Damien Venuto

Elitism is always relevant term when one considers the current state of world football. A decline in the performances of one of the major teams in any league is usually coupled with criticism of the league in general. In England, the established elite have being shaken by an inundation of foreign investment. Roman Abramovich gifted Chelsea supporters a stable top four position, and Manchester City look to be on a similar path thanks to Middle Eastern millions.

In Italy, quite the opposite seems to be happening, with a complete lack of investment resulting in the departures of Alberto Aquilani, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kaka to name but a few. Only Internazionale managed to reinforce their squad following the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Jose Mourinho’s side don’t seem to be suffering from vertigo at the summit of the league. The departure of key players from Roma and AC Milan has levelled the playing field and now third and fourth place have become achievable for a number of teams previously considered beyond the pursuit of loftier heights.

Provided that Jose Mourinho doesn’t forget his lucky Armani tie in the stands of Portugal’s World Cup playoff against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Internazionale should win Serie A, yet again. When Juventus’s playmakers return to full-form, their strikers’ fine finishing will be exploited, victories like the 5-1 crushing of Sampdoria will occur more regularly and the team should slip into second spot; perhaps, the Old Lady could even push the Nerazzurri to the wire. Which teams will finish in the remaining Champions League spots is the subject of fierce debate. The only people with the answer to this question are the few (if any) who voluntarily bet on Rubin Kazan beating Barcelona, such a level of crystal-ball-gazing being required.   

Sampdoria, Fiorentina and Parma seem to have set themselves up to pounce on the Champions League positions, but a resurgence of the elite (Milan and Roma) is always possible. Thus far, much attention has been paid to the stuttering starts of the Italian superpowers, yet very little emphasis has been placed on the splendid progress of some of the smaller teams. Fiorentina have capitalised on the collapse of the larger clubs, so there is no reason why Parma or Sampdoria are incapable of doing the same.

The Viola have managed top four finishes in the previous two seasons and are tipped to do the same again this term. Another struggling giant of late, Liverpool, learnt quite emphatically about the sting in the slinging arm of this “David” during their Champions League trip to Florence. Fiorentina have been fortunate in not having to deal with immense media pressure over the last few years due to several reasons: Florentine players have been well-behaved, not deserving of media pursuit, and the club have enjoyed relatively very little success in the Champions League thus suggesting that the players are only capable on the dire domestic front. Fiorentina also owe a great deal of gratitude to the misfiring Milan and Roma.

Parma and Sampdoria will have to remain under the media radar if they wish to emulate the success of Fiorentina. The press has a habit of focusing on teams rather than the league and this inadvertently assists the smaller sides when they are vying for the positions of struggling giants. While Ronaldinho steals headlines in Milan and high profile coaches are dismissed in Rome, Sampdoria’s players can play good football which is invisible to inquisitive journalistic eyes. Or can they?

The name Antonio Cassano has littered Italian newspapers and TV shows over the past few weeks and it even managed to make a cameo appearance at an Azzurri World Cup qualifier without the diminutive troublemaker even being present. Cassano could be blamed for bringing too much attention to the Samp training ground, but the attention he attracts is on an individual basis. When the 27-year-old appears in the papers it is on account of his purported ability to fill the creative lacuna which currently hinders the Italian national team, and the passive football observer would probably be unable to identify the controversial forward’s club side.

The team from Genoa have also been quite fortunate in not having to cope with tempestuous outbursts from Cassano. The forward is apparently a changed man, but Marcello Lippi cannot be blamed for hesitating to throw Cassano an Azzurri shirt. Sampdoria do not have the squad depth to replace the forward and his continued good behaviour is tantamount to any hope the team has of succeeding. The suspension of an influential player, like Cassano, is never easy to cope with, and Blucerchiati fans can only pray that their forward resists the temptation to throw his jersey at the referee.

Thus far the 2009/10 season has seen the ex-Roma man hold things together, but how much is he repressing in a last ditch effort to get the nod from Lippi? If the Italian manager continues to ignore him, then Luigi Del Neri could face an exorcist-like thrill ride to control the 27-year old. It would be a great pity for Serie A, if a childish temper should dismantle the promising partnership between Cassano and Gianpaolo Pazzini. Yet the signs of a crumbling of the tacit agreement between Cassano and Sampdoria are never far away. Following the 0-0 home draw with Bari, the forward complained about his treatment by the Samp faithful, reportedly threatening to leave the club: “In the past three or four matches the supporters have jeered me at times. I did it in Rome and I also did it in Madrid. If this keeps happening I will pack my suitcases and leave from here.”

Sampdoria had better surely hope Cassano does not make good his threats: Pazzini’s deft finishing forms the perfect foil for the opportunistic creativity of the deep-lying forward. The two strikers already share eight goals between them at the time of writing and they have garnered favourable comparisons to Sampdoria’s golden generation. In the 1990/91 season, the Genoese club won its solitary Serie A title with a team led by the formidable strike partnership of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini. In that season they were trailed by Inter Milan and they have already defeated the Nerazzurri once this term. Sampdoria still have a long way to go and will have to contend with more than the odd hiccup between now and the end of the season.

It is still too early to predict what might happen but Sampdoria could do better than remember the collapse of Hull City after their fabulous start last season. The disinterested observer will always hope that Sampdoria, the underdog, mount a real challenge and push Inter to the end, though the defeat to Juventus would seem to suggest that unrealistic. For now, Serie A can only sit and watch the drama unfold, wondering if this Sampdoria side can take advantage of possibly the poorest Milan and Roma sides for a decade. The most criticised European league is still hellishly competitive with entertainment guaranteed as the race for a top four finish heats up.


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