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Feb 26, 2009

England v Italy, Parte Uno

With the first leg of the Italy v England three-headed hype monster behind us, a little reflection on how the Italian teams did. We're only half of the way so there can be no definite word about this perceived culture clash; plus, past history tells us it is unwise to draw conclusions or go out on a limb and predict who will go through based on what happened in midweek. However, there does seem to be a pattern developing, which is by no means typical of the Italy v England challenge.

The pattern is easy to recognize: keeping a clean sheet at home has become far more important than actually winning. That is the reason why Inter, despite being clearly inferior to Manchester United on Tuesday, must fancy their chances at Old Trafford, despite another indifferent performance by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose failure to shine in crucial matches has begun to irritare Inter fans used to seeing him dominate against Lecce and Reggina.

Jose Mourinho was criticized by many for setting up a dull gameplan which could have been nicknamed Safety First, but having recognized United's superior speed, he did not want his mostly plodding men to be left stranded on an island. The main tactic was limiting the midfield enterprise and to just send long balls in the general direction of Ibrahimovic and Adriano, who did little with them. Curiously enough, as Manchester United attacked almost like a home team in the first half, little may change at Old Trafford, with the added anxiety for the home side, of course, that an Inter goal would drastically reduce their chances.

Not scoring away from home was also Juventus' main regret at Stamford Bridge, and one that may prove costly to a side whose fans have never really been won over by the manager. Claudio Ranieri's side set out to muscle Chelsea's midfield out of the game and - as shown by the unusual concentration of gold-clad players near Chelsea's free-throw takers - pressure ball-carriers in their own half, but their high tempo must be supported by much better passing.

As Anfield regulars will attest, Momo Sissoko does not share the passing and creativity skills of another Juventus target last summer, Xabi Alonso, so having him, rather than the disappointing Tiago, carry the ball and initiate attacks will rarely result in fluid and deft ball movement. But that what happened on Wednesday, a situation made worse by Mauro Camoranesi's early exit, as the Argent... er, Italian winger is also counted on to supply defence-splitting passes once he drifts inside. Juve, at least, did provide most of the play during the second half, which may be encouraging.

Which can hardly be said for Roma. Having entered the tie as the Italian side with perhaps the best chances of progressing, considering Arsenal's problems since Cesc Fabregas injured his knee and a general feeling of superiority that had begun turning into an accepted fact, the giallorossi were instead the least inspiring among the Italian trio.

They were not as overwhelmed at the Emirates Stadium as some of the reports in Wednesday press indicated, but they never hit a decent rhythm, either. Which is always lethal for them even though their switch to 4-3-1-2, brought into effect after hitting the season's lowest point in the 2-0 defeat at Juventus on November 1, has put less an emphasis on constant running and attacking spaces than keeping possession and using the trequartista, the man behind the strikers (usually) as both a foil and creator of the final pass. None of this was evident against Arsenal, not least because Roma reverted to the 4-2-3-1 that had been a staple since Luciano Spalletti took over from Fabio Capello in the summer of 2005. But with Francesco Totti always detatched from the action and Julio Baptista willing but unable to conjure up some of the magic he's shown this season, Roma took a definite step back from some of the brilliant performances of the last couple of months or so. Their defensive crisis perhaps was at the root of their less than enterprising outing.

Having left malcontent Christian Panucci out of the Champions League list, Spalletti was horrified to see both Cicinho and Juan go down with injuries last Saturday in what some have already begun calling "the Panucci jinx". That meant using inexperienced newcomer Marco Motta at right back - he was one of the more assured performers on Tuesday - and inserting Simone Loria in central defence.

Loria, who's had a horrible start to his Roma career after joining from Siena, looked nervous and awkward and was taken off by Spalletti midway through the second half, the ultimate insult - in addition to those who had been uttered in his direction by some of the visiting media corps - being replaced by January addition Souleymane Diamoutene, not the type of poised performer you'd expect.

If none of the injured makes it in time for the return leg, which seems unlikely, the loss of suspended Daniele De Rossi will be even harder to take, as the defence will miss the bruising De Rossi's non-stop running and gap-closing right in front of it. Arsenal showed more athleticism, enterprise and ability to ping the ball from player to player, puncturing Roma's confidence balloon early, and while a 90% full Stadio Olimpico - no ground in Italy ever seems to be completely full, apart from Genoa and Milan for local derbies - can be noisy, it is not the kind of environment that will intimidate visiting sides, with the anti-climactic running track keeping the real noise away.

One final note, on a personal level, if allowed. As a frequent visitor to English grounds, I always enjoy sitting among Italian sportwriters on their first trip to England and watching the behaviour of the less experienced of them. It may not always be a case of shouting at each other all night long, as Soccernet's Insider wrote on Wednesday evening, but Italians do tend to be loud, of course, and never more so than when they're on the road, where a pack mentality similar to the one regular fans experience makes them feel they represent their country as much as the team they cover.

The best moments come when aspects who are only typical of British grounds come to the fore. On Wednesday, some were clearly puzzled when early in the second half one of the Chelsea press officers did his customary round displaying the evening's attendance as a hand-written five-figure on a A4 paper (in Italy, a computer-written note with the number of paying spectators on the day and season-tickets holders - total, not those who chose to attend on the day - is distributed, along with the relevant intake for the club).

A few years ago, I barely suppressed laughter when members of the Palermo press dropped their collective jaws as soon as the whole of Upton Park erupted in a spirited version of "Come on you Irons" soon after kickoff (Palermo players were less impressed, coming away with a 1-0 win), a collective chant that is not remotely matched in passion by anything they would normally see at Palermo home games. Funnily enough for representatives of a country where no one seems to pay attention to rules, a few writers were annoyed at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday when spectators in the rows right in front of them kept standing up when a goalscoring chance seemed to beckon, and one of them uttered a bizarre threat by saying, in a heavy Roman accent, "either you sit down or I am going to light a cigarette", obviously oblivious to the facts that would have meant being transported outside the ground faster than he could use his Zippo.

There is nothing wrong of course in not being familiar with the habits and rules of foreign work environments - I still remember looking in amazement at the subway token I was handed by the ticket attendant a few years back in New York - but it sometimes does create the opportunity for a bit of (admittedly cheap) fun, and I never cease to enjoy it, especially when I get to sit next to someone whom I do not know (and vice versa) and I can pretend to be a foreigner.

Typing a few words in English (for example, those who open this story) while he or she is sneaking a look at my laptop usually helps, as does the fact that unlike some in the Italian press I never show my emotions at whatever happens on the pitch.

Only once did I risk losing my composure on Wednesday: when Juventus fans started a chant containing strong, insulting words toward Her Majesty The Queen. That was too much.

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