To Chain the Beast

Help! Can anyone stop this image from recurring revery year?

We all know the names. Juventus, Roma, Inter, Lazio, and maybe also Fiorentina or Napoli – in this, or some slightly different configuration. We all know the scenario. Year by year, The Best From Turin is ripping the league to shreds and Roma, who try to catch up, sadly do drop several stupid points in the middle of the season and then are unable to compete. Behind the backs of those two, a group of three, at most four teams fight for Europa League slots – but even this battle ain’t that interesting, since usually it’s winners earn their bragging rights with 4 points to spare or more. Serie A’s final matchday drama is dead. Sure, there’s a plenty of football talent to entertain us, but it can’t be denied that the league has been recently stagnating in terms of it’s excitement – and Juve’s ability to save legs of best players for the half of the season (Champions League, baby!) only underlined that.

This season kicked off with a game in Verona, where Hellas (#13 of the last campaign) were taking on Gialorossi. Roma were, of course, the overwhelming favourites. The club remains fourth most debt-ridden Italian side and had very little money to spend this summer – but somehow, they’ve managed to get by again. In a stroke of business genius, Rudi Garcia sold his two young, unused players to Milan for almost £40 million and closed the transfer window with a £20 million gain in the pocket. At the same time, team’s roster was hardly weakened. Recent loanees Romagnoli and Bertolacci weren’t in Garcia’s plans anyway, and, in the meantime, he arranged two interesting loan deals, capturing Manchester City’s forward Edin Džeko and Chelsea’s winger Mohamed Salah. Those two, as well as Arsenal goalie Wojciech Szczęsny, all got their chance as starters at Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi.

 

 

And that was where the dream ended. Well, at least for now. Faced with a rather mediocre opponent, Roma painfully lacked the cutting edge in front of the enemy goal – just like it often was in the last season. The difference is that this time, player like Džeko was supposed to be a proper centre-forward and not a false number nine Francesco Totti used to be. Alas, the Bosnian giant, either confused by the occasion or following his managers’ instructions, played way too generously, bringing his teammates into good positions and then watching them wasting all chances. In City, where he was surrounded by the likes of Agüero, Silva or Touré, that made a lot of sense. But not here. Eventually, Džeko earned a well-deserved assist to Florenzi’s cracking equalizer from outside of the area – but it didn’t change the fact that his performance didn’t bring the pure, goalscoring firepower his team needed.

Salah’s game was even more disappointing. The winger, recently named persona non grata in Florence, had a task of dribbling his way past Samuel Souprayen. I don’t want to be cruel to the Frenchman in Hellas shirt, but he’s not a footballing genius and his long Ligue 2 spell before Serie A transfer confirms that. However, faced with Salah, Souprayen quite easily managed to make himself look good – getting 4 successful tackles, 85% pass accuracy and losing only one dribble duel. At the same time, Salah was dispossessed 7 times – more than anyone else on the pitch. Old good Gervinho was much more of a threat than the Egyptian misfit, who looked like the half of a player he used to be for Fiorentina. Viola may thus work in peace – the guy they wanted on loan for yet another year is in a poor form and basically saved ACF £1 million they’d need to pay Chelsea if he was to continue his spell in Florence.

 

 

The only new signing Roma can be happy with is Szczęsny. Arsenal loanee has made 5 saves, including one that needed devilish reflexes. Pushed out of Gunners’ dressing room, he finally looked like a player who’s been liberated from all the controversies he sparked in London. If it wasn’t for his Verona counterpart, Rafael, Szczęsny might’ve even been the man of the match. Unfortunately, as the game progressed and Hellas lead came into play, Szczęsny had less and less work to do – and Rafael had more and more. In the end, the Brazilian single-handedly guided his side to a draw. How the goalie managed to parry a 79th minute close-range shot by Miralem Pjanić… we may never know. But one thing is for sure – it was Pjanić’s only serious contribution to the game in which he was expected to be a creative force behind the forward three. He wasn’t. Monsieur Garcia has a lot to think of…

24 hours after this slip, the four-time champions were taking on Udinese. Having an away game against… Roma in prospect, Massimiliano Allegri conducted a cheeky experiment with his lineup, choosing Simone Padoin as team’s defensive midfielder and pairing Mario Mandžukić with 19-years old talent Kingsley Coman. As it turned out, neither of these two really stood out in the first half on the match, but it didn’t even matter. Juve were pulling all strings anyway. If you were to show just that part of the game to any football fan without revealing the final score, he’d surely predict Juventus’ comfortable 3-0 win. All Udinese brought to the table was one decent dribble by Ali Adnan (finished with a missed shot) and one dangerous backheel from legendary Di Natale to Thereau (which was intercepted by Evra). That’s literally it: rest of the flow took place on a visitors’ half of the pitch.

 

 

This was where Paul Pogba’s skill was supposed to make impact. Reduced to a support role under Pirlo’s and Vidal’s guidance, he had to become a major Zebrette’s figure once those two were gone. On Sunday, Pogba’s role as a lone midfield stand-out was further underlined by the absences of his injured teammates: Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira. The ex-Manchester United lad had 91 touches on the ball, made 65 passes, took three shots, won three headers, one dribble and one tackle. Those numbers may look good, but if we compare them with the actual influence on the game they had – it gets much worse. Despite the best hopes of Old Lady’s fans, the Frenchman doesn’t have the eye for making brilliant, difficult passes. He’s either a box-to-box midfielder or number ten designed to physically disrupt opposition’s backline. But he’s not getting either of these duties this season.

Without the flair to cut well-organized Udinese’s defence, the game later became a one-dimensional race of who can play an accurate cross to Mario Mandžukić. The Croat has been outstanding from start to finish, battling for every ball as if his life was on stake. Though not very effective with the headers himself, he created two very good chances for Coman and Padoin. If Vidal and Pirlo are sorely missed at Turin, at least the lack of Tevez shouldn’t be a problem, as Mandžukić strikes me as the best hard-working teamplayer you can replace the Argentinian with. It’s too bad that Allegri couldn’t team him up with Álvaro Morata (out for a month with a calf muscle problem). Speaking of striker partnerships, new signing Paulo Dybala had a 25-minute long cameo his weekend and looked much sharper than Coman. Did Juve manager really go overboard with his extravagant selection? I think so.

Mario had a promising debut, but lacked a good partner upfront.

Nevertheless, unlike in Roma’s case, Zebrette’s result is heavily misguiding. even when Cyril Théréau managed to slot in a cross from Panagiotis Kone, it wasn’t a result of visitors’ momentum late in the game – it was just a lapse of concentration among defenders who should’ve known better. If this team, stripped of Khedira, Marchisio and Morata, can play so well despite the injuries, it should improve even more once the health issues go away. Other than that, there are still questions of late new arrivals, who could make additional impact. On Saturday, Juve boss confirmed that the team has signed FC Porto left-back Alex Sandro – a player who, by all looks of it, will become Patrice Evra’s successor. Other than him, bianco-neri are one step away from loaning out Chelsea’s flop Juan Cuadrado. The Colombian was useless in England, but brilliant in Italy. Nobody should underestimate him just yet.

Are there any more Scudetto contenders Allegri should be worried about yet? Inter, some might say. However, the nerazzurri are still in the midst of a very chaotic summer. At first, they’ve won a grotesque battle of bids for Geoffrey Kondogbia. Then, the likes of João Miranda, Martin Montoya and Stevan Jovetić came along. Then, there was an expected sale of Xherdan Shaqiri and an unexpected departure of Mateo Kovačić. A rough pre-season followed, in which Inter lost all four games against strong opposition – including a prestigious clash with Milan. And then – the league. Atalanta, the narrow relegation survivors in the last season, managed to resists 20 shots and 67% of possession by this new Mancini’s team before Jovetić scored in the stoppage time to make it 1-0. Three points cashed it, is nothing more to wish for? Unfortunately, as usual in Inter’s case, things aren’t that simple.

For there’s a still an ongoing experiment in Inter’s midfield. Mancini favours the narrow, 4-3-1-2 setup, but at the moment, his options are limited. So he keeps giving chances to the 18-years old Assane Gnoukouri – and the young Ivorian keeps letting him down. The kid is destined to become a typical playmaker, that’s for sure – but he’s also playing too safe and too deep to really make the difference. Meanwhile, Inter are still interested in wingers like Ivan Perisić from Wolfsburg and Erik Lamela from Tottenham. The reason is obvious: they want a new tactical dimension to the team, namely: the width. Without it, a team as weak as Atalanta almost snatched a draw on San Siro – a result that would’ve been unacceptable, given team’s ambitions. All in all, there are still too many questions in that formation to take Mancini’s team seriously in terms of the title challenge. Maybe next season?

Last but not least, there’s Lazio. Last season was the best one Eagles have enjoyed since the collapse of Sergio Cragnotti’s empire. Lined up 4-3-3, the team finished 3rd with 71 goals in 38 games – only one less than Juventus. Wingers Felipe Anderson and Antonio Candreva had the best seasons of their careers. At the same time, players like Dušan Basta, Lucas Biglia and Marco Parolo have all found the proper level of consistency to make their team go past Napoli and Fiorentina. And now? In Shanghai, Lazio were unable to cope with Juventus while contesting the Italian Supercup (0-2). In league, they narrowly (2-1) took out Bologna – a #5 top candidate for the relegation, according to the bookmakers. And, most importantly, they’ve been outplayed in Leverkusen just yesterday, after a shockingly bad performance in which they’ve failed to seriously test Bernd Leno at least once. Yes – it was that bad.

And the possession was 50-50…

At the moment, Lazio’s biggest problem is Lucas Biglia. Or, to be more specific – Lucas Biglia’s overwhelming importance to the team. The Argentinian scored a spectacular, left-footed, curling finish against Bologna only to leave the pitch with a calf injury that is going to keep him sidelined for about four weeks. Without their captain, the Romans were a mess at BayArena; Onazi, his replacement was no match to Christoph Kramer and Lars Bender. Neither him, nor Parolo could handle the weight of responsibility there and with an away game against Napoli coming up in three weeks, it seems that Lazio’s only hope will be 21-years old talent Danilo Cataldi. Unlike Inter under the Indonesian rule, Eagles don’t have the funds to bring in an emergency new player and without one, with Champions League dream dead, Stefano Pioli will be looking to repeat last spring’s performance rather than to seek new challenges.

Will there be any significant shift in the balance of powers? It’s yet to be found out – but if so, I’d still pick Roma over any other team wanting to undermine Zebrette. And therefore, the next stop in the calendar becomes even more important than usual. Here it is, Ladies and Gentlemen: 30 August 2015, Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Roma vs Juventus. Serie A doesn’t get any better than this.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s