Best young defenders in Serie A

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Serie A is renowned for its strong defending and this year is no different. In a culture that values that side of the ball so highly, it is inevitable that centre-backs prosper and new youngster manage to establish every season. The best one so far has been Milan Skriniar: there was a little scepticism when Inter picked him as the lone reinforcement in that area, but he has been granitic. An all-around player with no clear flaws. The couple with Joao Miranda is among the league’s finest, if it not the best already. He is averaging 1.5 tackles, 1 interceptions, 5 clearances and 0.8 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored. He has drawn comparisons to a young Nemanja Vidic and Walter Samuel.

Mattia Caldara started the season late because of a summer injury and the U-21 European Championship, but he immediately went back to being the leader of the stout Atalanta backline. A rugged defender, he is a force in the air as his many goals testifies. He is averaging 1.7 tackles, 2.2 interceptions, 3.7 clearances and 0.8 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored. It will be his final season with the Bergamo club as Juventus already scooped him up a year ago.

His partner in the Bianconeri’s defence in the future will be Daniele Rugani. Massimiliano Allegri has been reluctant to thrust him in a bigger role, but in his limited appearances he has performed better than Andrea Barzagli and Medhi Benatia. He is more of a finesse player compared to Skriniar and Caldara, but his physical game has improved over the last two seasons. The duo with Giorgio Chiellini will eventually end up being Juventus’ go-to pairing in big games. He is averaging 0.4 tackles, 0.6 interceptions, 3.2 clearances and 1 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored.

Alessio Romagnoli has struggled at the start of the season, due to a tough summer where he had to deal with a meniscus injury and because the whole new Milan defence has not gelled yet. However, he remains squarely among the best Italian prospects in this role. There is no reason why a Mateo Musacchio-Leonardo Bonucci-Romagnoli backline should not work: the process simply takes some time. He is averaging 0.8 tackles, 1 interception, 4.2 clearances per game, per WhoScored.

One rookie quickly rose to the upper echelon of young defenders: Torino’s newcomer Lyanco. It is not easy for youngsters to win over Sinisa Mihajlovic right away, but he managed to do just that. He is only 20-years-old and he has immense potential. He has beaten out Emiliano Moretti and Kevin Bonifazi for the starting job, unfortunately he has suffered an ankle sprain that will sideline him for a while.

There are a couple names in the smaller clubs that are worth monitoring. Sampdoria worked hard this summer to get Gianmarco Ferrari from Sassuolo, but Marco Giampaolo so far has preferred Vasco Regini over him, not so subtly inviting him to practice harder. He is talented and should end up playing a lot. Francesco Vicari is in a tough situation at Spal, but he is holding his own as anchor of the defence and he is one of the few highpoints of the Ferrara team.

Battle the best fantasy players at www.fantasyseria.com

Juventus: from Legends Baggio & Del Piero to current stars Chiellini & Pjanic

We continue our interview with Rav Gopal, from JuveFC.com and discuss in detail his favorite Juventus players from the current squad as well as his expectations for this season and some of his favorite moments as a Juve fan.
 
Q1) For the current Juve squad, can you please rank your favorite player by position? 

Defense: Giorgio Chiellini. He is an extremely underrated defender who has rolled back the years in recent seasons to deliver consistent performances. Like Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon, he has remained loyal to the club and he is one of the best in Europe in his position.  Continue reading

Italy start World Cup qualifying with important victory

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It wasn’t a night Giorgio Chiellini will want to remember. But for Giampiero Ventura, Italy’s 3-1 win over Israel was an important first step on the road to Russia.

They took a 2-0 lead in Haifa on the half-hour mark thanks to Graziano Pelle and Antonio Candreva. Then came Chiellini’s nightmare. Already booked for a foul after a mistake, another error opened the door for Israel’s Tal Ben Haim to chip Gianluigi Buffon and get the home side back in the contest.

Chiellini’s ‘off night’, as he later put it, was compounded with a second yellow card – his first dismissal in 90 Italian appearances. It left Israel sensing the chance to pounce and forced Italy to hold on. Much to Ventura’s satisfaction, the 10 men weathered the storm. “We worked as a team, suffered as a team and won as a team.” The win was sealed by Ciro Immobile’s goal.

According to the striker, Ventura told him earlier in the day he would find the back of the net and he did so emphatically. The pair worked closely at Torino in two different spells and so know each other well. It’s the same for Angelo Ogbonna, drafted in to help the defence following the red card rather than Daniele Rugani or Davide Astori. Ogbonna was Ventura’s captain at Torino until 2013.

Marco Verratti showed why hopes have been pinned on him to pick up the mantle left by Andrea Pirlo. It was his first 90 minute showing since February and despite battling a knock picked up in the second half, he was impressive in possession at the heart of midfield and without the ball. He will be a key player for Italy during this qualification period.

A tricky night at the office, but three important points for the Azzurri. That’s because Spain visit Turin next month. The clash of the heavyweights will set up Group G, with only top spot automatically going to Russia. Ventura will have a defensive decision to make in the wake of Chiellini’s red card.

After eliminating Spain at Euro 2016, Italy cannot have any fear. A win opens the door, with fixtures away to Macedonia and Liechtenstein closing out 2016. Should they get past Spain then Italy can target 12 points by Christmas.

That’s why starting with a victory meant so much, even if they did it the tough way in typical Italian fashion. Ventura got his maiden Azzurri triumph and now the team can build towards next month’s mouth-watering encounter.

Germany finally beat Italy and advance to Euro 2016 semi finals

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No matter how great your defence is, no matter how much you tactically prepare for your opponent, luck will come along and take the rug from underneath you at lightning speed and this Euro 2016 quarter final between two great nations Germany and Italy emphasized this. Mesut Ozil who opened the scoring in the second half needed ricochets and odd bounces before latching onto the ball to beat Gianluigi Buffon and Italy needed a penalty, a decision that could have gone either way to equalise. In the end after a frantic penalty shoot out that proved more worthy and entertaining than the 120 minutes that had preceded it, Germany won. And it was the Germans first major tournament victory over Italy albeit after extra time and penalties that gave them a deserved win in the end.

Germany haven’t won the Euro’s since ‘football was coming home’ according to the English at Euro 96. Twenty long years is a long time for a nation that have won the competition on three previous occasions in 1972, 1980 and of course 96, but Germany surely look equipped to give it a real shot now. Their opponents will either be hosts France or Iceland in the semi finals.

On the face of it it’s hard for Italy to be disappointed although of course they will be. But in truth the Italians showed too much respect to the current world champions and were on reflection wholly negative throughout. Their game plan got stuck in the Bordeaux summer heat where an early goal never sufficed and Germany ploughed along creating chances though in the early stages admittingly not testing Buffon. Buffon himself cut a figure of a boss on the pitch, a goalkeeper who seemingly knows no limits. Tonight Buffon aged 38 and playing his 163rd game for Italy over 19 years sensed through an international career of highs- winning the World Cup in 2006 and lows a European Championship runner up in 2012, that his team after disposing of current champions Spain would go on and win in France. It wasn’t to be after a thrilling penalty shoot out that saw Buffon perched on the right hand side of the area looking away from goal such was the drama.

Simone Zaza was brought on at the death in extra time with the scores locked at 1-1 specifically to take a penalty. Five minutes later he did take one but it may take a day or two for the Hubble space telescope to locate where the ball went. But Germany were hardly any better, a nation so revered for their precise penalty kicks missed three of them as did the Italians. Manuel Neuer the German keeper who either has an outstanding tournament or a forgettable one, is having the latter. His saves, many on a whim but that doesn’t matter were still world class. Finally it was up to Jonas Hector the German who was one month old when Germany won the World Cup in 1990 to end the match and years of hurt. Buffon looked like he had the shot covered which is the real ultimate tragedy, but the ball skipped under him, just, and Germany had finally beaten Italy in a tournament.

Germany will now be the favourites to win the competition on July 10th, but first a thrilling semi final whoever wins from France and Iceland awaits them. As for Italian coach Antonio Conte he has overseen his final game before heading off to Chelsea and the Premier League- but what of the man in red tonight Gianluigi Buffon? Is he ready to hang up his gloves after two decades? Let’s hope not, because even neutrals still need to see him in the big matches, he still counts.

Veterans pivotal as Italy eliminates Spain

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Some, like Matteo Darmian, remember watching it on television. Others had to live it. The worst defeat in European Championship Final history. Italy, so good to get there, had little left against an utterly devastating Spain. Factor in Italy going down to 10 because of injury and the 4-0 score was almost inevitable.

Gianluigi Buffon was there that day. Giorgio Chiellini too. Buffon had to pick the ball out of the net four times, while Chiellini hobbled off after only 20 minutes. It was yet another disappointment handed out by the Spanish – four years after Italy had lost on penalties – and wouldn’t be the last. Buffon and Chiellini played in all three defeats. They had felt the heartache. The defender admitted Spain had become Italy’s bogey team, after the ledger for so long was blue. Yesterday, they exacted a piece of revenge.

“After many years of defeats to Spain, we made up for it. OK, it was only a Round of 16 tie, but it’s better than nothing!” Buffon howled in excitement, as his team had just broken the curse. Both he and Chiellini were pivotal.

It was the Juventus defender who opened the scoring. Following a thoroughly impressive opening half-hour, Italy got their reward. Chiellini followed up as Eder’s free kick was only partially saved by David de Gea. He shinned it in. No matter, Italy were ahead. It was their just desserts, the Spanish unable to play with the sort of fluency associated with the team. Chiellini – and his defensive cohorts Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci – played a big role in that too. They kept Spain’s front three occupied. The rest stifled their central creativity. But Italy were also decisively effective in possession and gave the Spanish defenders constant headaches.

It meant Buffon had a relatively quiet first half. But when called upon after the interval the captain stood firm. Spain gradually enjoyed greater territorial dominance. Chiellini and co. did well in stopping the majority. They were committed, strong and smart.

When Spain did break through, Buffon was the final brick in the wall. He saved from Alvaro Morata and Andres Iniesta. Then in the dying embers the captain came up with a big save from Gerard Pique. It proved crucial, as Italy sealed victory through Graziano Pelle in injury time.

It was a triumph for the collective. This united Azzurri now meets Germany, but will be undaunted as they were here. Thanks in part to two veterans of years of pain from Spain, Italy have shaken the Spanish monkey off their back.

Conte leaning heavily on Juve defence at Euro 2016

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The feeling is when Juventus are doing well that translates to the Italy. No club has had as many World Cup winners as Juve’s 24. In 1934 they supplied seven Azzurri champions. In 1982 six players formed the Blocco-Juve as Italy triumphed in Spain. And 24 years later, five Bianconeri players helped Italy to glory.

As always, there are exceptions. Italy won in 1938 with only two Juve players and crashed out in 2010 with six representatives.

But Antonio Conte is leaning on the Bianconeri brigade of 2016. Crucially, the majority are defenders. For a coach who has chopped and changed his midfield and attack in his reign, Conte has been able to rely on his group of Juventus defenders.

The defensive quartet is led by the inimitable Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s 38-year-old captain. Ahead of his is the fearsome trio. Giorgio Chiellini provides the brawn, Andrea Barzagli the brains and Leonardo Bonucci technique. Three different players, but a unit which offers Conte assurance.

He knows them well, having introduced the trio to the world in Turin in 2011. “It’s definitely an advantage,” Conte told UEFA’s website.

Conte says when Italy won’t be in France to play on the counter. That’s not his way. Rather, he is after an attacking unit which can take the game to the opposition. As he chases that, Conte is relying on the quartet to keep things tight at the other end. “They know each other perfectly. Of course we’ll try to build something spectacular on these solid foundations, because we also want to play attacking football.”

Juventus conceded just six League goals in 2016 as Buffon broke the all-time Serie A clean sheet streak, which now stands at 974 minutes. But much of that came without Chiellini, who has battled injury. He’s back and says their role is “to give the team a sense of security.”

Scepticism at home surrounding the squad is not shared with the defensive choices. That is seen as the only world class area of Conte’s 23-man selection – Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza round out the latest incarnation of the Juve block. Italy have scored just five goals in four friendlies this year and with midfield injuries look short on creativity. So it will be up to the defence to keep it tight.

It’s set to be their last tournament as Barzagli retires from international football after Euro 2016. In the swansong, can their intimate understanding and ability be the rock Conte is seeking?

Juventus edge closer to a Historic Fifth Consecutive Scudetto!

Juventus recorded an impressive 3-0 win over Lazio with rising star Paulo Dybala scoring a brace. Juve could have easily finished the match with double the final score and Dybala could have had a hat-trick, yet what matters the most for the Bianconeri and their coach Massimiliano Allegri is the fact the team secured another three points in the march towards the Scudetto.

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It has been a remarkable turnaround for Juve with the team struggling in the relegation zone during the earlier weeks of the 2015-16 season. Injuries were quite detrimental for a young team trying to defend its league title not to mention the fact there were several new faces, including new hero Dybala, German midfielder Sami Khedira, experienced Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, promising defender Daniele Rugani as well as explosive Brazilian full-back Alex Sandro.

While the veterans such as club legend Gianluigi Buffon, versatile midfielder Claudio Marchisio, and ever-improving defender Leonardo Bonucci along with his fellow defensive partner Andrea Barzagli have been instrumental in Juve’s revival, the new faces have been as important to Juve’s remarkable comeback.

Dybala has already managed to score 16 goals in 31 league appearances (including 26 as a starter), Mandzukic has contributed 9 goals in 24 league appearances not to mention the countless times he tracked back to help defend, while on-loan signing Juan Cuadrado successfully played the role of a super-sub with four goals and five assists in Serie A. Cuadrado featured in 26 league games so far, of which as many as 12 appearances where as a substitute.

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Speaking of super subs, another new face Simone Zaza was decisive in the limited time he was afforded by coach Allegri. In Allegri’s defense, Zaza cannot be given a starting role when the likes of Dybala, Mandzukic & Alvaro Morata are all ahead in the pecking order and deservedly so. Zaza remains more of a passionate yet fiery and unpredictable player as witnessed by some of his rash tackles in most of his appearances and his sending-off against Genoa, a game Juve had to be alert to achieve a difficult 1-0 win. Zaza still had his fair share of contributions for the Juve case, particularly the winning goal against second place Napoli.

Juve’s season will soon be capped by a record-tying fifth consecutive Serie A title which will ensure the club’s place in the history books. Once achieved, Juve will become the first Italian side to win the Scudetto five times in a row on two occasions. However, this latest achievement will be more impressive considering Juve had to go through an overhaul in terms of players departing and joining Vinovo, as well as a host of injuries to key players including Khedira, Marchisio, Dybala, Mandzukic and particularly Giorgio Chiellini. There was also the health concern regarding Stephan Lichtsteiner with the Swiss defender sidelined for a month following a heart procedure to correct cardiac arrhythmia.

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The beauty of Juve’s success lies in the fact this glorious comeback cannot be attributed to two or three individuals but rather to several team players as well as coach Allegri and the club’s management, particularly Giuseppe “Beppe” Marotta and the often overlooked Fabio Paratici.

Juve’s strength has often been defined by powerful words such as team effort and determination. This specific group of players under the guidance of Allegri has been the perfect example of working together as one unit while displaying grit and relentless commitment.

Juve could seal a well deserved Scudetto as early as Sunday, April 24th when they take on Fiorentina in a tricky encounter. How rewarding would it be if Juve guarantee this historic Scudetto in one of the most hostile environments, in Florence, and against one of the teams who were considerably ahead of the Bianconeri earlier in the season?

 

Injuries stand between Juventus & making History

Even the most pessimistic fan did not expect Juventus to start the 2015-16 Serie A season with three losses, two draws and just one win. Juve’s players were clearly struggling and pressure was piling on coach Massimiliano Allegri and his squad.

The media and fans turned into heavy critics with the club’s summer transfer campaign ridiculed as a failure for obvious reasons, most notable the departures of club heroes such as Andrea Pirlo & Carlos Tevez. Fast forward to March 20th, 2016 and Juve have not only reclaimed top spot in Serie A but did so on the back of a remarkable 21-game unbeaten streak. What has been even more impressive is the fact Juve have won 20 out of the 21 games, with a goalless draw against Bologna being the sole exception.

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So what has changed to fuel Juve’s meteoric return to the top following a dismal start? And who or what can stop Juve from crowing this astounding turnaround with the Scudetto?

Once Pirlo, Tevez and Arturo Vidal, three decisive players for Juve over the past few seasons, were confirmed departures, it was clear the club’s management had turned its attention to an extensive rebuilding project. The project focused on adding younger players with great potential and skills such as Paulo Dybala, Alex Sandro, Daniele Rugani as well as Simone Zaza.

Dybala has turned out to be the summer’s best signing in Serie A, and perhaps Europe, contributing 14 goals and 8 assists in 29 league games, including 24 as a starter. Brazilian full-back Sandro has proven to be one of the best in his position in the league with his bursting runs forward and his ability to create scoring chances for his teammates with his crosses.

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Coach Allegri gradually introduced Dybala and Sandro to Juve’s starting lineup before entrusting them with more responsibilities based on their major contributions. The fact Allegri was cautious in integrating the newer players and the long injury list meant Juve were deprived of key players earlier in the season which proved to be disastrous.

It is perhaps the same detrimental element- injuries to key players- which can derail the Bianconeri and their quest for a historic 5th consecutive Scudetto. Some might say coping with injuries is part of a club’s season but the painful Champions League exit was punctuated by key absences in the 2nd leg in Munich. Midfield general Claudio Marchisio, rising star Dybala and defensive cornerstone Giorgio Chiellini were all missing.

In addition, Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić was only fit enough to come off the bench while Sami Khedira’s constant muscular problems meant he could not last the full 90 minutes at the same high level. This Champions League tie against Bayern highlighted Juve’s squad depth when compared to other Serie A teams yet, ironically, also exposed the club’s shortcomings when compared to the other big European sides.

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Juve do not have a squad as deep as Bayern’s and that was the difference in the tie. Even without Arjen Robben and with Franck Ribery in the twilight of his career, the Bavarian side still had too much punch going forward, exposing the tired and old legs of Patrice Evra. The Frenchman Evra was at fault for both Bayern’s second and third goals; however, this would not have been even an issue had Chiellini been fit to start in Munich. Hence, the game in Munich highlighted what could be Juve’s undoing in the remainder of the Italian league season: injuries.

In the first 6 weeks of the current campaign, the Bianconeri were hampered by injuries and that was a main factor behind the heavy bleeding in points. Gradually Juve recovered their key players in due time to mount a massive and historic comeback; however, the month of March has been a tough one and the injury bug has struck once again.

The injury crisis has worsened in recent weeks with Juve’s entire defensive line sidelined due to injury, with Leonardo Bonucci suffering injury during the Germany friendly to to join Andrea Barzagli & Chiellini on the treatment table. To make matters worse, emerging star Dybala remains questionable and is not fully fit. Khedira continues to be injury prone while Marchisio has had an injury interrupted season.

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A careful analysis of Juve’s situation shows the quest for a 5th Scudetto can only be derailed by an injury crisis, the same factor which played a huge part in the early season struggles (combined with the integration of the new faces during the first few months).

Will Juve overcome the injuries to retain the league title and perhaps go on to achieve a historic domestic double by also winning the Coppa Italia? If Juve win both trophies, then it will be a historic achievement since no Italian side has ever won the domestic double two seasons in a row.