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A lot has happened since we last spoke, hasn’t it? Juventus won Serie A. Italy exceeded all expectations to reach the Euro 2012 final only to suffer a 4-0 loss to Spain. Torino, Pescara and Sampdoria were promoted from Serie B. Calcioscommesse has erupted with Leo Bonucci, Antonio Conte and Stefano Mauri among those implicated. Milan have shed the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta to give him their youngest squad in years. Zdenek Zeman is back in Serie A. Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi have left the peninsula.

You get the point. It’s been a busy, busy summer for Italian football, so it seems only right to resurrect Around the Peninsula in-time for the new season. This time, however, things are going to be a little different. Instead of spending a set amount of time talking about every team in the league, ATP will take a less rigid approach. In short, I’m going to cover the topics I want, when I want. Every club will still get a fair shake of the stick, but I lack the time and energy to return to the old approach.

ATP was started last summer as a means of further educating myself and my readers (all three of you) on calcio. I am pleased with what I accomplished in the first few months, but I quickly ran-out of steam at the turn of the year. Going forward, things will be a little sparser and I definitely won’t be able to churn out 3-5 pieces a week like the old days, but I’ll endeavour to provide topical commentary on the forthcoming Serie A season.

There’s already a lot to talk about, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some of the summer’s big topics. See you soon for more.

Associazione Calcio ChievoVerona are this week’s (and yes, I do mean “week”) feature team. They’ve been Serie A mainstays for a number of years now, and theirs is one of Italian football’s greatest “rags to riches” tales. Take a look at their progress graph and you’ll see what I mean:-

Chievo were formed in 1929 by a small group of football fans from the Veronese borough of the same name. Initially they played as an amateur side, competing against other teams after the players had finished their working day. Their first league season started in November 1931 when they were admitted into Italian football’s eighth tier.

The team’s first incarnation didn’t last long, however, and financial problems forced Chievo to disband in 1936. It’d be a full 12 years before the team resurfaced in the regional Seconda Divisione league before league restructuring in 1959 saw them placed in calcio’s second-bottom tier.

Chievo continued to hover around the pyramid’s lower ebbs until 1964, when businessman Luigi Campedelli took the club over. His arrival coincided with the beginning of of Chievo’s rise through the leagues, and by 1975 they were a Serie D (fifth tier) club. It took 11 seasons of midtable finishes before the team, then known as Paluani Chievo, could mount a serious promotion push, but they were eventually promoted to Serie C2 in 1986.

Stringent stadium regulations in Serie C2 meant Chievo were forced to move across town and share the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi with city rivals Hellas Verona. Chievo’s fortunes only continued to sore, however, as they were promoted to Serie C1 under the tutelage of manager Gianni Bui in 1989.

Playing at a higher level than ever before, Chievo changed their name to their current title in 1989 and finished sixth in Serie C1 in that season. Luigi Campedelli sadly died in 1992, but his son, Luca, would carry on his good work. Aged 23, Luca was Italian football’s youngest club president at the time, and his hand still guides Chievo to this day.

Giovanni Sartori became Chievo’s Director of Football, and Alberto Malesani, a future UEFA Cup winner with Parma, was appointed manager. Malesani helped Chievo achieve a remarkable promotion to Serie B in 1994, but left the club in 1997 when Fiorentina turned his head. Nonetheless, Chievo did the unthinkable in 2001 when they were promoted to Serie A having finished third in Serie B.

The fairytale became a national sensation. Sport pages were clogged not only with the success of Roma, that year’s Serie A winners, but also the “Chievo Phenomenom.” Coach Luigi Delneri had brought an unfashionable side who attracted no more than 4-5,000 fans per game into Serie A, and the fairytale has only continued to grow over the past ten years.

History-wise I’m going to cut things short there. Chievo’s Serie A years have produced some great tales, and I want to explore them later this week. I don’t want to waste time repeating myself.

A few notes on Chievo, then. They’re nicknamed the Gialloblu (“yellow-blues”) or Mussi Volanti (“flying donkeys”) depending on your preference. The second nickname is pretty funny: Hellas fans originally coined it, claiming “donkeys will fly before Chievo reach Serie A.” Chievo fans turned it around when the team reached Serie A and embraced it as Hellas flounded in Serie B and C1.

Chievo don’t attract big crowds, and its only in the past decade that they’ve been able to regularly draw more than 10,000 fans to the stadium. Last season their average attendance was just 12,676, and its not uncommon for Hellas, who’ve played at a lower level since 2002, to attract more fans than Chievo.

The Mussi Volanti haven’t had a great 2011-12 season so far. They’re currently 14th after 17 games, having scored a paltry 13 goals all season. That’s about all I can tell you of Chievo at the moment as I really don’t know all that much about them. More tomorrow.

A Handful of Legends

I could spend several hours waffling about my admiration for Francesco Totti (and I probably will before Roma “week” is done) but my research has helped my uncover a host of Roma legends who I hadn’t even heard of before. Here are a few notable names I’ve discovered along the way.

Bruno Conti

One of the most popular players in Giallorossi history, Conti’s legendary status is only matched by Totti’s. Born in the Roman province of Nettuno, Conti stayed with Roma his entire career (interrupted only by two loan spells at Genoa) and made a total of 304 league appearances in 17 years with his hometown club.

A jet-heeled left-winger of great guile and crossing ability, Conti came through Roma’s youth system to make a name for himself. He’s widely considered one of the best wingers of his generation, and won a Scudetto and four Coppa Italias during his domestic playing career. He was also an international success, and played a key role in Italy’s 1982 World Cup triumph.

Success, however, didn’t come easy for Conti. He debuted aged 18 but struggled to hold down a regular first team place for years. Many derided him for his tiny stature (Conti is just 5’6”) but two seasons spent with Genoa in Serie B helped him greatly. Nils Liedholm was in-charge when Conti returned, and he established himself as a real franchise player in the 1980s.

Conti is still with Roma today and currently works as the club’s director of football. Aged 56, Conti has also worked with the Giallorossi youth team and as a caretaker manager in the past decade. His legendary status ensure he’ll have a job for life.

 

Roberto Pruzzo

Nicknamed “Il Bomber”, Pruzzo was Roma’s top scorer for seven consecutive seasons from 1979 to 1986. His trophy haul is identical to Conti’s, and his 136 goals in 315 appearances make him Roma’s second all-time top scorer.

Born in Genoa, Pruzzo signed from his hometown side for an Italian record 3m lira in 1978. Totti has since usurped him as Roma’s leading goalscorer, but Pruzzo was incredibly prolific for Roma for several seasons. He finished three seasons as Serie A’s top goalscorer while with the capital club but only accumulated a paltry six Azzurri caps in his career. Pruzzo retired in 1989 after a single season with Fiorentina.

 

Agostino Di Bartolomei

Playing in the same Roma side as Conti and Pruzzo, “DiBa” was born and raised in the eternal city. A product of the youth system, Agostino made his first Giallorossi appearance in 1972 but, like Conti, struggled to make an additional breakthrough. He spent a year on loan with Vicenza before really making the breakthrough in 1976.

DiBa was a natural leader, and captained Roma during their Scudetto-winning season in 82-83. Vision, technique, passing ability and determination were his key attributes and he played with an almost perfect combination of grit and finesse. He’s considered one of the Giallorossi’s greatest ever captains and never gave anything less than 100% for the team he loved.

Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 1984 sale of DiBa to Milan sparked protests around the capital: the player never wanted to leave, and the fans were shocked to see him go. In hindsight, however, it might’ve been the correct decision. Agostino was never the same after leaving Roma and his career slowly petered out at Cesena and Salernitana. DiBa, a lifelong depression victim, tragically committed suicide in 1994.

 

Giacomo Losi

Losi’s 450 appearances make him Roma’s second all-time appearance leader (after, you guessed it, Totti). He captained the Giallorossi for nine seasons from 1959 to 1968 and won three trophies at Roma (two Coppa Italias and the Inter Cities Fairs Cup).

More of a club legend than a national hero, Losi nonetheless picked-up 11 Azzurri caps in his career. He played as a full-back and his clean-but-strong defender style saw him pick-up just a single booking in his 14-year career. Born in Soncino, Lodi became a true Giallorossi hero in 1961 when he played almost a whole match against Sampdoria injured, even scoring the winner. He still lives in Rome to this day and occupies himself as a director of non-league Valle Aurelia 87.

 

Giuseppe Giannini

A precursor to Totti as a symbol of Roma, Giannini played for the club from 1981-96 and, like Losi, captained the Giallorossi for nine seasons. He was an attacking midfielder who scored 49 goals in 318 Roma appearances, winning three Coppa Italias and 47 Italy caps along the way.

Giannini earned instant favour by opting to sign for Roma ahead of rivals Lazio, and was nicknamed “Il Principe” (the prince) for his grace and elegance on the pitch. Retiring in 1998, Giannini is still only 47 and has managed a series of lower-level clubs (including Foggia and Verona) since 2004.

Liverpool's 1984 European Cup win in Rome was a catalyst for violence.

Turns out AS Roma don’t exactly enjoy the most harmonious relationship with English fans, and understandably so. Seeing “Liverpool” listed as one of Roma’s rivals in Football Manager (guffaw) first raised my interest. I personally find Liverpool to be one of the game’s most dislikeable clubs (especially at this point in time) but, a couple of unfavourable European ties aside, why would Roma and the Anfield Reds care about each other?

A little bit of research unearths an understandable explanation. I’ve heard of a link between city rivals Lazio and Chelsea, but the crux of the rivalry stems from the 1984 European Cup final. The game took place in Roma’s Stadio Olimpico with Liverpool besting the hometown side 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 finish AET.

Roma, the pre-match favourites, had been humiliated on their own turf. Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani lost their composure and skied the decisive spots kicks, leaving Giallorossi fans to suffer the indignation of watching an opposing team lift Europe’s most prestigious trophy inside their own stadium.

As unpleasant as this situation must’ve been, however, there are far darker reasons for the rivalry’s birth. Localised rioting ensued after the game and a handful of Liverpool fans were unfortunately caught-up in the violence. The celebrations were ruined, but, more importantly, a number of Liverpool fans were hospitalised as a result.

Mark Lawrenson penned an eye-opening recollection of the situation in 2007. He alleges that Liverpool fans were corralled down a tunnel towards a horde of Roman hooligans, who viciously beat the visitors as the idle police watched-on. You’ve got to take such a piece with a big pinch of salt, but it sounds horrific. I’m sure that Lawrenson, a Liverpool great, exaggerated much of his tale, but all football violence is disgusting and completely unjustifiable.

This makes the bad blood pretty clear. If my team’s support ever fell victim to such violence I’m sure I’d resent the offenders too. It only takes a quick Google search to show that Liverpool fans still loathe their Roman counterparts, and sects of the Giallorossi supportership have done little to endear themselves in subsequent ties with English teams.

Liverpool visited Roma twice in 2001 and there were further stabbings. Middlesbrough visited the Eternal City as part of their 2006 UEFA Cup campaign and their fans became embroiled in trouble with local ultras. Further incidents followed after Manchester United’s visit in 2007 and an Arsenal supporters’ coach was set upon in 2009.

It’d be completely wrong to sympathise with the perpetrators of such violence. Hooliganism, unfortunately, remains a significant problem on the peninsula, and its eradication will take years of hard work. However, there’s no way that the English supporters are completely blameless. Finding unbiased, English-language reports on these incidents has been difficult for obvious reasons. Yes, the Giallorossi have a significant hooligan sect, but it’s wrong to tar every Roma fan with the same brush.

Apologies for the recent paucity of updates, but a busy festive season will do that to a man. I’m looking to get back into the swing of things from today onwards so that I can give AS Roma the attention they deserve. Here’s my take on their Spanish revolution.

The Luis Enrique project has interested me from day one. Thomas DiBenedetto took ownership in April and soon disposed of caretaker manager Vincenzo Montella. In came ex-Barcelona player Luis Enrique, followed by swathes of Spanish-based players (Bojan, Fernando Gago, etc.) and the likes of Maarten Stekelenburg and Miralem Pjanic.

Wholesale changes were made with 19 players coming and going to and from the Stadio Olimpico. Roma spent over €70m on players last summer (offset by €26m worth of sales), but all this on-field arrivals were secondary to the new man in the dugout.

Enrique’s only management experience had been with Barcelona’s B team. He managed the Catalans’ second string from 2008 to 2011, bringing them to heights that even his now-illustrious predecessor, Josep Guardiola, couldn’t reach. Barca B finished in the Segunda Division’s playoff places in Enrique’s last season, representing an all-time high for the Mini Estadi side.

Essentially, Roma had brought in a man whose track record was even better than Guardiola, who now ranks among world football’s most successful managers. Enrique and Guardiola were cut from the same cloth: both were Blaugrana favourites who’d cut their teeth with the reserve team. Enrique’s appointment naturally caused a lot of excitement, given how well Guardiola has done since moving up the managerial ladder.

That’s not to say there wasn’t apprehension. As encouraging as the Guardiola/Enrique parallels were, Enrique was still a vastly inexperienced manager who’d be operating in a league that typically places tactical intelligence over flair and trickery. Roma’s squad, additionally, was ageing and seemingly unsuited to Enrique’s vision, and the Giallorossi would have to deal with the disharmony caused by widespread personnel changes from day one.

Roma had big plans. Enrique describes himself as “an offensive coach who looks good football,” echoing the Barcelona philosophy. “We chose Enrique for symbolic reasons,” said Roma’s Sporting Director, Walter Sabatini. “Enrique represents an idea of football that we would like to follow, which imposes itself today through Spain and Barcelona… I was looking for someone outside of Italian football. Uncontaminated.”

A bold, brave stance from both men. Taking influence from the Rinus Michels-inspired tiki-taka philosophy, Roma became a unique project in Italy. A league traditionally based on getting results at all costs now featured a man who saw attacking football as the only way to play. Things were about to get interesting.

Enrique’s Roma made a slow start and claimed just two points from their opening fixtures against Cagliari, Inter and Siena. The Giallorossi won just three games by the start of November, and Enrique’s job was already under threat by mid-December.

Roma’s teething problems were understandable and inevitable. It’s impossible to achieve instant fluency with such a high player turnover, regardless of the who’s in the dugout. The players, additionally, needed more time to adapt to a completely new style of play, and Roma’s defenders often look all-at-sea. Players were out of position, Pjanic became an overworked creative outlet and having too many attackers in one area often stifled forward play.

This was always going to be a long-term project and it should surprise nobody that Roma are still finding their feet. Enrique is still learning the trade and his team are still adapting to his ideas. It’ll be a while before Roma reach full potential and Enrique’s boys have plenty of trials and tribulations ahead of them.

Recent signs, however, have been very encouraging. Roma drew 1-1 with Antonio Conte’s unbeaten Juventus on December 12th, and followed-up with a superb 3-1 victory in Naples six days later.

Both games exhibited everything the Giallorossi had been lacking. They’d become accustomed to dominating possession without getting results, but took points from two very strong sides with less than 50% of the ball. Roma became ruthless, took their few chances and played with the fire and grinta they’d been lacking.

“Enrique has become Italianised,” said the critics. “He had to become like us in order to win.” Nonsense, I say. Roma won an ugly game with Napoli, yes, but it wasn’t because Enrique had abandoned his ethos: he <I>adapted</I> it.

I always cringe when I here coaches say “we will play like Barca.” Barcelona’s proactive approach is admirable, exciting and successful, but you can’t just mimic another team’s style and expect to win. Messi, Xavi & co. have spent most of their lives living by the Barcelona philosophy. For them it’s not just a playing system, it’s a way of life. It’s impossible to completely recreate without years and years of work from a grassroots level upwards.

Ex-Argentina boss Sergio Batista learned this the hard way after last year’s disastrous Copa America campaign, but Enrique is too smart to fall into the same trap. Roma’s displays against Napoli and Juve demonstrate this. Enrique saw that certain elements weren’t functioning as he’d like, so he tweaked his gameplan. The goal is still to use elements of Enrique’s Barca education to forge a new playing style, but the means of achieving this needed to be altered.

Enrique has not conformed to Italian football but identified his system’s weaknesses and acted accordingly. Roma were dominant in their next fixture (a 2-0 win at Bologna), recording 71% possession and putting their opponents to the sword accordingly. The plan is coming to fruition.

Gian Piero Gasperini tried to force his preferred system on Inter without considering his players’ strength and weaknesses. Enrique is taking the smart manager’s approach of tweaking his vision to accommodate his players’ attributes, much like Chelsea’s Andre Villas-Boas. He can only work with what he’s got at the moment, and it’ll probably take another summer mercato before he can acquire his ideal type of player.

This is why I respect Luis Enrique. He has a clear vision of what he wants to do with Roma, but he’s clever enough to realise that his mission will take time and a consideration of his available resources. This is a man who knows exactly what he wants to accomplish: commend Luis Enrique for his adaptability, don’t accuse him of becoming “Italianised.”

Roma by the Numbers

I must admit to thinking Roma to be more historically successful than they really are. I always knew that their trophy room wasn’t as well stocked as those in Turin and Milan, but I’m surprised by their comparative lack of success.

Italian Championship Winners

1. Juventus (27 titles)

2. Internazionale (18 titles)

-. AC Milan (18 titles)

4. Genoa (9 titles)

5. Torino (7 titles)

-. Bologna (7 titles)

-. Pro Vercelli (7 titles)

8. Roma (3 titles)

9. Lazio (2 titles)

-. Fiorentina (2 titles)

-. Napoli (2 titles)

Further down are Cagliari, Sampdoria, Casale, Novese and Hellas Verona who have each won one Italian Championship.

Roma are eighth in terms of Italian Championships won. Eighth! I always assumed they’d be fourth or, at worst, fifth, but eighth? It seems crazy that a team from a city as great as Rome haven’t been more dominant, especially as I’d always considered them in the same bracket as Juve, Inter and Milan. Three titles is nothing to sniff at, but their Serie A wins are separated by decades (1941-42, 1982-83, 2000-01). They’ve never been calcio’s top dogs for an extended period of time.

They’ve won plenty of other honours, including nine Coppa Italias and two Supercoppas but (a single Inter Cities Fairs Cup aside) they’ve never been hugely successful in Europe. Excuse my ignorance, but I’m almost shocked by this.

I did a few sums to put Roma’s position into perspective. Over the past 79 seasons they’ve achieved an average position of just 7th in Serie A, peaking by winning the title thrice. They’re lowest ebb came in 1951-52 when they finished first in Serie B, their only season outside of the top tier. Now they seem more Tottenham Hotspur than anything else.

In terms of league performances, the last 11 seasons have been the most successful in Roma’s history. They won the Scudetto in 2000-01 and have since finished second six times since. This gives them an average finish of 3.7th (4th, really), which is almost twice as good as their historical average.

Roma are fourth in the all-time Serie A league table, which is closer to what I expected. Still, I’m really surprised to learn that the past decade has been their most successful in Serie A. They’re a massive club with a proud legacy, but I always thought that Roma were built on a gold-laden past. Apparently I was wrong.

A break from ATP’s normal activity, but when better than the winter break to compile a team of season so far? Here are my 2011-12 Serie A standout performers. Agree/disagree? Please don’t hesitate to make your feelings known, but don’t jump down my throat: everyone has a different opinion, and every calcio site is likely to post a different list.

World-class: Samir Handanovic.

GK: Samir Handanovic (Udinese)

Earlier this month I suggested that the Slovenian is now among the world’s best goalkeepers. He’s been in excellent form this season, keeping team clean sheets and shipping just nine goals, and his role in Udinese’s excellent season is huge. I’d expect Samir to be playing for a massive club this time next year.

RB: Stephan Lichsteiner (Juventus)

Lichsteiner’s form has been a blessing for Juventus fans after last season’s Marco Motta horror show. The ex-Lazio man has been one of Antonio Conte’s standout performers this season and his bombing runs down the right flank have given Juve a whole new outlet. Equally solid in defence and attack, Lichsteiner is a top full-back.

CB: Andrea Barzagli (Juventus)

Signed in January for under €1m (!), Barzagli has been the best defender in Italy this year. Having failed to reproduce his Palermo form with Wolfsburg, Barzagli is back to his best. His rock-solid performances alongside Leonardo Bonucci have seen Giorgio Chiellini pushed out to left-back and he’s back in the Azzurri frame after a three-year absence.

CB: Thiago Silva (AC Milan)

Praising the Brazilian has almost become cliché. It’s perfectly justified, though: Silva is one of the best CBs around and he’s been typically excellent for Milan this season. A clinical tackler and precision passer (his 90.8% pass success rate is the league’s highest), Thiago Silva is set to be one of the game’s finest for years to come.

LB: Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan)

Inter’s season started slowly but there’s been nothing cumbersome about Nagatomo’s performances. The livewire Japanese international is having a career season and has been instrumental in each of Inter’s last four games. Lucio, Samuel & co. will need replaced sooner rather than later, but Inter’s LB position is well and truly locked down.

RM: Christian Maggio (Napoli)

Maggio is the battery that keeps Napoli’s watch ticking. The three tenors (Cavani, Hamsik & Lavezzi) get most of the attention, but Maggio is arguably Napoli’s most important player. A near-perfect wing-back or winger, Maggio runs the right flank like no other player on the peninsula.

CM: Daniele De Rossi (Roma)

Reborn under Luis Enrique, DDR has overcome last season’s inconsistency to become Roma’s heartbeat once again. De Rossi has been outstanding wherever he’s played (he’s even filled-in at CB this season) and I can only imagine him continuing to improve as Roma grow in stature.

CM: Claudio Marchisio (Juventus)

Tackling, passing, shuttling, scoring… Marchisio does it all. Linking-up with a revitalised Andrea Pirlo and new signing Arturo Vidal, Marchisio has already scored six goals this season. Versatile and tireless, Marchisio is Juve’s most important player and he’s still only 25. A legacy of greatness awaits.

LM: Simone Pepe (Juventus)

Pepe has only played left-wing a couple of times this season but I couldn’t omit this guy. He still has detractors, but Pepe is an invaluable workhorse for a team who value grit and determination above all else. Pepe has scored some vital goals this season and his versatility has seen him occupy five different roles this term. He’ll never be the most technically refined player in Serie A, but Pepe remains a huge asset.

ST: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AC Milan)

The best player in Italy? Quite possibly. 11 goals and two assists in 13 games have seen him run Milan’s attack almost single-handedly. Zlatan tends to slump around February/March time, but he’s been imperious this season. The most well-rounded centre forward on the planet and a certainty to score at the moment.

ST: German Denis (Atalanta)

Atalanta have been Serie A’s surprise package and their early-season form has much to do with Denis’ goals. The Argentine has scored 12 in 16 to take him to the top of the scoring charts. A remarkable turnaround for a 30-year-old in a newly-promoted team who’d only scored a total of 20 goals in his last four Serie A campaigns.

Honourable Mentions

Hugo Campagnaro (Napoli): Swashbuckling centre-back with a habit of scoring important goals.

Pablo Armero (Udinese): Would’ve been a shoe-in at LB if not for Nagatomo’s recent form. A dynamic, explosive left-flank presence.

Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan): The shuttling midfielder’s six goals and consistency should earn him an Azzurri recall.

Andrea Pirlo (Juventus): The creative maestro is back to his best as Juventus’ conductor.

Antonio Di Natale (Udinese): Death, taxes and Toto scoring – life’s three certainties. 10 goals already for the poacher extraordinaire.

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