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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.

… okay, the next couple of weeks will be busier than expected. It’s the holiday season, so I’m going to stretch “Roma Week” out until Serie A’s winter break ends on January 8th. This’ll give me plenty of time to produce content and enjoy the season in equal measure.

I looked at Roma’s recent fortunes in this week’s edition of my Serie A Weekly column, so click here for my appraisal of the most interesting project in calcio today.

A (Very) Rough Guide to AS Roma

Associazione Sportiva Roma were founded in 1927 as the result of a merger between three existing Roman clubs: Roman F.C., Alba-Audace Roma and Fortitudo Pro Roma. Italo Foschi, a secretary for the National Fascist Party, who wanted Rome to have a larger club to challenge dominant northern sides like Genoa and Pro Vercelli, initiated the merger.

The club settled in the working class region of Testaccio, building an all-wooden stadium there (the Campo Testaccio) in 1929. Thrown straight into the top tier, Roma didn’t become a success side until Serie A’s second official season (1930-31). A team featuring Italian internationals like Fulvio Bernardini (who I covered a few weeks ago) and Attilio Ferraris finished second to Juventus, preceding a credible third-place finish in 1931-32.

A slump in league form saw most of Roma’s high-profile players depart, and they were forced into a rebuilding process in the mid-1930s. Enrique Guaita, an Argentine-born forward, was among those who joined, and his goals helped fire Roma back towards the top. In 1935-36, coached by the Scudetto-winning ex-Casale player Luigi Barbesino, Roma finished second to Bologna by just a single point.

Goal-getter: Amedeo Amadei.

Roma’s inconsistency resurfaced and the Giallorossi (“yellow-reds”) finished as low as 10th the following season. Their first title win in 1941-42 came as a huge surprise, as the capital city side had finished 11th the year before despite making the Coppa Italia final. 18 goals from star striker Amedeo Amadei helped Roma to a three-point advantage over runners-up Torino.

Again Roma struggled to establish dominance. They finished 9th a year after winning the title and continued to struggle after Serie A’s post-World War II resumption in 1946. They went into a slump, never finishing above 15th between 1946 and 1951. They were relegated after a wretched 1950-51 campaign saw them finished 19th, although the league was tight and they were just seven points behind ninth-place Udinese.

The Serie A exodus didn’t last long, however, and Roma won promotion at the first time of asking under future Azzurri coach Giuseppe Viani’s tutelage. 1951-52 remains Roma’s only season outside of the top flight to date.

The Giallorossi slowly re-established themselves as a top-half side, and achieved yet another second-place finish in 1954-55 with Englishman Jesse Carver at the helm. Originally Roma had finished third, but they were bumped to runners-up when second-place Udinese were relegated after a betting scandal.

Unable to establish themselves as one of Italy’s top sides, Roma’s up-and-down Serie A fortunes continued. They did achieve some success in cup competitions, however, and won the 1961 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (a precursor to the UEFA Cup/Europa League). They beat Birimingham City 4-2 in the final, and won their first Coppa Italia three years later with a win over Torino.

A second Coppa Italia followed in 1969 as Roma continued to fluctuate around Serie A’s midtable. The 1970s were just as successful on the cup front, but Roma never finished above third in Serie A. During this period they added the 1972 Anglo-Italian Cup and 1979-80 Coppa Italia to their trophy room, before finishing as Serie A’s runners-up in 1980-81.

Bruno Conti, an exceptionally quick and skilful winger, was among Roma’s star players at the time. His Roma career lasted from 1973 to 1990, and he even managed the club after Luigi Delneri’s departure in the 2004-05 season. Conti made a total of 372 Serie A appearances in his career and won 47 Italy caps, scoring five goals. Today he works as Roma’s Director of Football.

The Giallorossi had been within touching distance of the Scudetto on plenty of occasions, and the hunger for gold was returning. The Eternal City exploded into celebration at the end of the 1982-83 season when a dominant Roma side won Serie A with games to spare.

Roma were unable to repeat the feat in 1983-84, finishing second, but they did manage to win the 1984 Coppa Italia. They also competed in the 1984 European Cup (Champions League) final, taking a feared and respected Liverpool side to a penalty shootout that the English side went on to win.

Yet another Coppa Italia win came in 1985-86, but Roma’s league form was slumping again. By 1991 they’d added another Coppa Italia and put forth a losing effort in that year’s UEFA Cup final, but Roma were regularly finishing 8th and 9th in Serie A. To this day they’ve never been able to establish themselves as the number one side in Italy, often following-up Scudetto victories with season of mediocrity.

The 2000s marked a shift in Roma’s fortunes as the club splashed-out on big money signings like Gabriel Batistuta, Hidetoshi Nakata, Walter Samuel and Brazilian midfielder Emerson. 2000-01 was hugely successful, and Roma won their third Scudetto with a 3-1 last-day win over Parma.

Roman hero: Francesco Totti.

Captain and local hero Francesco Totti emerged as a true Roman icon around this time, and his performances were instrumental in the club’s success. I don’t even need to explain the phenomenon that Totti has become. He’s a unique player, one of the finest of his generation, and one that the Giallorossi will struggle to replace when he leaves or retires.

Roma continued to spend big. Aldair, Cafu, and Vincenzo Montella had already arrived at the club, and enfant terrible Antonio Cassano signed for €30 the following season. The Giallorossi finished second in 2001-02, missing out on a fourth Scudetto by a single point, but did capture that year’s Supercoppa.

Big financial troubles surfaced in 2002-03, an inevitable result of the previous couple of seasons’ big spending. Batistuta was loaned to Inter to cover his wages, and Cafu was released to AC Milan. Christian Chivu’s 2003 signing was delayed and only secured by the FIGC’s own money. Roma, however, slowly recovered. More shares were released onto the stock market, and approximately €80m was injected into the club in order to keep it afloat.

Roma have continued as calcio’s perennial nearly men ever since. They’ve won a further two Coppa Italia’s since 2003 and finished as Serie A runners-up an astonishing five times. This season they’ve undergoing something of a revolution under new American owner Thomas Di Benedetto and manager Luis Enrique. The transition to a slick, possession-based team hasn’t been easy, but things are finally starting to pick up for Roma. I’ll have more on that tomorrow.

When in Rome

It’s Roma week. A club everyone should know, Roma are one of the biggest teams in Italy but have never been THE biggest for a prolonged time period. They’re currently undergoing a fascinating revolution under manager Luis Enrique and new owner Thomas Di Benedetto, and I look forward to covering them. Lots of history, lots of great players and plenty of easily-accessible information. Lovely.

It’s Christmas on Sunday but I should be able to get 5-6 bits and pieces posted this week. I’m obviously not going to do anything on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day but I should be able to write in advance and queue everything up.

Sunday Summary: Udinese

That was ace. I had a lot of fun this week and feel like I produced some of the blog’s best content so far. The next few weeks might be a tad spotty with Christmas and New Year, but I’ll still be producing content over the festive period. I obviously won’t be matching the prolificness of the past couple of weeks, but there’ll be something.

  • Friuli History (part one): I split this week’s historical summary into two parts because of the volume of information on Udinese’s website. Here’s part one.
  • Friuli History (part two): A piece I wrote on Schrodinger’s Cat and the experiment’s relevance in comparing marking systems. Not really.
  • Udinese & the Scudetto: Notes on Udinese’s previous brushes with the Scudetto and an appraisal on the current team’s chances of success this season.
  • The Friuli Farm: The Bianconeri’s “buy high, sell low,” model, how it benefits them and some of the greatest players to pass through the Stadio Friuli.

Better than you think: Samir Handanovic.

Samir Handanovic is rightly recognised as one of the most improved goalkeepers in Europe. Udinese have conceded just seven Serie A goals with the 6’5” Slovenian keeping net this season, and last season he saved six penalty kicks. No, that isn’t a typo. Obviously there’s more to being a great ‘keeper than saving penalties (look at Mark Crossley) but the stat displays says a lot about Handanovic.

His size definitely helps, but you’ve got to be agile to size a well-placed penalty. Most players will try to hit their penalties in the bottom corner, well out of reach for most goalkeepers. Not that all of the penalties Handanovic faced last season were perfectly placed, but they certainly weren’t all scuffed mishits.

Composure is very important in these situations. The onus is on the striker to score, but a calm, composed goalkeeper has a far better chance of making a penalty save than a shaky, erratic one. Keeping calm allows a ‘keeper to read his opponent’s body language and get a better idea of where the ball’s going to go. Such strong anticipation is another of Handanovic’s finest points.

Handanovic has no obvious physical or mental weaknesses. He has no qualms about rushing off his line and bravely diving at oncoming strikers’ feet and his reflexes are second-to-none. It seems like Samir makes a blinding point-black save every time I watch him play, and he’s approaching an Edwin van der Sar level of proficiency with the ball at his feet.

Aside from his outstanding penalty record, Handanovic went 704 minutes without conceding a goal between February 5th and March 20th last season. In a team known for its swashbuckling attacking style and disregard for defence, this statistic doesn’t require elaboration.

Atalanta coach Stefano Colantuono has called him the best goalkeeper in Europe, and Handanovic’s excellent form has seen him receive plaudits from around the globe. There’s no doubt that he’s a fantastic, match-winning goalkeeper, but how does the 27-year-old compare with the world’s best?

In Italy, Gianluigi Buffon is the obvious benchmark. Gig has been one of the most dominant ‘keepers in the world for years and, aged 33, should have a few more years of top-level performances left in him. I don’t need to discuss the guy’s legendary status; I’m sure you already know plenty about his accolades.

Buffon is the complete ‘keeper, and Handanovic’s self-confessed idol. The problem with Buffon, however, is that he hasn’t looked the same since recovering from an injury sustained at the 2010 World Cup. He missed a huge chunk of last season and has re-established himself at Juventus, but he hasn’t been the exceptional ‘keeper of old. I’d expect Buffon’s old self to return soon and his performances haven’t been bad, they just haven’t been as out of this world as we’ve come to expect.

Elsewhere on the peninsula, there’s Napoli’s Morgan De Sanctis. Highly-regarded by the Partenopei, De Sanctis is often referred to as “Italy’s second-best goalkeeper.” I can get behind that. De Sanctis is particularly impressive in one-on-one situations, but I don’t think he can match Handanovic for reflexes and exuberance.

Federico Marchetti has had an excellent start to life at Lazio after spending last season on the sidelines at Cagliari. Marchetti, 28, has only been a Serie A ‘keeper since 2008, and I think it’s too early to consider him one of the best. Julio Cesar? Not the player he was a few seasons ago. Christian Abbiati? Solid but unspectacular. Maarten Stekelenburg? Hasn’t really done it at Roma.

The English Premier league is awash with goalkeeping talent. I regard Liverpool’s Pepe Reina as the best in the league. His consistently outstanding performances have, at times, been the only thing preventing the Reds descending into total farce, but he still commits the odd error every now and then.

Petr Cech, in my eyes, hasn’t been the same since Stephen Hunt almost kicked his head off in 2006. Cech is still undeniably very, very good and can still make brilliant saves but has played hesitantly since his injury. The Cech of 2011 is reluctant to dive at strikers’ feet and looks bothered by having to come off his line and claim a cross. It’s only natural for such an injury to have a long-lasting psychological affect, and while I still think Cech is world-class he’s lacking the bravery that used to make him truly special.

Manchester City’s Joe Hart is ever improving and an excellent shot-stopper, but he’s still raw. He’s yet to suffer the wrath of the savage English press when they’re out for blood and I don’t think it’s right to call him one of the world’s best until his mental strength is significantly tested. Just look what happened to Robert Green and Paul Robinson.

Hugo Lloris, France’s best goalkeeper, is a definite contender for the “world’s best” title. The likes of Arsenal have been courting Lloris for years, but he looks set to remain a Lyon player for the foreseeable future. An incredible athlete and a commanding presence in the box, Lloris is a ‘keeper of the highest calibre and one any team would be delighted to have.

How about the Germans? Manuel Neuer is settling into life with Bayern Munich after a difficult start and looks set to be number one for club and country for years to come. Elsewhere Rene Adler and Tim Wiese are very good ‘keepers in their own right, but neither are performing at a level comparable to Handanovic at the moment.

Arguing Handanovic’s status as a top, top ‘keeper gets difficult as soon as you reach La Liga. Iker Casillas is regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in the world, and for good reason. The Spanish #1 is an icon for Real Madrid and Spain and routinely pulls-off outstanding saves like they come naturally to him. He puts his body on the line week after week and his performances have won Real plenty of games over the year.

Victor Valdes is almost as good. Far removed from the clanger-prone buffoon of old, Valdes has become an integral part of a Barcelona team that could be argued as being the greatest club side in history. Not just an excellent shot-stopper, Valdes is brilliant with the ball at his feet and passes like a central midfielder. Hardly surprised for a La Masia graduate.

How does Handanovic compare to all of the above? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’m convinced he’s a better ‘keeper than most I’ve mentioned, but it’ll take a few more years of excellence before he’s comparable to Buffon and Casillas in-particular. That said, I can’t think of another goalie I’d rather have playing for my team at the moment.

Data: whoscored.com.

In Search of Liam McCarthy

Earlier this week I came across an unexpected name while browsing Udinese’s squad list. I’d never heard of Liam McCarthy, but a Scotsman’s name in an Italian squad tends to stick out considering the paucity of Scottish footballers plying their trade abroad.

As a Scot who loves calcio, discovering McCarthy was interesting to me. Wikipedia (I know…) told me that he’s a midfielder currently on-loan at Anderlecht, but I wanted to know more. Naturally I headed to both clubs’ official websites, but all I could dig up was a couple of references to Mick McCarthy after Jelle Van Damme’s transfer from Anderlecht to Wolves a few seasons ago.

Unperturbed, I headed straight to Google. Results, again, were thin on the ground but I did manage to dig-up a few bits and bobs from our good friend Wikipedia. McCarthy is 17-years-old and started his youth career with Kilmarnock in 2008. He transferred to Celtic two years later, before joining Udinese this past summer and immediately going to Anderlecht on-loan. He is yet to make a senior appearance for any club.

I wasn’t happy with this. My only source was an unreferenced Wikipedia article for heaven’s sake. In search of concrete proof of this guy’s existence, I scoured numerous Celtic, Udinese and Anderlecht fan-sites but found nothing. Google proved useless as well, throwing up nothing but Mick McCarthy stories. Turns out information on obscure Scottish youth players who haven’t made their pro debut is thin on the ground.

The next logical step, it seemed, was to contact Udinese and Anderlecht. Getting a few words with McCarthy on his experiences in Udine would’ve made for an excellent post, and it’d have been fascinating to learn about the Udinese youth system from someone who’s experienced it.

I sent the email on Monday evening: it’s now Saturday morning and I’ve heard nothing back. I’m not entirely surprised by this. Club secretaries are probably bombarded with mountains of rubbish every day, and I doubt they even read my humble request to speak to one of their youth players. Still, it would’ve been nice to have at least confirmed McCarthy’s existence.

As it stands, I’m not even sure if Liam McCarthy is real. He’s on Wikipedia, but you can get away with posting any old guff on Wiki these days. If you are a Celtic, Udinese or Anderlecht follower who knows more about McCarthy than I do, I’d love to hear from you.

Maybe I should’ve checked Football Manager…

The Friuli Farm

Trendsetter: Udinese's Giampaolo Pozzo.

Udinese’s success is nothing short of remarkable given their finances. The Zebrette earned €41m in revenue last season, a tiny figure compared to Inter (€225m), Milan (€208m) and Roma (€123m), all of who are currently below Udinese in the league. Their average attendance is just 15,000, their TV income (€26m) is a quarter of Juventus and Milan’s and last season’s total gate receipts (€3.6m) was 34-times smaller than Manchester United’s.

Despite all this, Udinese’s year-end accounts usually show a profit of around €6-8m. How do they accomplish this with such small revenue streams? By selling players. The Bianconeri have, over the past 10 years, received a staggering net profit of €112m from buying and selling players. They have perfect the “buy low, sell high,” model, and are cable to compete at the highest level because of it.

Club president Giampaolo Pozzo first implemented the strategy in the 1990s. Udinese’s tiny budget made it impossible to compete with the bigger clubs for transfer fees and wages, forcing Pozzo to find a more financially-efficient way of lifting the club’s league position.

The system is similar to Arsenal’s only far more efficient. Udinese eschew inflated fees and wages (Antonio Di Natale, €20k p/w, is the club’s highest earner) and spend their resources on scouting and networking instead. The Zebrette currently employ over 50 scouts and have ties with literally hundreds of local contacts worldwide. It costs just €4m p/a to maintain this scouting network, and this is almost repaid by the €3.6m Udinese earn annually from loaning players out.

It’s estimated that Udinese have a stake in over 120 players worldwide. They supplied an astonishing 14 loanees to bolster Granada’s promotion campaign last season and have leant the new La Liga side a further five players this term. Furthermore, Udinese own another 32 players who are currently on loan at or co-owned by other clubs.

The system is quick and efficient. Udinese send vast quantities of young players out on loan every season to aid their growth and thus boost their market value. It’s an effective money-spinner and a method of developing quality players without parting with swathes of cash. As an example, Samir Handanovic was signed on a free transfer in 2004. He is now considered among the world’s best ‘keepers after loan spells at Treviso, Lazio and Rimini and an extended spell in the Udinese XI, and will command a seven-figure fee if (when?) he leaves.

I think it’s a very honourable way of achieving success. Bring in a player with good potential for a nominal fee and train him until he’s ready for the first team or developed to a point where he can achieve success at a lower or higher level. It’s certainly more admirable than the tasteless Chelsea/Man City model and a clever way of doing business.

I’m surprised more clubs haven’t adopted such a model. There’s Arsenal, of course, and Newcastle United are beginning to benefit from their growing scouting network. Borussia Dortmund have built a successful team by purchasing unheralded players and tapping into their potential. Other that, I’m at a loss.

Financial Fair Play’s implementation will surely see more clubs follow Udinese’s lead. Soon it’ll make much more sense to scout and sign young players on the cheap rather than splurdge millions on Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres. FFP will level the playing field, and I can’t decide if that’s good for Udinese or not. The Bianconeri’s system has been in-place for years so they should have an immediate advantage, but what’ll happen to them when transfer fees (their primary income source) start falling?

The Udinese system isn’t perfect though. Its one major disadvantage is that cannot feasibly hold on to star players for longer than a couple of seasons. Di Natale is the obvious exception, but the Zebrette are in no financial position to reject big money bids for their prized assets.

Three of the club’s best players (Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler & Christian Zapata) left during the summer, and the trend is only going to continue. Udinese are usually able to replace their stars with shrewd signings which usually negates the above argument, but it’s hard to see them progressing until they’re in a position to hond onto their top players.

Regardless, some excellent players have passed through Udinese over the years. Here are some of the Friuli farm’s biggest success stories:-

Antonio Di Natale

Why not start with the obvious? Toto, even at 34, is the peninsula’s most feared goal-getters. Signed from relegated Empoli in 2004, Di Natale has notched 143 goals in 280 Bianconeri appearances. This season’s 13 from 17 mark a healthy return for the ex-Azzurri forward, who has scored 28 and 29 goals in his last two Serie A campaigns. Loyal (he turned down a huge Juventus contract in 2010) and dependable, Udinese will struggle when Di Natale eventually retires.

Oliver Bierhoff

Anybody who watched football in the ‘90s should be familiar with Bierhoff. The German striker was playing for Serie B’s Ascoli when Udinese signed him in 1995. Three years later he was Serie A’s top scorer and a full international. Bierhoff went on to Scudetto success with AC Milan and was a 1996 European Championship winner.

David Pizzaro

A wonderfully talented deep-lying playmaker who is criminally underrated outside of Italy, Pizarro signed for buttons from Santiago Wanderers in 1999 and was Udinese’s heartbeat until a 2005 transfer to Inter. Known for his Xavi-esque passing ability, Pizzaro’s post-Udine career has seen him win a Scudetto (with Inter) and three Coppa Italias (one with Inter, two with Roma). One of my favourite players.

Sulley Muntari & Asamoah Gyan

The two Ghanians arrived in Udine within a year of each other. Both stayed for five years and experienced varying levels of success. Muntari was a huge success, establishing himself as the club’s midfield enforcer and made over 120 Serie A appearances. He signed for Portsmouth for an estimated €9m in 2007. Gyan, on the other hand, only ever played 39 games for Udinese, but the club still earned an €8m from Rennes for his services in 2008.

Felipe

Few players epitomise the Udinese model’s success like the Brazilian defender. Felipe joined the Zebrette’s youth system as a 15-year old in 1999 and had joined the senior squad by 2002. He was a key member of the Bianconeri’s Champions League squad in 2005-06, but fell out of favour in 2009 and was sold to Fiorentina for €6m last year. Felipe made 175 appearances in all competitions for Udinese but hasn’t established himself in Florence.

Alexis Sanchez

The Chilean forward’s sale is one of the Udinese model’s greatest successes. Signed in 2006 but immediately loaned to River Plate and Colo Colo, Sanchez didn’t make his Udinese debut until 2008. He came of age last season after switching from the wing to playing as Di Natale’s supporting trequartista. Barcelona paid €26m plus bonuses for his services after a 12-goal haul last season.

* For more on Udinese’s finances please check out this typically fascinating article from The Swiss Ramble: Udinese Selling Their Way To The Top.

Udinese & the Scudetto

Can veteran striker Antonio Di Natale help bring the Scudetto to Udine?

Aside from an unrecognised pre-FIGC championship in 1896, Udinese’s closest brush with Scudetto success game in 1954-55. Hopes weren’t high going into the season: the Bianconeri had finished 16th the previous year, staving-off relegation with two play-off draws. Another season of struggle was expected, and Udine did little to defy the expectations in the early stages.

They started the season at home to champions Inter and were beaten 2-0. A 3-1 defeat at Napoli followed, and Udinese suffered a humiliating 5-0 drubbing at Catania next. Shipping goals and rooted to the bottom, Udinese were in trouble already. This changed with the signing of Umberto Pinardi, a defender previously of Juventus and Como.

Pinardi’s arrival provided the attack-minded Bianconeri with improved balance and defensive solidity. Udinese ran-out 3-0 winners over Genoa in Pinardi’s debut and only lost another three games all-season, the last of which came on December 12th (2-0 vs. Sampdoria). The defensive strengthening had had an obvious immediate impact.

Game after game drew Udinese closer and closer to table-topping Milan. The Scudetto race opened-up, and a Bianconeri hot streak moved them to within four points of the title favourites by May 1st, 1955. The teams met in Udine for a vital contest on that date, with Milan on 39 points and Udinese on 35. Anxiety filled the Stadio Moretti, but the Zebrette tifosi knew they were within touching distance of a first Serie A championship. The excitement was palpable.

Disaster struck in the game’s early stages when Udinese ‘keeper Gianni Romano was stretchered off after a collision with Gunnar Nordahl, Milan’s Swedish forward. Substitutions weren’t allowed in 1955, so the Bianconeri were forced to solider-on against the strongest team in the league with just 10 men.

Instead of capitulating, Udinese rallied. They showed incredible grinta and fire to battle through the 90 minutes, and they emerged with a miraculous 3-2 victory. Now the title race was well and truly on. The momentum was with Udinese, and all they had to do was overturn a one-point deficit to claim the Scudetto.

Sadly, Udinese lost their form. Milan collected 9 points from their last 5 games, and the Bianconeri couldn’t keep-up the pace. Dropped points to Pro Patria, Novara and Torino proved decisive, and Udinese finished on 44 points (four short of Milan’s 48).

Udinese have come close since, finishing fourth in 1956-57 and 2004-05 and third in 1997-98. Nothing, however, has matched the excitement of the 1954-55 title race. They finished a superb fourth last season, thrilling the peninsula with some of the most exciting, attacking football in Europe but ultimately finishing 16 points behind champions Milan. This season, however, I believe that Udinese have the potential to mount their strongest title challenge since 1955.

The Bianconeri have conceded just seven league goals this season. That’s an average of 0.5 goals per game: a marked improvement on last year’s still-respectable 1.13. Udinese’s average goals scored has decreased from 1.71 to 1.29, reflecting a shift in coach Francesco Guidolin’s philosophy. Udinese have added defensive steel with compromising much of their attacking verve.

The three starting centre-backs – Danilo, Maurizio Domizzi and Mehdi Benatia – are having excellent seasons, but they aren’t the only reason for Udinese’s new watertight defence. ‘Keeper Samir Handanovic must now be considered among the best in the world. The 27-year-old Slovenian has looked unbeatable at times over the past few seasons, and he’ll surely be the subject of some big money bids next summer. Udinese have the best defence in Italy (Lazio are second with 11 conceded), and Handanovic’s form has been a huge contributing factor.

Udinese are currently second in Serie A, level with leaders Juventus on points (30). Their next two fixtures should give us an idea of their title credentials. Udinese face Lazio on Sunday and Juventus ahead of the winter break on Wednesday. The Zebrette have already played Milan, Inter, Napoli and Roma, but these games could be the toughest of their season so far.

Antonio Conte’s Juventus haven’t steamrolled their way to the top of the league, but they’re efficient, functional and undefeated. The young coach has made an excellent start to top-tier management, and Udinese will do well to keep their dominant midfielders (Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio et al.).

Lazio, meanwhile, have a new lethal spearhead in Miroslav Klose and a rock-solid defence. Edy Reja’s men are just two points behind Udinese and are one of Serie A’s toughest teams to beat, having lost just twice all season. Udinese must match these teams if they’re to make a serious Scudetto bid. This is one of the most competitive leagues in recent years, and there’ll be plenty of teams waiting to take Undinese’s place if they stumble.

Much of the Bianconeri’s success hinges on their talisman, Antonio Di Natale. Guidolin’s 3-5-1-1 system is designed to feed the ageing striker, and Udinese are highly reliant on his goals. Toto has struck 10 times in Serie A this season; 56% of Udinese’s total (18). Wing-backs Dusan Basta and Pablo Armero are next in line with three each. Antonio Floro Flores, Di Natale’s deputy, is yet to score in nine appearances.

The statistics say everything about Toto’s importance, and a long-term injury would likely derail Udinese’s title hopes. Still, the Bianconeri have a balanced XI with a solid defence, drive on the flanks and a midfield blend of guile and grinta. Udinese’s intangibles make the team a sum greater than their parts, and a bit of luck should see them push Juve & co. all the way to the wire.