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Calcio: 2009 review

December 24, 2009

So it is time to reflect at the end of another fascinating year of football in Italy, as well as look ahead to 2010.

First things first, the Scudetto, unsurprisingly, stayed with Inter. They finished 2008-09 a comfortable 10 points clear at the top of Serie A, as Juventus and Milan were unable to sustain any kind of title challenge. This was the Nerazzurri’s fourth consecutive league title (including the controversial 2006 crown which was taken away from original winners Juve), and confirms the turnaround of fortunes this decade on the peninsula. The 90s may have belonged to Juventus and Milan, but once Inter claimed their first Scudetto since 1989, they never looked back. Although, importantly, Inter are yet to produce the goods in Europe, while Milan won the Champions League in 2003 and 2007. Nor do Inter receive the plaudits they possibly deserve for their domestic domination. Often criticised for a negative style of play, particularly since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, they also rely heavily on the heroics of goalkeeper Julio Cesar. Roma boss Claudio Ranieri has recently remarked that Inter bully their way to victories, according to Ranieri they “systematically foul” but avoid punishment. However, love them or hate them, Inter are a very strong team and cannot be blamed for a lack of competition in the league. This season Inter are clear favourites again; they end 2009 eight points clear in table, albeit with closest rivals Milan having a game in hand.

Inter cruised to another Scudetto in Mourinho's first season in charge

The year was a lacklustre one for Italian teams in Europe. Inter, Juventus and Roma were all sent packing in the last 16 stage of the Champions League. Inter were no match for Manchester United over two legs, going out 2-0 on aggregate to the holders. Juventus threatened to upset Chelsea with the tie levelled at 2-2 with 15 minutes remaining in the second leg; Juve were one goal away from going through, but it wasn’t to be as a late Drogba goal sealed their fate, beaten 3-2 on aggregate. Roma came closest, only losing out to Arsenal on penalties at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Italy’s best offering in the UEFA Cup was Udinese, but they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual runners-up Werder Bremen.

2010 promises to be no walk in the park for Italia’s finest in the Champions League; Milan face Man United in the second round, while Fiorentina have drawn Bayern Munich, the side that dismissed Juventus in the final group game. Inter will play Chelsea in a mouth-watering tie as Mourinho once again clashes horns with Ancelotti. Inter and Milan both stuttered through their groups to finish runners-up to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively (although Milan did claim a fantastic 3-2 win in the Bernabeu). The Milanese teams will need to improve, as arguably the best two teams in Italy take on the best two from England. Fiorentina excelled in their group, completing a double over Liverpool. Stevan Jovetic and Alberto Gilardino were sensational in putting the Merseysiders to the sword, and they will have to shine again if they are to overcome a resurgent Bayern Munich side. Juventus needed only a point to go through in their final group game, but after taking an early lead in Turin they crashed out to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Germans. Juventus will now take on Ajax in the Europa League knockout stage, the side they beat in the 1996 Champions League final, their last European success. Roma are the only other Italian representative in the Europa League, they will face Panathinaikos. Lazio and Genoa both failed to progress from the group stage.

David Beckham will return to Milan next month, hoping this time to win some silverware

2009 club-by-club reviews

(In order of current Serie A position)

1. Inter

Another Scudetto but another European failing can only mean a year of partial success. Inter President Massimo Moratti has denied that Mourinho’s fate rests on what happens in Europe, but for this Inter to emulate the success of the Grande Inter team of the 1960s then they need a European Cup. After 1989 Inter fans were constantly frustrated by the lack of a league title, so often the nearly-men of Italian football losing out at the final hurdle, but even now that they are winning title after title the Interista remain frustrated. Credit must be given to Mourinho and Inter for the ease with which they won the Scudetto, but the real test lies ahead.

Some major changes took place within the squad this summer. Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic swapped Milan for Barca as Samuel Eto’o came the other way. The talismanic Swede has not been missed though, as Eto’o has found the net in Italy almost as easily as he did in Spain. Last season’s flops Quaresma and Mancini remain at the club but newcomers like Lucio, Motta, Sneijder and Milito have been far more successful (in particular Diego Milito, who already has 10 league goals to his name this season).

It would be nothing short of incredible if Inter were not to go on and win the league again this season, but the match against Chelsea in Europe will prove much more of a challenge and one which the Inter hierarchy and supporters will expect to win.

2. AC Milan

Paolo Maldini will be missed by football fans all over Italy

Last season Milan failed to come anywhere near city rivals Inter in the league. Big-signing Ronaldinho was unable to find consistency in his form (but has started this season far more impressively). Young striker Alexandre Pato was the star of 2009 for Milan, a player that they will need to keep hold of and build their team around. The loan signing of David Beckham in the second half of the season turned out to be a good piece of business, and the England ace did enough to earn another loan move back to Milan starting next month. They lost their best player Kaka at the end of the season; he was sold to Real Madrid for around €70 million. Carlo Ancelotti parted ways with the club in the summer after almost eight years in charge, replaced by former player Leonardo. But his departure was overshadowed by that of a man whose status can be described as nothing other than legendary; Paolo Maldini. After an incredible 25 seasons with the Rossoneri, in which he won seven Serie A championships, five European Cups, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup, the world class defender finally hung up his boots just a month shy of his 41st birthday. Paolo won 126 caps for Italy and captained the Azzurri a record 74 times. A man with as much style as he had ability, Maldini will be sorely missed in the Italian game.

Milan could be Inter’s main challengers in the league this season after finding their form in October and November. However, they failed to really strengthen their team during the summer and still rely too heavily on the old guard; the likes of Pirlo, Gattuso, Nesta, Zambrotta, Inzaghi, Ambrosini and Seedorf are all in their 30s. But Ronaldinho and Borriello in particular have been impressive. In Europe Milan are traditionally at their best, but in Manchester United they have drawn difficult opponents.

3. Juventus

Like Milan they just weren’t good enough to challenge Inter last season. Claudio Ranieri was axed with two games to go and former Juve defender Ciro Ferrara took over. They strengthened their side in the summer, signing Cannavaro, Caceres, Melo, Grosso and Diego. This season the Bianconeri started well, but in the run up to Christmas they collapsed. Despite beating Inter in the Derby d’Italia, they have lost to Cagliari, Bari and Catania either side of that win over the leaders, and they now find themselves nine points off top. They will need to stop leaking goals (and with the Italian defence of Buffon, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Grosso and Legrottaglie, they shouldn’t be) to stand any chance of mounting a title challenge. The Old Lady will be one of the favourites in the Europa League, but their focus should be on Serie A in 2010.

4. Roma

The Giallorossi endured a torrid 2008-09 season, salvaging a Europa League place by finishing sixth. Luciano Spalletti resigned just two games into this season after four hugely successful years in charge. His replacement, Claudio Ranieri, has so far helped turn their fortunes around. Francesco Totti has again been Roma’s best player; having already scored 20 goals in 18 appearances in all competitions. If Totti can stay fit then there is no reason why Roma cannot reclaim a place in Europe’s premier competition next year, as well as going far in the Europa League.

5. Parma

After spending 2008-09 in Serie B, the Gialloblu swiftly returned to the top flight. But no one expected them to find their feet in Serie A again so quickly. After 17 games they are fifth, just two points behind Juventus. Signing Christian Panucci on a free has proven to be a great piece of business, as their early success this season is based on a strong defence. 2009 was a great year for Parma, whether they can maintain their form in 2010 remains to be seen but it would be some achievement if they could qualify for the Europa League, a competition they won in 1995 and 1999.

6. Napoli

Marek Hamsik is a star in Naples and has alerted the attention of top European sides

The year has been a tumultuous one for the Southern giants. They underperformed last season, finishing 12th, and film producer/chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis sacked Roberto Donadoni after just seven games this season. His record in charge was poor – just four wins in 18 Serie A matches.  Since Walter Mazzarri took charge in October, however, Napoli have propelled themselves up the table; memorably scoring twice in stoppage time to draw with Milan and coming from two goals down to beat Juventus in Turin. Napoli will be expecting to qualify for Europe this season. Keeping hold of star midfielder Marek Hamsik will be crucial in January if they are to continue their good form, Manchester United are reported to be interested.

7. Palermo

Walter Zenga left Catania to manage Sicily rivals Palermo in the summer but was sacked after just 13 league games in charge. Delio Rossi took over and has won three of his four games so far.  With talented Italian players, like Fabrizio Miccoli, Mattia Cassani and Antonio Nocerino at his disposal, Rossi will need to keep on winning to avoid incurring the wrath of trigger-happy Palermo chairman Maurizio Zamparini.

8. Sampdoria

They fooled us all at the start of the season by beating Inter and leading the way in week 9, people started to talk of the Scudetto winning side of 1991 and some even believed they could emulate that success. They can’t; recent form suggests they have a long way to go. Sampdoria have all but collapsed since October despite the talented strike force of Antonio Cassano and Giampaulo Pazzini. They have not yet done enough to deserve the comparisons with Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli, the duo who spearheaded Samp’s title win in 91. Nonetheless, 2009 has seen them improve and manager Luigi Del Neri will look to lead the Blucerchiati into Europe next year.

9. Bari

2009 was a fantastic year for Bari. After eight years in Serie B, way off the promotion places, they excelled last season and won the league under the management of former Juventus player Antonio Conte. Conte was then linked with the vacant Juventus job and had his contract with Bari terminated by mutual consent. Juve hired Ferrara, and Conte headed to Atalanta early this season. New Bari boss Giampiero Ventura has settled in brilliantly though, and the Biancorossi are playing well above expectations in Serie A; they have already drawn with Inter and beaten Juventus. There may well be a long way to go, but Bari should at least achieve their aim of staying in Serie A.

10. Fiorentina

Fiorentina had another great season in 2008-09, earning a Champions League place for the second year running. Alberto Gilardino was in goal-scoring form all season, becoming Lippi’s first choice striker for the national team. This year they also started to perform in the Champions League, topping a group that contained Liverpool and Lyon. Despite currently lying 10th in the table, with Cesare Prandelli still in charge, they could once more make the top four (only five points separate fourth from 13th). A Scudetto challenge is still some way off, but they do have a chance of going far in Europe if they can overcome Bayern Munich.

11. Genoa

They played arguably the most attractive football in Serie A last season, as manager Gian Piero Gasperini (who has been nicknamed ‘Gasperson’ due to comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson) led them to finish fifth in the table, only missing out on Champions League football because of their head-to-head record with Fiorentina. Unfortunately they lost their two star players, Motta and Milito, to Inter in the summer. They brought in some good replacements in the form of Houssine Kharja, Hernan Crespo, Rodrigo Palacio, Sergio Floccari and Marco Amelia. They failed to progress from the Europa League group stage but will hope to surge up the table in the new year and again push for European football.

12. Chievo

The ‘Flying Donkeys’ looked certainties for the drop last season, but new boss Domenico Di Carlo turned them around. In Mario Yepes they have one of the most consistent defenders in the league, and have a quality striker in Sergio Pellissier, hence why they have started this season so impressively.

 13. Cagliari

Did well to finish in the top half last season and have been no slouches so far this term. Federico Marchetti is the best young Italian goalkeeper around, and Brazilian striker Nene, signed in the summer, has shown glimpses of brilliance (Cagliari had a Brazilian called Nene in their side that won Serie A in 1970).

14. Udinese

Udinese finished seventh last season, just as they did the year before. They suffered due to an injury to star player and captain Antonio Di Natale which meant he missed most of the second half of the season. Despite the return to fitness and form of Di Natale this season (he is the top scorer in Serie A on 11 goals), Udinese have struggled and sacked manager Pasquale Marino on Tuesday, naming Gianni De Biasi as his replacement.

15. Livorno

A good year for Livorno saw them bounce straight back up to Serie A after finishing third in Serie B, beating Brescia in the play-offs. Their success was largely down to the goal-scoring form of Francesco Tavano (Serie B top-scorer) and midfielder Alessandro Diamanti (who now plays for West Ham). They have so far given themselves every chance of staying in the top flight, currently five points clear of the drop.

16. Lazio

Lazio were Coppa Italia winners this year but have since struggled in Europe and Serie A

Despite winning the Coppa Italia in May, beating Sampdoria on penalties in the final, Lazio have had a frustrating year. Goran Pandev has been frozen out due to his demands to leave in the summer, and is set to join Inter next month. Manager Delio Rossi parted company with the Biancocelesti in the summer, after finishing 10th and winning the cup, apparently because of an unstable relationship with chairman Claudio Lotito. New boss Davide Ballardini has started poorly; they are currently three points above the relegation zone and have managed a paltry 10 goals in 17 games, despite the attacking talents of Mauro Zarate, Tommaso Rocchi and Julio Cruz. They also failed to progress from the Europa League group stage. Ballardini needs to start winning quickly if he is to save his job and Lazio’s season.

17. Bologna

Bologna achieved what they wanted last season; they avoided the drop by one place and three points in their first season back in the top flight. Loan signing Marco Di Vaio was a revelation, the rejuvenated hit-man scored 24 Serie A goals (his best ever tally and more than half his teams goals) to miss out on the Capocannoniere crown by one goal to Ibrahimovic. He has since signed permanently for around half a million Euros and Bologna again look set for a tough battle to avoid relegation this year.

18. Atalanta

Finished mid-table again last year but lost striker Sergio Floccari to Genoa in the summer and have struggle to match last season’s form. New boss Antonio Conte faces the challenge of keeping them in the division. The signing of striker Robert Acquafresca on loan from Genoa should help them in front of goal, but he has only managed to score once so far and instead Simone Tribocchi, signed from relegated Lecce, has been their main scorer.

19. Catania

Have failed to make the step forward and will achieve nothing more than the usual bottom half finish this season, although recent form (other than beating Juventus last week) suggests they could go down. The Sicilians should score more with forwards like Jorge Martinez, Giuseppe Mascara and Takayuki Morimoto.

20. Siena

After finishing 14th last season nothing more was expected than a relegation battle this time round. Alberto Malesani took charge last month and results have improved, with two wins in four games. Siena relied too heavily on the goals of ageing striker Massimo Maccarone last term and look short of options up-front again.

And the relegated sides…

Torino

Not found promotion form yet in Serie B, currently 10th. They do have the league’s top scorer in Rolando Bianchi, who has 12 goals to his name already.

Reggina

Currently 16th, a swift return to Serie A looks unlikely for the Amaranto.

Lecce

Finished bottom of Serie A last season but are top of Serie B at Christmas. Daniele Corvia is the leading scorer in Luigi Di Canio’s team.

La Nazionale

Italy went home from the Confederations Cup much earlier than expected after some dismal performances

Italy and Marcello Lippi have had mixed success in 2009. The Azzurri qualified for the World Cup with relative ease and without ever really impressing. But in the summer Italy were eliminated from the Confederations Cup group stage. Despite beating USA 3-1 in their first match, Italy were then beaten 1-0 by Egypt and outclassed 3-0 by eventual winners Brazil. The only positive to take from the tournament was the performances of Giuseppe Rossi, although he has since lost his form. Lippi has persisted with the old guard and resisted the constant pressure to recall Antonio Cassano to the squad. There are rumours of a return from international retirement for Francesco Totti, but it is not certain what the 33-year old can offer a team full of players in their 30s. However, if he could perform for the national side like he does so often for Roma he would unquestionably add some quality. Italy have been handed a very easy draw in the World Cup group stage; Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia should be no problem for the world champions. But Italy are on course to face Spain in the quarter-finals if both win their groups and progress from the second round. There is believed to be about six undecided places up for grabs in Lippi’s squad, to join the regulars for the World Cup. Between now and then is the time for the fringe players to impress, but Cassano shouldn’t hold his breath.

Buon Natale

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