Serie A is a league of pragmatists. There are pragmatic coaches, who specialise in delivering results rather than entertainment. There are pragmatic owners, who will sack a manager without blinking. And there are pragmatic players, who will (allegedly) occasionally agree to play for a scoreline that suits both teams.
It is a league still recovering from the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 – a scandal that has reared its head across this season both in the press and courtroom. One of the consequences of that scandal is a perceived absence of competition, with Inter Milan having caught hold of the Scudetto ball and run with it, racking up several titles in the process. This year, however, a challenger emerged from a surprising source.
Such is the force of Jose Mourinho’s personality that were Inter languishing in the bottom half of the table, he’d still be making headlines across Europe. As it is, he’s finally managed to shape this Inter side in to his own image. The summer saw them pull off one of the most remarkable transfer coups in recent footballing history – and all while selling their supposed best player. Zlatan Ibrahimovic went to Barcelona in exchange for Samuel Eto’o and a mammoth 46 million euros windfall. Ibrahimovic had been the inspiration between their title-winning campaign the season before, but Mourinho did not mourn his departure. Instead, he set about reinvesting the cash.
Aside from the arrival of Eto’o, there were four significant signings. He brought in Brazilian skipper Lucio from Bayern Munich to partner Argentinian hardman Walter Samuel at the back.
Two more South Americans arrived from Genoa, whose good form in 2008/09 saw them qualify for the Europa league. Combative Brazilian midfielder Thiago Motta arrived to add steel and a threat from long-range, whilst Diego Milito joined Eto’o as part of a new-look front-line. Milito arrived with a goalscoring record of at least one every two games for both Real Zaragoza and Genoa. Mourinho was as good as guaranteeing goals, and so it has proved.
The most significant signing, however, was Dutchman Wesley Sneijder. Like Motta, Sneijder had suffered a succession of knee injuries in his career and there were doubts about his long-term viability. Having been bought by Real Madrid to replace the expert delivery and set-piece threat of David Beckham, he now found himself being forced out by the arrival Xabi Alonso and Kaka. A move to Inter was seen as a gamble by all parties – some pundits feared Sneijder would be too delicate for the tactical minefield of the Serie A midfield. However, to the surprise of many, he has flourished.
Sneijder is not, at first glance, a typical Mourinho player. The Portugese coach is known for favouring physically powerful, consistent, solider-like players. Sneijder is a mercurial talent, but he does meet his manager’s demand for statistical excellence: like Xavi of Barcelona and Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal, he is supreme when it comes to the retention of possession. However, of these two players he is more like the latter, as most of his work is done in the final third. With Motta and Esteban Cambiasso behind him, he is free to break forward and supply the likes of Milito, Eto’o, and January signing Goran Pandev.
Finally, Mourinho had his team. A team with the efficiency of his Chelsea side, with Sneijder playing the role Deco played in his Porto team – providing the creative spark.
The one thing standing between the Portugese and the Scudetto success was an old enemy: Claudio Ranieri. Mourinho had replaced Ranieri at Chelsea, and famously denounced the Italian’s reign as one characterised by failure, branding the Italian manager “a loser”. Now Ranieri had returned as manager of his hometown club, AS Roma, and a remarkable 23-match unbeaten run propelled the Romans to the top of the league for the first time in three years.
Ranieri’s Roma was built on a remarkable never-say-die attitude. They had to do without the talismanic Francesco Totti for long periods, but were able to rely instead on the clinical finishing of Mirko Vucinic and a revived Jeremy Menez. Ranieri also brought in World Cup-winning striker Luca Toni on loan from Bayern Munich to add some much-needed firepower to his existing options.
There was one phrase which spread like wildfire among Roma fans, even as the possibility of ending their wait for Serie A glory grew tantalisingly close: “It’s not going to happen, but if it happens…”.
As it happens, their cynicism was well-placed: Inter edged the title on the final day with a 1-0 win over Siena. Roma’s turnaround under the likeable Ranieri was the feel-good story of the season, but Mourinho is anything but sentimental. His side were ruthless and strong enough to keep the capital club at bay.
Roma were also defeated by Inter in the Final of the Italian Cup, meaning that when Inter face Bayern in this weekend’s Champions League Final they, like their German opponents, will be one game away from a historic treble. Whether or not that proves to be Mourinho’s final game as Inter manager remains to be seen – the failure of Manuel Pellegrini to land La Liga means he could swiftly become a target for Real Madrid. Ranieri, meanwhile, has been linked with replacing Marcello Lippi as boss of the national team. However, having come so close to winning the league, you suspect he’ll want another crack at proving Mourinho’s “loser” jibe wrong.
Best of the Rest
It’s been a difficult first season in management for Brazilian Leonardo at Milan. The former technical director was drafted in to replace the departing Carlo Ancelotti, and after an initial sticky patch the early signs were good. Leonardo was coaxing improved performances out of his mercurial compatriot, Ronaldinho, and the team were playing fluid football.
However, this is a Milan squad badly in need of overhaul. There are aging legs in every department, and the nigh-supernatural effects of the famous Milan Lab are beginning to wear off. Having achieved the bare minimum required – third place – Leonardo swiftly resigned. Not only has he taken little joy from the stresses of football management, but his working relationship with owner Silvio Berlusconi has been stretched close to breaking point. It’s doubtful whether the Brazilian would have received the funds necessary to make the changes required.
Whoever takes the Milan job now – and the likes of Marco Van Basten, Mauro Tassotti, and Filippo Galli have all been linked with the role – will have to build on the younger elements of A.C.’s spine: Brazilian pair Thiago Silva and Alexandre Pato. Both are reported to be summer targets for Real Madrid, but are essential if Milan are serious about re-establishing themselves as a domestic and European force.
The fourth Champions League spot – a place that may disappear in the coming seasons if Bayern beat Inter and secure a higher coefficient ranking for Germany – went to Sampdoria. It was the Blucerchiati who dismantled Roma’s title-challenge with a crushing victory, and their form over the season suggests they could be an exciting contributor to next season’s Champions League.
Their manager, Gigi Del Neri, has worked wonders, building a team that is both solid at the back and exciting upfront. In less than a year he has revolutionised the team, replacing an erratic 3-5-2 system with a reliable 4-4-2. He has shown the courage to drop his best players, including the temperamental Antonio Cassano, and it has paid off – after a run out of the side in favour of Nicola Pozzi, Cassano returned reinvigorated and full of running. Only Roma have claimed more points in the second half of the season. It is no surprise to see Del Neri linked with some of Italy’s top jobs – including the intriguing possibility of replacing Mourinho at Inter, or joining Juventus.
Palermo were pipped to the post by Sampdoria, but can still take a great deal of pride from a fantastic season. Like Sampdoria, however, their satisfaction will be tempered by the fear of impending departures. 21-year old Denmark centre-half Simon Kjaer has been in outstanding form all season, and would only provide the assurance that he would say if the club reached the Champions League. As it is, the vultures of Europe’s top clubs are circling to prize him away. The same is true of another young talent, the dazzling Argentine talent Javier Pastore, who has been heavily linked with a move to Spain. Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini is insistent that Pastore will not be sold for “at least three seasons”, but he’s yet to receive the multi-million euro offers through his fax machine.
Juventus have had a nightmare campaign. After sacking Ranieri at the back end of last season, new coach Ciro Ferrara moved to strengthen his team with a couple of big-money Brazilian signings: playmaker Diego and holding midfielder Felipe Melo. Ferrara, however, lasted only until January, by which point his team had been eliminated from both the Coppa Italia and the Champions League. Serie A’s most successful club were in a dreadful state, and though caretaker Alberto Zaccheroni has shown some acumen to keep a sinking ship afloat, a 1-1 draw with Catania in early May ended any lingering hopes of Champions League qualification.
They now join Palermo and a resurgent Napoli in next season’s Europa League. Their efforts in the summer will be concentrated on trying to lure Rafa Benitez, who it seems will be without Champions League football wherever he begins next season.
Fiorentina will not be in next season’s Champions League either, but had an impressive showing in this year’s competition, only to be knocked out by some dodgy refereeing against eventual finalists Bayern. Those of a morbid persuasion will have watched on with a grim fascinating at the unraveling career of one-time Chelsea star Adrian Mutu. Mutu, who was sacked by the Stamford Bridge club for testing positive in a drugs test, will now be suspended until October 2010 following another anti-doping scandal in January.
Lazio’s most significant contribution to this year’s league was rolling over against Inter Milan to stop their rivals Roma from winning the title. “If you win we’ll beat you up,” bellowed the Lazio fans at the Stadio Olimpico – and, remarkably, their words were not aimed at the opposition. Fernando Muslera, the Lazio goalkeeper, was the only player in his team who seemed to be making much effort – so much so that Gazzetta dello Sport’s Luigi Garlando likened him to “the Japanese man in the forest who doesn’t realise the war is over”.
Battle at the Bottom
Atalanta were relegated as the third bottom side, and will be cursing their luck at a quite extraordinary piece of refereeing.
In a crucial game with Bologna, the side who would eventually escape with a 17th place finish, they conceded a corner. From the set piece, Atalanta’s Pellegrino was marking Bologna’s Portanova. Pellegrino pulled ever so slightly on Portanova’s shirt, sending his man tumbling like a spinning top to the ground. The referee, Tagliavento, immediately blew his whistle, signalling for a penalty and booking Pellegrino for the foul.
Pellegrino and some of the other Atalanta players, clearly incensed by such a soft penalty decision against them, started to argue the case with the ref, who then promptly handed out a second yellow card followed by a red. The only problem that whilst all this was going on, the linesman was signalling that the ball had gone out of play and the initial corner was now invalid. So the penalty was overturned, but the red card stuck. Atalanta could only draw the game, and were eventually relegated.
Siena and Livorno, meanwhile, have less cause for dispute about their exit from the league: they’ve both had similarly poor seasons, each winning just seven games across the year and conceding 128 goals between them.
Four years ago, a squad of Italian players went in to the World Cup off the back of a season rocked by scandal, and won it. Marcello Lippi and his players will be hoping for the same result this summer. A successful World Cup, coupled with a potential Champions League victory, will be vital cornerstones in the rehabilitation of Serie A as one of Europe’s truly great leagues.
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