Monday, 28 November 2011

RIP Gary Speed - 8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011

It was understandably difficult to get excited about football after the breaking news on Sunday morning that Wales manager Gary Speed had been found dead after a suspected suicide at his home in Cheshire.

I was numbed. Speed is one those players that has just always seemed to be etched into the memory of my football watching life. His fellow Welshman Ryan Giggs is probably the only other player that springs to mind when I think of a player with such a prolonged career in the English top flight in my lifetime. Speed may not have had a career awash with trophies and honours but was hands down, one of the Premier League's most consistent performers in his midfield role and a key player in any team he played for. Fans of Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton would all attest to this. Such was his importance, Speed currently holds the record for most appearances for an outfield player in the league with some 535 games under his belt. A short spell at Sheffield United as player and manager brought the curtain down on fine club career before he was given the opportunity to manage his country.

Death is always a sad thing but made worse when it happens prematurely. 42 is no age for anyone to die and the whole situation is made more perplexing by to the unsavory manner of Speed's passing. The general reaction has been one of bemusement. One can only speculate as to what drives a man to take his own life. Speed had a wife, two children and his career as manager of Wales seemed to be going from strength to strength. It's only natural that people will be asking "why?".

The general feeling from all the tributes is one of shock. The outpouring of emotion within football for a popular and respected friend/colleague would suggest that this fatal tragic act was out of character. As has been pointed out, Speed seemed 'normal' when he appeared the BBC's Football Focus the very same morning of the day he died. Again it would be wrong to speculate about his health and/or his private life and his family ought to be afforded the respect they deserve at this most awful of times.

All too often in the modern game we rue the disconnect between players and fans. As far as we're concerned, these 'greedy' millionaires no longer understand the 'man in the street'. Is this detachment not a two-way problem? When we go to matches, sit in pubs or take to the Internet to launch tirades of abuse, we almost forget that they are human beings with the same feelings, insecurities and problems as you and I. Granted, Speed wasn't the kind of player that courted controversy or even incurred the wrath of vitriolic fans but his death shows he was just as vulnerable as anybody to the trials and tribulations of life. When we work ourselves up into a frenzy and lose our shit over incorrect offsides and disallowed goals or whatever, we'd do well to remember that the game is simply that, a game. A sentiment not lost on the Swansea and Villa fans who saw their respective teams play on through difficult circumstances.

Whatever the reasons behind this tragedy, it has been a sad, sad weekend in British football.


Friday, 25 November 2011

In Attendance: Serie A - Inter Milan v Cagliari. 19th November 2011

As I have mentioned before, when I were a wee lad growing up, I, like many others of my generation, was a huge fan of Serie A on Channel 4 back in the 1990s. Terrestrial TV coverage of what was perceived to be the best league in the world at the world was the kind of footballing luxury the modern day armchair fan would come to look on with the greatest sense of nostalgia – especially given the small fortune one needs to shell out nowadays for the 'privilege' of watching Stoke City and the like.

During this Serie A golden era, Juventus and AC Milan were the two dominant forces – sharing eight titles between 1992 and 1999. However, this is not to say that every campaign was a predicable two team procession. Both sides needed to be on their toes to fend off the strong challenge coming from the likes of Parma, Udinese, Sampdoria and Fiorentina year on year.

You could almost always rely on the Italian league throwing up something of a competitive title race. The strength of the division wasn't merely restricted to the big two. For example, following their Scudetto success in 1996, AC Milan finished a lowly 11th position 12 months later. Similarly, Juventus ended the 1998/99 campaign in 6th place despite successive championships in 1997 and 1998 and THREE Champions League finals (96, 97, 98). The Roman clubs broke up the cartel at the turn of the century as, firstly, Lazio (2000) and then Roma (2001) were crowned champions of Italy.

The most notable absence on the illustrious list of league winners was AC Milan's city rivals. While the Rossoneri would regularly dine at the top table both domestically and abroad, Internazionale were left raiding the bins behind motorway service stations for whatever scraps that had been thrown away. It is safe to describe the end of the 20th century as a period of underachievement for the Nerazzurri. A title win in 1989 was followed by a lean decade that yielded just three measly Uefa Cup successes in 1991, 1994 and 1998 – also, quite incredibly, losing the 1997 final to Schalke on penalties. For most, that haul wouldn't look bad but for one of Italy's big names, it was a poor return, particularly given the vast spending of chairman Massimo Moratti following his acquisition of the club in 1995. The oil tycoon was certainly not afraid to splash the cash in his attempts to match the successes of City rivals AC. This period saw some stellar names turn out in the famous Black and Blue including Ivan Zamorano, Diego Simeone, Gianluca Pagliuca, Alvaro Recoba, Youri Djourkaeff, our very own Paul Ince. Aron Winter, Paulo Sousa, Roberto Carlos and of course, the jewel in the crown, Ronaldo.

The noughties saw the likes of Christian Vieri, Clarence Seedorf and Fabio Canovarro sign up yet success still very much eluded Inter. Moratti would also go through managers quicker than most men go through underwear with some 12 men burning their arses in the San Siro hotseat between 1995 and 2003. Roberto Mancini was then handed the reigns and it all suddenly went right as he oversaw the clubs most successful period since the 1960s, initially winning back to back Italian Cups in 04 and 05 before setting his sights on the big prize.

However, Inter's subsequent glory, and Italian football as a whole during this period, is punctuated by a huge asterisk. In 2006, the first of what was to be Mancini's three successive Scudetti was only awarded due to the fact the actual champions Juventus were involved in the infamous Calciopoli match fixing scandal which saw them stripped of the title and relegated to Serie B. City rivals Milan were also implicated, so too Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina. Inter themselves, as well as others, were investigated but exonerated.

What followed was a period of dominance for il Nerazzurri as they steamrolled pretty much all before them like some sort of black and blue erm... steamroller. Mancini's hat trick of titles didn't save him from trigger happy Moratti however, as he was dispatched in favour of a certain Jose Mourinho. In just two years, the Special One won consecutive league titles, the second in 2010 coming as part of an unprecedented treble including the Copa Italia and of course, the Champions League – a trophy they hadn't won since 1965.

As the charismatic Portuguese completed his fairytale ending with the club and rode off into the sunset, the mediocrity of the 90s returned with a bang as he was succeeded by long time adversary Rafa Benitez. In what seemed like an Italian revisioning of The Damned United, Benitez proved to be a disaster. The champs were now very much chumps and Rafa was shown the door before the Christmas decorations had even been put up at the team found themselves 13 points off the lead.

In one of the more strange football appointments, AC Milan legend Leonardo was given the job and managed to steer the club to a second place finish behind his former club and another Copa Italia win last season. However, a dismal attempt to defend the European Cup saw the club finish second in their group to Gareth Bale and a take a shoeing from their apparent European nemesis Schalke in the quarter finals. Leonardo thought 'sod this' and headed for Paris.

Former Genoa manager Gian Piero Gasperini was entrusted with the task of bringing back the good times to Inter but his frightfully overambitious 3-4-3 formation lasted a mere 5 games at the start of this season (losing four!) before he was given the boot. Former Chelsea boss Claudio Renieri has since been appointed.


Each year, a group of us celebrate a mate's birthday by traveling to some city in Europe to sample the local cuisine, sample the local beer, sample some more beer and then taking in a local football match. Having previously embarked on trips to the Alianz in Munich to watch Bayern and the Bernabeu to see Real Madrid, we decided this year to head to Milan. This particular weekend saw Inter take on Cagliari so that would be what we would be watching.

I'd previously only been to Italy once before way back at the tender and testosterone filled age of 15. A football tour in Rimini when my team-mates and myself would exaggerate our prowess as players in order to convince women to share intimate times with us. Naturally, this was largely unsuccessful but we did manage to win our matches on the pitch. Albeit friendlies against teams younger than us but a win is a win as they say. I also decided to purchase a football shirt. As weird coincidences would have it, the only one that remained in the shop I went to was that of Inter Milan so I had to have it (notwithstanding my supposed allegiances to Parma). Who would have known that on my very next visit to the country, I would be to watching them in the flesh? Spooky, eh?

We arrived at the very impressive and very imposing 80,000 seater Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (Otherwise known as the San Siro) early enough to buy cheap merchandise and grab a pre-match beer. The San Siro is a large arena and as such, the area surrounding the ground is quite vast allowing for the swathes of fans if ever a match is approaching anything near a sell out. Given that Inter were languishing in 17th place and Cagliari only slightly better in 10th and the start of play, this was hardly like to be the case this time around. Some sources online have the total attendance at 56,000 but from where we were sat, you couldn't convince me that the stadium was even half full.

If the club's poor form was keeping fans away, the match itself did very little to suggest they will be coming back in their droves. Admittedly, missing from the starting line up were big names such as Lucio, Maicon, Diego Forlan and Wesley Sneijder who pulled up with injury in the warm up. Diego Milito was on the bench.

As the home side started sluggishly and failed to impose themselves with any great conviction, it became almost inconceivable to think of them as Champions of Europe a mere 18 months ago. The first half was an uneventful snoozefest with the noticeable exception of Dejan Stankovic living up to his name by having something of a stinker. The Serbian midfielder seemed to be in an amusing competition with himself to see how often he could give the ball away.

Up top, new golden boy Giampaolo Pazzini struggled but this was in part due to inadequate service and the selfishness of Mauro Zarate who may or may not have been fitted with those blinders that racehorses often wear as he seemed totally incapable of ever spotting or trying to pass to better placed team mates. Apparently, Zarate has an assist bonus written into his contract to encourage him to be more selfless. On the evidence of the opening 45 minutes, he may have forgotten about the it.

The evergreen Javier Zanetti, a permanent fixture in the Inter side since those days in the 1990s and a more than loyal servant of well over 500 games and 16 trophies, was arguably the best player on the pitch in the first half. The Argentine veteran covered the entire left hand side of the pitch with the kind of ease that shouldn't be afforded to a 38 year old in the twilight of his career.

Pazzini had and long range effort tipped onto the crossbar by Cagliari goalkeeper Michael Agazzi and he repeated the trick from a Zarate free kick. Aside from this, there was very, very little to shout about for either side as they went in goalless at the break.

In typically classy Italian fashion, espressos are sold at half time in the San Siro. I was tempted to buy at least three to try and keep me awake after the dreariness I had been forced to endure.

One of our group remarked at half time how big the pitch looked. This was the illusion because the game was being played and snail's pace and both sides seemed to be reluctant to press the opposition a great deal. As a result, the players often found themselves with a lot of time on the ball but incapable of doing anything useful with it. Inter dominated possession but more often than not this would manifest itself in simply playing passes between the back four and the midfield.

Zarate was thankfully taken off and replaced summer signing Ricky Alverez. 10 minutes into the second half, an Alvarex free kick from the left was scrappily scrambled home by Ita-zilian midfielder Thiago Motta. Even from the other end of the stadium, there was more than a slight suspicion that Motta may have been offside. A scrappy, dubious goal seemed quite fitting for the occasion though.

Six minutes later, it was 2-0 as Alvarez on the right wing got the better of the left back before playing a 1-2 with Cambiasso then switching the ball to Coutinho who cut inside and hit a low right footed drive into the bottom corner beating Agazzi at his near post.

After that little spell of excitement, Inter saw out the rest of the match with little trouble. Cagliari pulled one back in the last minute through sub Larrivey but the damage was done and the game ended 2-1. Much to the relief of everyone unfortunate enough to watch it.

szólj hozzá: INT

Italian Football has always had a reputation for being somewhat slow and over-cautious so the tempo of the game was no surprise to me but what was really unusual was the lack of quality. Alvarez looked fairly lively when introduced but still looks raw. Granted, Inter were missing some key players and probably had one eye on, what looked like at the time, a key Champions League encounter in the week but it was strange that there was nobody in the heart of the team to truly dictate the play for them. The end result being they very much looked like a team floundering around the lower half of the table. The Tinkerman has a lot of work to do. All in all, I will unashamedly declare this to be one of the worst football matches I've ever seen in the flesh.

Once the top league on the continent, now the Italian league sits comfortably behind England, Spain and even Germany. A point highlighted by the fact that the poor performances of Italian sides in Europe in recent years has seen them lose their fourth Champions League spot to the Germans. Serie A has quite clearly suffered in the wake of the Calciopoli mess. The quality of the league has certainly diminished in recent years and unfortunately for Inter, their superiority has been both a symptom and a cause of it. Top players are still joining Italian clubs but they are hardly flocking over in the kind of numbers we used to see in the 1990s. A recent episode of Sky's Sunday Supplement programme saw so-called respected journalists arrogantly dismiss Serie A as something of an irrelevance.

All that said, anyone who has been keeping track with the Italian league this season (ESPN televise two games each weekend as well as highlights during the week) will know that the league is going some way towards regaining it's competitive edge. Inter's struggles appear to be an exception rather than the rule currently. As I write this, just a single point separates a resurgent Juventus, Lazio, champions AC and Udinese at the top of the table. Does this mean the league is improving? Maybe, maybe not, but if we look at the performances of their clubs in the Champions League so far this season, one would be hard pressed to argue against the abilty of their representatives this season. Having beaten Manchester City this week, Napoli look well-placed to advance to the last 16 ahead of the cash-rich citizens. AC Milan were unlucky to lose to Barcelona but still progress from their group. Even lacklustre Inter have qualified in as group winners with a game to spare.

Ultimately, I don't think there are many out there who wouldn't want to see a strong Italian championship once again. One can only hope Serie A can successfully overcome their problems and re-establish itself as league we all look upon in awe once more.

Ugly-ass trophy though

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