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… 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.

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.