5 Stories That Caught My Eye This Month
More disappointment in Europe for Mancini. Juventus continue to dominate despite defeat. No NHL so far this winter. As November comes to a close, Paolo Bandini once again delivers 5 stories that caught his eye this month.
Roberto Mancini still cannot win in Europe
It would be unfair to suggest that Roberto Mancini has learnt nothing from his various European disappointments over the past eight years. After being talked down from an attempted resignation in the wake of Inter’s Champions League last-16 defeat to Liverpool in March 2008, Mancini told reporters that he had made a mistake. “I would not do it again,” he said.
Four-and-a-half years later, he remains true to his word. After failing to even reach the knock-out stage of the competition with Manchester City for the second year running, Mancini made it clear he had no intention of prematurely handing in his notice this time around.
"If we think we can win the Champions League after two years then we are crazy,” said Mancini when asked if he feared his job could be in peril – an answer which shamelessly sought to reframe the debate. Nobody is asking at this stage whether City ought to be winning the entire tournament but rather whether they should capable of winning even a couple of games.
Many clubs with far smaller resources have achieved more in their first runs at this competition, and while City have been unfortunate in both years to be drawn against some of the toughest opposition available to them in the group stage, even that excuse can only be taken so far. Napoli, after all, knocked City out last year when they themselves were competing in the tournament for the first time since it was rebranded as the Champions League.
The most troubling aspect of Mancini’s European performance is that he seems to be going backwards. With Inter he reached the quarter-finals in 2005 and 2006, then the last-16 the next two years. That was a poor return for a team who enjoyed a huge post-Calciopoli supremacy over Serie A, but at least his team were consistently reaching the knock-out stage.
An ill-fated experiment with a three-man defence during City’s do-or-die game against Real Madrid represented an unspoken acknowledgement of the frustration he feels at his inability to crack this tournament. City fans must hope that gambling on untried formations in critical games will now also be added to the list of mistakes he will not repeat.
His compatriots, on the other hand …
Just a few short years ago, many Italian football fans will not have known what a Uefa co-efficient even was. It is safe to say that awareness has risen sharply since Serie A forfeited one of its four Champions League berths to Germany.
That situation will not be reversed any time soon, but results over the last few weeks have at least raised hopes that Italy will not suffer further slippage down the rankings. Italy’s teams need to substantially out-perform those of Portugal this season merely to maintain their present position in the rankings, which take into account the last five years’ results.
Italy’s problems have stemmed less from underperformance in the Champions League than in the Europa League. Where last year two of Italy’s three initial representatives in that competition – Roma and Palermo – failed to even make the group stage, this year all three have progressed to the knock-out round. Only Udinese – who dropped into the competition after losing their Champions League qualifier – failed to progress.
With Milan, despite indifferent form, securing qualification from their Champions League group and Juventus moving to within a point of doing the same after victory over Chelsea, Italy are at last moving in the right direction. Only a small step, perhaps, but an important one.
Juventus lose the battle but continue to dominate the war
This was the month that Juventus finally lost their unbeaten status under Antonio Conte – a 3-1 home defeat to Inter ending their improbable run at 49 games. Held at home by Lazio a fortnight later, they have now dropped five points in their last three fixtures.
And yet they remain four points clear at the top of Serie A. That is in part a reflection of the shortcomings of their rivals – Napoli’s thin squad once again struggling to sustain success between league and Europe, while Inter’s defensive deficiencies have been exposed by Atalanta and Cagliari. But it is also indicative of the strength of this Juve team.
Lost in the focus on the unbeaten run was the fact that Juve’s 28 points from their first 10 games represented the best start to a season by any team since Serie A went to three points for a win. Even now, after 13 games, they have still scored more goals – 29 – and conceded fewer than anyone in the division.
Conte’s team is not perfect, and the club’s directors continue to pursue a top-quality striker to lead the line. But the additions of such players as Paul Pogba, Mauricio Isla, Kwadwo Asamoah and Sebastian Giovinco have given Juve a depth which makes them ominous indeed.
Time to put Reid out of his misery?
Andy Reid will lose his job as Philadelphia Eagles head coach at the end of this NFL season. That much seems certain with his team now 3-7 on the year, and having discovered that rookie quarterback Nick Foles will not be their instant saviour. Team owner Jeffrey Lurie was clear before the season started that he expected “substantial improvement” on last year’s 8-8 finish.
But some fans are beginning to ask whether ownership should even wait that long. In many cases that is not because they believe that firing Reid early could somehow save the season. Instead they hope it might be able to save him some small measure of dignity.
Reid will not stand down of his own accord, telling reporters that to do so would contradict the ‘never give up’ message he has tried to convey to his players. And so, the theory goes, the only decent thing to do is to take the decision for him, saving him from wasting the next month-and-a-half of his life on a lost cause.
Of course, there are many other Eagles fans who want Reid out for no other reason than because he has not done a good enough job with an ostensibly talented roster over the last two years. But Reid may take solace in knowing that some, at least, still appreciate his efforts in reaching the four NFC Championship games in 13 years that preceded this year’s debacle. Even if he might not like their way of showing it.
So far, the NHL has cancelled more than 400 games this season. With players and team owners yet to reach a compromise on a new collective bargaining agreement, that figure could rise a long way yet. That thoroughly depressing state of affairs would be shocking enough were it not for the fact the league lost an entire season to just such a lockout as recently 2004-05.
Such a situation ought to be unthinkable. The start of the last Serie A season was delayed for a week by a collective bargaining dispute, while La Liga also endured a brief strike in 2011, but it is hard to imagine a major European league simply losing an entire season without sparking an enormous uproar.
But that, for me, has been the most surprising aspect of this lockout. Having relocated to the US this summer, I expected the absence of hockey to be a major talking point – yet the reality is that these days it barely gets a mention on the national sports networks.
That is in part a reflection of hockey’s standing in the national order of things – lingering far behind other sports such as football and baseball. But it is also tempting to wonder whether such labour disputes do not help to generate apathy among the casual fan. Hockey’s hardcore support returned quickly in 2005, just as they had after the previous lockout in 1995, but the long-term damage to the sport’s brand among casual followers is rather harder to quantify.
What I can say for certain – having lived and worked in Vancouver briefly during the last lockout – is that hockey’s absence will be felt far more keenly north of the border. Back in 2004 the only small, scant consolation, was the creation of TV adverts as good as this one.
Follow Paolo on Twitter: @Paolo_Bandini
And read more of his work at The Guardian