There’s still another round of matches to play in Serie A. Sure, Juventus have won the title. Sure, they printed some pretty cringe-worthy ‘LE6END’ merchandise and plastered it everywhere. Sure, Napoli and Roma seem set in their Champions League spots. Sure, every position in the league is seemingly sorted, bar Crotone and Empoli bickering about who gets to be the third worst team. Sure, the league is pretty much done and dusted. But we still have one round of fixtures left.
So, what can we talk about? Juventus won the Coppa Italia, a nice trinket to place alongside the Scudetto and – more importantly – a possible Champions League trophy. We’ve known for months that the Old Lady’s season comes down to the acquisition of a certain big-eared friend. They’re in the final and a thorough review of Juve’s season seems impossible without factoring in this final match. Likewise, a full season run down, with a week to spare, seems premature.
Though Serie A is obviously the best and most important league in the world, it is not the only one. Elsewhere, football does occasionally happen.
Furthermore, a number of these leagues have already thrown in the towel. They even have Italians. For one week only, then, we shall venture abroad and see how well the Italians are traveling.
Italian Managers Abroad
Along with boot-shaped bottles of limoncello and a laissez-faire attitude to scooter safety, football managers might be Italy’s greatest export. They’ve had a very good season in that regard. The English, German and Russian leagues have all been won by an Italian manager.
Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus have a chance to take European football’s top prize, while few would doubt his opponent’s Italian influence: Zinedine Zidane played some of his best football for Juventus, played under Fabio Capello and served his managerial apprenticeship under Carlo Ancelotti. If you want to win the league, it seems, hire Italian.
But there’s been a few failures to go along with the successes. Last year, endearing gentleman tinkerer Claudio Ranieri managed to defy expectations and Jamie Vardy’s diet, turning Leicester City into Premier League champions. This season was not quite as successful. He was sacked. As was Walter Mazzarri at Watford and Francesco Guidolin at Swansea.
Mazzarri, to his credit, was a poor fit. The club’s owners, the same Pozzo family who own Udinese, may well seek to bring in another Italian next term. Guidolin, on the other hand, seemed a strange appointment all along. Doing enough to stabilize Swansea last season, he was sacked early doors and replaced by Bob Bradley. Once it was demonstrated that Bradley was approaching Mariana trench levels of being out of his depth, he was also bounced out the door, replaced with another former Ancelotti assistant, Paul Clement.
In terms of tactical trends, we can once again look towards the Premier League. Here, Conte has dragged three-man defenses kicking and screaming back into the public consciousness. Brendan Rodgers, all self-exposing ego and shiny white teeth, might have tried similar tricks in previous seasons, as had Roberto Martinez, but few managers have managed to make a three-man backline function quite as well as Conte.
Soon, even Arsene Wenger was giving it a go. While David Luiz, Tim Cahill, and Cesar Azpilicueta might not be a match for Juventus’ three-headed monster, they’ve shown English football the benefits such a formation can bring.
Italian Players Abroad
This is where things start to get a bit more complicated. Let’s start with the good. Mario Balotelli: astonishingly gifted, occasionally disinterested, always interesting. The Italian striker drew his tortured tenure at Liverpool to a close by signing for Nice. The move to France has afforded Mario a mini-Renaissance. Part of an exciting Nice lineup, including Champions League winner Dante and breakout star Jean Michaël Seri, the Côte d'Azur side have managed to light up Ligue 1.
Though they were never going to catch a prodigal Monaco, they have secured third place and (possibly) Champions League football for next season.
Lucien Favre’s management of Balotelli has brought out the best in the Italian. Though he has been sent off in a number of games – often unfairly, occasionally rescinded – the striker has been a fantastic outlet; not only scoring, but playing as the focal point of the attack. Balotelli could be on the move again ahead of next season – Turkish clubs are already circling – but this will stand out as one of the best seasons of his career.
Staying in France, we have PSG. Home to Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti, the French giants have had a wretched season. It doesn’t matter what else they did, this will be the season in which they wrote themselves into the record books for one of history’s greatest bottle jobs. Both players featured across the two legs of that infamous tie. The astonishing high of thrashing Barcelona. The incredible lows of throwing everything away. There was even an encore, a few weeks later, when PSG managed to capitulate against Nice, a match in which Thiago Motta was one of two players sent off.
Motta, by this stage of his career, is done. His legs are gone and his role as an enforcer is viable only against French minnows. It’s easily exposed at the highest levels. Verratti, however, continues to be coveted by every European super club. Undoubtedly talented, he will want to forget this season.
In Britain, there are fewer top level Italian players. At West Ham, there is Simone Zaza and Angelo Ogbonna. The latter was playing well until an injury ended his season. The former was regarded as a joke and bombed out at the club. We’ll cover Zaza again in a later section.
At Sunderland, Fabio Borini has been various shades of awful while Vito Mannone’s play time has been limited thanks to Jordan Pickford, the one bright spot in the Black Cats season of despair. Stefano Okaka has done very little at Watford, while Watford have done very little themselves, so it seems appropriate enough.
Matteo Darmian is probably the biggest Italian name in British football at the moment (at least in terms of the players). Ostensibly a right back, Darmian has the misfortune to be 1) behind Antonio Valencia in the pecking order and 2) not very good. Valencia has been one of the few consistent performers for Manchester United, picking up their player of the season award. Darmian, meanwhile, has filled in the various gaps in defense — a jack of several trades, master of absolutely none.
Mourinho’s defensive, pragmatic approach has hardly helped, having to play in a double wingback formation with Ashley Young is punishment enough for the former Torino man. Still, he could win the Europa League.
Spain is a bit more interesting. After finally waving goodbye to Florence, Giuseppe Rossi moved to Celta Vigo. There, he was playing well. Then the inevitable, heart-wrenching knee injury happened. At this stage, everyone feels sorry for Rossi and there is nothing to do but to wish him well in his recovery. He recently got engaged, so there’s a silver lining to his season.
Alessio Cerci has technically been at Atletico Madrid, possibly as some kind of running joke. Since signing for the Spanish side, he’s been back to Italy twice on loan. He’ll probably be back when Atletico finally get shot of him.
If you’re Italian, then the Spanish side you should sign for is probably Villareal. It’s where Giuseppe Rossi excelled earlier in his career and, currently, they have three Italians. Roberto Soriano, Daniele Bonera and Nicola Sansone have all played an important role in the side. Soriano and Sansone, in particular, are key players in a side which is doing reasonably well for itself.
Speaking of sides doing well, Sevilla have been having an excellent season. Well, it has varied. They’ve played some astonishing football under Jorge Sampaoli and finished in fourth place. They’ve gone off the boil a bit following their manager being linked with the vacant Argentina job and the defeat to Leicester City in the Champions League.
The two Italian players in their squad have hardly set the world alight, however. Franco Vazquez has flickered and sparkled occasionally, struggling to recapture the form he once showed at Palermo. It’s harder when you’re no longer playing next to Paulo Dybala. Salvatore Sirigu has swapped the PSG bench for the Sevilla bench. He’s well rested, at the very least.
And then there’s Zaza. Simone Zaza has not had a great time since leaving Sassuolo. Sure, he spent a bit of time at Juventus and picked up a Serie A winner’s medal. But he hardly played. West Ham, after spending a summer searching for a big-name striker in the worst way possible, had their heads turned.
They had already flashed €40 million around Europe, happily linking themselves with your Lacazettes and your Batshuayis. Turned down again and again, they settled for Zaza on loan. He lasted until Christmas. Laughed out of London, West Ham preferring either a crocked Andy Carroll or an Actually Useless Jonathan Calleri, Zaza went to Spain.
He didn’t even go to a sensible club; he went to Valencia. Right now, Valencia might be one of the strangest clubs in world football. Constantly in the process of crumpling under the weight of their own embarrassing exploits, they’re a collapsing black hole of bad management and stupid decisions. They even gave Gary Neville a job. So Zaza went to Valencia. And, in all fairness, he has not been bad.
He’s made 18 appearances and scored six goals. That’s reasonable. It’s not great but it’s not bad. Which, really, is a decent summation of Zaza himself.
While we wait for the real end of the Serie A season (and the proper debriefing it brings) what have we learned from these various European adventures? Well, if you want to win the league, you should hire an Italian manager. Just not Walter Mazzarri. If you want to sign a decent player, get Balotelli in a good mood or say a prayer for Rossi’s knees. And steer well clear of signing Simone Zaza. But that’s just good advice in general.