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Aug 27, 2010

Tactical battles await in Serie A

A valuable lesson was learned by the Italian FA (FIGC) during the World Cup in June: when things go wrong, when the national tem performs lousily and has a worrying lack of young players ready to step up and replace tired veterans, do what all authorities seem to do in a crisis - panic.

No time was wasted by FIGC in ruling that, effective immediately, Italian clubs would be allowed to sign just one non-EU player instead of two, which in turn would mean more home-grown youngsters might get a chance to play. Cue a revolt by the clubs in the top flight, who had just opened a new chapter in their existence by splitting from their Serie B counterparts and signalled this era by unveiling a fresh logo in order to establish a stronger, more visible identity.

This wasn't one of those obscure rulings that only affects some bureaucrat in an office down the hallway: it hit clubs right in the middle of the transfer market, and actually forced a couple of them to turn away from dealings that had almost been completed.

It also made for some comical moments in what, to the unfortunately few unbiased observers, has become an annual laugh fest: the calciomercato. Sociologists might delight in analysing how false rumours and hollow speculation, mixed among the very few actual deals, can be taken so seriously by fans who each morning eagerly pick up a newspaper in order to find out what their club are up to.

With so much space to be filled in three sports dailies, who do not have the option of simply stating "there's nothing serious going on, so we're not reporting anything", all sort of stuff gets printed. In one instance involving one of the less glamorous sides, a transfer first mentioned in late June has still to be completed, and the poor guys trying to cover the story have been forced to write the same story over and over again while waiting for something to happen.

It has been, after all, yet another calciomercato with little in terms of excitement, despite all the hype. The biggest name involved was Mario Balotelli, and he left Serie A. Unless Zlatan Ibrahimovic joins AC Milan in a transfer deal that has so far made everybody involved, except for Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, look extremely awkward, little else in terms of recognisable names has actually happened.

In fact, it may be argued Edinson Cavani's move from Palermo to Napoli in a €16 million deal (although it is officially a loan for the 2010-11 season) has been the most interesting summer deal. And Cavani, despite good performances with the Sicilians and at the World Cup with Uruguay, is hardly an established name: so much so that Napoli fans, having digested the good news, are again restless and putting pressure on owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, the hugely successful movie producer, to spend more money in order to make the side a Scudetto contender.

Juventus, coming off one of their worst seasons, have tried to make up ground on Inter by signing a lot of new players, many of them Italians, in keeping with their laudable goal of having a home-grown backbone. Unfortunately for Juve, none of the newcomers looks to be a world-beater, not even Fabio Quagliarella, and comparisons between winger Milos Krasic and old favourite Pavel Nedved are so far confined to the hairstyle and a vague "Eastern European origin" they both share, despite the fact one is from the Czech Republic and the other is from Serbia.

Since Roma added the unpredictable Adriano and little else to their ranks and will have to deal with Champions League football, too, it may well be Inter will look at the competition with all the bonhomie of a world-class swimmer glancing back and seeing competitors thrashing about in the water rather than making up ground. In fairness, despite dominating the past four seasons on the pitch, only once did they run away with the title, and it can be argued that both Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho made the Nerazzurri less than the sum of their parts, in Serie A at least.

Mourinho may indeed be the biggest name missing from team sheets this season. Whenever he was not saying something interesting or outrageous, others were filling the void talking about him in an endless loop and it can be argued the Portuguese coach, who will be back at San Siro with Real Madrid when they play Milan on November 3, left an indelible mark on Italian football, having done the same in England.

But life goes on and other coaches will be under the spotlight this season. Gigi Del Neri has taken his organised, exciting brand of football to Juventus, whose fans will see plenty of wing play - if anyone out there on the flanks can provide it - but also a much better defensive organization than Del Neri has generally been given credit for.

At Milan, Massimiliano Allegri succeeded Leonardo, who did extremely well but could not coexist with owner Silvio Berlusconi. The former Cagliari coach is trying hard to improve a side that again looks ill-prepared to challenge Inter and has to hope Ronaldinho, who had a good 2009-10 season, can keep his body, the subject of much and sometimes unjustified maligning, in a good enough shape that warrants inclusion in the starting line-up, thus making both Berlusconi and Allegri happy.

The toughest job may be Sinisa Mihajlovic's. He took over at Fiorentina once Cesare Prandelli left to become Italy coach, and soon found himself without the services of the side's best player, Stevan Jovetic, who won't be back before 2011 after he ruptured his cruciate ligament in early August. The Viola, who ended last season in a disappointing 11th place, already had the look of a side losing ground on the contenders for a Champions League place, and their fans, among the most loyal in Italy, may be in for a difficult season.

Among the newcomers of Lecce, Cesena and Brescia, perhaps the former appear best equipped to put up a fight, but it will be interesting to see how Cesena, back in the top flight after 19 years, will go about the business of staying up and playing attractive football under new coach Massimo Ficcadenti. Local derbies against Bologna will be the highlight of the season, and those are much more bitter occasions than fans outside of Italy may think, considering the less-than-glamorous profile of both clubs.

Speaking of fans, this year marks the introduction of the Tessera del Tifoso, an ID card which allows holders, and holders only, to purchase season tickets and away tickets. You're only issued a Tessera after clearance from the local police authorities (you don't get one if you were previously convicted or simply mentioned in an investigation over crowd trouble, the latter detail creating some controversy).

This of course explains why the system was introduced: to allow authorities better control over crowds and to keep out the troublemakers, of which sadly there are still many, as trouble in a few friendly matches and the cancellation of others for fear of the same proved again this summer.

Opposition towards the Tessera has been limited in numbers - the vast majority of Italian fans have apparently signed up with little fuss if not for the additional amount of bureaucracy they've had to deal with - but strong in profile, with well-known names such as Daniele De Rossi voicing their opposition. Predictably, most of those who refused to sign up, and will now buy their tickets for home games week by week, belong to what we may call the Ultras groups.

One thing we can count on is that while the overall quality may not be as high as it used to be, Serie A will again put on show some remarkable tactical scenarios. For many years, Italian coaches had been telling anybody who would listen - and many who wouldn't - about their tactical acumen in comparison to colleagues from several other countries, and it appears that the likes of Claudio Ranieri, Luciano Spalletti, Roberto Mancini, Carlo Ancelotti and even a pioneer, Walter Zenga, may have demonstrated to the world the football education they received, among other places, at Coverciano, the home of the FIGC.

We may not have the six-nothings and the eight-zeros Chelsea have been dishing out, but the evolution of tactics throughout a season or a single match makes for fascinating viewing, and in fact, unlike some of their counterparts abroad, Italian players are much less likely, even if they go behind by a goal, to lose their tactical shape than composure, which may or may not be a good thing.

You can learn something even by watching the lesser side, although several of them will obviously play it safe away from home. Inter's 4-2-3-1 (or 4-2-1-3, whatever your opinion on the matter) led the way last season, but all other formations are likely to be tried out: 3-4-3, 4-3-3, Napoli's 3-4-1-2, Lazio's 5-3-2 (but the introduction of new signing Hernanes and a bit of tinkering by coach Edy Reja may result in a 3-4-2-1) will all be seen at some point, and close observation of the tactical evolution of a match may well replace the excitement of a free-scoring event, for those willing to go beyond the facade.

Once again, then, the best way to look at Italian football is by focusing on the pitch. If you really concentrate, you can block out the vision - and thought - of the negative stuff: directors and owners you'd like never to see again, unruly fans, agents who are taking over the airwaves and sports pages with their, er, objective opinion about their own players, financial instability and hyping of moderately interesting transfer deals. Just look at the pitch and follow the ball rolling about: isn't that, after all, why we started loving football in the first place?

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