Andrea Agnelli’s Superleague Represents All That is Wrong With Football

Juventus president Andrea Agnelli has come under the fire for recent comments about Gian Piero Gasperini’s high-flying Atalanta, claiming they aren’t worthy representatives for Italy in the Champions Leauge. The Juventus president has regularly been on record in favour of a European superleague and criticized the Champions League’s current format.

In an interview at the FT Business of Football Summit in London, Agnelli said:

“I have great respect for everything that Atalanta are doing, but without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right or not?”

In case you missed it this season, Atalanta are primed to qualify for Europe’s elite eight having smashed Valencia 4-1 in their opening leg. After a rough opening three games, Atalanta found stability and did well to progress to the round of 16 against all the odds. In addition, Gasperini’s men are currently in fourth place, three points ahead of Roma with a game in hand, indicating last season’s success was far from a one-off.

Factor in that Atalanta are competing with Europe’s elites with a fraction of the budget, their rise becomes all the more impressive. In many ways, that’s what football is all about. It’s about the plucky underdog that defies all odds and finds a way to win. It’s about that team that goes against the grain and hits unprecedented heights when no one expected them to. If Agnelli’s superleague is put into place, these success stories will be fewer and far between if any at all, and would completely eliminate the magic of the sport.

For the last two seasons, Gasperini’s men have outplayed Italy’s traditional giants, pipping them to the final European places. Last season, they finished ahead of Inter, Milan, Roma, and Lazio and deservedly so. Despite this, Agnelli maintains their European qualification should not be guaranteed.

“Then I think of AS Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s ranking. They had one bad season and are out, with all the consequent damage to them financially.”

If the superleague goes through as Agnelli wishes, it would reward clubs based on history and brand name, rather than results. In essence, the rich would get richer. In a society where elites control most facets of everyday life, football must reject this wholeheartedly and keep a meritocracy in place. Inefficiencies remain with the current system as big spenders are typically rewarded, however, less so than in a superleague, for example. In sports, most of the time, you get what you deserve. If you put in the work, chances are you’ll get rewarded accordingly.

Few clubs, if any, in Italy have innovated like Atalanta and have built a base for long-term success. Gli Orobici play an expansive brand of football, promote a host of youth talents annually and will soon be playing in their own stadium. While they may not be considered as one of Italian football’s pioneers, or one of the Seven Sisters, they shouldn’t be punished either for not being there from day one. A case could even be made that Atalanta are currently the nation’s most progressive side and represent all that is good with Italian football. 

Agnelli’s comments, while they may seem like one man’s opinion, represent a far bigger problem in football that currently exists. Europe’s elite have no regard for their league’s provinciali and will stop at nothing until the current format is blown up for their own benefit. Simply put, they’re in it for themselves. In an era where Europe’s elites have each other’s backs, the rest of Italy and the world, must do the same. Otherwise, we’ll be seeing the same 16 teams, if not fewer, every year fight for Europe’s crown. And where’s the fun in that?

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Europa League Race: Contenders, Pretenders and Dark-Horses

As the season draws to a close, the race for European places intensifies. If the season were to end today, Juventus, Inter, Lazio, and Atalanta would represent Italy in the Champions League while Roma and Napoli would have to content themselves with Europa League football.

Currently, the table could not be tighter as just four points separate sixth-place from eleventh. Let’s now take a look at the main contenders, pretenders and dark-horses for the Europa League.

Contenders: 

Roma and Atalanta: As it stands right now, one of Atalanta and Roma are pretty much guaranteed to occupy one of Italy’s two Europa League spots. Gasperini’s men are six-points ahead of the giallorossi in the fourth and final Champions League place and will be eager to maintain their advantage to qualify for Europe’s elite competition. Given Roma’s recent form, they may slide further down the table, but it’s difficult to see them finish outside the top six. As a result, expect Roma to make the Europa league leaving one last spot for the rest of the pack.

Napoli and Milan: After rough starts to the season, Napoli and Milan sacked their managers and almost immediately witnessed an upturn in their fortunes. Napoli have now won four of their last five and seem primed for a strong finish while Milan are finally playing with an identity. With Roma almost surely occupying the first Europa League spot, Napoli and Milan will likely duke it out for the remaining place. Napoli, however, will need to be better against sides under them as they have demonstrated complacency in those clashes. Milan, on the other hand, have taken care of Italy’s provinciali, but struggle against Italy’s elite.

Pretenders: 

Parma and Cagliari: Both sides got off to the season in fine form, but have recently struggled for results. Rolando Maran’s Cagliari haven’t won any of their last five clashes while Parma have proven to be far too inconsistent. In addition to their goal-scoring woes, Parma lack creative depth across the midfield, which will come back to haunt them in their hunt for European football. Cagliari, by contrast, benefitted by some incredible finishing earlier in the year; exploits that cannot be sustained throughout a full season. Expect both sides to slide further down the table as the season wears on.

Dark-Horses: 

Bologna-Hellas Verona: These two are here for vastly different reasons. On one hand, Hellas Verona have one of the league’s best defences propelling them into the race for European football while Bologna have scored freely all season and have shown no signs of slowing down. While Mihajlovic’s men have struggled in their last two games, they possess more quality in the final third than their counterparts and could go toe-to-toe with anyone in Italy. The same applies to Verona, who recently overcame Juventus in a game where they largely dominated. Milan and Napoli may be favourites for the last European spot, but Verona and Bologna will make it interesting over the next 12 match-days.

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AC Milan 1-1 Juventus: Ten-man Rossoneri concede late equaliser after VAR controversy

After taking the lead in the second half, Milan were heading towards an important result ahead of the return leg in March. However, instead, Juventus managed to find a way back into the game as Cristiano Ronaldo converted a penalty in the final minute of the ordinary time. 

For the Rossoneri, certainly, it’s a disappointing result after having defended so well in the second half, even with ten men. However, the performance goes to show that the first half against Inter wasn’t a fluke, which is a sign that the fans wanted to see from the team tonight. Continue reading

Serie A Match of the Round – Inter vs Milan

The Derby della Madonnina delivered in terms of entertainment value and was a classic tale of two halves, as Milan dominated before the break, but then Inter turned the table and earned a potentially massive win as far as the title race is concerned.

The Nerazzurri were looking to get definitely back on track, as they had won last week versus Udinese, but had tied three times in a row before that. Milan instead, after a three-game winning streak, had equalized with Verona. Continue reading

Inter 4-2 AC Milan: Second half blackout proves costly for the Rossoneri

What started so well for AC Milan, eventually ended in misery as Inter managed to turn things around in the second half, putting four goals past Gigio Donnarumma in goal. For the Rossoneri, it’s the first loss of the year, and one that certainly will hurt for a long time.

As mentioned, Stefano Pioli’s men got off to a very bright start. After applying pressure and more or less dominating the first half, Rebic gave his side the lead with just five minutes to go. Of course, Ibrahimovic was involved in the goal as he assisted the Croatian.  Continue reading

Three Things to Look Out For in the Derby Della Madonnina

With Inter and Milan locking horns in the latest instalment of the Derby Della Madonnina in match-day 23, both sides will be going in with differing objectives.

On one hand, Antonio Conte’s men, the official ‘anti-Juve’, will be looking to keep pace at the top with the Italian champions while the rossoneri will be eager to close down a seven-point gap between them and top four.

While earlier in the season it looked like Milan would be in for another indifferent year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival has coincided with a return to form. Since their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Atalanta, Pioli’s men are unbeaten in their last seven in all competitions. Inter, by contrast, have struggled since the turn of the new year and have drawn three of their last four Serie A clashes.

Here are three things to look out for on Sunday!

1) Midfield battle – Conte’s 3-5-2 vs. Pioli’s 4-4-2. 

Since assuming the reins, Pioli has implemented a basic 4-4-2 formation and is slowly getting the most from some of the club’s misfiring players, including Ante Rebić and Samu Castillejo. While the results have been there, Milan, at times, have been overrun in the midfield as Pioli’s 4-4-2 is rather flat. Against Brescia, for example, Milan were left exposed and were lucky to walk away with all three points.

As has been the case since he’s coached Juve, Conte tends to load up the middle with three midfielders, one regista and two mezz’ale, who tend to do most of the running and offer defensive cover between the lines. In possession, these interior midfielders like to sit in half-spaces in the final third to receive the ball in dangerous areas.

Christian Eriksen’s arrival will only help in this respect and the Danish international will be licking his lips at the prospect of carving open the rossoneri’s rearguard. If Milan are to have a shot in this game, Pioli will need to alter his tactical setup and ensure Inter don’t gain numerical superiority in the middle of the park all-while keeping a particular focus on Eriksen who will likely be fielded right behind both strikers.

2) Christian Eriksen – 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2? Trequartista or mezz’ala? 

The worst-kept secret of the January mercato was Eriksen’s transfer to Inter, but after weeks of rumors, it finally got done. Now that he’s with the nerazzurri, however, question marks remain over where he will feature. In his first appearances with the club, Conte has altered his preferred 3-5-2 for a more fluid 3-4-1-2 with Eriksen occupying the trequartista role behind the strikers.

In the past, Conte has been reluctant to shift away from his rigid shape and typically perservered with his tried-and-tested 3-5-2. When he had Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio and Pogba at Juve, it was the Frenchman who, at times, featured higher up the pitch in a 3-5-1-1. While it’s unlikely he does that with Eriksen, it remains a possibility.

The Derby della Madonnina will be the first real test for an Eriksen-led Inter and it will be interesting if Conte persists with him in an advanced role. After all, a mezz’ala role doesn’t exactly suit the former Tottenham man and isn’t why he was signed. With a big three points up for grabs, Eriksen is definitely one to watch.

3) Ibrahimovic-Leao face their first real test. 

Since Ibrahimovic’s arrival, the big Swede has formed an effective partnership with Rafael Leão and the duo have established themselves as Pioli’s undisputed front-two. With the former PSG man holding up play, Leão plays in a support role and makes the most of his turn of pace and ability to take on his man. Until now, Milan have had success with the Leão-Ibra partnership, but they have yet to be put to the test by an elite defence.

Taking nothing away from their opponents, Milan have played Cagliari, SPAL, Udinese, Brescia, Torino, and Verona. While each side represents their own challenges, none of them, bar Verona, come close to Inter when it comes to defensive solidity. It will be interesting to see the Ibra-Leão partnership go to work against Conte’s back-three in what is undoubtedly their first real test since coming to be.

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Top Three Winter Mercato Moves

While a few days remain before the transfer window is shut, there has been no shortage of activity within Italy throughout the winter mercato. Napoli have completely retooled their side while Milan are making the most of the window to off-load deadwood and reduce their wage bill. Inter, on the other hand, are actively looking for the final pieces of the puzzle to topple Juventus.

Here are the top three moves of the winter mercato until now.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Milan: When it was announced Ibrahimovic would be joining MIlan, many scoffed at the idea initially. After all, he had just finished playing in MLS and was nearing 40 years old. Despite his relatively high wages, the Swedish international is exactly what the doctor ordered in Casa Milan and his arrival has coincided with the rossoneri’s best form of the season.

Since returning to Milan, Pioli’s men have won five in a row and booked their ticket to the Coppa Italia semi-finals against Juventus. Some players are simply synonymous with winning and Ibra is one of them. The former PSG man has lead a quiet revolution and has introduced a winning mentality to the club. For this alone, he’s arguably the signing of the winter mercato. 

Christian Eriksen – Inter: It may have well taken them all month, but Inter finally got their guy. Giuseppe Marotta had been in negotiations with Tottenham for the better part of the month and finally decided to pay the price for the Danish international. Considering Conte’s men are lacking experience in the midfield, Eriksen’s arrival is a no-brainer.

A natural number ten, Eriksen will look forward to linking up with Lukaku and Martinez and form one of Italy’s most fearsome trios in the final third. With Sensi, Barella, and Brozovic pulling the strings behind them, Marotta has arguably built the best midfield in the league. Eriksen is merely the cherry on top of the cake and could prove to be the difference-maker in the title race.

Diego Demme – Napoli: This signing is one that has flown under-the-radar in Italy, but is one of the shrewdest deals of the winter mercato. The partenopei have looked extremely vulnerable throughout the season as their midfield has oftentimes left their defence exposed. Whether it was Fabian Ruiz, Elmas or Allan playing as the side’s deepest midfielder, Napoli always looked suspect defensively. Demme’s arrival adds some much-needed steel in the middle of the park at a particularly low-price and already looks to be paying off.

The veteran midfielder looked extremely at home in front of Napoli’s back four in their most recent win against Juventus. The 28-year-old regularly broke up play and shielded Napoli’s rearguard brilliantly. If he maintains this, Demme will go down as the signing of the winter.

Honourable mentions:

- Christian Koume to Fiorentina (Question marks remain over his ACL recovery)

- Duncan to Fiorentina. (Sassuolo man is slowly becoming a consistent creative outlet.

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AC Milan 3-2 Udinese: Pioli’s men claim three important points as Rebic comes up big

AC Milan claimed three important points at the San Siro earlier this afternoon, beating Udinese by three goals to two. The scoreline reflected the game quite well and thankfully the Rossoneri got the final word, putting more pressure on the teams above them in the standings. 

The Champions League zone is now just seven points away for Pioli’s men, although Atalanta and Roma have a game in hand. In any case, the Milan fans can at least look at the upcoming games with a bit of hope, as certainly wasn’t the case at the start of the season.  Continue reading

Atalanta’s Progress: By the numbers

Last season, Atalanta sent shock-waves throughout Italian football and qualified for the Champions League, finishing ahead of Italy’s traditional giants Inter, Roma, and Milan among others. Along with European football comes the luxury of a pitfall of cash and unique opportunities for growth that Atalanta have taken full advantage of.

Beyond their Champions League cash, Gian Piero Gasperini’s men have been extremely proactive on the transfer market, selling their players for incredible profits. Dejan Kulusevki, for example. The Swedish international has only played three times for them in his entire career and was sold for nearly forty-five million euros. Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers.

According to Calcio e Finanza, Atalanta have already cashed forty million euros from the Champions League and could make more depending on their two-legged affair with Valencia. Given recent form, it’s not entirely improbable they progress to the final eight.

While Champions League money is always welcomed, it’s not as sustainable as other sources of revenue for the club. After all, will they qualify for Europe’s elite competition every season? They’re hoping so, but probably not.

As a result, Atalanta have enacted a model wherein they sell their top-performing young players to Italy’s big clubs after breakout seasons. Kulusevski to Juve, Gagliardini to Inter, Cristante and Mancini to Roma, Conti and Kessie to Milan, and the list goes on. In this sense, they maximize their profits. While certain cases will have them thinking they moved on their players a season too early, that’s always better than feeling they sold a player a season too late.

Just ask Torino’s Urbano Cairo. After Andrea Belotti’s breakout season, Torino reportedly got offers ranging between 50 to 75 million euros for their hitman. Cairo played hard-ball, kept Belotti and has since missed out on a unique rebuilding opportunity by turning down those offers. Today, Belotti won’t fetch anywhere near the previously reported price-tags. Atalanta, on the other hand, have a knack for selling players at the right time. In fact, their track record speaks for itself.  Most of their departed players, bar a few, have struggled to recreate their past form at their new clubs.

According to Transfermarkt’s numbers, the Bergamo-based club are set to cash in a further 110 million euros this season, in addition to Musa Barrow’s reported sale of 20M. That’s 130M on players that have either already been replaced or have never featured regularly for them.

With their squad lacking a few additions to take the next step, it will be interesting to see what Atalanta does with that money. Will they abandon their current philosophy and go for more-experienced players in hopes of making the leap alongside Italy’s elite or will they continue with their own model that has worked wonders for them?

If last transfer window was anything to go by, it will arguably be a mix of both, with a particular focus on experienced players. See: Luis Muriel and Ruslan Malinovskyi. As another transfer window beckons, Atalanta’s activity will be worth monitoring. They have the money and a vision: but can they deliver on it?

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