Juventus lost a bit of ground at the top end of the Serie A table this past week.
Serie A is in a peculiar situation regarding the young strikers: most of them have already managed to either become household names or centrepieces of top clubs, so it would be unfair to label them “upcoming”. This applies to players such as Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Andrea Belotti, whose superstar status makes you forget that they are so young. André Silva has not left a distinct mark in the league yet, but he is already at Milan.
On the other hand, teams like Sampdoria, Chievo Verona, Udinese, Sassuolo, Bologna, Genoa, Benevento, Crotone and Spal this year are featuring strikers that no longer can be defined young. Therefore, there is not a real crop of exciting upcoming strikers in Serie A and the only real candidate for this definition: Giovanni Simeone, Andrea Petagna and Moise Kean. Atalanta’s forward is a useful player, but his lack of scoring prevents him from getting the nod. Kean is freakishly young: he will be a star, but he has been hit-or-(mostly)miss so far. He is a product of Juventus’ youth system.
Giovanni Simeone’s rise in Italy has been extremely quick. He joined Genoa in 2016 to be Leonardo Pavoletti’s back-up, and a future opportunity to make a profit on a relatively cheap buy, but the injuries of the Italian striker allowed him to play a ton in his first season. Despite a lengthy slump in the Winter, caused also by problems outside of the pitch that can affect a youngster, he was a solid contributor, scoring 12 goals in 35 appearances.
His determination and fierceness in the box is evident; he is an artist in the air, despite being relatively tiny: he is so cunning in getting open and he capable of contorting his body in ways that allow him to always hit precise and powerful headers. The goal against Roma is yet another display of this innate, Filippo Inzaghi-esque ability. He is a delight for crossers.
Due to a domino of strikers, he joined Fiorentina very late and this put him behind the eight ball. Stefano Pioli immediately relied heavily on him, but the combinations with his teammates have not been on point to start the season and the feeling was that he was playing a little too much on his own: he scored only once in the first six matches. However, these things improve over time and he has now developed into the weapon Viola expect him to be: he found the bottom of the net thrice in the last month and, perhaps more importantly for his development, he has dished three assists.
Combining with others is the area Simeone needs to improve in order to become an all-around forward, but he is making strides there and can be helped by a natural above-average technique. Coaches always praised him for his will and his hard-work and he has expanded his game a lot since he first moved to Italy. With a better supporting cast, he might crack 20 goals in this or in the next couple of seasons. Fiorentina has been a launching pad for great players in the past, El Cholito might be the next to join the esteemed list.
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Napoli continue to lead Serie A following the latest round of matches, with Juventus hot on their heels. Continue reading
France Football released the list of the 30 finalists for Balloon d’Or yester and Serie A is featured with five players: Leonardo Bonucci, Gianluigi Buffon, Paulo Dybala, Edin Dzeko and Dries Mertens. It is the best result for the league since 2007, when it had 9 candidates and Milan’s Kakà brought home the award thanks to the success in Champions League. In 2016, Serie A had only three nominees. As expected, Liga and Premier League had the strongest performances with 11 and seven players respectively; Bundesliga have three, Ligue 1 four. Club-wise, Real Madrid dominates with seven contenders, while Juventus have the second most, alongside Barcelona, with three.
It is a good result for the league and it is a well-deserved recognition for the elite performance of its best players. Mertens and Dzeko went toe-to-toe in the leading scorer race: the Roma forward won out with 29 goals in 37 games, while the Belgian attacker finished with 28 in 35 appearances. Achievements worthy of the highest echelon of European strikers. Both have been on a tear at the start of the season as well. It is even a more remarkable result for the Napoli attacker considering that he fully transitioned to centre-forward only at the beginning of 2017.
Juventus are rewarded for their Champions League run, which unfortunately ended with another lost final, and for the historic sixth title in a row. They built their success on strong defending and therefore Buffon and Bonucci are obvious choices, even though the defender was not as good after his move to Milan. Had the Bianconeri lifted the big-eared trophy, the goalkeeper could have maybe crowned his legendary career with the coveted prize. Paulo Dybala is on the list as well, mostly because of his stunning start of the season: he has already tallied 12 goals. He was obviously instrumental to Turin club a year ago as well, but not as prolific.
The only notable snub from Serie A is Gonzalo Higuain: he finished fourth in the scorers’ chart, with 25 goals, but reaching the UCL final could have pushed him in the list. His lack of scoring in the later stages of the main European competition, even though he did decide the first leg of semi-final against Monaco with a brace, and his struggles with Argentina likely kept him out. Andrea Belotti had a magnificent year as well, but he does not have the name power of his more illustrious colleagues yet.
Cristiano Ronaldo is fully expected to win his fifth Balloon d’Or, with his arch-rival Lionel Messi coming in second. The race for the third place is open and Juventus could be given a token spot, with Buffon being the logical candidate and Dybala the flashiest one. However, there are plenty of deserving players in the star-studded list and rewarding another Real Madrid player, Toni Kroos or Luka Modric for instance, would obviously not be a bad choice either.
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Argentina will later tonight take a major step towards qualifying for Russia 2018, or will face the unthinkable and miss on qualifying for the World Cup. It is almost shocking to see a team featuring the likes of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (currently injured following the accident in Amsterdam), Inter’s Mauro Icardi (though added in most recent months to the squad), Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain (excluded in recent matches) as well as Juve’s emerging star Paulo Dybala and of course Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
Argentina has an embarrassment of riches in attack yet the national team continues to struggle to find the back of the net, with only Bolivia having scored less goals in CONMEBOL qualifiers (with just 2 games left for each team). It is definitely a failure when one considers the options in midfield as well with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain duo Angel di Maria and Javier Pastore on the team as well.
Tonight is a must win game for Argentina with Peru the visiting team. Peru and Argentina are tied on 24 points yet the Peruvians are ahead in 4th place because they have scored more goals (despite both teams having a +1 in goal differential).
Will Argentina look for Messi time and again, as the Peruvian defenders will expect, or will La Albiceleste surprise everyone and try to spread the responsibility to different players? Messi will remain the focal point for the Argentinians, but will the team succeed in securing the win with Aguero sidelined, Higuain excluded and the coach indicating he will not start Dybala because he feels he is too similar to Messi?
It is a must win game for Argentina and most likely all eyes will be on Messi. Win and he will be hailed as a hero, but lose and once again he will be held responsible by some for the national team’s failures. In reality it has been a difficult situation for Messi with Argentina because of the high expectations and, at times, the unfair criticism.
After a very busy 20-day stretch, Serie A has reached the second international break, so it is the right opportunity to take a breather and examine where things are at, especially on top of the table. The start of the season has had more confirmations than surprises and the real contenders have already been able to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Napoli are alone on top of the standings as they have been perfect so far: 7 wins out of 7. It is the culmination of two years of work under Maurizio Sarri. The Partenopei take great advantage of the most prolific attack in Europe: Dries Mertens, José Maria Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne have insane chemistry and Marek Hamsik broke his unusual drought. They have scored at least three goals in every domestic game. The Azzurri had some troubles only in the home game against Atalanta and on the road in Ferrara, but they managed to come out of top in both occasions. Arkadiusz Milik has not been missed as they have so many weapons on the roster.
Juventus could have easily been on top as well, had they not fumbled away a win that was within reach in Bergamo: they had a 0-2 lead and also missed the 2-3 penalty late in the game. The Bianconeri have not necessarily looked as commanding as Napoli, but they got the job done most of the time. Without Leonardo Bonucci, the defence has not been as air-tight as in the past, but the high-powered offered is carrying them. Paulo Dybala is Serie A’s leading scorer, Gonzalo Higuain got out of the short slump and Mario Mandzukic and Juan Cuadrado have contributed greatly: they even have room for improvement once Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi will be fully integrated. Newcomers Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur have been very helpful in light of the injuries in the midfield.
Inter have collected as many points as Juventus: the Nerazzurri had an explosive start, dismantling Fiorentina and Roma at San Siro, but then tailed off a little, but only from the performance standpoint, because the satisfactory results kept coming. The last three wins against low-table teams have either arrived late or been narrower than expected: the attack has plateaued, but they have been able to manufacture random goals. They have great goalkeeping and a rock-solid defence and Milan Skriniar has been as stout as they could have hoped.
Lazio and Roma are slightly behind as they have already lost a game. The Biancocelesti succumbed against Napoli mostly due to defensive injuries, but their latest run has been nothing short of amazing: without most of their centre-back and half of their attack, as Felipe Anderson and Luis Nani have been non-factors due to physical ailments, they have been automatic against the smaller clubs. Simone Inzaghi and Ciro Immobile are the main actors, Luis Alberto is the revelation that solved a lot of problems upfront. Roma are surging: they have played one fewer match because the Sampdoria fixture has been postponed, but after the loss against Inter they have resembled their last season’s selves. Edin Dzeko is scoring at will and the backline is very solid. Eusebio Di Francesco has been able to come up with creative solutions to deal with a slew of injuries and their play has not suffered. If the teams on top slowed down, they could be in the running for Scudetto.
Serie A will return with a bang in two weeks: Juventus will host Lazio, Roma will square off at home against Napoli and it will be time for the Milan derby. The Rossoneri have quickly dropped out of the title race as they are dealing with chemistry and defensive issues, but the game against Inter could be an opportunity to gain some ground in the table and advance their candidacy for a Champions League spot, but they need to turn things around quickly.
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We took the opportunity to interview Rav Gopal, founder and editor-in-chief of the popular site JuveFC.com. Factoring in his in-depth knowledge, we decided to pose a series of questions and Mr. Gopal did not disappoint as he offered his insightful views on everything pertaining to Serie A champions Juventus.
Here is Part One of our Q & A with Rav:
Q1) Gianluigi Buffon is considered by many as the best goalkeeper over the last 20 years, and is perhaps the all-time goalkeeper. Much has been said about him, but if you had to describe him in one statement what would you say?
Buffon has been the most consistently brilliant goalkeeper in world football, year in year out. He is a leader, a captain and a role model at Juventus and for 17 years, he has been the epitome of loyalty and class.
Q2) Where do you rank Massimiliano Allegri among active Italian coaches? How about among coaches worldwide?
Allegri is the best Italian coach for me. Antonio Conte is doing well at Chelsea but I feel he still has things to learn. Allegri is adaptable and flexible in his approach – he works the players hard, but not to the point of exhaustion.
He has no ceiling at present. He grows with each season, plays across the attack and now has a maturity to him that was lacking before. The club has entrusted him with the #10 shirt and he has accepted the responsibility to be a leader of sorts, dragging Juve over the finish line and being at the heart of almost every league victory so far this season.
I would like to add the inevitable links to Barcelona are annoying as it is better to simply appreciate him for the Juventus player that he is – his great touch, finishing, dribbling, passing….all of it ! He will only get better with time and I think we have only seen a fraction of his true potential.
Mattia Caldara is a superb talent, very composed in his character and playing style. Rarely troubled by the occasion, he is showing real consistency for Atalanta and it is exciting to watch him, considering he has already developed into a hell of a player, despite his young age.
Make sure to check back again in the next few days for the remainder of our interview. You can challenge some of the best Serie A fantasy football managers at www.fantasyseriea.com
It’s time now to see just how the attackers performed in Serie A over the last few days. Continue reading
Juventus not only made history but reaffirmed the club’s status as Italy’s best club after securing a sixth consecutive Serie A title. Frankly, there was never a doubt about Juve’s status as Italy’s best during this season, or as Serie A’s premier club for that matter.
It would be wrong to single out one or even two players as this was a group effort and almost every single Juve starter played a key role in this success. To begin with, Gianluigi Buffon was exemplary both as a goalkeeper and as a leader of the team. He did have a couple of mishaps with both the Azzurri and Juve, yet in typical fashion he responded with some impressive displays, particularly against Lyon in the Champions League.
Defensively, it would be hard to find any football pundit who would argue against the Old Lady’s defensive unit being the best in the world. While Leonardo Bonucci has many admirers, among them Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, his fellow centre-back Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are as good if not better when it comes to fulfilling their defensive duties. Chiellini often dives first in to challenges and does not hesitate to sacrifice his well-being for the good of the team while Barzagli, even at 36-years-old, remains one of the best at anticipating the opponent as well as reading one-on-one situations.
It is perhaps in midfield where many expected Juve to crumble but the returning Claudio Marchisio has slowly but steadily returned to his consistent best while growing in stature with every game he plays. Juve’s management will be pleased to know that Marchisio will have a full summer to rest, recover & then train properly to return to his best. He is almost like a new signing. Speaking of new signings, former Roma schemer Miralem Pjanic has been one of the most underrated midfielder in both Italy & Europe this season.
While his stats, 5 goals and 8 assists in league action, do not scream at you, Pjanic has been pivotal for Juve’s success, particularly the club’s return to the final of the Champions League two years after the defeat to Barcelona. What makes Pjanic even more instrumental is the fact he sticks to playing simple football, keeps this Juve side ticking with his fast and slick passing while also remaining deadly from set-pieces.
In attack, Juve spent a fortune to secure Gonzalo Higuain’s signing and he repaid the club’s faith with 24 league goals along with some critical goals away at both Monaco, in Europe, and Napoli in Coppa Italia. Without Higuain, Juve might not be talking Treble today… And he still has the opportunity to silence his critics one more time in Cardiff when Juve take on Real Madrid.
As for Juve’s other attacking options, Paulo Dybala has matured into one of world’s best young attackers while Mario Mandzukic remains, as per his coach Massimiliano Allegri’s words, pivotal for the success of the formation employed since the defeat to Fiorentina in Serie A. Mario’s willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the squad has served not just as an example for his teammates to follow, but has also given Juve’s starting XI a sense of balance. Fans have seen Mandzukic track back countless times and that in itself is the greatest sign of how dedicated the Croatians striker has been to the Juve cause.
It would be wrong to end without mentioning the two flying Brazilian full-backs Alex Sandro and Dani Alves. The duo have become two of the most dynamic and important full-backs in the world. While Sandro continues to improve and grow into perhaps the world’s best left-back, Alves has proven his critics wrong and reaffirmed himself as the world’s best right-back at the moment.
While Barcelona felt his time was up, Alves eagerly took on the new challenge of playing in a different league for one of the world’s elite clubs. While he stumbled early on and struggled to adjust, it was perhaps his injury which served to reignite the fire in the Brazilian. Prior to his injury, Barca might have felt justified in letting him ago, yet ironically Alves returned stronger than ever post-injury & gave Man of the Match performances on more than one occasion, particularly in the Champions League.
Juve fans will not forget his contribution against former club Barca, and will certainly remember his role in the two matches against Monaco in the semi-final of the Champions League. Alves scored from a stunning volley in the return leg against Monaco, a 2-1 victory for Juve, and then followed that up with another volley in the 2-0 win versus Lazio in the Coppa Italia.
While Alves deserves a lot of credit for his efforts and bounce back after early season struggles, no man deserves more respect and appreciation than coach Massimiliano Allegri. Mad Max was an unwelcome figure when he first joined Juve yet he has worked diligently the past three years not only to earn the respect of the fans but to prove to his critics that he is more than a capable coach.
To win the domestic double for three seasons in a row is an achievement we might not witness again in our life-time. It is truly the stuff of legends. Allegri’s legend continues to grow and if Juve do complete the treble in Cardiff, then it would be difficult not to consider him as the world’s best coach at the moment while solidifying his status as one of Juve’s best coaches in history.
While many stress on his willingness to change and his tactical flexibility, as highlighted by the change in formation following the league defeat to Fiorentina, Allegri’s greatest attributes are too many to recount. For one, he stepped in to replace Antonio Conte, an act in itself deemed to be foolish as in hindsight it would have been impossible to envision enjoying so much success under Allegri.
It is unlikely that the most optimistic of Juve fans would have expected Allegri’s Juve to win the domestic double for three seasons in a row. Add to that a Champions League final in 2015 and another final to be played in Cardiff, and it becomes even more difficult to express how great Juve has been since Allegri took over.
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Will Juve fulfill Buffon’s dream by winning the Champions League? All eyes will be on Cardiff on June 3rd…