The Rise of the Foot Soldier…

Giving some love to the under appreciated at Juve.

The Serie A season ends next week and a seventh successive title is heading to Turin, courtesy of a consistent and determined title defence. Huge credit must go to Max Allegri, his coaching staff and the squad for keeping Juve on the right path over the nine-month slugfest. Many can argue the lack of competition in Serie A has meant Juve simply have to turn up and they’ll be champions, however this has been the closest title race since 2002 and those arguments about a lack of competition are often knee jerk, uneducated and myopic. Napoli deserve credit for their determination and keeping the race close, despite not being close to Juve in terms of squad depth or finance. We can criticise Maurizio Sarri, his rotational policy and lack of transfer activity when it was needed most, but that aside, they have made the final couple of months of the season compelling viewing. Outside of the top two, the increase in quality at Milan, Inter, Lazio and Roma (despite the Milanese inconsistent seasons) means there are a handful of genuine challengers for the crown next year. Whether the challengers go all out for a Napoli-style Serie A title assault at the expense of the other competitions they’re in, remains to be seen.

For Juve, European success next season is a must along with keeping hold of their better players during the summer. Their star players have in the main performed to a high standard, injuries, suspensions and a dip in the quality of their performances notwithstanding, and a lot of the glory will rightly be showered upon them. But what about the fringe players? The ones usually on the edges of the photo as the team celebrate with a trophy. The unsung heroes? The players asked to play out of position in an emergency? Without them Juve could never have competed with Napoli and the rest for the whole season. It is that squad depth which sets Juve apart from the chasing pack.

Allegri has shown he is adept at squad management and rotation by being able to adjust the formation and personnel to suit the situation; a tactical chameleon, if you will. Looking at those fringe players in more detail one has to decide at which point they become fully fledged members on the first team. If we use a 20 game start limit to separate them we’re left with a very interesting pool of reserves who can admirably fill in for their colleagues. Players with 20 or less starts are;

Gigi Buffon

Wojciech Szczesny

Kwadwo Asamoah

Mattia De Sciglio

Andrea Barzagli

Daniele Rugani

Benedikt Howedes

Mehdi Benatia

Rodrigo Bentancur

Claudio Marchisio

Stefano Sturaro

Douglas Costa

Juan Cuadrado

Federico Bernardeschi

 

Of those players Buffon, Benatia, Rugani and Costa stand out as regular first team players and they are on the cusp of that 20 start limit. Many of the players have been hampered by injury; Howedes is the name which immediately springs to mind, having made just three starts in his season-long loan from Schalke, however De Sciglio, Cuadrado, Bernardeschi and Marchisio have missed significant time this season. The other point which is easily noticeable is the sheer quality of those players, it’s a difficult case to argue this side wouldn’t challenge for the title on its own and the majority would easily command a place in starting line ups across Serie A. Again, massive credit should be given to Allegri and his staff, not to mention CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, and the board, for moulding such a talented squad which is a healthy blend of youth and experience.

The challenge for the club going into next season and the season after is keeping that level of quality in depth as high as it is now. Looking at the list it is fair to say Buffon, Barzagli and Howedes will not be playing in Turin, or in the case of the first two, at all, within the next couple of years.

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Szczesny has been a very impressive, almost under the radar signing. Either side of the winter break he deputised well for the injured Buffon and should be confident of making the sacred number one jersey his own next season.

Mattia Caldara’s return from a loan with Atalanta will mean Rugani is still likely to be the squad player in central defence, however Rugani may well feel he needs a move away to fulfil his potential and Allegri’s puzzling lack of faith in him may well make up his mind. Even if Rugani does stay in Turin Barzagli’s age may open up the possibility of another central defender joining in the summer. Given the factors that are seemingly pointing towards an exit fairly soon, Rugani has still had a decent season, but it has only been a decent season, nothing special, and given he should have stepped up in Bonucci’s absence his season could be viewed as a disappointment. Many fans are prepared to die on the ‘young Italian player’ hill and this blinds some people’s opinion of him.

Medhi Benatia, as we will see with Costa, has been in imperious form since the winter break, quite the opposite of the clumsy and timid player he had become over the previous few months. His man of the match performance in last week’s Coppa Italia Final drubbing of Milan capped off a superb six months for him.

Stephan Lichtsteiner is also another player on who is a borderline first team regular and is gracefully bowing out of action in Turin after seven years of service to the Bianconeri, he has given the best years of his career to Juve and his efforts are gratefully appreciated. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, he’s steadily performed when asked to. He was part of the game changing tactical move by Allegri in the away win at Tottenham Hotspur and he also provided two assists for Mandzukic to spark Juve’s revival in Madrid.

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De Sciglio has divided opinion between Juve fans and seems to still be under the ‘solid but unspectacular’ cloud he has been under since his Milan days. He isn’t a Dani Alves in terms of attacking threat but he is certainly very reliable and can comfortably claim to have had a good first season in Turin, despite a raft of injuries. It will be interesting to see how often Allegri uses Cuadrado at right back next season given it’s not his natural position.

Lichtsteiner’s departure and Asamoah’s impending move to Inter could mean be a case of re-building in both full back areas. There are already plans to do just that as Leonardo Spinazzola returns from loan and there is a high possibility of adding Manchester United full back, Matteo Darmian, in the mercato.

Of the trio of central midfielders (Marchisio, Sturaro and Bentancur) only Bentancur can claim to have had a good season and he of those is the only one who can realistically expect to be still in Turin for more than a couple of seasons. All three have made fleeting appearances, the reasons behind their average squad status are debatable, although Bentancur’s age and experience, Sturaro’s ability and Marchisio’s fitness and being favoured over Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, would all be valid reasons.

Bentancur has shown some ability and maturity this season, particularly against Real Madrid in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Sturaro and to a lesser extent, Marchisio, are no longer of the ability and standard required to play for Juve. I’m not as down on Sturaro as most of my fellow Juventini, but he is limited at the highest level. Marchisio suffers from the same problem as Rugani whereby Juve fans are besotted with a player, no matter his ability, who has been at the club since his teens. While I’m not completely heartless it is obvious he is nowhere near the form of a few years ago. Sturaro would be on most people’s list to leave in the summer and although Marchisio can still perform in the Juve midfield, a move away for either wouldn’t be a complete surprise, especially as the arrival of Emre Can from Liverpool could be imminent.

At the beginning of the season it was expected that either Bernardeschi or Costa would oust Cuadrado from the right wing. Both haven’t started as much as they would’ve liked and while it is frustrating for Juve fans both have been carefully integrated into the starting line-up. The fruits of Allegri’s labour have produced some match winning displays from Costa, he’s arguably been Juve’s best player over the second half of the season and it’s fair to say Juve’s eventual canter to the title would not have happened had Costa not been on form.

Injury has stifled Bernardeschi’s progress somewhat but he is young enough to be able to break into the first 11 on a regular basis next season. His brief first team involvement has shown him to be a very capable player and like Lichtsteiner has made a big impact in the games he’s started. He scored a crucial goal against Olympiakos to secure Juve’s passage into the Champions League Knockout Round and also scored on his first return to his former home in Florence.

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Cuadrado’s early season performances were typical of the player; frustrating and inconsistent, and he still continues to provide both joy and despair in equal measures. Like Costa, he has provided some vital goals for Juve; the goal in the 3-1 home victory over Milan and the deflected goal against Inter spring to mind. Although he can be extremely inconsistent his presence in the Juve squad should never be underestimated.

Juve will be raising the Serie A trophy aloft on 20 May after the home game with Hellas Verona and while the team will take the plaudits, they wouldn’t have won seven consecutive Scudetti without the help of the squad. So when you see Asamoah’s face in amongst the players with the trophy or De Sciglio taking selfies with his family, remember they’re the foot soldiers, players just out of the limelight. They are often underappreciated and rarely thanked, but they are as much a part of the title win as Higuain’s and Chiellini’s and fully deserve to wear their winners medal with pride at the season’s end.

 

The Heroes of Seville Now a Team With No Name

The rise and fall of Steaua Bucharest

Jerzey Dudek, Bruce Grobbelaar and Edwin van der Sar have all saved penalties in a European Final. However the efforts of another will surely top those of the aforementioned custodians; Helmut Duckadam. Not a household name west of Bucharest, but Duckadam, the Steaua Bucharest goalkeeper of the mid-1980s, was branded the Hero of Seville after his magnificent performance in the 1986 European Cup Final penalty shoot out where he saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties and by doing so he chiselled Steaua’s name in to European football history. European competition in late 1970s and early 1980s was largely dominated by English clubs, that was until the indefinite ban after the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster and the ban opened the door for the rest of Europe take their mantle. Since its beginning in 1955 only one other eastern European team has won the European Cup; Red Star Belgrade in 1991, and this makes Steaua’s 1986 victory all the more unique.

A side formed by the Romanian military in 1947, they recruited the country’s best young players with the promise of being able to avoid being called up for national service. Their rise to European success began under the guidance of coach, Emerich Jenei, in the second of six spells as manager, he helped Steaua secure their place atop of Romanian football’s elite with three successive title wins and two cup wins between 1984 and 1987, they narrowly missed three successive doubles by losing the 1986 Cup Final to city-rivals Dinamo. It mattered little, with their domestic dominance almost assured they started their assault on Europe.

Steaua’s victorious European Cup run in 1985/86 was at the start of an astonishing 104 match unbeaten domestic streak which stretched between 1984 and 1989. Captain, Stefan Iovan, a Steaua veteran of 11 years and Victor Piturca, who would go on to score 137 goals in just six years in Bucharest, lead their domestic rule and it no doubt gave them confidence to breeze past Vejle of Denmark and Honved of Hungary in the European Cup. They faced Finnish side, Kuusysi, in the Quarter Final and won 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a Piturca goal just three minutes from time. The Semi Final saw them fend off a talented Anderlecht side, 3-1, to secure their place against Terry Venables’ Barca in Seville. Steaua, despite being in the Final on merit, were given very little chance, especially as they were playing in their opponent’s home country. The game itself was a war of attrition and neither team can be particularly surprised it ended in a penalty shoot out. However Duckadam’s heroics are the stuff of legend and the whole club can be rightly proud of their victory.

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Their European adventures continued over the following three seasons. Under Jenei they won the European Super Cup in December 1986, defeating Dynamo Kyiv, 1-0, with Gheorghe Hagi scoring the only goal. By virtue of winning the European Cup they faced South American champions, River Plate, in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, however they lost 1-0 to a somewhat fortuitous goal where the ball rebounded off the post, goalkeeper, and straight into the path of Antonio Alzamendi who headed home.

Jenei was replaced by Anghel Iordenescu; a former Steaua player from 1968 to 1982 during which time he became their all time top goal scorer with 155. He joined the coaching team at Steaua in 1984 and was a 36 year old substitute in the 1986 European Cup Final. He became manager of Steaua on a full time basis in 1987 and he carried on where his predecessor left off with two league and cup doubles, including 21 consecutive league wins in 1988. His Steaua side also beat Rangers on the way to a Semi Final appearance in the 1987/88 European Cup. The following season they made their second Final in three years the season after knocking out Sparta Prague, Spartak Moscow, IFK Gothenburg and Galatasaray. In the Final they were comfortably beaten 4-0 by an AC Milan side lead by Arrigo Sacchi and inspired by Dutch trio, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi’s Milan side hammered Real Madrid, 6-1, in the Semi Final and would go on to achieve iconic status in Italy and Europe with back to back European triumphs. Their second Sacchi-led win was over Benfica in 1990.

Both of Steaua’s legendary 1980s managers went on to manage the national team. Jenei was in charge of Romania between 1986 and 1990, the World Cup in Italy saw Steaua players Balint and Lacatus both play and score as the team made the Second Round before being eliminated on penalties by Ireland in Genoa. Iordenescu followed Jenei into national management between 1993 and 1998 as he took Romainia to consecutive World Cups. The 1994 team, starring Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, lost 4-1 to Switzerland but topped the group before being knocked out by Sweden on penalties in the Quarter Final. In 1998 they beat England on the way to leading the group, but despite avoiding England’s eventual conquerors, Argentina, they were knocked out by Davor Suker’s Croatia in the Second Round. Iordenescu received criticism for the team’s performances in France and he resigned after the defeat to Croatia.

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Gheorghe Hagi was undoubtedly the star of the era as he finished as the league’s top goal scorer on two occasions while playing for FC Sportul, he moved to Steaua in 1987 and went on to score 76 goals in 97 games. A player of immense flair and technical ability, he would go to be hugely successful across Europe over the course of his career. Steaua’s teams of the mid to late 1980s also saw Dan Petrescu, Marius Lacatus and Gabi Balint playing starring roles in their success. Those seminal Steaua teams were mostly compromised of home grown players, this was partly down to the restrictions put in place by the Communist government which contributed to the prevention of players moving abroad and thus influenced Romanian club’s successes in European competition, as a number of other teams were also commanding in Europe during this period. Dinamo Bucharest reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984 before losing to eventual winners, Liverpool, they also reached the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1990, while CSU Craiova made the UEFA Cup Semi Final in 1983. The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 somewhat liberated the transfer market and young players in search of a better standard of living, including higher wages, and a different more liberal culture were tempted away from Romania. Western Europe was suddenly accessible to Romania’s top players as Hagi moved to Real Madrid in 1990 and both Lacatus and Petrescu transferred to Fiorentina and Foggia, respectively.

After the 1988/89 domestic double, Steaua failed to win the league for three seasons and It can be argued they suffered something of a hangover after the drubbing by Milan in 1989 and losing their better players after the Romanian revolution the same year. Their domestic difficulties continued as there was a 1984/Doctor Strangelove-style undercurrent throughout the late 1980s. Military-owned, Steaua, were constantly in dispute with city rivals, Dinamo, who were owned by the Romanian Interior Ministry. It was reported the Ministry bugged the offices of Steaua and interfered with their transfer dealings. Worse was to follow for Steaua, as although they had been separated from the military since 1998, in 2011 they were sued by their military founders for using of the Steaua name, stating the team had been using it illegally since 2004. The government ruled in the military’s favour in December 2014 and Steaua were banned from using their colours, name and logo; more importantly their history and previous honours would also remain under the military’s ownership. Fortunately for the integrity of the team now called FCSB and football in general, UEFA still recognises the trophies won by FCSB under the Steaua name to be theirs, so the history hasn’t merely been wiped out by the court rulings.

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The 1990s saw more allegations of corruption against a number of top flight teams including FC Brasov and Ceahlual Piatra Neamt; known as the Coopertiva, they allegedly exchanged wins to ensure the other teams involved weren’t relegated. These allegations, in a belated attempt at honesty and to try and rid the game of corruption, were admitted by several of the involved clubs of their own volition and not in a court of law.

While the Romanian national teams of the 1990s may have had more media attention it can be argued the Steaua side of the mid-1980s marked a real golden generation for Romanian football. Nowadays the Romanian league is one of the lowest ranked in Europe (20th in 2018, below Cyprus and Israel) and while FCSB will never scale the heights of their golden era they hold a unique place in the rich history of Europe’s premier club competition. The courts and the military may want to take that away from them but the heroes of Seville will always remain in the hearts of their fans and players.

The Blue and Yellow Calcio Miracle

How Hellas Verona took on the elite and won

Such was the dominance of the big city clubs in Italy that only twice in over 20 years prior to 1985 had a team outside of Turin, Rome or Milan won the Scudetto, this dominance still continues as the following 32 years have only seen the title be lofted elsewhere on just three occasions. This statistic is what makes Hellas Verona unique, one of the last smaller teams and probably the smallest of all, to win Italian football’s biggest prize. Hellas were, and still are, a club of modest stature and prior to their Serie B title win in 1981/82 they only had a 1956/57 Serie B title to their name.

In the early 1980s Serie A hosted several superstars of the era; Brazilians, Zico, Socrates and Falcao, future Ballon D’or winner, Michel Platini and German striker, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, were among the elite. There was also the small matter of Diego Maradona’s transfer from Boca Juniors to Napoli in 1983 for a then world record fee of £5m. Platini and company may have been the marquee names but players such as Preben Elkjaer and Giuseppe Galdersi were about to gate crash the party.

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Under the guidance of quiet and unassuming, Osvaldo Bagnoli, Hellas were promoted to Serie A for the 1982/83 season after flipping between the top two divisions for much of the previous decade. In a country still heavily influenced by Catennacio, Bagnoli became the master of a counter attacking hybrid, where the team defended very compactly and were happy to concede possession only to break on the counter with their attacking full backs, Mauro Ferroni and Luciano Maragon, ably assisted by sweeper, Roberto Tricella.

Danish striker, Preben Elkjaer was arguably the star of the team. Bought from Belgian side, Lokeren, in 1984, after playing a vital role in Denmark’s Euro 1984 campaign, he scored 11 goals in his debut season and was the club’s joint top goal scorer. During Hellas’ title-winning season, Elkjaer scored a memorable goal in their 2-0 victory over Juventus; he received the ball in midfield, during a challenge outside the box he lost his right boot but continued and struck home with his bootless-foot. His efforts for club and country were recognised by UEFA as he came third and second in the Ballon d’Or award in 1984 and 1985 respectively. He scored a total of 48 goals in his four years for the Gialloblu, not a huge amount by modern football standards but one has to take into account the strict defences who patrolled Serie A at the time. He helped Denmark to the Semi Final of the 1986 World Cup with a hatrick against Uruguay in a 6-1 win, that Denmark side containing Jesper Olsen, Michael Laudrup and Jan Molby is still considered to be one of the finest the country has produced.

In the days of tough-Italian defending Hellas had their own physical, ball-playing defender. Hans-Peter Briegel, brought agility, pace, technical ability and a goal scoring instinct to Verona’s title challenge. Instantly recognisable because of his preference to play without shin pads, he weighed in with 12 goals during his two years in Italy, nine in the title winning year, and was instrumental in Hellas conceding a league best 19 goals during that season. He played in two World Cups, 1982 and 1986, for West Germany and made 72 appearances. He also made history in 1985 as the first foreign-based winner of the German Footballer of the Year.

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Hellas quickly settled in to life in the top division by finishing fourth, although they drew more games than they won, they only lost six times, proof that Bagnoli had already moulded Hellas in to a tough, determined team who were more than capable of competing with the country’s best teams. Their Serie A results included a fine 2-1 home win versus runners-up, Juventus, although The Old Lady gained some revenge for that defeat by defeating Hellas 3-2, after extra time, in the Coppa Italia Final. Nonetheless Hellas’ reward for an impressive first season was qualification for the following season’s UEFA Cup.

Hellas reached the UEFA Cup Second Round before losing on away goals to Sturm Graz of Austria. They finished a respectable sixth place in Serie A; missing out on a European place by just three points. They only managed two away wins but only lost once at home and were victorious against the top three teams; Roma, Juventus and Fiorentina. On loan journeyman striker, Maurizio Iorio, finished as Hellas’ top goal scorer with 14. Again they suffered Coppa Italia disappointment as they made the Final but were beaten by Roma.

The 1984/85 season saw changes in how referees were selected for Serie A matches as a result of measures brought in after the 1980 Totnero scandal in which a betting syndicate were found to be attempting to influence Serie A and B games, the result saw seven teams and 22 managers and players prosecuted. Lazio and Milan were amongst the teams to be relegated to Serie B. Before Totonero the referees had been selected by a committee but in an attempt to avoid any accusations of corruption the referees were selected randomly the week before the games. Italy is fond of a conspiracy theory and today allegations of favourable refereeing towards the teams from the big cities are still rife. It was hoped by randomly selecting referees a more level and transparent standard of officiating would be brought about.

Hellas’ title-winning season is deeply ingrained in the folklore of the club and Serie A. They were undefeated in their first 14 games and the 2-0 victory over a strong Juventus side (bootless-Elkjaer goal and all), was a defining moment, as was the 1-0 home victory over Roma in March. Diminutive striker, Giuseppe Galderisi, finished as top goal scorer for Hellas with 11; noted for his work rate and accuracy he would go on to play for Milan and in the United States. He later become a reputable lower league manager and his most recent stint the dug out was at Lega Pro side, Lucchese in 2016. Hellas secured the title with a game to spare and in the end the gap to second place was four points. Again Bagnoli’s side proved difficult to beat as they drew 13 games and lost just two, one of which was against runners-up, Torino.

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The conspiracy theorists were given more ammunition in 1985 when the decision was made to revert back to the older method for selecting referees by committee. It is hoped it is merely a coincidence that this happened the season after a provincial team won the title and heavy favourites, Roma and Juventus, finished sixth and seventh. However, it remains a contentious issue for those who don’t follow teams from Rome, Milan and Turin.

The 1985-86 season was something of an anti-climax as they finished way down in tenth position and only managed a solitary away win. Away defeats, 5-0 and 5-1, to Napoli and Udinese, respectively, affirmed their struggles away from Verona. They did however reach the second round of that season’s European Cup after beating Greek side, PAOK, 5-2 on aggregate. They were knocked out by Juventus in controversial fashion after a contentious penalty gave Juve the aggregate lead in the second leg. The first leg in Verona finished 0-0, however the second leg, played behind closed doors due to punishments handed out after the Heysel Stadium disaster in the Final the previous year, ended 2-0 to Juve.

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Much like Zdenek Zeman’s Foggia team of the 1990s, Hellas became a cult team in Italy and around Europe following their title win and subsequent European appearances. Inevitably, like Foggia again, their better players became very attractive to the country’s bigger clubs; Midfielder, Pietro Fanna, Roberto Tricella and Hans-Peter Briegel joined Inter, Juventus and Sampdoria in the years after Hellas’ title win.

Their league fortunes fluctuated over the next five seasons as Hellas mostly finished in mid-table, however they finished fourth in 1986/87 and made a club-best Quarter Final in the following season’s UEFA Cup. They were relegated in 1990 and Osvaldo Bagnoli left the club that summer having overseen the most glorious period in the club’s history. However, the financial pressures of higher wages for players who were in a now ordinary team, coupled with the subsequent relegation took their toll and Hellas were liquidated in 1991 before reforming in 1992 under the name Verona. Bagnoli had already moved on to his next role and achieved success with Genoa in 1992 as they finished fourth and reached the UEFA Cup Semi Final. Success in Genoa facilitated a move to the San Siro to manage Inter in 1992 and the team finished second under his guidance the following season. He retired shortly after his sacking from Inter in 1994 and in January 2018 he was made Hellas’ Honourary Vice President.

To purely attribute Hellas’ title win to the random selection of referees is extremely short sighted, Bagnoli moulded a team of hard-working, talented and tactically aware individuals into a title-winning team. Much of the credit for their triumph is heaped upon the players given Bagnoil’s quiet nature, however he was a great motivator and had a very strong bond with his players and staff; the very fact he only used 17 players in 1984/85 demonstrates the faith in his first team squad. It is sometimes a surprise to see a squad whose focus is solely on tactical awareness and good old fashioned teamwork win a title as it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. Favourable comparisons with Greece’s Euro 2004 victory and of course, Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win, are obvious. Those two victories, not unlike Hellas’, are probably the last of this kind we’ll see for some time, if ever again.

Juve’s 2018 Crossroads – Part two

Looking ahead to an important summer in Turin

We’ve looked at the past and present, now to focus on the future, starting with the Mister himself. It’s widely assumed Allegri’s job is safe after all his trophy record speaks for itself, especially when you look at the calibre of players who have left the club over the last few years. It is widely considered that Juve’s Champions League success is almost more important than our Serie A record in order to increase our stature among our European rivals. Even a simple look at Juve’s Champions League record this season shows they have only marginally progressed; making the Quarter Final after beating Spurs, away, and then taking the holders to injury time in the second leg should be regarded as such. Looking at it more closely, apart from the 30-minute spell against Spurs and the nothing-to-lose game in the Bernabeau Juve haven’t demonstrated any ability to control games, to make teams fear them, and this could ultimately lead to Allegri’s downfall.

Allegri would argue that Juve, given those departures of key players, have been punching above their weight in Europe over the last couple of seasons and while that may be true it is clear the attention and momentum this generated hasn’t been used to their advantage. His persistence in using impractical tactics and personnel in Europe is hampering Juve’s progress. Given they have made the Final in two of the past three seasons it can be said this is progress enough and turning a squad capable of winning the trophy doesn’t happen overnight unless your team is bankrolled by the Middle East or Russia, but there haven’t been any significant signs of progress this year. In fact, the word regression springs to mind and the end of game antics in Madrid shouldn’t be allowed to cloud this view.

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Despite the tone of this article I am pro-Allegri but if Juve are to look elsewhere for a new manager, they have to weigh up whether Allegri can deliver them the Champions League trophy sooner rather than later. If they don’t think he’s up to it, they may only have to look as far as the opposing dugout at the Bernabeu. As a former player Zinedine Zidane could be a perfect fit for the BIanconceri, most importantly he has a proven record of delivering European trophies at a major club. During a recent post-game interview upon being asked whether he would be Juve manager one day he replied “never say never”, he also said “Juve is close to my heart”; certainly not a straight up refusal by any means. If he doesn’t retain the Champions League this year and given Real’s relatively poor domestic season he could well be looking elsewhere for employment. Italian coaches, Eusebio Di Francesco, Simone Inzaghi and Maurizio Sarri have all had impressive seasons, however the first two are still somewhat untested with a major club and Sarri is too inflexible to take a team to the highest level.

The summer will be very important as Allegri will surely be given opportunity to strengthen a team which desperately needs it. Juve have a ready-made replacement for Gigi Buffon in Wojciech Szczesny and now is the time for him to step up and be Buffon’s long term successor. As much as it pains Juventini to admit it, it is time for Buffon to keep his word and retire while he can still perform at the highest level, he may not have (potentially) ended his Champions League career the way he would’ve wanted to but his legacy as one of the best goalkeepers ever to play the game is one which remains untarnished. Juve have done well to bring Szczesny in for what should be his warm up season to help fully integrate himself and now is his time to take over the number one shirt.

The return from loan of Mattia Caldara will help bolster the defence after an impressive two season stint at Atalanta and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or both of Andrea Barzagli and Daniele Rugani make way. Rugani is still yet to consistently play under Allegri, other than a run of games at the start of the season, and while he has the ability to play at a high level, he doesn’t seem to have the trust of his manager after being overlooked for the Real Madrid home leg. Another loan spell for Rugani would be wise from Juve’s point of view, however the player himself may prefer to cut his losses and start elsewhere after being out of favour for so long. As far as Barzagli is concerned his form has still been above average but the first team starts are becoming less frequent, there aren’t many Juve fans who have a negative opinion of him, it is just a case of being the right time to pass the defensive responsibilities to someone else and given Caldara’s return this seems quite likely.  There aren’t many players Juve could conceivably bring in, especially with the return of Caldara, however Benedikt Howedes, has shown some promise in his (very) limited first team action and there was obviously something about his play to make Allegri and co want to bring him to Juve in the first place; he may well be tempted to make a second stab at his Juve career.

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As for the full backs it appears Stephan Lichtsteiner and (or) Kwadwo Asamoah will leave at the end of the season, Mattia De Sciglio seems to be settled in the right back role and it has been suggested another Atalanta loanee, Leonardo Spinazzola, will deputise where necessary next season. Like Barzagli, Lichtsteiner’s time is almost over in Turin and despite his long-term commitment to Juve a move would probably benefit both parties. In preparation for the departures at full back Juve have been heavily linked with Matteo Darmian, his signing would be welcomed as he has appeared to become a more stable and well-rounded defender since moving to England; definitely an upgrade on who is available at the moment. Alex Sandro, improved from his uncharacteristic form at the beginning of the season, could again be a prime target for the Premier League. However, Juve should fight to keep him as top class attacking full backs are at a premium and it’s a doubt whether Spinazzola or, if he stays, Asamoah could fill his boots.

If Sandro does move on the profit of his transfer could be used in midfield. There has been constant speculation surrounding the futures of Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, both for different reasons have been linked with moves away from the Allianz Stadium. For Khedira he has more often than not been too inconsistent and absent during games to justify wearing the black and white beyond the end of next season, despite this he is Allegri’s preferred choice for supporting Pjanic and no matter what Juventini think of his inclusion they need to get beyond the constant scolding of the German and realise his experience is vital, for the time being at least. Marchisio has suffered as a result of Khedira’s continued inclusion and must be wondering, as his career reaches its twilight, whether a gut-wrenching move away from his boyhood club would be best for him. It’s obvious he hasn’t reached the heights of his pre-knee injury form and he is no more than a squad player now so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move. Although seeing both Buffon and Marchisio leave in the same mercato could be too much for some fans.

The signing of Blaise Matuidi was supposed to be the missing piece in Juve’s midfield and although he has performed well this season it is apparent his signing isn’t enough to help Juve progress to the next level. He brings a lot of energy and determination but as highlighted in the first leg defeat to Real Madrid, cover for Miralem Pjanic is desperately needed. Pjanic himself has been better than his debut season in 2016/17, but he, like Khedira, goes missing too often or is being asked to play the bruiser role, which really doesn’t suit him.

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There have been plenty of potential midfield signings mentioned and when you’re a club the size of Juve it appears not a day goes by where there isn’t some kind of speculation. Emre Can was apparently a certainty to sign for Juve at the end of his contact with Liverpool however nothing has been finalised yet. He is a very similar player to Khedira, Marchisio and Matuidi and although his talent isn’t in question it is apparent he isn’t the type of player required at the moment. The dream signing for many Juventini would be Sergej Milinkovic-Savic; his mouth-watering, dynamic performances in Lazio’s midfield have attracted the attention of Europe’s elite, however it’s unlikely he’ll join Juve whether it’s because of the hefty price tag or whether it’s down to the working relationship between Juve and Lazio is a matter of opinion. Atalanta’s Bryan Cristiante and Sampdoria’s Dennis Praet are also possibilities, as is Nebil Fekir from Lyon; all have the attacking talent and flair to support Pjanic in the link between midfield and attack.

Anthony Martial has also been mentioned as a Juve target after reported meetings between his agent and Juve representatives after the game against Spurs at Wembley. Martial is a big name and he would be a very important signing in terms of Juve’s stature among their peers and the increased ability to attract big names will turn heads across Europe. However Martial is perhaps not what Juve need either especially when they have Juan Cuadrado, Federico Bernardeschi and Costa already in the squad and Marko Pjaca still to return. If it were to happen one would expect Mario Mandzukic to make way, he has made a name for himself since his 2015 move from Bayern Munich and was successfully transitioned to a left wing role last season, however it is not his natural position and if he isn’t going to play centre forward he is surely being wasted at Juve. He has looked well short of his best at times this season, despite two clinical headed goals against Real Madrid.

If Juve are indeed looking for a replacement striker, then the links with Alvaro Morata would be music to the ears of Juventini. After somewhat reluctantly leaving in 2016 he would be welcomed back like a long lost relative. He proved to be a very capable player in his two years at Juve and hasn’t exactly caught the imagination during his time at Chelsea, given their probable management change in the summer it is possible Morata could be available. He would certainly take some of the goal scoring burden from Gonzalo Higuain and might just propel Juve to the next tier of European teams.

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Of course we have a whole summer to debate the mercato and there are endless possible signings and squad permeations to be debated, but now is the time for Juve to lay the foundations of their reaction to the European disappointment. Changes are required; a change in personnel and a change in attitude. Both are easily attainable and as Max Allegri and Giuseppe Marotta are stood at the crossroads Juventini are praying they take the right path.

 

Which Way Now? – Juve at a crossroads after Madrid KO – Part one

Plenty of questions to be answered as the Bianconeri find themselves in familiar territory

Juventus’ deflated win against relegation fodder, Benevento, was a classic case of art imitating life. Twice they held the lead only to be pegged back by the bottom side, they won, eventually, and a magnificent Douglas Costa goal will have glossed over the performance; a win is a win at this stage of the season. The lethargy and down trodden mood was palpable after Juve’s defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Final first leg and it hadn’t shifted by the time they took to the field four days later in Campania. Juve and Napoli have set an incredible pace in Serie A (either club could conceivably not win the league having secured over 90 points) and the game in Turin at the end of this month could well be the title decider. Despite the exciting climax to the domestic season their European adventures haven’t been as encouraging, to be fair they’ve made a dramatic rise in status over recent years with two final appearances, those finals have provided average performances but ultimately two defeats. The defeats have been greeted with a certain amount of optimism for the following season and confidence has been building for a while that Juve are finally within touching distance of their final opponents, Barcelona and Real Madrid, however, this confidence has been built on words and misty-eyed optimism rather than substantial actions and despite the shocking manner in which Juve were knocked out by Real Madrid last week it leaves Juve at a huge crossroads.

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The horror with which Juventini greeted the announcement of the starting line-up for the first leg of the Real Madrid tie must have been almost audible across Europe as they lined up with a two-man midfield, just like the Champions League Final of 2017, Allegri’s focus was on the wings where Alex Sandro was deployed on the left a Costa on the right. Miralem Pjanic and Medhi Benatia were suspended so Rodrigo Bentancur, ahead of Juve stalwart, Claudio Marchisio, and Andrea Barzagli stepped in. One has to question Allegri’s reasoning for playing Barzagli, a man who time and again was beaten by the threatening pace of Son Heung-min in the second leg game of the previous round against Tottenham Hotspur. Against Real he lined up, albeit in a different position, against Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. The only reason apparent reason behind Barzagli’s inclusion is his experience, but that will only get you so far when you’re up against arguably the best attack in Europe.

On the flip side, Bentancur’s fleeting appearances in the first team have given reason for optimism and his first half performance against Real was as composed and mature as one could’ve hoped for; he was willing to track back, make tackles and start Juve’s sporadic attacks. His performance can’t be faulted. Similarly, Sami Khedira’s first half display was at odds with his less than consistent 2017/18 season, in Pjanic’s absence he played a great game just when it was required. Personally it was amusing to see him being the subject of lavish praise at half time only to be lambasted by fickle elements of Juve’s support in the second half, some things never change. His second half display wasn’t up to the standard of the first but he certainly wasn’t Juve’s biggest culprit; he was more a victim of circumstance, of Real’s second goal, that was the killer.

That goal; the product of some more childish defending between Chiellini and Buffon, combined with Juve’s innate ability to be their own worst enemy, was simply one of the finest you’ll ever see and whether you agree with applauding the opposition or not, the ovation from the Juventini inside the stadium was more than justified. As a football fan sometimes you just have to applaud the opposition, it doesn’t happen often and had his effort ended up in row z everyone would’ve laughed, it didn’t and the team’s confidence drained away. Their perceived lack of confidence in big European games has been mentioned by many pundits and it’s hard to argue against that when it is clear the players’ heads drop when they concede in these big games. In the end the match statistics were fairly even; Real had 14 shots to Juve’s 12, 5 shots on target to Juve’s 2 and 56% to 44% possession. However, the overall impression was that Real were in second gear for much of the game, whereas Juve, in order to get anything from the game, had to play at their top level. Juve do not have the luxury of Cristiano Ronaldo, not many teams do, but Juve simply do not have a player of his calibre, a match winner, and it is apparent without Pjanic that Juve lack a dynamic creative presence on the pitch.

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The second leg was supposed to be a foregone conclusion and given their performances against both Barcelona and Real this year it was perhaps even more unbelievable Juve scored three and kept a clean sheet (almost). The team and Allegri deserve a huge amount of credit for not simply preserving energy ahead of the final Serie A games. Allegri finally ditched the two-man midfield and it was obvious to everyone watching that Juve are a much better team when they have support for Pjanic in the shape of Matuidi and Khedira. The focus on the wings and getting crosses into the area paid off and it was a huge reason behind Juve’s success on the night. Special mention must go to Khedira who quietly had one of his best games of the season, if he could sort out the consistency issues he can still play a part for Juve. Mandzukic too, who looked well off the pace versus Benevento, must be praised for his two goals and impressive centre forward play. As for Juve’s sickening exit, the debate around the injury time penalty will continue long after I’m dead and buried and it’s a subject for another time.

Allegri has to take the blame for the exit after playing the two-man midfield when it has been proven time and again to be ineffective against quality opposition and they had to go all out in Madrid after the poor showing in the first leg. The inclusion of Bentancur in the first leg, despite his encouraging performance, over Matuidi or even Marchisio, is puzzling, especially when he was facing Kroos, Modric and Isco. Playing Alex Sandro on the left may work domestically and it has to be acknowledged that injuries and suspensions have forced Allegri’s hand somewhat, however it clearly didn’t work and Asamoah was left exposed to Real’s counter more often than not. Last season’s Champions League Final saw Juve play Dani Alves on the right, Mario Mandzukic on the left and the ill-fated two-man midfield. Same tactic, same outcome. It is both bizarre and frustrating to expect a different outcome by using the same tactic against the same team.

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So the European campaign ends in disappointment and Juve’s response will be crucial. It is easy to point the finger at a lack of domestic competition given they’ve won six titles in succession, this is partly true as the Serie A title isn’t wrapped up yet and although it is within reach Napoli have pushed them all the way. The Coppa Italia final versus Milan next month would seal Juve’s fourth successive domestic double. Domestic dominance is becoming almost given for Juve and glancing at the table after the Real defeat would show a team who has dropped only 12 points all season. They are the cream of Italian football and Real Madrid, as in the Final last June, simply swept them aside in the first leg. It can be argued of the two knockout ties this year Juve have only played well for one game and a 20-minute period versus Spurs, it isn’t an exaggeration to say they were outplayed for the rest of those ties.

It is mildly embarrassing for a team to be revered and feared in their homeland only to be made to look inferior against quality continental opposition. Remember Italy is one of Europe’s flagship leagues and although competition from Napoli, Roma, Lazio and Inter have increased the pressure and improved the league as a whole, it can be said barring a few other teams (Milan, Fiorentina and Atalanta) the rest are very poor, with the bottom six or seven extremely so. Although this example is probably comparable with England or Germany, their top teams are still producing quality performances in Europe and there isn’t a real question over the lack of competition in those leagues.

If Juve aren’t careful they could fall in to a similar trap to Celtic in Scotland, they are by far and away the best team in the Scottish Premier League but are out of their depth in top European competition. A slight exaggeration when compared to Juve but it’s a little too close to the truth for some. Juve were mostly unconvincing in the group stage, they almost certainly stole the aggregate win over Spurs in the Knockout Round and were not so much outplayed by Real but always somewhat inferior, a step behind, and gave themselves too much to do despite their heroic efforts in Madrid. Unfortunately, it isn’t it isn’t the first time Juve have simply looked miles behind Europe’s elite teams.

The time for reflection, finger pointing and dissection is over, with the post mortem out of the way the second part will focus on the way forward.

 

 

Sócrates – Football’s last intellectual

a thinking man’s footballer of grace and intelligence. His interest in left-wing politics also formed a large portion of his legacy.

There are many iconic World Cup images; Bobby Moore and Pele embracing after the England and Brazil game in Mexico, 1970, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986 and Marco Tardelli’s passionate celebration after his goal for Italy against West Germany in 1982. For many the image of headband-wearing, bearded, Brazilian midfielder, Sócrates, in that clean, stylish, yellow shirt is one which brings back fond memories.

He was a member of the Brazil team at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and it’s hard to argue with popular opinion that, particularly the 1982 squad, was along with the Holland team of 1974, the best team never to win a World Cup. Their style of free flowing, attacking football, with a huge helping of flair and grace belied the functional, almost European style with which the Brazil teams of 1994 and 2002 won the competition. Socrates was more than a part of those great Brazil teams along with Zico, Careca and Falcão, he was also a large political presence in his homeland, particularly campaigning against the military dictatorship of the time.

Sócrates had a fortunate start to life, whereas many children in Brazil were, and still are, born into poverty and had little education; Sócrates was born into a middle class family and made use of the political and sociological literature at his fingertips in his father’s library.

He split most of his playing career between Botafogo and Corinthians and it was at the latter club where he made his name after he signed for them in 1978. He played a deep lying midfield role and had incredible technique and vision. His languid and pedestrian style was completely at odds with his technical and metal ability; he was able to pick out a pass with either foot and could also hit a ferocious shot. A 1980’s Andrea Pirlo, if you will.

As his reputation grew he came to represent the more romantic side of the game; a thinking man’s footballer of grace and intelligence. His interest in politics, particularly left-wing politics, part educated and part self-educated would also form a large portion of his legacy. After he won his first league title at Corinthians in 1979 he co-founded the Corinthians Democracy. The aim was to make the team a co-operative where everyone, from the coaching staff, the ground staff and the doctors were given a say on how the club was organised. He wasn’t afraid to be outspoken and he and his team mates supported the rights of workers and of the introduction of presidential elections in Brazil, defying the military regime, led by Joao Figueiredo. During Sócrates’ time with Corinthians the club didn’t have a shirt sponsor, instead they wore slogans on their shirts which supported their political views and one slogan simply read ‘democracia’.

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He was also a heavy smoker and drinker and ironically, given his lifestyle, he completed a bachelor’s degree in medicine while playing professionally. This gave birth to his nickname ‘The Doctor’. It can certainly be argued he didn’t practise what he preached in his medical studies.

During the build up to the 1982 World Cup he again won the Brazilian title with Corinthians, preparations for the tournament saw the national team play over 30 games, they lost just two while scoring an average of 2.5 goals per game. Sócrates later referred to their style as “organised chaos” but he was doing him and his team mates a huge disservice as they were anything but. Their quick and decisive play saw them head into the tournament full of confidence. On a personal level his training regime for the finals saw him become leaner and stronger as he cut down on cigarettes and alcohol for a time. It was clear to see he was determined to bring his Brazil team out of the shadow of the famous World Cup winning side of 1970.

His team took the field against the Soviet Union on 14 June; the Soviets had reason to be hopeful as they were one of the two teams who beat Brazil during their World Cup preparations. Although Brazil won, 2-1, they were fortunate to do so. Sócrates later described the Soviet team as a “red wall” and they were denied a clear second half penalty. For the man himself the game is best remembered for his goal. He skipped one sliding tackle, dropped a shoulder inside to evade another opponent and in the open space he thundered a 25 yard shot past Soviet goalkeeper, Rinat Dasayev. Sócrates later described the goal as feeling like an “endless orgasm”.

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They progressed through the tournament and looked like they would win it at a canter after beating Scotland, 4-1, and New Zealand, 4-0. In the second group stage they met old foes, Argentina, and a resurgent Italy team in a mouth-watering group of death. Italy had Paolo Rossi back in the squad after he returned from suspension for his role in a 1980 betting scandal and fired a hatrick in a 3-2 win as the two teams produced one of the all time classic World Cup games. Sócrates equalised Rossi’s opener after playing a neat one two and smashing past Dino Zoff at his near post, an almost majestic cloud of touchline chalk rises as his shot crosses the goal line. However Italy won out despite Falcão putting the South American’s ahead midway through the second half.

It must be remembered that Brazil only needed a draw to qualify for the Semi Final; moreover they knew they would be eliminated with a defeat. Arguably a wiser move may have been to defend their advantage against Italy, however this was Brazil and in particular the early 1980s Brazil where they played simply to outscore the opposition, no matter how many they conceded and no matter what was at stake.

Sócrates’ status grew over the next four years and although his career was winding down when he represented Brazil in Mexico in 1986 he was still arguably their most influential player. He was very aware of the media attention he would receive, not only for his on-field ability but also for his political views. Guaranteed maximum exposure he lined up for the national anthem before each game wearing a headband with a political message written on it. Before their first game against Spain on 1 June, his headband read “Mexico, stand tall” in reference to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City which resulted in the deaths of over 5000 people. Prior to their second game versus Algeria it read “yes to love, no to terror” This is a message which transcends any race, culture or time in history and was believed to be in response to the US military bombing of Libya. It’s fair to say this kind of political statement would never be allowed now; one only has to think back to the furore around British teams wearing the poppy to see how much the game has changed since 1986.

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On the field, Sócrates scored the only goal of the game against Spain and they moved into the knockout stages with three wins out of three. Poland were dispatched, 4-0, in the last 16; Sócrates scored a penalty in that game. The Quarter Final against France went to a penalty shoot out after finishing 1-1. Sócrates missed his penalty and Brazil lost 4-3, however it is widely regarded to be one of the games of the tournament as then European champions, France, with Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, made the Semi Final in Mexico. Brazil would have to wait another 16 years before lifting the World Cup again in Japan and South Korea in 2002. That 1986 penalty shoot out was Sócrates last action for Brazil and he never won any major honours with the national team, something his younger brother, Rai, did in 1994.

Sócrates has never hid his political affiliations, he once named John Lennon, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as his heroes (he even named one of his sons Fidel). During the Corinthians Democracy times of the early 1980s he stood in Sao Paulo’s Cathedral Square in front of an estimated 2 million people and declared if presidential elections were not introduced he would end his career with Corinthians and move to Italy. This may seem unbelievably pretentious but such was Sócrates’ standing with the Brazilian people it wasn’t too outlandish to think political reform could be achieved in this way. Inevitably things didn’t change and he kept his word by moving to Fiorentina for the 1985/86 season. He made 25 appearances for la Viola, however he later criticised the rigidity of life in Italy, stating “life is more spontaneous in Brazil…sometimes I just wanted to hang out with friends, party or have a smoke. There is more to life than football”. He moved back to Brazil and joined Flamengo then Santos where had made a further 49 appearances over two seasons. He eventually retired in 1989 after making over 660 appearances and scoring 262 goals; an impressive record for a defensive midfielder. He also won 60 caps for Brazil. During his retirement he perused a media career and wrote political and economic articles. His playing career wasn’t quite finished though as, at 50 years of age, he made a bizarre comeback for English amateur side, Garforth Town. He joined them in a month long player-coach role and made one substitute appearance for them.

It’s fair to say his lifestyle was partly responsible for his death although, much like George Best, he never admitted these problems until it was too late. He died on 4 December 2011; officially it was from an intestinal infection caused by food poisoning. He said before his death he wanted to die on a Sunday when Corinthians won the title and his wish came true as they won title that very day.

In 2009 he said modern footballers lack the education and desire to use their voice to promote change, he acknowledged the growth of the game globally and stated footballers have an immense power to drive change for the better. Most people will agree that in a world of colourless, corporate football, driven by profits and filled with media-trained players toeing the party line, the game now lacks true rebels and mavericks. Sócrates was arguably the last true intellectual of the game, both on and off the pitch and football is definitely worse off without him.

Enough is Enough – Lille OSC fans vent their frustration.

The 2011 French double winners are staring into the abyss amongst a mess of ultras violence

The images from the pitch invasion and threatening chants at the end of the Lille OSC and Montpellier game last weekend have shocked many but not come as a great surprise to most. In an increasingly pressurised sport, where results and instant success are demanded by everyone, it is common to see fans become frustrated and feel isolated. Although fan protests are one thing players being attacked are another. A Lille spokesperson likened the incident to the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985 where 39 Juventus fans were killed, those links are a little insensitive and wildly exaggerated but the French FA needs to take action to ensure player safety is maintained.

In the wake of the incident former Lille legend, Eden Hazard, urged the fans to get behind the team again, he wrote on Twitter “This evening, I’m hurting for my Lille…remember, stay united and together in the good times just as in the most difficult moments. Go LOSC!”

To help bring some perspective, Lille are in the midst of a relegation battle after winning the league and cup double little more than seven years ago. Their fall has been consistent with many smaller clubs who have risen from mid-table also rans to league champions (we can use Leicester City as an English comparison). Lille won the French Ligue 1 title, their only league title to date, in 2011, under the management of Rudi Garcia. This was in his second spell with Lille and under his guidance they made a push from possible Europa League contenders to champions of France.

Under Garcia, Lille played some very attractive, attacking football. This was highlighted by 2009’s league effort where they finished fourth and scored a division-high 72 goals. Their title win and subsequent exposure in the Champions League gave Lille their moment in the spotlight and it’s little wonder their better players and indeed the manager attracted the attention of bigger clubs. Garcia left to join Roma in 2013, this was the same season in which they sold Eden Hazard to Chelsea, but that didn’t derail them as they narrowly missed out on European qualification by one point. Since then they have finished third, eighth, fifth and 11th as their slide down the league started. Like a lot of clubs who have been punching above their weight, Lille have managed to stay afloat in Ligue 1 by maintaining their selling club mentality and their transfer outlay over the last three seasons significantly less than they have received. This sounds like good business, however there has been a lack of genuine quality replacing those who have left the club.

One man who was determined to stop the rot at the northern French club is entrepreneur, Gerard Lopez. He bought the club last year, has recently overseen the construction of new training facilities and has been part of the overhaul at the club’s already impressive youth academy. Lopez also appointed experienced, tactical maverick, Marcelo Bielsa, in May 2017.

Five managers in four years would certainly suggest Lille’s fall down the division started well before Bielsa’s appointment and isn’t totally down to his inability to steady the ship, however the board must take some of the blame as Bielsa probably isn’t the first name you would choose if you wanted a loyal and steady manager. He has always been something of a cross between a football oracle and a court jester, a tactical genius mixed with the unpredictability of a broken catherine wheel. He was appointed as Lazio manager in 2016 and lasted two days before resigning over alleged broken promises surrounding transfers, he was subsequently sued by the club for breach of contract. Prior to that he reigned for little more than a season as Marseille manager and resigned after just one game of the 2014/15 season following a defeat to Caen. He cited differences with the club’s management as the reason behind his resignation, however one must question the timing of his decision.

No doubt he is a talented manager and he has national experience with Chile and Argentina, but his appointment now seems a little desperate on Lopez’s part. The bizarre way he left Lazio and to a lesser extent, Marseille, struck again in Lille as he was suspended in December 2017 for apparently travelling to Chile to visit former colleague, Luis Bonini, without the club’s permission. Bonini was recovering from stomach cancer and although Bielsa remained suspended, the allegations of the unauthorised trip were later found to be false. However, Bielsa was eventually relieved of his position shortly after. After his £58m spending spree in the summer of 2017 it can be argued the club suffered from ‘too much too soon’ as he signed twelve players and completely revamped the first team. Bielsa reportedly took under an hour to decide, from his first team squad, who was staying and who would be sold on. It certainly is apparent the club just never adapted to the huge change brought about by his whirlwind changes and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the club’s owners will have expected something in return for their investment. Although spending vast sums of money can be seen as a little careless, especially for a club with, as I will explain below, such a precarious financial outlook. Bielsa’s record of just three wins in the first 14 games of the season will have also been on the mind of his employers, but Bielsa and the owners must all shoulder some of the blame for Lille’s current predicament.

New manager and former Lille player, Christophe Galtier, started well at the turn of 2018 but results aren’t improving enough to keep Lille in Ligue 1. Their recent form has seen them win just two league games in 2018, despite this Lille’s survival isn’t a lost cause just yet and the events of last Saturday evening seem all the more surreal considering Lille, prior to the game versus Monaco, had nine games left and were only one point from safety.

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To further kick the club while they’re down their reported financial troubles have been at the forefront of the sports news recently. In December 2017 France’s football watchdog, DNCG, enforced a transfer ban on the club, no reasons were given, although it’s believed this was due to financial concerns. The club were not allowed to make any transfers during the January transfer window and this could have a huge knock on effect as the final stages of the season draw closer. That added to the fact the club could now face punishment by the French FA for the pitch invasion against Montpellier and be forced to play a home game behind closed doors. The lack of a rousing atmosphere isn’t going to help their relegation fight and without any gate receipts they will also be further hit financially.

Saturday’s events in Lille, as well as those involving West Ham United fans during their game against Burnley at the London Stadium highlight just how emotionally involved fans are and just how much their club’s future means to them. As anyone who is familiar with their club falling down the table season after season the momentum can build very quickly as player sales without significant reinvestment in the team can create a weakened squad, this produces worse results, and so on. As the team declines it is often the fans who suffer.

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Gerard Lopez met with the Lille’s ultra groups in the week before the Montpellier game in an attempt to build a better relationship with them, they apparently assured him the fans would back the team until the end of the season. It is reported the DVE, one of Lille’s most prominent ultra groups, was responsible for the pitch invasion and subsequent protest so it appears their promise was shattered by their actions at the final whistle. Ultras across the world have a sometimes uneasy alliance with their club’s directors and players, they are given special access to the team, clubs also contribute to ticket and travel costs; things which most fans would give anything to have. In return for this access and preferential treatment they give their unwavering support both in numbers in the stands and vocally during the game. However as we have seen on occasions when a team is doing badly the ultras can and often do turn on the team and board of directors. Unfortunately the Lille incident isn’t a one off. In September 2017 ultras of Legia Warsaw attacked their players in a car park after a 3-0 defeat against Lech Poznan. In Spain in May 2017, Tercera Division side, Alcala, lost to San Fernando, 1-0. The Alcala ultras invaded the pitch and attacked the opposition players. Many would agree the presence of ultras can be of great benefit to the team in the form noise, passion and colour. However when things go wrong their actions often lead to intimidation and violence. For many ultras their team is literally their life, but their actions can be seen to be particularly excessive to fans, like those in England, where the ultra culture isn’t as prominent.

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The incidents at the Lille and West Ham games are certainly an ugly stain on the respective fan bases. However most football fans will agree it is that emotional attachment, the joy, elation, despair, frustration and anger, which not only brings them back each week but also has a huge impact on their day to day lives; relegation, for some, can be akin to the death of a relative. Lille, like West Ham, are fighting for their lives in the top division and history shows us some clubs never return from relegation; indeed both country’s second divisions are littered with relegated clubs who cannot make the leap back into the big time, whether due to bad management, investment or luck. If relegation becomes reality for either it may be difficult to rebuild and win promotion. The players and owners come and go, and while the actions of Lille fans on Saturday cannot be justified, the fans remain a constant, through good and bad and they ultimately deserve better than this.