for and reports from Italy suggested at the time that they were correct to set the benchmark high given Lamela’s past two seasons at Roma. But like many foreign players coming into the Premiership, Lamela struggled to adapt, not only on the pitch and the high intensity of the Premiership but also culturally with north London a more rougher proposition that his previous home in Rome.

Short of Confidence - Erik Lamela  (Image from Getty)

Short of Confidence – Erik Lamela
(Image from Getty)

It didn’t help that then coach Andre Villas Boas preferred to play him on the left as a natural replacement for the departed Gareth Bale when arguably his best and most comfortable position was on the right flank. The Portuguese coach was also heavily criticized for not looking after his new talent, instead allowing Lamela to integrate himself, despite knowing that the player was struggling. After Villas Boas left and Tim Sherwood took charge, things started to look brighter for Lamela as Sherwood brought back most the players on the peripherals to dramatic effect. Lamela started Sherwood’s first game in charge, ironically a 3-2 win over Pochettino’s Southampton side and immediately showed what the Spurs fans had been missing with a series of smart runs down the right wing. He would then come on as a sub for the next two games before injuring his back in training which ruled him out for the remainder of the season. Talk of Tottenham shipping out the Argentinean in the summer started at the beginning of April and has been persistent ever since with a move back to Italy becoming the monthly running favourite with most media sources.

Villas Boas was sacked in December (Image from Getty)

Villas Boas was sacked in December (Image from Getty)

But the appointment of fellow Argentine Pochettino is likely to change that with the new coach unlikely to sanction a move away from the club for one of its more talented players. Pochettino instead will look to apply the same approach he had at Southampton, working with each player to extract the best out of them as much as possible for the benefit of the team. Before he took charge of Southampton, Jay Rodriguez was nowhere near an England squad but after working with Pochettino for a season and a half, he had one foot on the plane to Brazil before an anterior cruciate ligament injury in April ruled him out of contention. Similarly Pochettino worked to smooth the rough edges of fellow striker Rickie Lambert, perfecting his positioning and hold up play that eventually turned him into World Cup bound England striker. Whilst Lamela requires little work in terms of talent development, Pochettino can help by reinstalling the confidence in his fellow countryman that once flowed through him during his spells with River Plate and Roma. Having Lamela back living up to his full potential will have the same result for Pochettino and Tottenham as buying a new world class player but without the bedding in period.

Rickie Lambert, England Striker  (Image from Getty)

Rickie Lambert, England Striker
(Image from Getty)

Lamela is immensely talented and was wrongly ignored by Villas Boas but Pochettino could reap the rewards as he kickstarts his spell as Tottenham boss. The new Spurs coach will have a lot of work ahead of him including trimming down the Tottenham squad of all the excess fat before he starts to bring in his own people. He will spend the off season molding his team into the squad he want before working in the pre season to teach them the tactics he wants to play. At Southampton, Pochettino preferred the 4-2-3-1 formation and will make that the basis for his tactical plans at Spurs. He will want to play attractive attacking football, with pace and flair with Dane Christian Eriksen operating in the central positions of the three attacking midfielders, much like Adam Lallana performed at Southampton. Lamela will be restored and placed on his favoured right flank with permission granted from his manager to explore the gaps and run at defenders with pace and enthusiasm. This will suit Lamela who will be desperate to prove to the naysayers that he is not a dud and he can still offer something to Tottenham. The smart money will be on Pochettino investing in a left winger (or  perhaps place his faith in Andros Townsend) who can then work with Lamela and Eriksen to gain the most out of his attacking trio.

Lamela scored 15 goals the season before moving to Spurs  (Image from PA)

Lamela scored 15 goals the season before moving to Spurs
(Image from PA)

Whilst Pochettino may not be the glamour choice for Spurs, he may end up being the right one. He will nurture the existing fringe players like Lamela and Lewis Holtby to bring out the best in them whilst also bringing through some of the new stars of tomorrow in the Tottenham youth squad like Cristian Ceballos, Shaquile Coulthirst and Alex Pritchard much like he did at Southampton with Luke Shaw, James Ward Prowse and Calum Chambers. Even if Pochettino can only transform Erik Lamela back into the player he was at Roma, he will have a hugely successful spell as Tottenham boss.

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Ambitious Toronto Invest Heavily To Realize The Dream

Toronto or Bust for Defoe's World Cup Dream  (Image from PA)

Toronto FC are set to announce the capture of two well known faces this coming Monday that will kick start the clubs revival. The Canadian club has agreed bumper deals with Tottenham striker Jermaine Defoe and Roma midfielder Michael Bradley. At a combined transfer fee of $15.5million, the pair are an expensive addition to the squad but something that was very much needed to progress. Both arrive knowing that they need to perform quickly if they are to impress their respective national coaches and secure a place within their country’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup.

Defoe and Bradley both have aspirations to play at the World Cup in Brazil this summer  (Image from PA)

Defoe and Bradley both have aspirations to play at the World Cup in Brazil this summer
(Image from PA)

Bradley’s arrival is more of an indication of Toronto’s intent and vision than that of Defoe’s. Whilst the England international brings the flair factor to Toronto’s pre season, Bradley brings with him the direction that the club wants to go in. The US international turned down other offers across Europe including at rumoured move back to the English Premiership, to join Toronto. Granted the wages on offer were far more appealing than others on the table, but Bradley has indicated it was more the vision of where TFC are going and the important role he could play that enticed him. It’s a fair indication given that a club the size and stature of Toronto have managed to persuade a player in his prime to join them in the MLS ahead of going to play in one of the better quality leagues in Europe.

Bradley's arrival showcases Toronto's intent  (Image from Getty)

Bradley’s arrival showcases Toronto’s intent
(Image from Getty)

Ambition has not been something that TFC has demonstrated greatly in the past five years with only talk of success touted in pre season but little to show for it. Failed strategies, lack of investment and overall interest has hindered progression but now a new dawn is rising over the club, backed with significant investment from its owners, MLSE. The change can be sourced to the arrival of three wise men, less in the biblical sense but more in the footballing sense. With a wealth of knowledge of the game between them and strong reputations to boot, Tim Leiweke, Ryan Nelsen and new GM Tim Bezbatchenko have restarted the faltering heart of the Canadian franchise. Last season was the bedding in period for Nielsen and Leiweke with the final piece in Bezbatchenko arriving late last year. They have wasted little time in identifying and correcting Toronto’s problem areas, the results of which are now being showcased with the arrival of a collection of quality players like Bradley and Defoe. Their collective ambitions is to create a franchise and a team that can challenge the likes of Leiweke’s old club L.A. Galaxy, or last year’s winners Sporting Kansas City for honours. It starts with the building of a spine for the team, with Defoe leading the line supported by Bradley and with Caldwell patrolling the back. A strong reliable goalkeeper is needed to complete the set with questions still lingering over the qualities of current number one, Joe Bendik. Support has been arriving all winter in the form of Brazilian duo Jackson and Gilberto; the latter viewed as something of a coup for the club given his growing reputation back home in Brazil. Adding local boy Dwayne De Rosario gives Nelsen options and the hometown passion his team lacked on several occasions last year. And with Justin Morrow arriving to strengthen the defence, Toronto is starting to look like a squad capable of living up to expectations.

TFC's three wise men  (Image from CP)

TFC’s three wise men
(Image from CP)

Those expectations are heavy ones given the significant outlay of cash in this pre season. Between Bradley and Defoe, the pair will reportedly split close to $100m in wages over the next four years. They will need to prove their worth and quickly to keep the fans and the three wise men happy. Mid table mediocrity will not do with expectations on competing for a Champions league spot more in line with the managements thinking. Toronto needs to continue to invest with an established goalkeeper and creative midfielder a top priority. Investment in the future of the academy, not just in securing 1st round draft picks is also needed if Toronto is to protect its long term future. With world class facilities already in place, Toronto need to develop more Canadian youngsters who will eventually step into the shoes of Defoe and Bradley, keeping the franchise going. This year’s mission though starts in earnest in March when the judges will be out in force to see what this new era has in store. Will the new look Toronto FC impress or will it be an expensive mistake by a club full of ambitious dreams.

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The King of Rome Rolls Back The Years To Help Roma’s Resurgence

In the form of his life - Totti(Image from Getty)The Italian media is running out of superlatives for Roma’s Francesco Totti and it’s not hard to understand why. At 37 years old, the player called King of Rome by the Italian media has turned back the years and is playing some of the best football of his career. His efforts have inspired Roma to their best ever start in Serie A and turned them into genuine title challengers. Roma sit three points behind leaders Juventus and are so far unbeaten in the league, the only team in Serie A to hold this record. Despite four draws in their last five games, Roma continue to defy the critics who wrote them off at the start of the season.

Ruling Like Never Before - The King of Rome, Francesco Totti  (Image from Getty)

Ruling Like Never Before – The King of Rome, Francesco Totti
(Image from Getty)

Credit for this revival must be given to Totti and the steps he has gone to in order to prolong his career. The player is in the best shape of his life mostly due to a fish based diet that has kept him lean and able to sculpt his physique more to suit the physicality’s of the modern game. He has found the hunger that used to burn so brightly behind his eyes and is playing with a freedom that is befitting a man of his talents.  New coach Rudi Garcia took what he saw as a calculated risk when he took over in the summer by building his team around Totti. Most coaches would have looked at the aging former internationalist with several niggling injuries to his name and tossed him aside with little thought. But the spark and flair was still there, locked up under heavy chains imposed on Totti by previous regimes. Releasing him lifted the weight off of Totti’s shoulders and has allowed him to play. Garcia smartly dropped Totti back from his usual striker position into an attacking midfielder/playmaker role, much to the players delight.

Garcia and Totti lead Roma forward  (Image from PA)

Garcia and Totti lead Roma forward
(Image from PA)

Totti now controls the game, feeding balls left, right and centre neatly yet accurately onto the toes of on rushing teammates. He can still score, as demonstrated this season against Inter and Parma but without having to run as much as he would have done in a striker role. He can conserve his energy until the right moment, then attack the ball with a renewed vigour and determination. As part of his new role, his teammates are benefiting from his vision and ability to create something from nothing. In particular former Arsenal winger Gervinho is profiting the most and looks more and more like the player he was at Lillie and the one Arsenal thought they were buying. Similarly players like Miralem Pjanic, Alessandro Florenzi and Adem Ljajic have managed to find more space and have increased opportunities to score thanks to Totti’s selfless set up play. With 6 assists to his name so far, Totti is on course to exceed his best ever total of 12 in a season, highlighting how well he is playing. He makes Roma tick, and Roma are appreciative of it.

Gervinho has benefitted from Totti's setup play  (Image from Getty)

Gervinho has benefitted from Totti’s setup play (Image from Getty)

At 37, Totti’s chances of playing in another World Cup should be all but buried. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has other options to choose from after all but none can change a game like Totti can. So should he be part of the squad that goes to Brazil next year? If he stays in good shape and continues to play a fundamental role in Roma’s season, is there room for him on the plane? The question that Prandelli has to ask is can he afford to leave him at home or will it come back to haunt him as the tournament gets underway? Don’t be surprised to see Totti take the pitch for Italy in their opening game against England next June. Nothing should surprise us anymore when it comes to Totti.

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Can Benetiz Inspire Napoli To Serie A Glory?

Golden Era - Maradona (Image from Footballitalia)It’s been a long time since Napoli was classified as Serie A title contenders. Not since Maradona pulled on the light blue jersey has the Napoli faithful believed it has a shot at glory. But now, under the guidance of Spanish coach Rafa Benetiz, Napoli is starting to look like a genuine threat to Juventus crown. A mile away from the financial troubled club of the late nineties, Napoli now have significant muscle behind them and are making a strong play for the title this season with some bold moves in the transfer market.

Benetiz wants to bring success back to Napoli  (Image from ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images)

Benetiz wants to bring success back to Napoli
(Image from ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images)

After arriving from Chelsea during the summer, Benetiz wasted little time strengthening the existing squad he had with several key arrivals joining the club. One of his first moves was to secure Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina on loan from Liverpool as replacement for the departing Morgan De Sanctis. The two worked closely during Benetiz’s time in charge at Anfield and the move made a lot of sense to both parties, with Napoli short of options between the sticks and Reina now backup at Liverpool to new signing Simon Mignolet. To support Reina, Benetiz also drafted in accomplished centre half Raul Albiol from Real Madrid to tighten a somewhat suspect defense. Albiol is one of three players to arrive at Napoli during the summer with winger Jose Maria Callejon and Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain also making the move. Higuain was seen as something of a coup for the club, who fought of Premiership interest from Arsenal and Chelsea to sign the powerful striker. At a cost of £32.5million, the 25 year old is not a cheap buy but with cash in the bank from the sale of Edinson Cavani to PSG for just under £57million, Higuain could prove to be one of the buys of the season. Having hit four goals in his first six appearances for the club, the fans now have a new hero that they can shout about from the terraces.

Higuian and Reina will play crucial roles if Napoli are to be Italian champions  (Image from AP)

Higuian and Reina will play crucial roles if Napoli are to be Italian champions
(Image from AP)

With the new pieces added to his puzzle, Benetiz now has a squad that look like title challengers on paper but whether they can pull together a run to the title has yet to be seen. The atmosphere around the ground is extremely positive with reports from the training ground suggesting that the new players have gelled into the squad quickly and with little disruption. On the pitch, results in the league have been impressive with well fought victories over AC Milan, Bologna and Chievo catapulting Napoli into third place in the league, just a few points behind earlier leaders Roma and Inter. A fine performance in the Champions league against Borussia Dortmund has also put them in the driver’s seat in their group however some tough matches lie ahead with trips to Arsenal and Marseille still to come. The focus however will be on league success after coming so close last year. Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis wants nothing more than to secure the Serie A title and get back a return for his investment.

Napoli celebrate win over Dortmund  (Image from Getty)

Napoli celebrate win over Dortmund
(Image from Getty)

Questions will be asked if the squad has enough depth to contend on multiple fronts both domestically and in Europe. Wednesday’s draw against bottom placed Sassuolo is a game that Napoli should be winning comfortably if they are to challenge for honours but highlights a problem in mindset. With the exception of AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund, Benetiz’s side has yet to be tested, that was until Wednesday. Going into the match, Napoli underestimated their opponents, who after gaining promotion for the first time in their history last year, sat pointless at the bottom of the league. Despite taking a fifteen minute lead, Napoli appeared to take their foot of the gas and paid the penalty as they allowed Simone Zaza to nip in and score an equalizer. Most teams in this position would step it up but Napoli looked as though their minds were elsewhere, presumably confident that they would find another goal. Against a resilient Sassoulo defence who needed to get their first point of the campaign, it never came and Napoli dropped two valuable points, much to the frustration of Benetiz. With the toughest month of the campaign to come at the end of March/ beginning of April when the face Juventus, Parma, Lazio , Udinese and Inter in a row, securing points against lower teams early on in the campaign could be the difference between winning the title and missing out. Benetiz is a winner, having guided an underdog Liverpool side to the Champions League and a disheartened Chelsea to the Europa League, but can he work his miracles again and help Napoli back to title winning ways.

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