The Usual Suspects

With only six Serie A games remaining a more personal battle is also being fought. Despite most players still fighting for league position, a few (whether they admit it or not) are also desperately trying to win the Capocannoniere. Awarded to the top goal-scorer in Serie A every year, the list of past winners reads like a dream. Giga Riva, Giorgio Chinaglia, Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Marco Van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta, Andriy Shevchenko, Christian Vieri, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero have all won it in the past. Many more great names have won it as well; it is just like reading one never-ending list of who’s who of goal-scorers. This year only four players could perhaps attempt to realistically claim the award. Zlatan Ibrahimović, Antonio Di Natale, Diego Milto and Edinson Cavani are all separated by only four goals. ‘Outsiders’ Rodrigo Palacio and Germán Denis seem to have too much ground to catch up on Ibra, trailing by seven and eight goals respectively. Despite leading for the majority of the first half of the season, goals have dried up for the unlikely journeyman Denis. Whoever is to win this year’s capocannoniere, their name will not look out of place of the list of previous winners.

Zlatan Ibrahimović – AC Milan

Games played: 26

Goals: 23

Remaining Games: Bologna, Genoa, SIENA, Atlanta, INTER, Novara

There appears to be something different about Ibrahimović this year at Milan. Maybe it’s the Jack Sparrow ‘look’ with the ponytail and beard, or the slightly deeper role he does adapted to. But with only six games remaining and a three goal advantage Zlatan looks the definite favourite to finish as top-scorer. Previously winning the capocannoniere in 2008-09 in his final season at Inter. The 25 Serie A goals in that year remains his personal best season, and with his current haul of 23 goals it is only the second time in his career that he has surpassed the 20-mark.

Supreme all year, there is the perception that Ibra is carrying Milan to lo Scudetto. This may be a fair reflection as he does seem to be involved in most of their attacking moves, but it is also true to say that he has only scored 38% of the Rossoneri's goals; both Di Natale and Milito are carrying a higher proportion of their teams goals. With 11 of Zlatan's goals coming at home and 12 away, it does not matter whether Milan are at the San Siro or not. With only two away games for il Diavolo (one of which is at the San Siro) the list of opponents looks to provide Ibra with the perfect opportunity to build on his lead. The only issue with Ibra being top-scorer and the idea that he is maybe enjoying the best spell of his career is the fact that nine of his goals have come from the penalty spot. In real terms Zlatan has only scored 12 times from open play! He has also only scored one goal in the last five games, as they may be drying up just at the wrong time for himself and for Milan. However you look at it, he is still the top-dog in calcio and despite not being widely liked, he does seem to have massive respect. Doing his best to prevent Di Natale from winning his third consecutive capocannoniere, Zlatan Ibrahimović may not win his 9th consecutive league title, but in all likelihood this will be his second top-scored award.

Antonio Di Natale – Udinese

Games played: 30

Goals: 20

Remaining Games: CHIEVO, Inter, Lazio, CESENA, Genoa, CATANIA

The popular vote to win the capocannoniere. Antonio Di Natale is the opposite to Ibra. Short, fast, humble and widely liked, Totó has won the last two top-scorer awards. Aiming to be only the third ever player, and the first since Michel Platini in 1984-1985, to win it three years consecutively, Di Natale has three goals to make up on Zlatan. A skilful player with great technique, everyone wants Totó to succeed (except for Ibra).

Di Natale is the hub of the Udinese team. With summer departures of Alexis Sánchez, Gökhan Inler and Christián Zapata the idea was that the Zebrette would struggle. However still under the expert guidance of Francesco Guidolin, and the captaincy of Di Natale the club picked up were they left off. Losing in the Champions League qualifier to Arsenal provided the Bianconeri with the perfect opportunity to concentrate on the league. Again fighting for the final Champions League spot with Lazio this year, Di Natale really has been the driving force of this ambitious team. Again reaching the 20-mark, this has included four penalties, and accounted for 47% of Udinese’s goals! Before he won his first capocannoniere (and with the exception of Luca Toni in 05-06) between 21-26 goals would guarantee top-scorer. However in the past two seasons he has scored 29 and 28 goals respectively. With Ibra looking like the only one possible to maybe reach these figures, this years winning total seems to be around the 25-26 goal mark. What is all the more exceptional about Di Natale scoring feats is the fact that he is 34 years-old and in the ‘twilight’ of his career. Udinese have a tougher run-in than Milan, with games against Inter, Lazio and Catania, so if he is to claim a third consecutive capocannoniere Totó Di Natale will have to be at his influential best.

Diego Milto - Inter

Games played: 27

Goals: 20

Remaining Games: FIORENTINA, UDINESE, Cesena, PARMA, Milan, LAZIO

Freshly awarded the Bindone d’Oro in December for Serie A's worst player, Diego Milito had just scored four goals up to New Year. With several 'sitters' missed and poor all round play il Principe looked to have fallen far from the hitman who guided Inter to the treble in 2009-10.

Then something appeared to click. Since New Year 16 goals has seen Milito rocket up the goal-scoring charts (sadly the same cannot be said of Inter’s league position). Four goals against Palermo, and three against Genoa has restored Milito’s reputation. Scoring five penalties and 43% of the Nerazzurri's goals, Milito may be confident of catching Ibra. A true goal-scorer, he (now) rarely misses an opportunity to put the ball in the net and spare Inter’s blushes. Now only six points from the Champions League spot, il Principe will need to continue his run of form if the Biscione have any hope of Europe’s premier competition. Four games away from home provides Milito with possibly the toughest run-in of his opponents, and with only six goals away from the Meazza, he looks to have his work cut out. Games against Udinese, Milan and Lazio are likely to offer few chances. If Diego Milito wishes to claim some more personal silverware he is going to have to do it the hard way.

Edinson Cavani - Napoli

Games played: 30

Goals: 19

Remaining Games: Novara, LECCE, ROMA, Palermo, BOLOGNA, Siena

Despite being four goals behind Ibra, Edinson Cavani can hold his head high as he is top of the ‘pure’ goal-scorer list; that is, deducting penalties he has 17 goals from open play, more than any other player.

Perhaps the most worshipped player in calcio by his own fans, el Matador is a God in the San Paolo. Seemingly the heir to Diego Maradona in the hearts of the Partenopei fans, Cavani benefits greatly from the other two members of the ‘holy trinity’. Beside Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamšík, Cavani had developed into a brutal attacking force. Tall, powerful and clinical Napoli can rely on him to find a goal in the most important situations. The subject of many man-crushes (I don’t really get it), Cavani has become a phenomenon in the shadow of Vesuvius. Contributing 33% of Napoli’s goals Cavani may have a hard time finishinf top of the pile. Several seemingly ‘easy’ opponents await, but clubs like Lecce and Siena are in good form and are fighting for their Serie A life, as is Bologna. However if anyone can find a goal, it will be el Matador. With more goals to come this season, and the likelihood that he will remain at the San Paolo next year, there will no doubt be plenty of opportunity for Napoli fans to wave around their Cavani-cookie jars.

Il Muro di Berlino

With his country and his club Juventus embroiled in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, Fabio Cannavaro led the Azzurri into a difficult World Cup. With many striking similarities to the 1982 victory, Italy were perceived as underdogs and in disarray. After injury to long-term partner Alessandro Nesta, a new combination of Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi had to be introduced mid-tournament. The pair, along with Gianluigi Buffon, became the rock on which World Cup triumph was built, with the pinnacle of their performances coming against hosts Germany in the semi-finals. Only 2 goals conceded all tournament, Cannavaro superbly marshalled the uncompromising defence, going 460 minutes without conceding a goal. A true leader in adversity, Cannavaro went on to win the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Balon d’Or in 2006. Lifting the World Cup on his 100th appearance, Italy’s most capped player ever earned the nickname ‘il muro di Berlino’.

Raised in his home-town club, Napoli, Cannavaro grew up under the shadow of the great team of the late 80’s/early 90s. After making a tough tackle on Diego Maradona in training it became clear than Cannavaro was not prepared to compromise his defending. Eventually breaking into the first team, he went on to make 68 appearances for his beloved Partenopei, before being sold to Parma. At the Ennio Tardini Cannavaro began a wonderful partnership with Buffon and Lilian Thuram which would continue onto their Juventus days. With a formidable defence and Hernán Crespo leading the attack, Parma won the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia in 1998-99. During this period Cannavaro would make his international debut in 1997, and represent the Azzurri at the 1998 World Cup. At Euro 2000 he was at the heart of the Italian defence with would make it to the final, only to be knocked out in injury time by future teammate David Trezeguet. Standing at only 5 ft 9 ½ in tall, Cannavaro had great physical presence. A commanding leap meant that he was able to challenge in the air, whilst he was always precise and fair in the tackle. Before the UEFA Cup Final controversy spiralled around him after videos escaped of him lying on a massage table, being injected with substances. However after an inquiry it was found to be the legal drug (Phosphocreatine). Another Coppa Italia victory in 2001-02 would round-off his seven seasons with i Ducali.

A €23m move to Milanese giants Inter would represent one of the few poor spell in Cannavaro’s career. Injuries and uncertainty in the team meant that he would only stay at the Meazza for two years. Despite reaching the Champions League semi-final and finishing second in Serie A in his first season, Cannavaro was allowed to move to rivals Juventus in a classically ridiculous swap move for back-up goalkeeper Fabián Carini (who would go on to make four appearances for the Nerazzurri in three years). In Turin, coached by Fabio Capello, he won consecutive Scudetti (later revoked by Calciopoli). Winning the Serie A Defender of the Year in 2005 & 2006, as well as Serie A Footballer of the Year in 2006, the stability and winning attitude at the Bianconeri clearly returned Cannavaro to the great defender he previously was. After Juve’s demotion to Serie B and World Cup success he would leave la Vecchia Signora for Real Madrid, aged 33. Although Cannavaro made a total of 116 appearances for los Blancos in three seasons, winning La Liga on two consecutive seasons, it was becoming increasingly clear that he struggled for pace. Despite constant rumours of a switch back to Napoli to partner brother Paolo, Cannavaro opted for a return to Turin. A partnership with Giorgio Chiellini proved to be erratic as Juventus could only finish 7th and exited the Europa League after a 4-1 loss to Fulham. With age catching up with him he chose to have a swan-song season with Al-Ahli Dubai in 2010 before announcing his retirement in 2011.

A solid defender and great leader, Fabio Cannavaro was the inspirational captain of Italy who held together the defence for more than a decade. From being one of the few positive performers of the World Cup 2002, Cannavaro was imperious at the 2006 World Cup. Proving perfectly capable of replacing the inspirational Paolo Maldini as Azzurri captain, Cannavaro joined Franz Beckenbauer as the only defenders to win the Balon d’Or.

Turning Point?

This week saw a number of huge results in Serie A. The Scudetto, Champions League spots, and the relegation battle was all greatly influence. Round 31 may prove to be decisive come the end of the season. With all matches being played on Saturday because of Easter Sunday, Juventus and Amauri seem to have performed their very own resurrection.

Leaders Milan hosted Fiorentina at the San Siro on Saturday afternoon. After being eliminated midweek by Barcelona from the Champions League, the Rossoneri were looking to tighten their grip on lo Scudetto. Meanwhile, la Viola came into the game in a malaise, sitting just five points above the relegation zone. They are said to be “too good to go down”, but Riccardo Montolivo and Co were doing their best to prove this wrong; I suppose this is what happens when your captain refuses to sign a new contract before the season! After weeks complaining about refereeing decisions, Milan were awarded a dubious penalty, which Zlatan Ibrahimović dispatched as usual. When Stevan Jovetić pulled one back it looked like Juventus would be given the opportunity to draw level with Milan on top. However, late on Delio Rossi decided to throw on Amauri, the much ridiculed ex-Juve striker who was 16 days from a year without scoring. This was only going to end one way from this point on. In the 89th minute the Brazilian inevitably got a goal which could sink Milan’s title hopes, secure his parent clubs 28th Scudetto, and save Fiorentina from relegation. Perhaps Amauri was worth the €22m Juve paid from him after all?! On a side note, Antonio Cassano made his comeback just months after heart surgery.

Later that evening all the pressure was on Juventus as they travelled to Palermo. A win would see they overtake Milan and lead them by one point. With Nicolas Bertolo, Abel Hernandez, Andrea Mantovani and Massimo Donati suspended, Federico Balzaretti and Matias Silvestre Palermo had an uphill struggle ahead of them. After a wasteful first half Juve should have been comfortably ahead. Pressure was relieved when Leonardo Bonucci headed past Emiliano Viviano, followed by a typically cool finish from Fabio Quagliarella. With Fabrizio Miccoli unable to conjure up anything against his former club, the Bianconeri returned to the summit of Serie A, and on recent form look a good bet to win lo Scudetto five years after Calciopoli.

The final Champions League spot was contested at the Olimpico between Lazio and Napoli. With a tribute from the Curva Nord before the game to Giorgio Chinaglia, perhaps the best tribute came from Stefano Mauri with a goal of the season contender. Proving to be the decisive goal, la Aquile remain three points clear of Udinese, who beat struggling Parma thanks to a Kwadwo Asamoah brace and a Toto Di Natale goal. Meanwhile, Inter’s second game under Andrea Stamaccioni wasn’t as successful as the first. A journey to Trieste (because of Cagliari’s dispute with the council) proved troublesome. After Mauricio Pinilla scored he was shown a second yellow for his celebrations, and the Nerazzurri could only manage a draw against the 10-man Rossoblu thanks to Esteban Cambiasso. Any slim chances of Champions League qualification look to be disappearing, as does Roma’s hopes following their poor result away to Lecce.

Still remaining in the relegation zone, Serse Cosmi is doing his best to drag Lecce to safety. Braces from Colombian prospect Luis Muriel, and David Di Michele was enough to withstand two late Roman goals from Bojan Krkić and Eric Lamela. With Siena continuing to win and Fiorentina (maybe) realizing the situation, teams like Bologna, Genoa and Parma need to look over over their shoulders as Lecce are now only four points from safety. The league table is beginning to fall into shape, with only seven games left. Over the weekend the league leaders changed, the Champions League participants were cementing their space, and a number of relegation-threatened teams got positive results. The next few weeks could prove to be very interesting!

Game Over?

In a half-empty Giuseppe Meazza last Friday night one figure looked more forlorn that the rest: "Could you win? Otherwise at school they will make fun of me. Thanks, Filippo." A few days later, Filippo reappeared at Appiano Gentile, this time talking to Zanetti & Ranieri. Seemingly out of inspiration, Inter turned to a 9 year-old to whip the seasoned veterans into shape before the important Champions League trip to Marseille.

After Milan’s 4-0 victory over Arsenal & Napoli’s 3-1 victory at the San Paolo the night before, the pressure was on Inter to maintain Italian pride. As the only country with 3 teams in the Last 16, Italy still seems to have a lack of appreciation around Europe. Against Chelsea (a team in their own crisis), Napoli were seen as ‘there for the taking’. However, European teams seem to be struggling to deal with Napoli terrific counter-attacks. Fast, precise and devasting Napoli are the complete opposite to Inter. Two goals from Lavezzi & one from Cavani mean the Partenopei look set to make it at least 2 Italian teams in the Quarter-Final’s; not bad for a team in Serie C 6 years ago.

With Napoli & Milan’s success in Europe it was Inter’s turn. Coming off 4 defeats & 1 draw in the last 5 matches, the game against Marseille seemed to be going well. Walter Samuel returned to the heart of defence, and Ranieri opted for a surprise front-pairing of Forlan & Zarate. As the game progressed a respectable 0-0 draw was looking likely; a good result considering the Nerazzurri's recent form. The team fielded against Marseille even managed to break their won record ser earlier against Lille, for being the oldest ever team to play in the CL. While Sneijder & Co again failed to deliver anything in the way of an attacking threat, the defense did at least manage to hold good shape (until a corner in the 93rd minute). Andre Ayew took a shot from outside the box & Julio Cesar saved it with his wrong hand (something he has taken to doing over the last 2 years). Giving away a needless corner, Ayew escaped Chivu to net the winner.

To be fair, if the last kick of a ball didn’t result in a goal, then this probably would have been classified as a good Inter performance. At 0-0 Inter would have still needed a goal at the San Siro to progress, this now means that they need 2 goals. Not impossible, but with current form (and a trip to Napoli at the weekend) it doesn’t look like Italy will be having 3 teams in there Quarter-Finals. Sorry Filippo!

3-0: Champions League Preparations

With Champions League Last 16 fixtures coming up midweek, Napoli & Inter played their Serie A matches on Friday night. Napoli had a tough trip away to Fiorentina, while Inter hosted relegation-strugglers Bologna at the Meazza. Both games finished 3-0; and surprisingly it was the away team on both occasions with the convincing win.

Napoli have been in awesome form in the Champions League so far this year, however their league form has dipped as a result. Struggling to manage expectations in both competitions, it looked like they would not be in the CL again next year. However thanks to 2 goals from 'el Matador' Edinson Cavani, and 1 from 'el Pocho' Ezequiel Lavezzi in Firenze mean that they have overtaken Inter and are now only 5 points off Lazio (though they have now played a game more at this stage). With this victory & Chelsea’s recent struggles there is every reason for the Partenopei to be quietly confident.

Over in Milan, just as news that Loïc Rémy would miss the Marseilles clash, Inter managed to lose 3-0 at home to Bologna courtesy of 2 from Marco Di Vaio and 1 from Inter youth product Robert Acquafresca. Just a further step in the terrible form & season for the Nerazzurri, Inter’s record following the 7 match winning streak now reads as 5 played, 0 wins, 1 draw & 4 defeats. This includes 4 goals scored (these all came in the one game) and 13 conceded. It now looks like Schalke’s 5-2 win last year will be repeated, and this time it won’t be a shock.

Ibra's terrible February luck continues following a slap on Salvatore Aronica. This was his 5th red card in Serie A & already his 3rd for the Rossoneri. Likely to get a 3 match ban, Zlatan will possibly miss Udinese (a), Cesena (a) & Juventus (h).
Typically brillant all year Ibra traditionally struggles in February, in both Serie A & Champions League.

Ibra's terrible February luck continues following a slap on Salvatore Aronica. This was his 5th red card in Serie A & already his 3rd for the Rossoneri. Likely to get a 3 match ban, Zlatan will possibly miss Udinese (a), Cesena (a) & Juventus (h).

Typically brillant all year Ibra traditionally struggles in February, in both Serie A & Champions League.