The conveyor belt of class…

A closer look at the famous Dinamo Zagreb youth academy

Luka Modrić, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki; all luminaries of the world game during their careers and they have one thing in common; they all progressed through the Dinamo Zagreb youth academy. The Građanski Nogometni Klub Dinamo Zagreb II was founded in 1967; the academy has won 26 Croatian under-18 titles, 11 Croatian under-17 championships and five Yugoslav under-18 championships. For the past 50 years Dinamo have produced some of the world’s most exceptional footballers and their ability to produce the next generation of Croatian national players shows no signs of subsiding.

Since the publicity around the celebrated early 1990s Manchester United youth players dubbed, ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ there has been a greater interest in finding the world’s next superstar at a young age. A decade later the graduates of Barcelona’s La Masia academy became the foundation of their legendary 2000s team and their success only intensified the need to produce successful homegrown players.

While it is a merely a wish for the majority of teams, one cannot deny there is something inherently romantic about someone who has been a one-club player since his youth. Someone who feels the pride when he pulls on the shirt, who has shared the highs and lows with the fans. It’s almost a parent/child relationship and that loyalty is priceless to most fans. It is also worth a great deal to the clubs themselves as bringing through youth players costs much less than buying someone from another club (although that may just be the cynic in me!? I’m sure they quite like the romantic ‘one of our own’ notion too!).

We all know most big clubs spend tremendous amounts on their youth academies and have scouts all over the world working tirelessly in an attempt to scoop up the most talented youth players. A big part of this desperation to find the next big thing is down to the greater exposure afforded to the modern game. Fans now don’t have to rely on newspaper reports of reserve team games to find out about their youth teams; they can easily use Google to find out everything they need to know in just a few clicks.

The term ‘wonderkid’ is widely used now also, it originates from Football Manager, and refers to a youth player, who with the right standard of training and first team action can become world-class. With games like Football Manager fans can be a real life Eric Harrison as they nurture the next Modrić or Boban from the youth team into the big time. Although it adds to the realism of the game it dangerously feeds the hunger for their club to find the next Messi.

The ease of access to modern footballers, coupled with the greater expectations from fans to ‘win now’, means clubs are always under pressure to produce quality youth players. Clubs like Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona are almost expected to spend millions on their academies and scouting, but just how does a team of the stature of Dinamo Zagreb produce such a conveyor of talent season after season?

Dinamo have long since been settled in their role among the European football’s pecking order; namely, a club with a wide-ranging scouting network and successful youth academy, who rear their youth players through the ranks, into the first team to then sell on at a large profit.

The Dinamo hierarchy deep down know the team will never compete at the top UEFA Champions League level, instead they purely set up to dominate domestically and gain entry into the Champions League, thus guaranteeing them a healthy revenue stream which by Croatian financial standards will keep their club and academy in business for many a year. This is partly the reason why their academy is able to flourish so well year after year despite being based in what some would consider a relatively small country, both in financial and population terms.

Presently Dinamo has ten age categories from under-8s to under-19s and they also hold summer training camps in Canada, United States, Australia, Slovenia, Germany and Poland.

A recent study showed they were ranked as the fourth best youth academy in the world, based on the quality of their youth teams and as of October 2015 Dinamo had the fourth most players playing in European leagues who had originally been part of their academy.

However, perhaps the most notable commitment of their academy coaches is they promise to play at least two of the academy graduates in the Dinamo first team, thus guaranteeing their best youth players first team action. The others who have a chance of making it as a senior professional, but aren’t quite ready for regular games at a high level, are sent on loan to Dinamo’s local feeder club, NK Lokomotiva Zagreb.

Some of the world’s star players have been a product of their academy, the aforementioned Modrić and Boban are the more obvious ones, but players like Andrej Kramarić, Niko Kranjčar and Champions League winner, Igor Bišćan are all Dinamo graduates.  Below we’ll take a look at some of their finest academy products in more detail.

 

Zvonimir Boban

Yugoslavia team mate of Robert Prosinečki when they won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile. He played for Dinamo for eight years in total and captained the club at just 19 years old. He made his name as an agile, attacking midfielder of great flair and determination. Boban was one of the main protagonists during a riot at a game between Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade in 1990, his resulting suspension forced him to miss the 1990 World Cup, however he was back to represent a newly-independent Croatia at UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup in France in 1998. Boban played 142 times for AC Milan, between 1991 and 2001, he won four Serie A titles and the Champions League in 1994.

Robert Prosinečki

As mentioned above, Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslav squad in 1987. An intelligent and technically gifted midfielder he was a product of the Dinamo academy, he played for them between 1980 and 1987 then moved to Red Star Belgrade after a contract dispute with Dinamo. He won the European Cup with Red Star in 1991 and, like Boban, represented Croatia at the tournaments in England and France. Prosinečki went on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona in an injury-hit career.

Vedran Ćorluka

Versatile defender, Ćorluka, played for Dinamo on 61 occasions between 2003 and 2007 after graduating from the academy and helped Dinamo to three successive league titles. He moved to Manchester City in 2007, then to Tottenham Hotspur a year later, where he played alongside fellow Dinamo youth product, Luka Modrić. He went on to make over 80 appearances for Spurs . Ćorluka will be representing Croatia at the 2018 World Cup; he has 98 caps and will hope to get past the century mark during the tournament.

Luka Modrić

Probably the most famous Dinamo youth graduate of recent times, Modrić joined the academy at 17 and played 94 times for Dinamo’s first team before joining Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. A wonderfully gifted passer of the ball with a creative intelligence which few can match, his talents paved the way for a £30m move to Real Madrid in 2012 and has been heavily involved in their three consecutive Champions League victories. Internationally, Modrić has played at five tournaments for Croatia, amassing over 100 caps in the years since his 2006 debut.

Dario Šimić

A tough and powerful defender, he represented his country exactly 100 times. Šimić joined Dinamo’s academy in 1987 and went on to play 140 times for the senior team. Inter Milan paid £11m for him in 1999, Šimić played for the Nerazzurri over 60 times before he crossed the divide to play for rivals AC Milan in 2002, he won two Champions League titles with Milan, in 2003 and 2006.

Dejan Lovren

Lovern played for Dinamo between 2004 and 2010, winning two league titles. He moved to Lyon, then Southampton and finally to Liverpool for £20m in 2014. He has a UEFA Europa League and Champions League runners up medal and has 38 senior caps for Croatia; representing them at the 2014 World Cup.

Alen Halilović

Diminutive winger, Halilović, was Dinamo’s youngest ever debutante, aged just 16 years and 112 days old when he made his first senior start in 2012. He played just 44 games for Dinamo before Barcelona signed him in 2014. Halilović has had a succession of loan moves since then and is currently at Spanish side, Las Palmas. He has enormous potential and could be one to watch for the future.

Eduardo

A product of Dinamo’s far-reaching scouting tentacles, he was spotted playing for Bangu in Brazil in 1999 and joined Dinamo a year later. He played for Dinamo for six years, winning three league titles and three cups. Arsenal paid £7.5m for him in 2007 and although he had a decent start with the Gunners his career in England never quite recovered from a horrific injury he sustained against Birmingham City in early 2008. He was part of the Shakhtar Donetsk team which won four Ukrainian league titles between 2010 and 2014. Eduardo scored an impressive 29 goals in 64 games for Croatia.

Marko Pjaca

A strong, skilful and fast winger, Pjaca was Dinamo’s most expensive sale when Juventus paid £23m for him in the summer of 2016. He was making tentative steps into Juve’s first team when he suffered an ACL injury while on international duty in March 2017. Pjaca has been regaining his fitness and match sharpness on loan at Schalke 04. He will be a part of Croatia’s 2018 World Cup squad and has 16 international caps thus far.

Milan Badelj

Badelj is the current captain of Fiorentina, but started out in Dinamo’s academy in 2005. He played 113 times for Dinamo and not only captained the senior side, but such was his ability he was also touted as a possible replacement for the departing Modrić in 2008. He joined Hamburg in 2012 and then moved to Italy in 2014.

Mateo Kovačić

Gifted midfielder, Kovačić, has been the subject of some lavish praise during his fledgling career; he was compared to Prosinecki by his coaches at Dinamo’s academy, later at Inter his potential was similar to a young Ronaldo by club legend, Javier Zanetti. He played for Dinamo between 2007 and 2013 before joining Inter. Kovačić moved to Real Madrid in 2015 for £29m and has won three Champions League titles since arriving.

 

The list of Dinamo’s youth alumni is endless, and there are plenty more players to be discussed in length. None of this would be possible without Dinamo’s complete and unwavering commitment to youth development, they deliver this very impressively, which considering the stature of the club, is staggering. Most of the current Croatia national squad are approaching the twilight of their careers (in fact they have the tournament’s oldest squad), and it will be exciting to see how Dinamo contribute to producing the next generation of national players.

Rebel With a Cause…

Zvonimir Boban kick starts Croatian independence

Athens, 18 May 1994, AC Milan, led by Fabio Capello, had just completed a 4-0 rout of favourites Barcelona in the Champions League Final. Zvonimir Boban was at the heart of the victory. A gifted, dogged, playmaker, he had completed a journey of absolution since an incident which became known as ‘the kick that started a war’ in 1990.

Zagreb Riot

A fervent supporter of Croatian independence, Boban had joined the pro-Croatian team, Dinamo Zagreb as a part of their youth academy in 1983. He went on to be a prominent member of the Yugoslavian side which won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 and captained the Dinamo side at just 19 years old. In 1990 however he would be part of an event which many believe was the catalyst for the Yugoslav war which followed.

The war itself began in June 1991, however ask any Dinamo Zagreb fan or supporter of Croatia and they’ll tell you it started during a riot at the Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade game in May 1990. A dangerous time politically; the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb had recently held its first multi-political party rallies for over 50 years and there had been a lot of pro-Croatian independence support in the following weeks.

The game itself saw two vitriolic rivals square off, not only rivals on the pitch but also politically. Red Star fans were (and still are) notoriously pro-Serbian and had Serbian crime boss and later paramilitary leader, Željko Ražnatović (better known as Arkan), in among their hardcore fans. He became part of the Serbian army during the war and would later be charged by the International Tribunal for War Crimes.

The resulting riot was no real surprise. Reports of violent clashes outside the stadium already had the police on high-alert before the game, however, the Pro-Serbian police, stood back and watched the Red Star fans tear up seats, sing pro-Serbian/anti-Croatian chants and throw missiles into the surrounding Dinamo fans. The enraged Dinamo ultras saw this as a clear message that the police were supporting the actions of the Red Star contingent and attempted to climb and pull down the perimeter fence which held them back. The fence eventually gave way and the ultras poured on to the pitch, many police officers were assaulted and both sets of fans clashed for over 70 minutes, fires were lit and the toxic smoke of fire and tear gas filled the air before police water cannons arrived at the stadium to disperse the warring fans.

During the riot many of the Dinamo players stayed on the pitch and Boban witnessed a defenceless Dinamo fan being beaten on the ground by a police officer, incensed at one of his people being brutally treated, ran over and, Eric Cantona-style, kicked the officer before being helped to escape by an assortment of Dinamo fans and players. It isn’t surprising the police didn’t try to arrest him given the level of violence already happening around them.

Boban immediately became a Croatian hero, however the Yugoslavian FA (heavily pro-Serbian) wanted him brought to trial to face prosecution, but instead they banned him for six months. This resulted in him missing the 1990 FIFA World Cup, at which a proficient side containing many of the victorious 1987 World Youth Championship team, reached the Quarter Finals.

It is believed the incidents of that day signalled an almost rebellious inspiration among the Croatian people and they saw the riot and the assault by Boban as a movement against the Pro-Serbian Yugoslavian government.

Many Dinamo fans enlisted in the Croatian army in 1991, while their Red Star rivals joined the Serbian army, as Dubrovnik among other cities became the focus of the world at the start of the Yugoslav war. Many years later, 2006 to be precise, I was in Zagreb for the Croatia versus England game (the one where the ball skipped over Paul Robinson’s foot). I was chatting with a group of drunken and loud, although perfectly decent and welcoming, Croatian fans in a bar. They recounted, via one of their group who spoke perfect English, their recollections of the war. Needless to say their accounts were mostly abhorrent and it was clear the mental wounds of the war were still very raw.

Success in Milan

Boban, made his move to Italy in 1991, with Milan paying £8m for him. Milan had already become a dominant force of world football in the late 1980s under Arrigo Sacchi, their back to back European Cup wins in 1988 and 1989 were the stuff of legends and lead by the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.

Current Milan manager, Fabio Capello, had noted Boban’s attacking midfield prowess and felt his creative, determined style would suit his already celebrated team. Boban began a period of acclimatisation on loan at Serie A relegation-fodder, Bari, and played 17 times during the 1991/92 season. Milan won the league that season and would retain it during Boban’s first season with the Rossoneri the following year, this despite Milan winning only one of the final 11 games.

Boban certainly had some illustrious company in the Milanese midfield, the aforementioned Gullit and Rijkaard were joined by Boban’s former Yugoslav team mate, Dejan Savićević , Roberto Donadoni and Demetrio Albertini. But Boban wasn’t at all out of place and made 22 starts during their victorious 1992/93 season.

Milan and Boban made it a hatrick of league titles under Capello as they secured the 1993/94 scudetto. Their European dominance, while not winning the Champions League every season, was stunning. Milan made the Final five times in a seven-year stretch and won three. Their famous pummelling of Johan Cruyff’s Barca was sandwiched in between 1-0 defeats to Marseille and Ajax, in 1993 and 1995. Boban started in the latter two finals and his performance in the defeat of Barca is one to behold; an intelligence and tenacity, he won the midfield battle against José Mari Bakero and Guillermo Amor of Barca.

Croatia’s Golden Generation

In 1996 Boban represented his newly-independent Croatia as they made the Quarter Finals at UEFA Euro 96, he played in all four games and scored Croatia’s second goal in a 3-0 trouncing of Denmark at Hillsborough. He also famously captained the Croatian team at the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France, his fiery nature and strong character made him the perfect choice to captain a nation only independent a few years previous. Boban played all but one game as they impressively reached the Semi Final by defeating Germany and Romania along the way. Croatia eventually finished third, after securing a 2-1 win against Holland in the Third Place Play Off. Boban assisted two of Davor Šuker’s six goals in the tournament; Croatia’s opener against France in the Semi Final and the winner versus Holland.

Boban’s Milan career peaked as the 1990s drew to a close and he became the very definition of a trequartista. His incredible vision and playmaking abilities were his most recognisable attributes, there were many occasions where he played defence splitting through ball or performed a back heel or dummy to open up the defence and shift the play in another direction. A very unselfish player, he was often the unsung hero of countless Milan wins.

Croatia failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and after 51 appearances he retired from international duty in 1999. Boban left Milan in 2001 and joined La Liga team, Celta Vigo, but after an unhappy few months in Spain he announced his retirement in 2002.

Life After Football

Since retirement he has never shied away from voicing his opinions on the fortunes of his former Milan side, but despite his continued involvement and opinions on the game he has publicly stated he will never become a coach.

Even during his younger days Boban was known as a literary man, and during retirement he gained a masters degree in History from the University of Zagreb in 2004. He also became a successful television pundit in Italy and back home in Croatia.

Always an outspoken and vociferous character, Boban was a good choice to join a newly reformed FIFA in 2016. As a result of the FIFA corruption scandal he was appointed their Deputy Secretary General in 2016, it was hoped Boban would bring some transparency and accountability to a badly rotten organisation. (Ironically, in a tremendously vague statement from his employers they stated his role was assisting with “developing the game and organising competitions”).

The fall out of his actions at the Dinamo and Red Star game may have been the spark which started the Yugoslav war but Boban has no regrets, he later said;

“Here I was, a public face, prepared to risk his life, career and everything fame could’ve brought, all because of one ideal, one cause, the Croatian cause”

Willing to give up everything for something you believe heavily in is an admirable trait and no matter your opinion on his actions you cannot deny Boban has unbelievable resolve and spirit, whether defending his people or playing the game we love.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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 HSC 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.