Six years ago in Bari, the directors watched on as Juventus celebrated their 29th Scudetto. Celebrations moved from beneath the stadium to the team bus, which Luciano Moggi boarded in tears. The players too, though they appeared to hide it well, must have known what was to come. Transcripts of recorded telephone conversations between Moggi and several Italian football officials had come to surface, and he realised that, in time, everything would come crashing down.
It did. Juventus were stripped of their previous two Serie A titles, and were unceremoniously thrown out of the league. Calciopoli had broken; Ibrahimovic, Thuram and Cannavaro moved on. Internazionale began a period of complete dominance, winning four of the following leagues (having been awarded the 2006 title). Deducted nine points at the beginning of their season in the dark of the second division, Juventus were unlikely to return to Serie A until 2008 at the earliest. Given the mess that the league was in, it seemed inconceivable that Italy could win the World Cup in Berlin during the summer.
It is a history that Juventus are determined to forget, and the contrast between scenes in Trieste at the weekend, and those at the Romeo Neri in Rimini some six years earlier as they began to atone for their crime, should serve as a reminder of how far they had fallen, and how high they have risen. They took to the field against Cagliari in a game with no grey area. Win, and they would take the race for the Scudetto to the final week. Lose, and they flirted with the threat of a lurking Milan. A draw would have a similar outcome. As always with Juventus, it was either black, or white.
Antonio Conte lifted three fingers on one hand, and two on the other. Across the field, Juventus players broke into restrained smiles. They did, of course, still have to finish the match. News then came through that Maicon had scored at the San Siro to end Milan’s challenge, and supporters of the Bianconeri began to climb the fences that separated the people from the players. They knew it was all over, and were on the pitch for a number of minutes before the final whistle sounded. The players streamed towards the tunnel in search of refuge from a delirious support as an elated Conte staggered across the field, drunk on the moment. Juventus had won Serie A, unbeaten with a match to spare, and everything felt right with the world.
There were five players who remained from the season below, each who had played, if they had not already always done so, an integral role in this success. For Gianlugi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Paolo De Ceglie, Claudio Marchisio and Alessandro Del Piero, it was a particularly gratifying sensation. Cried a hoarse Buffon, “It was to experience an evening like this that I stayed here in 2006. It’s the greatest joy I’ve felt in my life after winning the World Cup.”
As always, controversy was lurking just beyond the field. A euphoric Buffon came down briefly to join the argument: “I won five titles on the field although they have only awarded me three of them. What can I do about it?” The club’s sporting director, Giuseppe Marotta, was typically impudent: “It’s our 30th Scudetto. We have 30 on all the champagne bottles and we have won 30 titles.” Next, he implied that Juventus would be adding another star to their badge – three for thirty; one for every ten. It will be a debate that Conte will hope will not cloud his side’s extraordinary achievements. He avoided getting involved, at least for the moment. “What number Scudetto is this?” he asked reporters. “Number one, because this is the first I’ve won as a manager.”
This represents a significant step for Juventus. Last season, a seventh place finish meant they were denied the opportunity to grace the Europa League as Palermo finished runners-up to Inter in the Coppa Italia. They will not regret it. An apparent hindrance to the domestic schedule, it is well documented that the Europa League is a competition that many clubs who qualify for it would rather do without. Conte has been calm, or certainly as calm as an Italian manager could hope to be. He refused throughout the season to discuss his team as contenders: indeed, when pressed by the media as Juventus passed the halfway-mark as leaders to state “without ifs or buts” whether his side could go the distance, he replied, “if and but. Nobody is hiding here. But I know that nobody can just get up in the morning and decide: ‘I win’.”
Now, he will seek to re-establish the Juventus empire – in Europe as well as Italy. This is a side that is playing with a decidedly more continental style, focussed on ball retention, and the kind of darting swoops and thrusts for which Barcelona are renowned. Perhaps not as creative as the all-dominating Catalan side, Juventus suffocate their opponent when they lose possession. Paolo Bandini recounts the match earlier in the season between Milan and Juventus:
[When] Silvio Berlusconi addressed Milan’s players before their game against Juventus there was only one team he really wanted to talk about. Not three weeks have passed since Milan drew 2-2 in Barcelona, and yet while most would be grateful for any result at the Camp Nou, the Milan owner had been stung by the few critics who felt his team showed insufficient ambition. “We need to play more like Barcelona,” he told the players at Milanello on Saturday. “And we must keep the ball more in the last 15 minutes.”
Juventus’s players had been visited by their own president, Andrea Agnelli, on Saturday, but where Berlusconi had invited his team to play like another, the Bianconeri were simply advised to listen to their manager.
It is a philosophy – though some would hasten to call it so – which has worked. Juventus are champions of Serie A; rightfully, clearly, deservedly. It is officially the 28th Scudetto for the Bianconeri. As ever, as might be expected, they will argue that it should be 30.
Given the wild nature of their season, it seemed impossible that Internazionale would end up holding the balance of power. If they lost this second Derby della Madonnina, their bitter rivals Milan would take the race for the Serie A title to the final week. If they won, their bitter rivals Juventus, with whom they compete in the Derby d’Italia, would finish first, regardless of results in the ultimate round of fixtures.
Contrary to the popular stereotype of Italian football, this was not catenaccio – far from it. The two line-ups suggested that the match would be tight, but it was nothing like the previous derby; a completely clichéd Italian affair.
Woeful defending, superb goals, contentious penalties and niggling altercations across the San Siro all contributed towards an open game in which both sides lacked a definite structure to provide some stability. Indeed, the only thing missing appeared to be a red card which, given the animosity between certain players as half time approached, surprisingly never arrived. The match ended with Inter retaining hopes of European qualification – though the Champions League looks beyond them – but more importantly, it confirmed Juventus as Serie A Champions for the first time post-Calciopoli.
Milan entered the game needing a win to keep alive their opportunity of overcoming Juventus at the summit of Serie A and winning lo scudetto. Allegri made five changes from the team that defeated Atalanta midweek, including three defensive alterations, as Bonera, Abate and Yepes replaced Sciglio, Mexes and Antonini.
Inter, meanwhile, made two changes after their away defeat to Parma. An injured Stankovic was left out, and Obi dropped to the bench allowing Zanetti to be recalled following his return from injury. Most surprising was that Fredy Guarin started, given that the versatile midfielder had made just 4 appearances since joining on loan from FC Porto in January.
Milan went with their customary 4-3-1-2 formation; Boateng providing the link between midfield and attack as he has done to such good effect in Milan’s domestic and continental competitions. This is, however, a Milan side lacking in width and pace, and Inter took advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses with an enthusiasm that has often abandoned them this season.
Although Inter at first appeared to be utilising the same 4-3-2-1 shape as they had during their visit to the Stadio Ennio Tardini, there were subtle, but hugely important, differences.
Firstly, in the defensive phase, Inter clearly dropped to a 4-4-1-1 formation. Sneijder positioned himself just behind Milito and Alvarez fell to the left of a conventional midfield four. Content to drop deep and concede ground to Milan, Milito and Sneijder pressed high, but the remainder of the Inter team quickly retreated into their own half and regained their shape as Milan attacked.
When attacking, both Inter full backs pushed forward considerably, aided by the wide midfielders, with Zanetti on the right and Alvarez on the left, who tucked in to allow Maicon and Nagatomo to advance beyond them.
Guarin also advanced to the left whilst Cambiasso, who was positionally superb throughout, remained deep, providing cover to the centre backs. This created a situation where Nagatomo, Alvarez, Sneijder and Guarin, all operating in a similar area of the field, could give Inter a numerical superiority over Milan’s right flank.
Holes in the defence
Inter’s first was the result of horrendous defending by Milan. A poorly executed offside trap left Samuel free beyond the far post, and he miscontrolled the half-volley to allow Milito to push the ball in from a few yards. With the significant changes made to their defence, many were left wondering whether Milan should have persisted with such an exaggerated offside trap on the edge of their penalty area. They did, though to better effect as the match wore on, as Lucio’s effort was disallowed after 19 minutes.
The Milan attack
In the first half, Robinho often found himself drifting laterally to a position wide on the left, and on two occasions found Ibrahimovic with crosses to the far post. The physical difference between Ibrahimovic and Nagatomo is considerable, yet Milan never really sought to utilise this difference any further.
Inter were the dominant side for the majority of the opening period, yet Milan drew level through a fortuitous penalty. A series of collisions in the Inter half eventually led to the ball being played through to Boateng who was “fouled” by Cesar. Ibrahimovic duly converted.
In the second half, Robinho shifted to the right and Muntari was asked to shuttle between his midfield berth in the defensive stage and an attacking wide-left position when Milan were on the front foot. Obviously responding to the attacking freedom which both Inter full backs had utilised during the first half, Allegri attempted to limit the attacking forays of Maicon and Nagatomo. This worked, to an extent, as Milan found themselves with more control in possession and defence.
Milan took the lead in the opening minute of the second half. Robinho, now deployed on the right, played a low ball diagonally infield, where Boateng made his only real contribution to the game with a clever dummy that allowed Ibrahimovic to take the ball past Lucio and score clinically across Julio Cesar. Lucio had been criticised early in the week for the poor defending which led to Parma scoring, and though this was an entirely different scenario, he was slow and cumbersome to react to Ibrahimovic’s movement.
Throughout the first half, Inter had attacked down their left with Nagatomo pushing very high and receiving support from Alvarez, Guarin and Sneijder. Alvarez and Sneijder offered fluidity and movement, as they swapped roles in the attacking phase. This pushed Abate back and pulled Nocerino and the Milan midfield wide to offer greater protection to his full back.
The first Inter penalty came when Milito and Alvarez combined on the left as they moved diagonally infield towards the Milan penalty area. As Milito broke into the penalty area, Abate, who had been preoccupied with the overlapping Nagatomo, was caught on the wrong side of Milito and carelessly pulled him back, allowing Inter to equalise.
The other penalties were arguably the result of defensive errors. Boateng was played clearly in as Inter lost focus en masse, and was deemed to have been felled by the goalkeeper. Inter’s second penalty came as a cross was deflected onto Nesta’s outstretched arm, and Milito scored with abundant delight.
As the match reached the three-quarter mark, both teams began to lose their shape, and the match opened up considerably.
Milan were pushing forward in search of the third goal that they needed, whereas Inter appeared to be battling both fatigue and their desperate opponents. Milito and Sneijder were no longer pressing with the same impetus, and Milan were moving further into the Inter half before being closed down. Finally, Inter were taking longer to regain their shape following the breakdown of attacks.
Yet Inter took the lead again, this time from another penalty following Nesta’s seemingly inadvertent handball from a header. This goal rejuvenated Inter for the closing minutes of the game. Milan had already moved to a 4-2-4 with Cassano arriving from the substitute’s bench. Robinho went back to the left and Boateng moved to the right when Maicon moved forward unchecked, and his 25 yard shot found the top corner of Amelia’s net. The goal demonstrated just how good a full-back he was, and can still be, on occasion. Robinho chose not to track his man, giving up rather easily, and Sciglio at left-back was too slow in closing the marauding Brazilian down. This kind of attacking run from Maicon had occurred several times in the first half without reward for Inter, most notably when Inter switched play to the right.
This game with almost everything, and one in which Stramaccioni produced a clear tactical plan which was implemented well by his players. Inter offered greater mobility in the first half against a static Milan team and were able to defend their lead when required to. It will be very interesting to see how Inter can start the new season.
Chalkontheboots for The Substitution
Interestingly enough, Roy Hodgson existed prior to his appointment as manager of Liverpool Football Club in 2010. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that he walked the earth before he took Fulham to Basel, Donetsk, Turin, Wolfsburg and Hamburg on their way to the Europa League final.
Indeed, Hodgson has had a life before the newspaper editors decided he was worthy of one. His story is fascinating, and that he has never seriously been considered for the England job before is almost inconceivable. The approach from the FA last week marked the pinnacle of a curious career for the man from Surrey, which began 36 years ago on the Swedish west coast, in Halmstad. He was 29; six years after he had qualified for his full coaching badge, and at the end of a moderately successful playing career. From Crystal Palace to Carshalton Athletic, Hodgson spent several years playing non-league football, before turning to management.
He recalls his first season in Sweden. Halmstads struggled to survival in the previous season, and were expected, with Hodgson’s leadership, to fall spectacularly out of the division. “I was recommended to Halmstads by my close friend Bob Houghton [who played alongside Hodgson at Maidstone, and coached Malmö to a European Cup final].
“I’d qualified for my full coaching badge at 23 but that was my first season coaching adults. Halmstads had played a very different type of football to what I wanted, man-to-man across the field, with a libero. From the start it was: ‘Okay, you lads know nothing, this is what we’re going to do’. I remember the turning point.
“We had mixed results pre-season, understandably, because we were changing to a back four, attempting to push up and pressure the ball and were getting caught out. For the players, the jury was out.”
The media weren’t so certain either. “On the first day of the season, twenty newspapers said we would go down,” Hodgson admits. “It was a water-into-wine job. We won the championship in style.”
He spent five years with Halmstad, winning the league in 1976 and 1979, before joining Houghton at Bristol City in 1980. It was a mistake from the beginning. On the decline, Bristol fell back into the Second Division in what would be the first of three relegations, with spiraling debt and heavy financial losses contributing directly to the club’s bankruptcy in 1982. Wisely, Hodgson returned to Sweden, this time with Oddevold and later Örebro. In 1985, he moved on to Malmö, where he enjoyed arguably the most successful period of his career, leading the side to five successive league titles.
“It’s never easy to do it every year, even if your players are better, because people lose appetite,” Hodgson said, reflecting on his time with the club. “The Swedes always talk about the self-playing piano, and with that team I definitely got to the stage of the self-playing piano. Not a lot needed to be said or done.”
Hodgson’s impact on Swedish football, and later Scandinavian football, is laudable. Arriving as a young man with strong new concepts, he was immediately successful. He, along with Houghton, revolutionised the Swedish game.
Indeed, the style he imposed has marked historical similarities to that of the club where he would come to experience his most public misfortune: Liverpool. A relatively simple style in concept, Hodgson admits that “simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve”. Look no further than the Camp Nou – Barcelona play football stripped back to its rawest form, yet it is the most effective (if not flexible) approach to the game seen in the last twenty years.
“Pass and move, always move it quickly and once you lose it get back in to position. That was the mantra which took Liverpool through their great years,” says Hodgson. “I was influenced by the Liverpool team which dominated the 70s with all its great players and playing the football they played.”
Swedish football reached new heights with Hodgson, as Halmstad, and later Malmö, played fast, efficient football unlike that which had dominated Scandinavian leagues in the past. The nation fell for it too; the quality of passing, the quality of movement, the way that players were always available for each other. Emulating the Liverpool of Toshack, Keegan, Dalglish and Rush, Hodgson’s system was never going to be quite as exceptional as that seen at Anfield, but his impact on Swedish football still has him held in high regard.
“Suddenly they were playing very aggressive attacking football in a 4-4-2,” remembers Sven-Göran Eriksson. “He introduced zonal marking in place of man-to-man marking, and played a high line of defence. I was very influenced by this ‘English style’ and when I took over at Gothenburg in 1979 I also played my team this way.
“The Swedish FA criticised us heavily. They wanted everyone to play the same way as the national team, with a libero. But we were the three most successful coaches [including Houghton] in Swedish football. The influence of Hodgson on our game was very important. Absolutely.”
He was offered a lifetime contract at Malmö, which would have seen him work wonders with a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he declined, later saying that “moving to another place seemed exciting. The decision was also financial. Swedish taxes were so high that even if you were being paid reasonable money, after losing 65% in tax there wasn’t a lot left.”
Hodgson would move on to Switzerland, where he would coach the national side to the 1994 World Cup, in which he reached the second round. At one point during his tenure, Switzerland were ranked third in the world. Having clinched qualification for Euro 1996, he resigned to join Inter Milan, although he had been performing both jobs for at least two months beforehand. He remains highly respected at the San Siro, despite not winning a trophy during his time at the club.
A short stay at Blackburn Rovers turned sour when he failed to repeat relative success in his second season at Ewood Park, and he briefly returned to Milan. Before he arrived at Fulham in 2007, Hodgson managed Grasshooper in Switzerland, won the league with FC Copenhagen, had an ill-fated spell with Udinese, and coached the United Arab Emirates for two years.
He does not reflect on his time on the Arabian Peninsula with much attachment: That was a period where I didn’t know where my career was going. But all these experiences enrich you and it was good to know I could get my message to players who many say are uncoachable. It’s hard work; they’re basically lazy. But I had them drilled and pressuring opponents almost like an English team. Most coaches who go there are just fannying around, but it’s not my nature.”
He returned to England; to Craven Cottage, then to Anfield, before finding himself at the Hawthorns. With West Brom, he has gone back to his tendency to defy expectations with an unfashionable side. Last week, Wembley came knocking, and he will likely be confirmed as manager of England until Brazil 2014 in the coming days. Should England underperform at Euro 2012, which is entirely possible, and entirely probable, it would be unfair to vilify Hodgson as happened with Liverpool. He deserves the position, such has been his career, but he would never deserve the derision of a nation. Not until England fail to qualify for the World Cup, anyway.
In 2001, Hodgson was asked if he harboured an ambition to one day manage his country. “Of course it would be a big honour to manage a national team. But I don’t harbour ambitions as such; my ambition is always to win the next game. That’s how I’ve spent a lifetime, preparing and working hard to win the next game.”
For Hodgson, the weight of a nation’s inflated expectations rests on his ability to achieve such noble intentions.
Inter Milan finished their season in the Santiago Bernabeu; Diego Milito scoring twice to win the Champions League against a relatively prosaic Bayern Munich side. Their coach, José Mourinho, would not be accompanying his team back to Lombardy – his agreement to become the next coach of Real Madrid was never particularly kept hidden – and he left Inter in a car park in the bowels of the Bernabeu, weeping uncontrollably into Marco Materazzi’s shoulder. Then he stepped into his car, and was gone.
So began Inter’s self-destruction. Mourinho, quite simply, knew when to jump ship. Despite the popular belief that the Portuguese leaves scorched earth behind him, his departure following the most successful season in Inter Milan’s history is remarkably similar to when he left Chelsea a few years before. Avram Grant continued Mourinho’s work, and led Chelsea to a Champions League final, which they might have won had John Terry not slipped and hit the post with his penalty. Later, Carlo Ancelotti won the FA Cup and the league in his first season with the club. Rafael Benitez inherited a treble-winning squad, and won the Italian Super Cup and World Club Cup before asking Massimo Moratti to “back me or sack me” as Inter’s domestic season faltered – and the owner chose the latter. Leonardo, the Spaniard’s replacement, led Inter to a second place finish, and a Coppa Italia win. None of this was good enough, however, for a club that had so dominated Italian football for the past five years, albeit in the shadow of the Calciopoli scandal.
Leonardo’s contract was terminated on “friendly terms”, and when Gian Piero Gasperini failed to win in his first five games in charge, he was sacked. Three matches into the Serie A season, after less than three months at the San Siro, he was deemed “not to seem to be in control”. Inter lay 18th in the table. In a desperate attempt to save their season, Moratti brought in Claudio Ranieri, and the Italian led the Nerazzurri on a run of seven consecutive wins in Serie A, including a 1-0 win to AC Milan, which had the Gazzetta Dello Sport dreaming about the Scudetto.
I was at the San Siro in January, and watched Inter grind out a typically Italian scoreline to defeat their most bitter rivals. Abate failed to clear a routine cross-field pass from Zanetti, and Diego Milito fell behind to score past Abbiati in front of the Curva Nord. Ranieri turned and shook his fist at his doubters; Milito ran wildly towards the corner, and the stand erupted. It was significant – Inter were deservedly underdogs – but it is AC Milan who chase Juventus at the top of Serie A. Inter sit 20 points adrift of the league leaders, and six points from the final Champions League place – remember that Italy, by virtue of its coefficient, conceded one spot to the Bundesliga. Ranieri’s side went on to lose five of their next seven games, and all “the Tinkerman’s” work was undone. They slid from fifth to seventh, and Ranieri was dismissed after Alessandro Del Piero rounded off a 2-0 victory in the Derby d’Italia in Turin. The next head-on-the-chopping-block, Andrea Stramaccioni, won his first match in a manner befitting of Inter’s season so far: up by three goals at one stage at the San Siro, they contrived to concede four to Genoa as Diego Milito finished with a hattrick, and Inter won 5-4. It was gloriously ridiculous.
Gasperini, speaking to Sky Sport Italia, claimed that he had “never met Massimo Moratti or [sporting director] Mario Branca” when he arrived at the club. The vital decisions are, then, being made by the board, rather than the managers. Inter would be wise to clear the boardroom, and bring back the man who took such advantage of Calciopoli in 2006.
Lele Oriali left the San Siro over a spat with Branca, and told Mediaset Moratti must make the [next] decision [in Inter’s revival] “calmly, without forcing anyone’s hand”. It was Oriali who oversaw the transfers of Sneijder, Milito, Ronaldo, Cambiasso and Samuel – a phenomenal cast – and is, according to Adam Digby of Calcio Italia magazine, “surely the ideal candidate to reshape Inter around talents like Ricky Alverez, Andrea Poli and Joel Obi.
Inter are in dire need of definitive instruction, and without it will likely fall back into the abyss that overshadowed Moratti’s earlier seasons. The president’s first four years in charge saw eight managerial change, while Stramaccioni is already the fifth of the post-Mourinho era. In all, nineteen coaches have sat on the San Siro bench since Moratti took over in 1995. The Italian oil magnate would be wise to look closer to the top of the club the next time he feels tempted to wield his sword.
The statistics are wonderfully damning. Inter have been defeated in seven of their past nine away days in all competitions. They have lost twelve in the league, and have been woefully “un-Italian” in defense, conceding 45 in 32 matches. Twice they lost by three at home, to Bologna and Napoli, and in Rome they lost by four. Compare this to the league leaders, Juventus, and we can see the extent of the difference. Juventus have not lost this season in all competitions, though 14 draws in the league mean AC Milan continue to breath down their necks. They have conceded only 18. Their longest winless sequence was four games: three away to Milan, Genoa and Bologna, and at home to Chievo Verona. The vital number, though, is that Inter are seventh, and Juventus are first. When Massimo Moratti reviews his club’s season, it will be this final statistic that will hurt more than any other.