Fragile Chelsea underline value of Terry amid Champions League horror show

Originally published for Goal UK on 21st November 2012

What has happened to the house that Jose built? The modern Chelsea, the multiple Premier League winners, the FA Cup plunderers, the European champions, were all built on a dauntless backline capable of repelling even the most incisive attacks. But as the full-time whistle blew in the Stadio Juventus, a shell of the blue curtain so indomitable against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in 2011-12 was presented to the millions watching the Old Lady triumph 3-0.

In days gone by Petr Cech could go an entire match barely being noticed – remember the 2004-05 season and the preposterously minute 15 goals they conceded in 38 Premier League games? His reputation may be ascending once more, but this is down to his prominent role in any Chelsea matchday narrative.

There is only so much the six-foot five-inch Czech shot-stopper can do and it became brutally clear that those operating in front of him were conceding far too much space in and around the penalty box to keep Cech out of the firing line. Inevitably the bundle of chances that came Juve’s way would yield at least a couple of goals.

Though Roberto Di Matteo – whose role in the defeat eventually cost him his job – chose to play three centre-backs with Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta as wing-backs, the performance had echoes of the 3-1 defeat to Napoli in last season’s edition of the Champions League. That night, also minus John Terry, the Blues looked panicked against an Italian side vibrant in their movement and direct in their probes.

On Tuesday night, it was a repeat as Gary Cahill and David Luiz were shackled together once more. They may have had the additional assistance of Branislav Ivanovic, but the outcome was similar. Sebastian Giovinco’s 91st-minute strike was the 20th goal Chelsea had conceded in the last 10 games the pair had started together – a world away from the bolted iron door the Blues defence was a mere six months ago.

And against Juventus, hardly a side blessed with world-class strikers, there was pandemonium in the penalty box. There was an element of fortune for the first two goals, certainly, but David Luiz was pulled all over the pitch and did little to further the claims of those who label him as a top-class defender. At one stage he appeared so disoriented, a long ball hit him on the back as he retreated towards goal.

Cahill did not fair much better and was perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty after a clumsy tangle with Mirko Vucinic. Fabio Quagliarella, for all his enigmatic ability around the box, has only scored 12 goals in the whole of this calendar year. Vucinic likewise. This was not a goalscoring front line but it was up against a porous defence all too aware of its vulnerability.

This leads us onto the absence of the club captain, Terry. Putting to one side the various misdemeanours we do not need to revisit, there still stands a top-class centre-back. The 31-year-old may be discovering that all the fearless blocks and tackles he has made over the years are ravaging his body, but his supporters are being served a constant reminder of his quality. Unfortunately it is via his absence in the first team.

The four games he missed through suspension saw 10 goals conceded but in many ways it is the intangible aspects to Terry’s game that Chelsea miss the most. It is a familiar theory: “Captain, Leader, Legend” reassures one banner at Stamford Bridge. Take him out of the starting XI and carnage ensues. For all the potential of David Luiz, he looked rudderless, a bedraggled sailor without his skipper. Cahill must live with the ignominy of failing both at club and international test to be Terry’s rightful heir. On current evidence, he is a long way short.

Much has been made of the attacking wealth at the Blues’ disposal but fans are discovering in the most painful of ways that transition from a team of meticulous efficiency to a Barcelona MK II is not as simple as spending a fortune on gifted attackers. Granted, the best chance of the game (aside from Giovinco’s which was at a stage where the game was over) fell to Eden Hazard and had he opened the scoring instead of Quagliarella, the post-mortem may be different.

It was always unlikely that Chelsea would sail through this season, blowing everyone away with the glittering football Roman Abramovich has craved for so long but the small cracks seeping in must be at least mildly distressing. John Obi Mikel and David Luiz’s on-pitch spat hinted at frustration with Chelsea’s play and dampened an already dreary night.

The club are already without the sidelined Frank Lampard and the departed Didier Drogba, but losing Terry is one absent figurehead too many for the new Chelsea to manage. Often in times of strife you find out more than you expected of the characters around you and as Cech spoke to the ITV cameras afterwards and touched upon the idea of destiny in football it was hard not to wonder.

Destiny may have led to European glory last season, but it looks as if a different path entirely has been mapped out for the Blues this year. If it helps solve the conundrum at the back, Abramovich will force a smile through the Turin grimace as he looks for a new boss. Small mercies and all that.


Derby d’Italia will reveal more than just Serie A credentials of Inter and Juventus

Andrea Stramaccioni’s ascent started provincially in his home town of Rome, before he climbed through the ranks at AS Roma and then moved to the coaching position of the Inter Milan Primavera (Under 19s). Victory in the inaugural NextGen Series at venues as glamorous as Griffin Park and the Matchroom Stadium saw him elevated to head coach of the first team and he has yet to look back.

There is a touch of the magic dust about Stramaccioni and something serendipitous about the meeting with Juventus in the much-revered Derby d’Italia this weekend. On the day his Primavera side toppled Ajax on penalties to claim the NextGen prize, Claudio Ranieri watched his Inter team meekly surrender 2-0 at Juventus Stadium and departed Turin the day after. On Sunday, the Nerazzurri head west to face the Italian champions for the first time under new management.

Initially seen as something of a stop-gap to bookend a season that had already watched two managers try and fail to evolve an ageing Inter team, Stramaccioni did his credentials no harm, winning five of his nine games, (and all four of his matches at Giuseppe Meazza) including a 4-2 victory in the Derby della Madonnina – ending AC Milan’s hopes of retaining the Scudetto.

The 36-year-old was handed the keys to the castle by Massimo Moratti and has shown an admirable quality in turning a team in transition from old to new, to a legitimate Serie A contender. So far this campaign, Inter have won eight of their 10 league matches, including their last six, leaving them just four points behind Juventus. Unconventionally, their two defeats have come on home ground, and both by a two goal margin. Is it a question of mental fragility or simply a team adjusting to a host of changes?

Whatever the answer, Inter travel to the first Derby d’Italia of the season in buoyant spirit. They have won every single game on their travels in 2012-13 – eight wins in all competitions – a remarkable statistic and one that should provide more than a token threat of an upset for Antonio Conte’s side.

The Bianconeri have hardly let up this year either. Unbeaten in their opening 10 matches, their record of 49 games without defeat is now just nine behind AC Milan’s all-time record of 58 games, achieved between 1990 and 1993. With Paul Pogba rescuing the Italian champions last night and ensuring they achieved their fifth home triumph – importantly keeping them four and not two points clear of their nearest rivals – the scene is set for a clash of enormous magnitude.

The hosts haven’t been defeated by Inter on their own patch for seven years, when Julio Cruz guided a superb header beyond Gigi Buffon for the only goal of the game. That was Roberto Mancini’s only success and a feat even Jose Mourinho and his Champions League-winning Inter failed to match.

Historically speaking, Juventus have a considerably better record in this fixture than Inter and will be looking to claim their 95th win (compared to 67 Inter wins), subsequently placing the club in a dominant league position. It is early to speculate, but going on recent strength, Juventus would not be far from an unassailable position should they take all three points this weekend.

But there is much to worry the Bianconeri: Stamaccioni’s Inter have only conceded one goal away from home in Serie A – and just two in total this season, while finding the net 19 times in those eight fixtures. They may have stuttered at home, but there are few better gatecrashers in Europe than Inter right now.

The caveat – there is always a caveat – is the quality of opposition the Nerazzurri have faced. They say you can only beat what is in front of you but it remains a telling statistic that every win on alien territory has been against a side occupying a position in the bottom half of Serie A. Pescara, Bologna, Chievo and Torino hardly strike fear into the heart of opponents and their nine wins from 40 combined games speak volumes. There is of course the anomaly of AC Milan – neither a real ‘away’ game for Inter, but nor a legitimate powerhouse this year.

Inter have, however, blown their opponents away at times. There are fewer ‘smash-and-grabs’ and instead dominant displays – particularly as the season has moved on. There appears to be greater focus on the collective, a hunger and ambition to fight as a unit for victory, rather than days gone by where the individual brilliance of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Wesley Sneijder would be the difference between victory or defeat.

And thus, Stramaccioni has utilised his squad to effect, drafting in 23 players in the league so far. It is a sign of the times – a tinkerer with purpose, not just in name only (looking at you, Mr Ranieri). Speaking to reporters after their hard-fought 3-2 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday night, Stramaccioni explained: “We had to continue our growth. If I spared players who had been putting in good performances recently in view of Saturday’s game against Juventus, then I would have been giving the wrong signal both to my players and to the atmosphere.”

This is a man that recognises the value in each fixture, someone whose fallibility has yet to be pinpointed. When his team struggled, 1-0 down at the break, he turned to his bench – introducing Esteban Cambiasso at half time before Yuto Nagatomo helped inject further purpose. Despite a late Eder goal, Inter found the solution, leaving Stramaccioni purring about the strength of his squad. “We brought on quality, anger and desire,” he added.

On any normal day, travelling to Juventus Stadium is a test, the biggest in Italy these days, but this fixture threatens to unravel much more than the Scudetto credentials of both teams. If Juve succumb to Stramaccioni’s Inter, it really will be time to sit up and take notice of the almost vertical ascent of the 36-year-old prodigy.

Pietro Vierchowod: Profile – 6/4/1959

For someone who played professional football until he was 41, the prospect of adding another year to the tally must register fairly low in his list of concerns. Pietro Vierchowod turned 53 on Friday and the man once described as ‘an animal’ by Diego Maradona had a career worth recalling. Suitably I’m here to take a compact look at the accomplishments of the man known as ‘Lo Zar’.

The source of the majority of my early football interest came via the much-cherished channel of Football Manager and it’s various iterations. The Italian leagues were introduced in 1996 and a 35-year-old Vierchowod was patrolling Milan’s squad. The thing that stood out was his surname – it didn’t match his Italian nationality. A sweeper too? Not many of those specialists existed within the game. He was an intriguing entity and when I discovered him knocking about as a free transfer five years later, it was obvious that this was a man worth knowing.

The son of a Ukrainian Red Army soldier (hence the ‘Zar’ nickname), Vierchowod’s sterling reputation owed as much to his longevity as his achievements in both club and national football. In a career that spanned 24 years, racking up a mighty 647 club appearances he managed to squeeze in two Scudetto’s, a Cup Winners Cup, four Coppa Italia’s, a Champions League and a World Cup.

Standing a short 5ft 11ins for a centre-half but with a unique turn of pace that elevated him above his defensive peers, Vierchowod bridged two Italian eras, adapting admirably to the changing tactical worlds thrown at him. Initially a classic ‘stopper’, Vierchowod forged his reputation as a fierce man-marker – a vital line of defence in the Catenaccio systems that had started to disperse in the 80’s. As Italian football cast off the shackles of the defensive model that continues to stereotype the reputations of Serie A clubs, Vierchowod became one of the few defenders of the time to span both the 80’s and 90’s with his reputation intact.

Asked who was his toughest opponent was Gary Lineker spoke of the defender: “Vierchowod. He was absolutely brutal and lightning quick.”

He began his career at Romanese in Serie D, making three appearances in the 1974/75 season though his first notable employer was Como in the north of Italy, where he spent five years. The 1978/79 campaign saw him establish himself at the heart of the defence and attain successive promotions from the third tier. Back in Serie A, Como gave him the platform to display his talents and halfway through their two year stay in the top flight he moved on to Sampdoria. He was taken to the Luigi Ferraris by oil tycoon Paolo Mantovani but given two years in Serie A with Fiorentina and Roma. His first year at the Viola was a success and saw the club finish just one point behind Serie A winners Juventus in second place.

Vierchowod’s impressive campaign encouraged Azzurri boss Enzo Bearzot to take him as an unused member of the Spain ’82 squad where he would go on to collect a World Cup winners medal. The following season saw his stock rise further as he helped his new club Roma capture the Scudetto for only the second time, keeping 17 clean sheets and winning the Italian Player of the Year award.

In 1983 he finally moved back to his parent club, Sampdoria, where he would further enhance his standing in the game. The ‘Zar’ nickname not only alluded to his heritage but his influence on the pitch and in the dressing room. He would go on to appear for Sampdoria 358 times in Serie A and helped lead them to their first and only Scudetto in 1990/91. He won four Italian Cups, won and finished runner-up in the Cup Winners Cup as well as a runners-up finish in the European Cup in this time.

By now, Vierchowod had competition in the form of the great all-Italian Milan back-line of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti. The formation of one of the greatest defences in Italian history saw the same chemistry often supplied to the national team and as such Vierchowod never secured a permanent place in the starting line-up. That said, he did acquire 45 caps – further testament to a distinguished standing in the Italian game. He was also part of the 1990 World Cup squad that finished third.

During his time at Sampdoria, Vierchowod adapted his game and became a more forward-thinking defender, often winning possession and surging from the defensive line, helping to launch counter-attacks.

To draw a modern comparison, Phil Jones’ style of play is reminiscent of the dynamism Vierchowod had during his days at Sampdoria. The competitive spirit and vivacity that separates Jones from his generation did so for Vierchowod throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As well as playing alongside Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Vierchowod also faced some of the most fearsome strikers in the world as Italian football attracted the likes of Marco Van Basten, Rudi Voller, Careca and Diego Maradona.

On Vierchowod, Maradona eulogised: “He was an animal, he had muscles to the eyelashes. It was easy to pass by him, but then when I raised my head, he was in front of me again. I would have to pass him two or three more times and then I would pass the ball because I couldn’t stand him anymore.”

Vierchowod left Sampdoria in 1995 at a time where you’d be forgiven for thinking his time was up. Quite contrary, he moved to Juventus and played in the Champions League final against Ajax, helping stifle the likes of Patrick Kluivert and a 19-year-old Kiki Musampa no less! He helped take the game to penalties and picked up a winners medal aged 37.

As his career wound down, he turned out for Milan in a final big-club swansong before settling down at Piacenza where he helped them battle relegation to Serie B for three seasons. As his physical attributes waned, Vierchowod operated as the sweeper in a three man defence. He famously said in 1999: “I used to be much quicker than everyone else – now I’m just as quick as them.”

Why Napoli are walking a tightrope between success and failure

Chelsea returned from Naples five weeks ago with their tail between their legs following a 3-1 loss that led the British press to hail Walter Mazzarri’s side as the reincarnation of the famous Scudetto winners of the late 80’s. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that they couldn’t defend and relied almost exclusively on the ability of the ‘Three Tenors‘ and the comic last days of Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea reign.

Fast-forward three weeks and the hyperbole thrown their way was soon extinguished as Napoli contrived to implode at Stamford Bridge, squandering numerous early chances before succumbing to an aerial bombardment that they just could not cope with.

Their European exit left mixed emotions – Napoli were not expected to go as far as they did, particularly after they were drawn in the toughest group, and yet, Chelsea were floundering. You could argue that the unfortunate timing of Villas-Boas’ dismissal conspired against Napoli, but then it would be more sensible to point to their rancid defensive display as the prime reason for their exit.

The heavy 3-0 loss to Juventus on Sunday added weight to the suggestion that Napoli are stumbling towards the finish line. Since defeat at Stamford Bridge, they have gained just two points from nine and head to Rome for a massive fixture against third-place Lazio on Saturday evening. Edy Reja’s side are three points in front of Napoli and crucially occupy the final Champions League qualifying spot in a year where fourth only sends you to the Europa League.

Although owner Aurelio De Laurentiis is not shy of a few Euros, he is well aware of the esteem Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani are held across Europe and it’s entirely possible they could be flogged to the highest bidder this summer – particularly if the club miss out on Champions League football.

Hamsik is a curious case as his value is almost entirely measured on his goal threat. Away from the box it remains difficult to assess his best attributes but for as long as he scores goals he will continue to command a big fee.

Cavani has frequently professed his love for his current surroundings and has had an outstanding two years in Naples but there is a lingering feeling that these could well be his best years. He didn’t exactly show prolific form for Palermo, scoring 37 goals in 117 appearances and has just 11 in 37 for Uruguay. Although his Napoli record currently stands at 61 in 86 appearances, cashing in on the Uruguayan may be more tempting than it should be for De Laurentiis.

Completing the trio, Lavezzi is experiencing an excellent fifth year at the San Paolo, sitting just one goal shy of his best return of 11 goals. But as rumours of an impending bid from the scandalously wealthy backers at Anzhi Makhachkala grow, the financial welfare of a club with a chequered history of account mismanagement may trump sentiment.

The potential departures undoubtedly hang on European football. The Europa League is unlikely to push the three forwards away but that situation would certainly entice bids from Europe’s richest clubs. Saturday’s fixture is of paramount importance as every passing week dictates the number of vultures circling above Napoli’s three elite players.

Bela Guttmann’s “the third year is fatal” theory has been discussed extensively in recent times and seems worthy of a mention. As Pep Guardiola reluctantly passes the La Liga baton to Jose Mourinho, the belief is that Real Madrid’s impending domestic usurpation will confirm the final days of Catalan dominance. Over in Italy, could the same be said of Napoli?

Mazzarri is in his third year at the San Paolo and recently said: “Last year we did exceptional things, but it is not always possible to repeat seasons like that one.” Scouting around Europe, it is clear to see what is afflicting his side. The debut Champions League campaign has taken it’s toll on both management and players. In a similar way to Tottenham’s fifth placed finish in 2010/11 and the relegation-threatened predicament Villarreal currently find themselves in, the first meal at Europe’s top table is always the toughest to keep down.

If, (and it’s a big ‘if’) Mazzarri leads his side back to Champions League football, he will have placed Napoli on the verge of a period of stable success. The UEFA mega-bucks thrown at De Laurentiis will not only allow Mazzarri to continue to mould his side into a bigger beast, it will keep the wolves at bay.

There can be no denying that Napoli have dined out on their flimsy squad and with the addition of European games and a run to the Coppa Italia final we are noticing the effects. In Serie A, 13 players have featured in 80% or more of the club’s fixtures. In a squad of 28 players, seven haven’t started a game. That leaves eight players who have made the odd start and handfuls of sub appearances. Continuity has pushed the squad to the same heights in Serie A as last year, but can it last?

Against Juventus, all three forwards were employed to work hard defensively and as such created little in the attacking third. Right-sided Christian Maggio – one of the team’s most vital components – had to be substituted (as he was at Stamford Bridge) due to injury, while Juan Zuniga, the other wing-back was sent-off for elbowing Giorgio Chiellini and will miss two games. There is a fear that Salvatore Aronica will have to play wide against Lazio – a frightening prospect for any Neapolitan to endure.

Those with a glass half-full disposition will chuckle at Lazio’s loss to lowly Parma and see little to worry about. But others may cast a southerly glance to Roma and a rejuvenated Inter Milan and grimace at the prospect of totally falling out of the European places.

Cavani once said: “Playing in this team is like being a member of a well-tuned orchestra.” 55 goals between the ‘Three Tenors’ in 2010/11 confirmed his assertion. However, recent weeks have shown that many of the instruments around the attacking trident are showing signs of rust. It is the time of year across Europe that the big players – the most coveted footballers – earn their stripes.

Ironically, should Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani propel Napoli into another Champions League season, their value may never be higher. Whether that is a positive will be down to De Laurentiis and his vision of the club’s future. He stood by Napoli in the dark days of Serie C1 football in 2004 and helped commandeer a remarkable rise to the upper echelons of Serie A – it’s hard to believe he would deplete the squad by selling players unless it was in the best interests of the club.