“Nu’ fuoc’ ‘e paglia”

One of the first things I learned at University was that history doesn’t repeat itself. After all, how can a series of complicated, interwoven phenomena always produce the same exact result? Isn’t it rather the case that hindsight is 20-20, and that we tend to oversimplify things in order to fit a particular narrative? Good thing we put that notion to bed. Now, what were we talking about again?

 

Ah.

For the uninitiated, the first clip was of Juan Mata scoring Chelsea’s sole effort in Naples two years ago in a 3-1 defeat. Game over, right? Wrong. Chelsea won the return leg 4-1, exploiting some more lax defending as well as a series of woeful Cavani misses to power their way to the 2012 Champions League final. The second is of Aritz Aduriz exploiting a hesitant Napoli defense to send Athletic Bilbao through to the Champions League group at Napoli’s expense.

Wednesday evening’s elimination proves that it really is possible to always be the bridesmaid without ever being the bride, especially if you’re a club like Napoli, and you have repeatedly failed to make much headway in Europe or even come anywhere near winning the Serie A (their best score was 9 in 2012-13. Last year they were 24 points short of Juventus).

This is not to disparage what the Partenopei have done over the past few years: they’re hardly Sophie Thompson‘s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral (who actually ends up getting married, but whatever), but rather one of Serie A’s most spectacular sides since returning to the fold in 2007.

Trust me, as an Inter fan with a dystopian view of his club and Serie A’s future, Napoli have done a lot to restore my faith in Italian football, what with that powerful combo of attacking midfielders, Higuain’s finish in the first leg… you get the picture. But two Coppa Italia trophies are a poor return for a team that always threatens to compete before fading away, with Wednesday night’s debacle causing fans to demand spending and results, and not necessarily in that order either.

It certainly wouldn’t be fair to expect title upon title from Napoli either, or indeed expect them to win the Champions League (though De Laurentiis has certainly tried). For every Lavezzi or Cavani, Napoli have also had to make do with the Mestos, Cannavaros and the Garganos of this world. But why haven’t they come close, even just once? Or made a deep run in Europe? Are they what Americans would call “chokers”, or have they actually over-performed in coming second and third in the past two seasons?

It actually turns out that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does come pretty close. Though Napoli have had many different iterations since they came up in 2007, the end result is very similar, whether they show up with a porous defence (last night) or a wasteful forward line (Edinson Cavani at Stamford Bridge in 2011-12), whether they attack head on (Benitez) or on the counter (Mazzarri). An exception should also be made for the Europa League- which former coach Walter Mazzarri never took seriously (I’m sure De Laurentiis fully agreed) and often used as an excuse to trot out the reserves.

Worse, there is a common thread to all of these underwhelming results. It is said insanity is doing the same things over and over and hoping it all works out. Aurelio De Laurentiis’ Napoli are guilty of just that. A prime example is the kind of players the Partenopei bring in, or rather how meager the returns have been on signing centre-backs. Albiol and Britos both cost over €8 million, and Victor Ruiz just under that. To put it kindly, they’ve not exactly been slam-dunks, though Albiol can certainly improve. Ruiz, for his part, lasted a whopping six months. De Laurentiis generally prefers cheaper options who work fine in Serie A, but come undone in Europe (Cannavaro, Aronica, Grava, Campagnaro, Gamberini). It was Cannavaro who provided us with that moment of unintended hilarity that Mata was so happy to profit from.

Buying defenders in Italy is a tough business these days- just look at how the league’s decreasing prestige and buying power has seen many big stars (Thiago Silva, Mehdi Benatia) leave, or how Juventus pieced their back three from recycled parts (Barzagli), in-house talent (Chiellini) and young Italian potential. The obvious names for the latter category are Leonardo Bonucci and Angelo Ogbonna, two players who show just how risky it is to invest in Italian talent. But Juventus and Roma conceded 23 and 25 goals respectively last year, Napoli 39, on a par with Inter. Hardly a breathtaking performance.

Truth of the matter is that the Partenopei always seem to have something missing, whether they’re looking to put out a truly competitive starting XI, going for European glory, or even simple respectability: having done remarkably well in their first season back from purgatory in 2007-8, Napoli spent several years floating around the Top 10, alternating brilliant home performances with disappointing outings. In 2008-9, the squad looked capable of shooting for the stars with the likes of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Maggio, and racked up 20 points in their first nine outings. Regrettably, they then failed to win a game in three and a half months, leading to coach Edy Reja’s sacking.

It’s like Napoli have to do accompany every good decision with a bad one, whether it is having Marcelo Zalayeta and Michele Pazienza in that 08-09 squad, or even hiring a good coach like Walter Mazzarri, the man who saved a Reggina side that had begun the 05-06 season with a 15 point penalty. Mazzarri could get the best out of his creative players, motivate his men and cook up a very good gameplan, but could also be tactically inflexible at the worst times. His failure to shore up the back line at Stamford Bridge will stay with him for a long time.

Napoli have arguably ramped things up over the past couple of seasons: bringing in Mertens on the cheap, as well as Callejon and Higuain from Napoli, and Insigne back from his loan to Pescara. Faouzi Ghoulam is a very promising player, and Benitez just the man to bring them European success. But just as things looked set for a turnaround, the bad news hit like a hurricane: it turns out we all forgot that Benitez doesn’t do leagues (his last win in 2004-5, before I could legally drive. Not that I do anyway), and was outsmarted in Europe, the very stage he normally excels in. We also discovered that Napoli’s choice to bring in cheap players from less fancied European leagues (a very market efficient approach) doesn’t always pay off. Khalidou Koulibaly can certainly become someone special, but needs time to adapt to life after the GAUNTLET that is the Belgian league. Why on earth was he starting against Athletic? Why was Michu watching the return leg from the stands?

It’s hard to disagree with the title of this piece, a Neapolitan expression for “[this team is] a flash in the pan”, uttered by a dejected fan as the defense bumbled its way to conceding a third goal. All this feeds into an increasingly depressed mindset. Napoli fans are somewhat like Philadelphia Eagles supporters, always close, always sucked in, never winning anything in the NFL. Even a quick backwards glance does seem to confirm that Napoli don’t just take the long road, they cover it in marbles and go about the task with their stilettos. It goes back to former owner Achille De Lauro, who spent a whopping 105 million lira to tempt Nordic superstar Hasse Jepson back in 1952, expecting the titles to rain down on the back of his massive spending spree. He would not live to see the day when Diego Maradona lifted the trophy a whole 35 years later, though he went out with a bang, bossing around his coaches and sacking players like nobody’s business. Even with El Pibe at the helm, Napoli never even got close to winning the European Cup, all whilst being accused of blowing a title race in order to help the local Camorra make a killing (a financial one, not that they mind much either way).

Let’s just hope Napoli don’t make life too hard for themselves this season. After all, things like this tend to happen when they don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

To QB or not to QB: a year of transition for the SEC?

The 2014 NFL Draft was another flagship day for the Southeastern Conference, as America’s premier football league topped the rankings once more with 49 players selected, narrowly pipping the Atlantic Coast Conference (42) into second place.

Yet such a strong showing seems to have a silver lining for its rivals in the NCAA. With so many SEC teams forced to build anew under centre, the Pacific Conference could boast a unique chance to take over at the top thanks to stars like Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, and Kevin Hogan (provided he improves). By bringing back a very strong quarterback class, the thinking goes, the PAC-12 is in a strong position to gun for its first BCS title since the early aughts.

But is this truly the case? Whilst it is already unwise to assume that the quality of this QB class will prove to be enough to help eternal bridesmaids like Stanford and Oregon finally tie the knot, it is also going too far to assume that the SEC’s chances of making the playoffs will be gravely weakened. Some teams may fall by the wayside, but those who will keep their playmakers -namely Alabama and Georgia- are frighteningly dangerous, especially considering the high defensive standards the conference has maintained.

There is, to begin with, frankly little point in speculating about the presumed quality of the SEC’s Class of 2014 QBs: what little we have seen of Jacob Coker, Anthony Jennings or Hutson Mason may be encouraging, but constitutes such a small sample that even hot take guru Paul Finebaum has warned listeners not to overreach themselves on Jacob Coker, who looks set to take over from A.J. McCarron at Alabama.

And he’s right: how can we judge Coker, a quarterback who spent a year riding the bench behind Jameis Winston at Florida State? He could be just short of Winston’s talent and a potential star, or someone who never really troubled the Heisman winner, and who only has a big arm to boast about , considering his low completion percentage.

The truth is probably tucked in somewhere between these two, with some lingering rust thrown in for good measure. Even then, it will arguably take Coker a few games to get into the groove, a feasible plan considering the Tide’s toughest opponent this side of Florida will be opening day adversary West Virginia. The Mountaineers have gone 3-8 against ranked opposition over the past two seasons.

Chances are, however, that the Cokers and Masons of this world won’t need to carry or inspire their teams like so many Andrew Lucks or Tim Tebows in order to win. As long as they’re functional, there is little to stop the SEC from sending one, maybe two teams to the first ever BCS playoff.  Both Bama and Georgia bring back a shockingly talented class of playmakers, who will make sure that the gameplan is either a) not too complicated for the QBs b) not based around them anyway.

The Crimson Tide still boasts the likes of Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon, backed up by a promising class of hungry go-getters and a strong offensive line. If Alabama could reach 2 SEC Championship finals with the likes of John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy, then they can surely do so with another middling QB.

Georgia, for their part, bring back promising speedster Keith Marshall and Star Wars enthusiast Chris Conley back, and will hope to keep Todd Gurley fully fit for the duration of the season, his injuries one of the factors that slowed down the Dawgs last time round. Though Georgia were hit by 9 defections to the NFL Draft and a slurry of injuries on defence, there is little doubt that Gurley brought balance as well as penetration to the Georgia offence. Crucially, QB Aaron Murray never showed the same type of murderous streak in big games, his QB rating dipping from 171 to 140 against ranked opponents in his four years at the helm.

This is not to knock either Murray or McCarron: Jon Gruden identified the first as his sleeper in the draft after four wonderful years in Athens, whilst the Mobile product was the first Saban QB to make critics reconsider the “game manager” label. It is hard to imagine Greg McElroy leading Bama to a spectacular comeback in Baton Rouge, or being trusted enough to launch a 99 yard missile to retake the lead in the 4th quarter of the 2013 Iron Bowl.

Then again, McCarron could also be maddeningly inaccurate on routine throws, so much so that he had only completed one second half pass before connecting with Norwood and Yeldon for the comeback win against LSU.

Whilst it does not come at a surprise that Alabama can survive regardless of who plays under centre, saying as much about Georgia would have been tantamount to blasphemy only a few short months ago. Though Murray played at a high level during his collegiate career, he never became the kind of QB who could make up for all his team’s deficiencies, or decide big games, coming oh-so-close in that rollercoaster SEC final defeat to, you guessed it, Bama.

With Hutson Mason impressing in the final stretch of the 2013 season-coming on the back of a horrific Murray injury- chances expect Georgia to be just as explosive on offence, and ready to make big strides on the other side of the ball with the arrival of former Noles Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The consensus has them reaching the 11-win mark, this in a division where Florida are stuck in a rut, South Carolina always drop one unnecessary game when things are on the up and Missouri have lost Dorial Green-Beckham.

Ultimately, what truly matters is the loss of key playmakers. Anthony Jennings may have shown some promise in leading LSU to a last-gasp comeback over Arkansas, but will struggle without the fearsome trio of Hill, Beckham and Landry around. Otherwise, losing a QB in college football should only be bad news if Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck have left the building. Even then, the Voles ironically won the much-coveted BCS title the FOLLOWING year, with the far less remarkable Tee Martin under centre.

Worse, losing a QB is usually the sign that the team as a whole has too many holes to plug. Texas A&M lost three key contributors in the first round alone, leaving their often at-sea defence to fend for itself. Kyle Hill will have a tough time replicating Johnny Manziel’s form, that’s for sure…

Growing pains: Belgium and Switzerland analysed (Part 1)

With the quarter finals just 24 hours away it’s not too early to look back and analyse two sides that have largely disappointed in this World Cup: Belgium and Switzerland.

On the surface, both countries had a lot in common coming into the tournament, ranging from their poor recent form (Belgium having failed to qualify to a major tournament in five attempts) to the sudden emergence of a talented core of skilful youngsters, most of them plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.

Even more newsworthy was the latter’s foreign extraction; their Albanian, Congolese and even Indonesian roots blending with the local multilingual culture to create a heady mix- ranging from Romelu Lukaku’s perfect Flemish to the Swiss attack’s Balkan make-up. Echoes of France’s stunning propaganda coup from 1998 were not far away, though few were expecting either side to go all the way.

That said, nobody expected the quality on offer to be so disappointing, something that became apparent when Switzerland went down with all hands on board against France in a 5-2 drubbing. Though La Nati ultimately survived its group and Belgium were able to come up with a much-improved performance to knock out the USA, it is obvious that both sides are also brought together by an inability to kick their golden generations into gear.

Switzerland – the object of this first part- eventually went out to Argentina after a moment of magic from Lionel Messi, who teed up Di Maria’s superb finish after a dazzling run from midfield. Whilst the quality at its disposal may not have been the same as Belgium’s (Xerdan Shaqiri is no Kevin De Bruyne, let alone Eden Hazard), La Nati has undoubtedly been the more disappointing of the two sides.

Hitzfeld’s team only truly kicked into gear in their third group game, when Xerdan Shaqiri scored a rather unexpected hat-trick to send his team through to the second round. Beyond that there was little to write home about: La Nati was horrific against France in a 5-2 thrashing and unconvincing in their last-gasp win over Ecuador. The Argentina game saw them create very little against a side chronically uncomfortable versus counter-attacks and utterly dependent on Messi’s ability to beat one, two, sometimes even three opponents to create mismatches. What does it say about the Swiss that Iran were far more convincing against Argentina?

Blame Dzemaili all you want for that missed chance (and it was a truly awful header), but not without including Hitzfeld in the firing line. His team simply never looked comfortable on the ball, and made a number of elementary mistakes in possession that had Swiss fans reaching for the sick bag. The players should definitely share a portion of the blame, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that their coach tried to get them to fit his rigid system, and not adapt to what he had at his disposal.

How can a midfield play so badly when it boasts a good destroyer (Behrami), an occasionally-great regista (Inler), as well as three young, explosive playmakers in Xhaka, Shaqiri and Mehmedi? Pointing the finger at the players is too easy, especially when Switzerland were so reminiscent of England back in 2004 and 2006, with Shaqiri playing the role of Wayne the Saviour. Conservative tactical choices and a lack of cohesion ended up doing for these teams, despite the wealth of talent waiting in the wings for a chance to shine.

The Swiss defence’s many weaknesses- and the need to make up for them- are hardly an excuse. Switzerland’s cause wasn’t hampered by a supposedly defensive approach; rather by the cautious and unimaginative attacking football they played. The Argentina game was an exception, but even then the Swiss midfielders were incapable of finding each other regularly when on the counter. At least Iran forced a one-on-one with Romero. The USA nearly broke Belgian hearts by finding Chris Wondolowski in the box with mere seconds to go in normal time. Switzerland only created something once Argentina had taken the lead: unfortunately Dzemaili could do no better than hit the post from four feet out.

Even worse is the fact that Switzerland could count on one of the better full-back pairings in the World Cup, with the metronomical Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and the dominant Ricardo Rodriguez on the opposite wing- this at a time when many are waxing lyrical about the importance of just that position.

The importance of Rodriguez’s devastating forays became apparent against Ecuador, when his work down the left served up the winner on a plate for Haris Seferovic. Lichsteiner, for his part, has been impressive at Juventus, and even has a knack for scoring goals in Serie A. Why weren’t they more involved in Switzerland’s attacking play, and how is it that the midfield looked so cumbersome when working the ball forward?

Defenders of Hitzfeld could also point to the attack’s middling play as an extenuating circumstance, made up of the very local-sounding Drmic, Seferovic, Mehmedi and Gavranovic. There is little doubt this group did not pass muster, especially when you consider that Gavranovic didn’t play a minute and Mehmedi was used as a winger. But it’s hardly fair to put it all on their shoulders. They weren’t clinical, but didn’t exactly have a ton of service either.

A telling stat is that Gokhan Inler was Infostrada Sport’s 13th most wasteful finisher, taking a shocking seven shots during the group stages without ever scoring. More worrying than his lack of accuracy is the fact that Switzerland were counting on Inler to get the job done- or were, rather, unable to thread the ball through to someone better. Seferovic was, moreover, able to punch it in when it mattered the most against Ecuador.

The truth is, then, that Switzerland’s pathological inability to create anything against organised and motivated opponents (Honduras already had a foot on the plane home) has a lot more to do with manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was shaken by the devastating news that his brother had passed away the night before the Argentina game.

Hitzfeld was the manager with Champions League pedigree who was supposed to put Switzerland back on track after a disastrous group-stage elimination at the 2008 European Championship, which Switzerland hosted along with Austria. It is never easy for a club coach to come in and stamp his authority in a national setup- only Marcello Lippi and Vicente Del Bosque have managed to win both the World Cup and the Champions League since the latter’s inception in the early 1990’s.

Yet Hitzfeld had six years to leave his mark, and every step forward was followed by several in the wrong direction: a good example being when Switzerland crashed out of the 2010 World Cup group stages after famously defeating eventual champions Spain in their opening game. Hitzfeld also qualified his side for this World Cup- yet failed to reach the 2012 European Championship and was even responsible for a humiliating defeat at the hands of Luxembourg.

Even when boarding the plane to Brazil, the whole squad already knew that former Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic would be taking over as soon as the tournament was over. Far from reinforcing Hitzfeld’s position it seemed to undermine his authority even more. Petkovic wasn’t just his polar opposite, but likely what La Nati needed the most: somebody who has grown as a player and manager in the cantons, and someone who knows this country’s football culture well enough to build around its crown jewels.