Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Three Gentlemen Of Verona

Unlike Shakespeare's title for his play, there are three gentlemen, not two, that are making waves in Serie A this season with high-flying Hellas Verona. Luca Toni, Juan Iturbe and Jorginho Frello.

To many, Verona are a small team that outside of Italy people know very little of. A perception probably adopted by many native Italians too. But to those true calcio lovers out there, whether Italian or foreign, we actually know a bit more about Hellas Verona than should be conceivably possible and that is all thanks to Tim Parks.

Parks' book A Season With Verona which was published in 2002 followed Verona's trials and tribulations in Serie A during the 2000-01 season. It is a fantastic piece of work by Parks and a must read for any lover of football. Consequently, I, possibly like many other Englishmen that follow Italian football, have always taken great satisfaction in seeing Verona pick up 3 points at the weekend after seeing the scores from Italy.

Unfortunately this became somewhat of a rare occurrence in the last decade with Verona experiencing mixed to negative fortunes. They were relegated from Serie A in 2002, the next season after Parks' novel. Thus began a decade of torture for the Gialloblu who suffered the indignation of a relegation to the 3rd level of Italian football and it nearly got worse as they narrowly avoided slipping through the trapdoor to Serie C/2. But the fight continued and the team hauled themselves out of the mess and got back into Serie B before gaining promotion to Serie A at the end of last season.

Since returning to the promised land they have not looked back currently lying in 5th place in the standings with 22 points from the opening 11 games. It really has been an excellent start to the season and their form at home has gone some way to helping them as they notched up their sixth win out six at the Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi against Cagliari at the weekend. It matches the record set by the Verona side of 2001-02 when they too recorded the same feat between November through to February. Their start to the season is their best since their Scudetto-winning season way back in 1984-85 and it now means that they have gone 13 games unbeaten at home. 10 of which have been victories.

Fans at the Bentegodi have had reason to cheer in 2013
Many would have had reason to question the signing of Luca Toni over the summer. Let go on a free by Fiorentina and at the age of 36 he does not seem to be the kind of talisman a side is looking for to keep them in the top tier of Italian football. But those doubters have been well and truly pushed aside by Toni who has enjoyed a magical start to this campaign. The striker has already notched 5 goals this season proving to be a very tricky customer for opposing defenders from set-pieces (Verona have scored 9 of their 22 goals from set plays). Toni is Verona's joint top goal scorer alongside Jorginho who has slotted 4 of his from the penalty spot.

Toni hearing a recall to the Azzurri?

Such has been his form this season there have been some calls, very faint ones mind you, to Prandelli to keep his eyes open with regards to Brazil next summer. Toni seems to be following a line of other old timers who have been outperforming their younger compatriots so far this season. Alberto Gilardino has scored 5 goals for Genoa already this season and Francesco Totti has been instrumental in Roma's excellent start to the campaign. All the while Mario Balotelli has fired blanks in his last 3 matches for Milan and combined with his exceptional rate of bookings and tendency to go for a dive in the area, he has been more than underwhelming of late.

Jorginho: Verona's Brazilian magician

La Gazzetta dello Sport summed it up perfectly on Monday describing this seasons Verona side as 'solid, compact, they concede little and run loads'. The running is in no small part down to the midfield dynamos that are Juan Iturbe and Jorginho, the pair are only at the tender age of 20 and 21 respectively and have big careers ahead of them. Verona will be hoping that Iturbe may be able to join permanently next summer as he is on loan from Portuguese side Porto whilst they will want to tie Jorginho on a long term contract so as to evade the watching eyes from Europe's big teams who have certainly been taking notice. Jorginho has been outstanding this season having already created 15 chances for his teammates in only 11 fixtures. This, combined with his 5 goals from midfield, has been crucial to Verona's great start to the season. Iturbe has also made others sit up and take notice, especially after his fantastic solo effort against Bologna earlier in the season. Hopefully he can build on his promising start to the season by weighing in with more goals and assists as the season continues.

Toni is of the opinion that there is no secret to their success this season. Just the simple matter of a bunch of healthy players that are committed to give their very all for one another on the pitch. Something that he hopes, along with all Gialloblu fans, will not change in the coming months. Speaking as one admirer, neither do I.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Atalanta: Serie A's answer to Southampton?

Atalanta B.C are not the most spectacular team to have graced the fields of Serie A by any means but there is one distinct aspect of this somewhat provincial football club that makes it stand out from most others in Italy, and that is its youth academy.

Club's football academies and their youth systems have long been a fascination of mine. One cannot help but be in awe of teams that can produce footballers through their own system and couple it with being a successful team. Barcelona is obviously the modern day example of this with their La Masia system which has outproduced any other football club in the world with great talent for the last decade.

I myself am an Ipswich Town supporter and have also been delighted to see some great talent come through our youth system over the last few years, with the likes of Kieron Dyer, Richard Wright, Jordan Rhodes and Connor Wickham to name but a few.

Obviously this is not on the same scale as much bigger and better teams but the point is that as a fan it gives you an incredible feel good factor about your team. It is such a refreshing thing to see. The fans love it as they feel a true sense of pride towards the team and indeed the region and, of course, it is also admired by other teams, critics and fans from all around the world.

At a football club like Atalanta this is no different and over the past 20 years this football team has in many ways outproduced a lot of their fellow Italian rivals when it came to bringing through youngsters and molding together an incredibly successful system at grassroots level.

Montolivo: Currently captain of Milan and Italian international
To back this up here are a number of players who you would have heard of who have come through the ranks at the club from Bergamo: Roberto Donadoni, Alessio Tacchinardi, Ivan Pelizzoli and Samuele Dalla Bona, Giampaolo Pazzini, Manolo Gabbiadini and Ricardo Montolivo (currently captain of AC Milan). All of whom went on to play top flight football either in Serie A or else where to varying degrees of success. Other well known players who have played at Atalanta in their younger years and have then gone onto bigger and better things include Claudio Caniggia, Paolo Montero, Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi, Christian Lucarelli and Cristiano Doni. Although Doni has actually spent the majority of his career at Atalanta and has had his most successful spells of his career there.

Pazzini: Scored the 1st goal + 1st hat-trick at the new Wembley stadium.
 This fantastic record of producing players has earned Atalanta somewhat of a reputation, sometimes even as a feeder team to the bigger sides in Serie A. In the current squad there is still reason to be optimistic too as the Nerazzuri (a nickname in reference to the club's colours) have a number of young guns in the team. Andrea Consigli (Gk), Giacomo Bonaventura and Guido Marilungo make up the spine of the team with the first two having come through the team's academy. All three are still relatively young and have their best years ahead of them, however, it is increasingly likely that these 3 footballers will be plying their trades at bigger, wealthier clubs in the near future.

Time now for a certain comparison with a football club that lies on the south coast of England, namely Southampton F.C. The Saints have without a doubt had the most productive and successful academy in England in recent times. With Bale having been priced as the most expensive player in the world this summer epitomising this. Joining Bale are the likes of Wayne Bridge, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and now in the current team left back Luke Shaw and midfielder James Ward-Prowse (with high hopes expected of the pair of them).

Bale being unveiled as the latest Madrid 'Galactico'

Southampton, like Atalanta, are not a big big club. Excuse me Saints fans but please don't take offense. However, they too play in the top flight of their respected countries and have done so for many years, before they were relegated in 2005 they had played 27 successive seasons in the Premier League. Atalanta similarly play in Italy's top flight, but other recent years have found little stability moving between the top two tiers of Italian football regularly in the last 10 seasons.

Hopefully now with betting scandals and off field distractions put to one side the Nerazzuri can concentrate upon cementing its place in Serie A this season and look to push on in the future with the help of its excellent youth programme and some exciting talents coming through the ranks.