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Posts Tagged ‘AC Milan’

This week-and-a-half’s feature club is Inter Milan: the most successful Italian club of the last decade and one of the most storied clubs in world football. Inter are probably one of the first clubs you think of when Serie A is mentioned, and for good reason. They have been tremendously successful over the past few years and, despite their recent troubles, are one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Some of the world’s greatest players have strutted their stuff for the Nerazzurri over the years, and their list of honours is very enviable. Only Juventus (27) have won more than Inter’s 18 Serie A titles (although they’re tied with city rivals AC Milan) and their Barcelona-toppling, Champions League-winning 2009-10 campaign was remarkable. They are a hugely popular side with a big global fan base, and I really, really don’t like them.

It’s not because their popular or successful or because I have a big distaste for any of their personnel (I’m a big José Mourinho supporter and an admirer of Javier Zanetti). I dislike the Nerazzurri for the way they benefited from Calciopoli and the penalties handed to their biggest rivals, even though their hands were just as dirty as anybody else’s (except Juventus, perhaps).

I assume that if you’re reading this blog then you probably know a thing or two about Calciopoli already, but if not I’d recommend using good old Wikipedia (shhh, you at the back) to read up on it. If you don’t know it as “Calciopoli” then you’ll probably know it as the 2006 Italian Football Betting Scandal. Teams were accused of rigging games by selecting “favourable referees” for certain matches.

The case had huge ramifications for Italian football. Four of the implicated clubs (Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Juventus) were all initially relegated, but most punishments were overturned on appeal. Some of them were still pretty severe nonetheless:-

  • Milan were deducted 30 points for the 2005-06 season, meaning they finished third instead of second. They were also forced to play one game behind closed doors in 06-07, and started that season on -8 points.
  • Fourth-place Fiorentina were kicked out of the 06-07 Champions League, deducted 30 points for 05-06, had to play two games behind closed doors and started 06-07 on -15.
  • Lazio, who finished sixth, were also deducted 30 points and booted from European competition (the UEFA Cup this time). This deduction left them just three points from relegation. For 06-07 they started on -3 points and had to play behind closed doors twice.
  • Reggina’s president, Pasquale Foti, was fined approximately £20,000 banned from all football activity for 2½ years. The club were fined £68k and started 06-07 on -11 points.
  • Juventus were handed the sternest punishment. Their Serie C1 relegation was changed to a Serie B relegation on appeal, and they were stripped of the Serie A titles they’d won in 2005 and 2006. They were kicked out of the Champions League, fined £31million, started 06-07 on -9 points and played three games in an empty stadium.

I’d say that some of the punishments handed-out on appeal were a tad lenient given the enormity of the situation, but I’m no expert on the situation. Lazio, Milan and Fiorentina only started showing signs of recovery in recent seasons, Reggina are stuck in Serie B and Juventus haven’t been the same since. Considering Calciopoli’s impact on these clubs, maybe the punishments were fair after all.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how Inter benefited from all this. Aside from being awarded the 2005-06 Scudetto despite finishing third, Inter had effectively seen their biggest rivals (Milan and Juventus) neutered. The lack of competition helped them two four legitimate straight titles until last season’s post-Mourinho demolition job. They dominated, and even won the league by 22 points in 2007.

It speaks volumes of the impact Calciopoli had on Inter’s fortunes that they collapsed as soon as Milan were strong enough to mount another challenge. There is nothing exceptional about Allegri’s Rossoneri, but they were functional, consistent team and the strongest opposition Inter had had since the scandal. A lot of blame for Inter’s fall can be placed on Rafa Benitez’s dire man management and their ageing squad, but it’s no coincidence that they started to slide as their rivals recovered.

The Nerazzurri weren’t exactly flying before Calciopoli either. They won just three titles in 40 years between 1966 and 2006, and their awarded 2005-06 Scudetto was the first they’d “won” since 1989. Inter often finished seasons without qualifying for Europe. Inter were also-rans to Juventus and Milan, and even the two Rome clubs (Roma and Lazio) won Serie A during Inter’s barren decade-and-a-half.

Calciopoli turned them into a dominant force. They ruled the roost because there was nobody to challenge them, even if Roma did push them all the way in 2008. Mourinho’s influence shouldn’t be completely discounted but, on a domestic level, Inter were “better” by default.

I wouldn’t have had a problem with this if Inter hadn’t actively taken part in Calciopoli. They weren’t punished, right? That must mean they were innocent? I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought they were. Inter were just as guilty of tarnishing Italian football’s reputation by participating in the scandal as everyone else, and the way they’ve trumpeted themselves as an honourable club in the aftermath is arrogant and hypocritical.

Inter aren’t innocent. It was found last year that the Nerazzurri’s then-president Giacinto Facchetti (RIP) had contacted Italian football’s referee selection committee to “discuss” which referees should officiate their games, just as Fiorentina had done. I’m not conspiracy theorist, but it’s very suspicious that we’ve only just heard of these discussions and the telephone transcripts weren’t leaked to the press at the time (as Juve’s were).

Juve have always protested their punishment and it’s hard to feel sympathetic for them, but they do have a point. Why weren’t Inter implicated? The Bianconeri were crippled by Calciopoli, and, if what I’ve read is to be believed, Inter should’ve been reprimanded as well.

FIGC president Franco Carraro resigned in 2006 after the first wave of phone calls had been revealed. Guido Rossi, Inter’s vice president, came in to head the investigation and soon, not long after the verdict was announced, left his position to head TIM (a branch of Telecom Italia). Telecom Italia are Italy’s biggest telecommunications company, and the ones who wiretapped the phone conversations between convicted Juventus president Luciano Moggi and the referee selectors.

Last year’s Inter-implicating calls were leaked by Moggi’s lawyers, not Telecom Italia. Rossi was good friends with Inter president Massimo Moratti, who was also on the TIM board. Putting two-and-two together, it’s not hard to see what was going on. Rossi must’ve known what was going-on with Inter, and given his involvement with Moratti (and Moratti’s involvement with Telecom Italia) it would’ve been in everyone’s best interests to keep Inter’s Calciopoli involvement under wraps.

Again, I don’t want to fall for what could be a load of cloak and dagger nonsense, but it’s hard not to see this as a murky plot to cripple Juventus and establish Inter’s dominance (this is Italy, after all). Christian Vieri made allegations last year that his phone had been tapped by Inter (who wanted to spy on him) and that the Nerazzurri squad were forced to sign contracts promising not to mention the club’s plans to “bring Juventus and Milan down.”

“I am ready to show everyone the document, everyone knew what was happening. I was spied upon because I cannot keep these things locked up. 70% of the contract was to be paid by inter and the other 30% by Telecom (Italia)” – Vieri speaking to firenzeviola.it

The Calciopoli scandal continues to rage-on and attempts to prove Inter’s guilt continue. I’m willing to accept the possibility that these theories on the Nerazzurri’s involvement are nonsense, but it certainly doesn’t look like that’s the case. I’m going to use this week to do some more research on Calciopoli and hopefully get a better idea of what really happened during the 2005-06 season. The timing couldn’t be any better (with fresh Calciopoli-related sentences being handed-out last night), and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

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I’ve built-up quite a collection of football shirts over the years. I don’t know how many I have, but it must be close to thirty. My first was a red & blue Aberdeen shirt adorned with Northsound Radio sponsorship that my parents bought for me when I was in my first year of primary school. I got my first Newcastle United (the team I support thanks to my father) kit shortly after, and I’ve had countless more since then.

I didn’t delve into foreign shirts until I got a Spain shirt with Raul on the back during a family holiday to Menorca. Since then I’ve had the jerseys of Spain, Barcelona, Sparta Prague, Austria, Real Madrid, Roma, Juventus, Germany and a few more that I’ve probably forgotten about. A lot, basically.

The ones I don’t really wear are kept at my parents’ house and the rest are crammed haphazardly into a chest in my bedroom with my football boots and goalie gloves. I only use them when I’m playing football, in the gym or vegetating on the couch. I never wear them in public (unless it’s matchday), so they don’t need to be taken care of: I wear them, wash them then throw them in the chest.

Except one. I got it earlier this year, but I’ve only worn it a handful of times. It’s the only football shirt that I care about enough to hang in my wardrobe with my “going out” shirts and work clothes. It’s immaculate, completely spotless and fits me better than any football shirt I’ve ever owned.

It’s AC Milan’s third shit from last season with Cassano, 99 on the back. I don’t wear it often because I play football on artificial surfaces peppered with tiny black pellets that stain light-coloured material (this one is white). This is a precious jersey and I don’t want to get it dirty. Heck, I don’t even want to get it sweaty.

I’m sure you understand where I’m coming from if you’re a football fan. A friend recently compared the process of men choosing & buying football boots to women going dress shopping. We spend hours going back and forth, considering our options, getting excited and debating with our friends. We cherish the product when we get it, and when an imperfection inevitably appears we feel like somebody’s died. Such is the power of a special piece of kit to a football fan.

The reason I take such good care of this Milan top isn’t because it’s a beautiful piece of attire (which it is), but because it’s a Cassano shirt. Antonio Cassano is my favourite player. Alan Shearer was (and still is) an idol to me growing-up, but I’ve always loved Fantantonito. I’ve followed him since his Roma days and supported him everywhere he’s gone. I love the guy’s skills, character and approach to the beautiful game, so it saddens me deeply to hear of his ongoing health problems.

Cassano fell ill on Sunday night while flying back from Rome with his Rossoneri teammates. Said to be “having great difficulty speaking and moving,” Cassano was taken to hospital. I was worried, but details were sketchy. Nobody really seemed to know what was wrong the Fantantonito, and Milan were being understandably coy.

Rumours that Cassano suffered an ischemic stroke (caused by an interruption in the brain’s blood supply) surfaced and don’t seem to be going away. Milan have promised a “clarifying statement” on Cassano’s situation, but with rumours of potential heart surgery now circulating it certainly doesn’t sound great.

I don’t know the truth. I’m writing this before Milan have released their statement so I’ve got my fingers crossed that all this talk of strokes and heart surgery is just hearsay. Either way, it’s very troubling. Knowing that somebody you look up to is experiencing health problems is a horrible feeling. It’s obviously nowhere near as dreadful as a loved one’s suffering, but it’s jarring nonetheless.

Fantantonito first caught my eye at Roma in the early-2000’s. Playing under Fabio Capello, Cassano’s interactions with Francesco Totti & co. were breathtaking to watch (check the evidence), and I knew straightaway that I was watching a special player. He was the type of player who could change a game in an instant and his ability to control the ball in tight situations was astounding.

Cassano left Roma for Real Madrid in 2006 following a contract dispute. Such was the extent of his falling out with the Giallorossi hierarchy that his services cost Real a measly €5m, which is amazing considering Roma signed him from Bari for about €30m.

It’d be an understatement to say that Antonio had a wretched time in Spain. His Real spell was peppered with the kind of petulance that’s dogged him through his career, and he only managed a poxy four goals at the Bernabeu. After two years of conflict with Fabio Capello and Ramon Calderon, Cassano famously said he’d “walk all the way back” to rejoin Roma, and wound-up joining Sampdoria in 2007.

Thus began the most productive spell of Fantantonito’s career. Away from the spotlight of Real Madrid and the unique pressure of Roma, Cassano shone at Sampdoria. His growth (both as a player and a professional) was exponential, and the break-up of his lethal partnership with top goal-getter Giampaolo Pazzini was a huge factor in the Blucerchiati’s relegation last season.

Statistically, Cassano had never been better. He scored 41 goals and provided 38 assists in 115 Sampdoria appearances, which highlights his growth as a goalscorer and development as a playmaker. Accusations of laziness and selfishness had always been thrown at Antonio (especially after his grim spell at Real), but he really turned a corner with the ‘Doria.

Pazzini and Cassano: the perfect partnership?

Cassano played like a man with something to prove, and the discipline he learned at Sampdoria still serves him well today. Antonio left Sampdoria to link-up with Milan last winter and played a key role in the Rossoneri’s title run-in. This season he’s been as good as ever, with 9 goals and 7 assists in 19 games for club and country.

I don’t think anyone can argue that Cassano isn’t one of the most talented players in the world. His dribbling, close control and passing are genuinely world-class, and he’s a deceptively intelligent footballer who, at 29, has finally learned the value of teamwork. I think he’s one of the most naturally gifted players in the world, but he’s only just started to learn how to use his incredible gifts to full effect.

The name Antonio Cassano has sadly become synonymous with screw-ups and strops, so much so that the Capello-coined term “Cassanata” has emerged to describe “behaviour incompatible with team spirit”. He fell-out with Capello and Totti at Roma, everyone at Real Madrid and Riccardo Garrone at Sampdoria. Cassano’s behavioural and disciplinary meant he never really had a chance with the Azzurri under Marcello Lippi, but he has since become a regular fixture for Cesare Prandelli’s Italy.

Fantantonito seems to have finally turned a huge behavioural corner recently, and that’s what makes the timing of his illness so tragic. In the past five years he’s stepped his game up while becoming a hugely important player for club and country. Antonio is making the most of his “last chance at a big club,” and it’s rotten luck that he’s been struck with this affliction just as he’s coming into his own at Milan.

As good as Cassano is, he’s destined to go down as one of the biggest “what ifs” in football, even if he does make a full recovery. He was given a huge chance at Real Madrid and blew it, and his time in Rome ended acrimoniously despite his contribution over the years. Antonio had the potential and the talent to be an all-time European great, but his failure to apply himself in his mid-twenties has likely scuppered any chances of seeing Fantantonito at peak potential.

I think this quote sums things up perfectly: “I was poor my whole life, but I never worked, mainly because I don’t know how to do anything.” I believe that his work ethic has improved greatly in the past few years but it was undeniably poor when he was younger, and that’s why we’ll never see him at his very best. It’s all very well giving your all when you’re nearly 30, but footballers’ development slows considerably as they get older.

Fantantonito claims to have never given 100%. If Cassano has turned out this good without really trying then think just how good he could’ve been if he’d exerted himself more during his early years.

That’s not supposed to be a criticism though. I’m an Antonio Cassano fan not just because of his outstanding ability but also his personality. I don’t condone some of the things he did when he was younger, but Cassano is a maverick. If he doesn’t want to do something, he’s not going to do it. He loves food, women and making money, and he makes no secret of this.

It’s easy to criticise Antonio Cassano, but there’s much more to him than just petulance. A lot of people still look at him with disdain, but Cassano isn’t content to be a “yes man”: Fantantonito does what he pleases and lives on his own terms. Isn’t that what we all want from life?

It’s why I’ve always admired Cassano, and why I will continue to support him for the rest of his career. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him, but if it is, I thank him for the memories. He’s provided a ton of magical moments and memorable quotes over the years, and I’ll be very disappointed if he doesn’t get the opportunity to add to them.

Here’s to a true nonconformist and one of the most talented strikers I’ve ever seen. Guarisci presto, Fantantonito. Auguri di pronta guarigione.

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Genoa, for me, are a very easy club to identify with because of their English roots. I can’t say that the Rossoblu’s heritage gave me an instant connection to the club but, as a Brit, it caught my attention and got me interested in the club.

It was like bait: at the faintest whiff of a similarity between Genoa and myself I instantly wanted to learn more about the club, their history, and the legacy of their English founders. James Richardson Spensley and William Garbutt aren’t exactly revered in their home country and this is a big shame. I’m willing to bet that calcio would be even more popular in Britain if more of us took the time to research this unique link between our island and Italian football’s genesis.

Spensley and Garbutt both had huge roles to play in shaping Genoa’s early years. Born in London in 1867, Spensley first arrived on the peninsula in early 1896. A doctor, Spensley’s initial duty was to tend to the crews of British coal ships docked in the port city. He joined Genoa’s cricket & athletics club after three months in Italy, and personally opened the club’s footballing section in April 1987.

James Richardson Spensley

Playing as a defender during the club’s first two seasons and a goalkeeper from thereon, Spensley was one of only two players two feature in all of Genoa’s six championship-winning campaigns between 1898 and 1904. He retired a few years after the Grifone’s last title win, and would continue his football career as a coach and referee.

To truly appreciate Spensley’s contribution to Italian football’s development I think it’s important to acknowledge just how big a deal Genoa were back then. Genoa are often believed to be Italy’s first dedicated football club, although there exists evidence suggesting that the first Italian football club was founded in Turin.

The first ever Italian Football Championship took place in 1987. The structure saw several regional groups compete in small round-robin competitions (not unlike today’s Champions League group stage) with the winners advancing to a play-off stage. Genoa bettered three Turinese clubs in this stage of the competition (FBC Torinese, Ginnastica Torino and Internazionale Torino), and eventually beat Internazionale 3-1 to win the competition’s final.

A long period of dominance followed. Think Inter Milan under Jose Mourinho or Roberto Mancini or Milan and Juventus in the 1990’s. Genoa were calcio’s first true powerhouse club, winning 6 out of the first 7 Italian Football Championships, and none of it would’ve been possible without James Richardson Spensley.

Not only did he establish one of calcio’s most significant clubs, but he helped introduce football to the Italian people by forcing through a vote allowing native players to join Genoa C.F.C.’s ranks. Originally Genoa only admitted English players and Italians were hesitant, but the floodgates to over 100 years worth of history in one of the world’s most decorated footballing nations had been opened.

Spensley sadly perished in Mainz, 1910 while on active duty as an army medic during the First World War while compassionately tending to the wounds of a fallen enemy. His name is scarcely mentioned in Britain, but the Genoese will always rightly remember Spensley as one of Italian football’s founding fathers.

William Garbutt

William Garbutt didn’t arrive in Genoa until two years after Spensley’s passing. The Stockport native had had a modest playing career with the likes of Woolwich Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers, but was forced to retire in 1912 (aged 29) as persistent injuries took their toll. In need of a means of supporting his family after his forced retirement, Garbutt moved to Genoa later that year to work as a docker.

He was appointed Genoa’s first ever head coach on the 30th July, but how this came about is unclear. There are two popular theories: some believe that Thomas Coggins (and Irishman who’d been coaching Genoa’s youth team at the time) pushed for his appointment, while others say he was recommended by future World Cup-winning manager Vittorio Pozzo. Either way, Genoa (the most successful club in Italian football to that date) had employed an Englishman with zero managerial experience completely out of the blue.

Garbutt would revolutionise Genoa C.F.C. One of his first acts was to dismantle and re-assemble the Rossoblu’s training methods, and he is noted as one of the first managers to recognise the importance of physical fitness and tactics. To this day Italian football is still known for its tactical sophistication and the superb conditioning of its players, and Garbutt helped set the prototype for both.

As well as his contributions to Italian football’s blueprint, Garbutt conducted the first-ever paid transfer deal on the peninsula and also made Genoa the first Italian club to play outside their native country (they travelled to England to face Garbutt’s former side Reading). He was trendsetter and a true trailblazer. International competition and paid transfers would surely have come along anyway, but it was Garbutt who set the foundations.

Genoa had gone through a rough patch prior to Garbutt’s arrival and hadn’t won an Italian Championship since 1904. The glory of their early days had started to fade, but Garbutt restored some prestige to the club with three Championship wins in 1914-15, 22-23 and 23-24. Genoa haven’t won an Italian championship since.

Garbutt may not have had as big a revolutionary effect on Italian football as Spensley, but his contribution to Genoa was just as immense. Not only did he return the club to its glory days but he did so with dignity and respect. Garbutt helped re-stablise Genoa after the War, and his intelligent approach to management is still being mimicked today.

Post-Genoa, Garbutt would go on to enjoy a long management career with Roma, Napoli, Athletic Bilbao and A.C. Milan. He returned to Genoa on two separate occasions in the thirties and forties, either side of being deported by Mussolini, before eventually returning home and dying peacefully in England, 1964.

It’s perhaps natural that neither of these men are exalted in Britain. Their greatest accomplishments came on foreign shores, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of reverence. James Richardson Spensley and William Garbutt were helped sculpt calcio into what it is today and I, for one, am very grateful for their contribution.

Further reading:

Les Rosbifs, an excellent site chronicling the fortunes of English footballers abroad, features two excellent articles on Spensley and Garbutt. I’d recommend reading both: the writers are very knowledgeable and the articles are insightful and go into a lot more detail than I ever could.

Paul Edgerton, author of the above article on Garbutt, has released a book on Genoa’s former manager that I will be ordering immediately. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the tome, and I’d recommend you check it out if you have any interest in the man.

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I didn’t take an in-depth look at last week’s AC Milan vs. Napoli tie for a reason. From now on I’ll be working on a weekly “Team of the Week” article for the good folks at Serie A Weekly. Each week I’ll be taking the team I feel had the best weekend and taking a look at their performance (while analysing their current situation and prospects). This week I chose Napoli for their impressive counter-attacking display against the Scudetto holders.

Take a look at the article here.

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Well that sure was interesting. Lovely counter-attacking from Napoli to expose Milan’s chronic lack of pace and another three goals for Edinson Cavani. I shan’t be going into too much detail on this game at the moment, but I will be analysing the game and its implications early in the week. Unfortunately it’s going to fall outside of “Milan week,” but you’ll understand why when it comes.

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L-R: Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl, Nils Liedholm.

My goal with this blog is to further my knowledge of Italian football by studying a different club every week and digging-up as much info as possible. Last week I took a club that I knew every little about (Cesena) and learned a lot about their football philosophy and attack-heavy squad. This was pretty easy: because I knew almost nothing about Cesena, everything I learned about the club was new to me. I’m sure I would’ve learned a lot more if I had more time to work with (the blog only started last Friday), but researching a smaller club was a piece of cake.

Milan was always going to be more of a challenge. The Rossoneri are huge and researching their history online isn’t exactly difficult, but because they’re such a big club I already know quite a lot about them. You’d think Milan’s size would make them an easier club to document, but they’re not. I could’ve produced article after article on the transition between the Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello eras, the impact Silvio Berlusconi’s ownership has had on the club, and the misunderstood genius of Pippo Inzaghi, but that’d be missing the point.

The point of ATP is not to write about what I already know (which I could’ve done in a pinch), but to write about what I didn’t know before starting my research. For Milan, I knew I was going to have to delve beyond to ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and I did just that.

Bypassing Gil Immortali and Gil Invincibili, past Milan’s 10th Scudetto and forced relegation in the ‘70’s and beyond the ‘60’s and Nereo Rocco’s catenaccio. Eventually I found myself in 1949 with three very special players.

Look through A.C. Milan’s official Hall of Fame and their names immediately jump out at you. Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm (Gre-No-Li) aren’t just the only three Scandinavians in the Rossoneri HOF, but also one of the greatest forward lines in world football history.

Granted, I already knew a snippet or two about Nordahl and Liedholm, but I had no idea they’d played together and I’d never even heard of Gren. Their story is as interesting as it is extraordinary: when was the last time a country of Sweden’s size produced three world class forwards in the same generation? Milan’s current Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an excellent player in his own right, but Gre-No-Li have left him one hell of a legacy to live up to.

The trio first rose to prominence during the 1948 Olympic Games. Gre-No-Li played a pivotal role as Sweden won the gold medal with a 3-1 triumph over Yugoslavia in the final. Gunnar Nordahl finished as the competition’s top scorer and was the first of the three to appear on Milan’s radar. He joined the Rossoneri in January 1949 and notched an impressive 16 goals in 15 league games before the end of the season.

Gre-No-Li were reunited in September 1949 when Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm signed together, making their debuts in a 3-1 victory over Sampdoria later that month. Milan didn’t win any silverware that season, but they did manage a whopping 118 goals in 38 league games. The seeds for Gre-No-Li’s success were sown, and in the 1950-51 season Milan won their fourth Scudetto.

Winning Serie A was the most notable accomplishment of the trio’s careers thus far, despite their Olympic success. All three had won numerous Allsvenskan Championships back in Sweden, but none had accomplished anything like winning the Scudetto.

For Gren, his first piece of silverware won at the San Siro was also his last. He had a shorter Milan career than Lieholm and Nordahl, and departed in 1953 after a brief spell as manager the year before. Gren’s contribution shouldn’t be devalued though. He scored 38 goals in 133 league appearances for the Rossoneri despite never being seen as the team’s main goalscoring outlet. During his time in Italy he earned the nickname Il Professore (“The Professor”) for his intelligent attacking play. The Teddy Sheringham of his day, Gren spent three more years in Italy with Fiorentina and Genoa, before returning home to Orgryte and retiring in 1957.

Like Gren, Nils Liedholm was also more of a creator than a finisher. Lying deeper than his countrymen, Liedholm was a player of great elegance and one of the finest playmakers of his day. Known for his footballing brain, Liedholm’s pinpoint passing made him a vital component of Milan’s success right up to his retirement in 1961. In total he scored 81 goals in 359 league appearances for the Rossoneri. Unfortunately it’s impossible to find out how many assists he supplied during his 12 years at the club, but I’m willing to bet the total is huge.

Liedholm was not only a pioneering playmaker, but also one of the first footballers to realise the importance of fitness. Liedholm played until he was 38, a rarity during that era. He did it by integrating pure athletics (sprints, javelin, etc.) into his training regime, making him a true athlete during a period when footballers were known more for hard drinking and chain smoking than hitting the gym.

If Liedholm and Gren were creators, Gunnar Nordahl was very much a finisher. The 6’1” powerhouse is, by all accounts, one of the most dominant strikers to ever terrorise Serie A. His strength and power are very well documented, and his goalscoring record is absolutely outstanding. 210 strikes in 257 appearances make him Milan’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A, and a further 15 for Roma make him second only to Silvio Piola in the league’s all-time scoring chart.

Nordahl was a great goalscorer everywhere he played. Moving to Italy effectively ended his international career, but Nordahl still managed 43 goals in just 33 Sweden appearances between 1942 and 1948. He was Serie A’s top scorer in five of his seven full seasons with Milan, and boasts a strike-rate of 0.77 goals-per-game. Ibrahimovic is undoubtedly a better technical player than Nordahl, but he has massive shoes to fill.

Gre-No-Li left a huge, gold-plated legacy behind when, one-by-one, they moved-on from Milan. Gren won just the one Scudetto, but Nordahl picked-up two Serie A winners’ medals between from 1949-56 and Liedholm has four from over a decade at the San Siro. Their exploits on the pitch are forever etched in Milan’s history, but Liedholm would also go on to make a significant contribution behind the scenes.

Moving into the assistant manager’s position after retiring in 1961, Liedholm became the Rossoneri’s head coach in 1963. Liedholm managed the club on three separate occasions (from 1963-66, 1977-79 and 1984-87), and is responsible for winning the club’s first gold star. In Italy it’s customary for teams to add a gold star to their jersey for every ten Scudetti they win, and Milan won their 10th in 1979 under Liedholm’s tutelage.

Barrel-loads of top forwards have called the San Siro “home” over the years, but never have Milan had a strikeforce as potent and effective as Gre-No-Li. Milan’s three Swedes complemented one another beautifully and their collective medal haul truly justifies their legendary status. Calcio and indeed world football may never see their like again.

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A.C. Milan 2 – 2 Barcelona

Tuesday 13th September, 2011

Last night’s Champions League clash between the Rossoneri and Barcelona didn’t quite live up to Adriano Galliani’s “Derby of the World” billing, but it was a far from drab affair. Many had predicted another Barca whitewash before the game, but Massimiliano Allegri’s gameplan was spot-on and won a point for the seven-time tournament winners.

Injury-stricken Milan took to the pitch minus Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Philippe Mexes, Taye Taiwo, Mathieu Flamini and Gennaro Gattuso. Antonio Cassano and Pato, Milan’s only available forwards, started up-front, supported by trequartista Kevin-Prince Boateng and midfielders Mark van Bommel, Antonio Nocerino and Clarence Seedorf. Regular starters Ignazio Abate, Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta started in defence with Gianluca Zambrotta at left-back and Christian Abbiati between the posts.

It’s testament to Milan’s strength-in-depth these days that the Rossoneri were still able to field such a strong squad even with six players missing. They were able to leave players of Alberto Aquilani and Massimo Ambrosini’s calibre on the bench which really highlights the excellent job Milan have done of padding-out their squad this summer.

The Catalans goals came from a defensive lapse and a moment of brilliance. Milan were never outclassed despite the statistics (Barcelona had 75% possession and 22 shots to Milan’s 6). With the Rossoneri sitting deep, Barca were often reduced to long-range shots and could only convert 9% of their chances into goals. Allegri’s narrow formation stifled Barcelona’s ability to play between the lines and his decision to chase the game and increase pressing in the second-half helped drag Milan back into the game.

Barcelona dominated possession and created more chances, but this was always going to be the case. Allegri’s tactics simply trumped Guardiola’s. Yes Barcelona probably deserved to win given the balance of play, and yes they’d been forced to play with a makeshift Busquest/Mascherano centre-back pairing, but they couldn’t better Milan’s gameplan.

Both Rossoneri goals were well taken. Pato took advantage of some uncharacteristic Barcelona sloppiness, knocking the ball between Busquets and Mascherano in the middle of the park before burning the flat-footed Busquets for pace and finishing deftly. Thiago Silva’s headed equaliser was excellent: the Brazilian leapt like a salmon, meeting the ball at the peak of his jump and powering it past Victor Valdes.

Calcio is this blog’s primary focus, but not giving Barcelona their due credit would be unfair. That even teams of Milan’s stature are forced but to employ defensive gameplans against the Catalans says everything of their global supremacy. They dominated possession and would surely have faired better with Puyol and Pique in the side. Villa’s 30-yard free-kick was inch-perfect, and, truthfully, they probably should’ve scored more.

Tiki-taka afficionados will complain about Milan’s defensiveness, but Barcelona were foiled by a true Italian defensive masterclass. Alessandro Nesta was flawless: the 35-year old’s superior reading of the game defies his declining physical attributes, and last night showed that he can still compete with the world’s best players. A flawlessly executed challenge on Leo Messi that left the Argentine punching the ground says all you need to know about both players’ respective performances.

Thiago Silva looked assured beside Nesta and popped-up with the crucial equaliser, while Gianluca Zambrotta had an excellent game as a defensive left back. Zambrotta rarely ventured forward, instead focusing his attention of stopping the usually rampant Dani Alves down Barca’s right flank. Zambrotta kept his opponent on the inside, forcing Barcelona to play through Milan’s wall of defensive players and neutralising one of their most potent attacking threats.

Antonio Cassano was largely anonymous, but the ex-Sampdoria man’s inability to impose himself had little bearing on his strike partner’s performance. Pato had a good game, breaking through Barcelona’s midfield to trouble a wobbly Catalan defence on a couple of occasions. Always a good goalscorer and one of the most composed forwards in the world, Pato took his goal well and could have a breakthrough season in the Champions League if he can stay fit.

Attack-minded purists will be cynical of Milan’s performance but Allegri’s men did exactly what they needed to. The Rossoneri conceded possession but they were mostly successful in stopping Barca’s play between the lines and they did a good job of shackling Messi and Alves. Barcelona didn’t have enough in their armoury to break Milan down on the night, and that’s why they couldn’t win.

All-in-all, an encouraging performance from Milan after the disappointing of drawing with Lazio at the weekend. The Rossoneri have enough bodies to rotate for Sunday’s tie with Napoli, so hopefully tiredness shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Having watched them perform admirably as underdogs I now look forward to seeing how they setout against a team they’d hope to be beating.

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