Roberto Mancini Puts Italy on the Right Track

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Since being appointed as Italy boss, Roberto Mancini has set Gli Azzurri on the right path, and has guided them to four wins out of four in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign thus far. 

In their most recent clashes, Italy travelled to Athens to take on Greece, and dispatched their European counterparts within thirty-three minutes, by a score of 3-0.

In their next game against Bosnia, Mancini’s men fell behind early, but mounted a second half comeback to prevail by a score of 2-1. Under Gian Piero Ventura, the side lacked character, and would have likely dropped points in a game like this. With these two wins, Italy now find themselves comfortably in first place, scoring 13 goals, and conceding one in the process. In addition to getting results, this is the best football Italy have played in recent memory, and have demonstrated an identity.

Once again, Mancini was rewarded for sticking with the highly technical midfield of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho, and Marco Verratti, and now has his side well on their way to the upcoming Euros. Together, the trio provide a blend of youth, experience and quality on the ball, and offer the national team some much needed creativity in the final third.

While many initially doubted the midfield’s defensive awareness given their smaller frames, Verratti, Jorginho and Barella have demonstrated they are capable of offering solidity to their back four. Given their similar profiles, Verratti and Jorginho often interchange roles at the base of the midfield, and don’t give their opponents a reference point.

With Barella making late, unmarked, runs into the box, it makes for a truly malleable midfield; something the Azzurri have sorely lacked over the past four years. The Cagliari captain’s drive has been rewarded, and already has two goals on the qualifying campaign.

Much like it’s the case in the midfield, Mancini has not shied away from taking risks with his front three. Since his appointment, the former Inter tactician has called up a number of up and coming talents, including the likes of Moise Kean and Federico Chiesa among others.

In the past, Ventura was afraid to take risks, and typically stuck with Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti up front, despite their struggles. When both strikers were misfiring, Italy did not have a plan B, and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades. Rather than having set starters, like his predecessor, Mancini has mixed and matched at will, and has used a plethora of forwards across the front line. This keeps the Italian forwards on their toes, and ensures no one gets complacent. Moreover, if Italy are struggling in the final third, Mancini is able to turn to different solutions.

One player that has benefitted immensely from Mancini’s reign has been Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne. The diminutive forward was reduced to a bit-part role under Ventura, and largely struggled to make an impact on the pitch when called upon. Under Mancini, Insigne has established himself as a crucial player, and has scored two goals in his last two games. In addition, his assist to Verratti against Bosnia helped Gli Azzurri seal all three points.

On the defensive end, on the other hand, Mancini has decided to maintain the status quo and has typically gone with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. However, the Italian tactician has tinkered with his fullbacks, alternating between Leonardo Spinazzola, Emerson and Gianluca Mancini. While Mancini is a centre-back, he offers the Azzurri tactical flexibility from the right-hand side of defence, and often drops as a third centre-back when in possession. With the Atalanta man dropping centrally, it allows the left-back to get forward and overload with his winger.

While it’s still early days for Gli Azzurri, the future looks bright under Roberto Mancini. Using a blend of experience, and youth, the Italian tactician has demonstrated character both in his selections, and tactical setups. With no one’s place in the team secured, Italy have – for the first time in a while – shown hunger, and a desire to return to the top.

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Serie A Injury and Suspension Report – Round 36

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Juventus: Paulo Dybala (calf), Rodrigo Bentancur (thigh), Emre Can (thigh) and Alex Sandro have resumed practicing fully and therefore should be available on Sunday, while Douglas Costa (calf) and Daniele Rugani (thigh) will not come back this week. Federico Bernardeschi is suspended. Moise Kean is out with the flu, Leonardo Bonucci with a bruised ankle.

Napoli: David Ospina is on personal leave to tend to a personal matter in Colombia. Nikola Maksimovic (toe) is slated to remain on the shelf, while Amadou Diawara (foot) got in a full practice after a long time, so he might be called up. Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Adam Ounas have been surprisingly ruled out due to small ailments.
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Serie A Fantasy Picks – Round 34

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Salvatore Sirigu: he is having a brilliant season and Milan’s attack has sputtered quite a bit lately, failing to score more than once in five straight contests.

Aleksandar Kolarov: the Giallorossi will be down some offensive pieces on Saturday, so they might rely more than usual on the veteran left back, who has often popped up in the stat sheet. Cagliari also have the second-worst road offense in the League.

Gianluca Mancini: he is poised to have an even more significant role since Rafael Toloi went down with an ankle injury. Udinese have bagged just 12 goals in away games thus far and the Italian youngster has already done a lot of damage attacking on set pieces. Continue reading

Serie A Team of the Week – Round 20

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Serie A returned in full force with a gorgeous weekend of football. Here are the top performers.

Samir Handanovic (7 points): just five clean sheets in this round, by Inter, Sassuolo, Milan, Juventus and Atalanta. The veteran goalie had the best showing, denying two close range attempts by Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jeremie Boga to preserve the tie. Gianluca Donnarumma was not far behind.

Gianluca Mancini (9 points): he has already scored five goals thus far, which is more than most midfielders. He added a new wrinkle on Sunday, as he did not do damage on a set piece, but simply followed an offensive action by his side, then his teammates fed him with a solid cross. Continue reading

Serie A Club of the Round – Atalanta

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Atalanta scored five goals in the season opener against Frosinone and the result did not change few months later in Ciociaria, so they earn the coveted club of the week award. Gian Piero Gasperini replaced the injured Remo Freuler with Marten De Roon, chose the Berat Djimsiti and Gianluca Mancini over José-Luis Palomino and Andrea Masiello in the back and preferred Timothy Castagne to the dinged up Robin Gosens on the left flank.

It did not take long to the Goddess to establish their superiority, as Duvan Zapata had a big chance six minutes into the game, but Marco Sportiello and a defender cleared the ball before it could cross the goal-line. The start of the goal fest was simply delayed by few minutes: at the tenth one, Mario Pasalic connected with Mancini, who had decided to attack on that action, and the centre-back outjumped an opponent for his fifth goal of the season. Continue reading

Serie A Fantasy Recap – Round 20

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Standings implications: Napoli bested Lazio on Sunday night, as the Biancocelesti keep struggling against elite competition. However, Juventus answered versus Chievo, so the situation stays the same atop of the standings. Inter were unable to get the best of Sassuolo, actually the guests had more chances in that game. Roma allowed Torino to erase a 2-0 lead, but still came up victorious with another surge. Atalanta bodybagged Frosinone, while Fiorentina tied late versus Sampdoria. Milan overcame some absences to upend Genoa. Parma continue to pick up road wins and Udinese were their latest victim. SPAL and Bologna shared the spoils in the Emilian Derby, while Cagliari and SPAL did the same in two clashes relevant for the relegation race.

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Serie A Fantasy Recap – Round 19

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Standings implications: nothing changes in the upper echelon after the final game of 2018, as the top three teams did not look particularly impressive, but all came away with wins as Juventus and Napoli outlasted Sampdoria and Bologna and Inter beat Empoli on the road. Lazio and Torino shared the spoils in a very nervous games and this result allows Milan, who finally came through against SPAL, and Roma, which blitzed Parma, to close the gap for the fourth spot. In the Europa League race, Atalanta pummeled Sassuolo, while Fiorentina drew with Genoa. In the lower districts, Udinese outfaced Cagliari and Chievo finally earned their first win of the season by besting Frosinone in a battle of sad sacks.   Continue reading

Serie A’s Rising Stars of the Season

I have found that the easiest way to rank teams at the start of the season is to look at how many blue chip and red chip players they have. A blue chipper is good enough to start for a title challenger, while a red chipper is an above average player at his respective position. Of course, as the new season unfolds some new players take a leap and start fitting these criteria- with this in mind, let’s take a look at the emerging stars in Serie A:

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Patrick Cutrone- Milan’s new management team showed a lot of faith in the 20 year old striker by not adding another attacker to go with Higuain after Carlos Bacca and Andre Silva headed to la Liga. While Higuain’s back problems and recent suspension made them regret this decision, this development has nothing to do with Cutrone’s performances.

The rossoneri’s youth team product has drawn comparisons to both Pippo Inzaghi for his ability to sniff out scoring opportunities  and Mario Mandzukic for his work rate and demeanor, I simply like to say Patrick Cutrone is Italian for “Makes Things Happen”.

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Nicolo’ Zaniolo- Inter’s sporting director Piero Ausilio did everything he could to keep the 19 year old midfielder while negotiation the deal for Radja Nainggolan. But Monchi simply refused to part ways with the Belgian international without getting back Zaniolo, while also never considering the idea of giving Inter a buy back clause.

While many of Roma’s signature acquisitions have struggled the past two years, Zaniolo has already started two matches against Real Madrid (and showed a lot of progress the second time around) and put in a great performance against his former club Inter. So far we have seen Zaniolo play more in a trequartista role, but his future will likely be as a mezzala and as a key player for the Italian national team.

Ola Aina/Soualiho Meite’- while Simone Zaza and Roberto Soriano’s return to Serie A was the headline of the granata’s mercato this summer, the two new players to have made the biggest impact are youngsters new to Italian football. Torino has so far won the swap deal with Monaco involving Antonio Barreca (who could return to Serie A in January) and Soualiho Meite’, who has become a constant starter in Mazzari’s midfield.

On the other hand Ola Aina made the best of Cristian Ansaldi’s injury and become one of the most dynamic left wing backs in Calcio- it’s almost certain that Torino will exercise their option to acquire him permanently from Chelsea next summer.

Christian Kouame’- Genoa will likely get back to top part of the mid table should both Piatek and the Ivorian striker produce at the same time. While the Polish striker strived under Davide Ballardini, he struggled when Ivan Juric replaced him, but that coaching change is what launched Kouame’ who has terrorized Serie A defenses in the past few months. At least now they‘ll be on a level playing field with new manager Cesare Prandelli.

While Piatek has so far mainly shined for his finishing, Koaume has more variety to his game- he combines excellent dribbling skills with above average passing and heading ability, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Koaume’ is the one with a bigger market next summer… 

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Joaquim Andersen/Nikola Milenkovic/William Troost Ekong- while everyone knows about Koulibaly, Skriniar, De Vrij, Manolas, Chiellini and Bonucci (all players who won’t be sold in January by the way) there’s also a new breed of exciting center backs in Serie A.

After spending a season on the sidelines to acclimate himself to Italian football, Andersen has become Sampdoria’s best defender. The 22 year old Dane has adapted well to Giampaolo’s back line which is quite demanding when it comes to maintaining tight lines and has shown a lot of maturity on and off the pitch.

While a lot was expected from Fiorentina’s attack, the defense has been the consistent bright spot. Milenkovic has shown excellent versatility since he has performed well as a right wing back despite his height and previous experience as a center back- he has also managed to score as many goals as Chiesa and Simeone.

Udinese found a gem in Turkey when they discovered William Troost Ekong, the Nigerian center back has been a consistent starter under both Velazquez and new manager Davide Nicola and is already a target for numerous clubs in Serie A and abroad. 

Gianluca Mancini-  could the 22 year old be the next installment of Gasperini’s fool’s gold? In recent years we have seen numerous former Atalanta players struggle once they left Bergamo so there may be come second guessing when observing the center back’s impressive performances.

Mancini has essentially replaced Mattia Caldara this season, not only is he performing well in the 3 man back line, just like Caldara he has also shown a penchant for scoring goals. After becoming a regular on the Under 21 look for Mancini to get a selection to the Azzurri’s senior squad in 2019. 

Serie A Match of the Round – Empoli vs Atalanta

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There was not a lot of juice in this week’s round, where the two most anticipated matches Lazio-Milan and Genoa-Sampdoria were hard-fought, but low scoring. The most entertaining fixture turned out to be a unforeseen one, Empoli-Atalanta.

The Azzurri came into the game looking to build on the win over Udinese in Giuseppe Iachini’s debut, while Atalanta were coming off four straight victories, including the brilliant one over Inter, where they had their best performance of the season.

Iachini switched from the 4-3-1-2 they have been using so far to a 3-5-2 he is more accustomed to, basically replacing Miha Zajc with a defender, Frederic Veseli, and picked Manuel Pasqual over Luca Antonelli on the left wing.

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Serie A Club of the Round – Atalanta

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There were a pair of dominant displays in the weekend, in particular by Roma and Atalanta, but since the score was the same, the Goddess gets the shout-out as they did it against a way more competitive team. They always seem to put up a good fight when facing Inter, but their performance on Sunday went beyond the rosiest expectation.

Gian Piero Gasperini mostly stuck with the XI that has been working lately, promoting Duvan Zapata after the deciding display against Bologna, with Alejandro Gomez in the hole and Josip Ilicic as second striker. Rafael Toloi was able to recover from an ankle roll and started, but bowed out before the end of the match. Continue reading