The drama of Italian football

ITALY are out of the World Cup and won’t be in the finals for the second consecutive competition. In this age of 32-team formats, it does seem very hard not to qualify, so Italy’s failure is all the more humbling for one of the homes of football. One of Europe’s top five football countries-  and four times World champions – have come up short once more, losing in dramatic circumstances to North Macedonia.

England know all about the pain of failing to qualify, but there are not too many around who remember the period between 1970 and 1982 when the three lions were more like three blind mice. When England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the quarter final of the Mexico World Cup in June 1970, they had to wait until 1982 for their next World Cup tie. 

The intervening period saw careers rise and fall, players like Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon, Martin Chivers, Trevor Brooking and Roy McFarland and Colin Todd. A whole generation of England internationals was deprived of the chance to play in football’s greatest boy scout jamboree when they were at their peak.

A World Cup without Italy is almost unthinkable, especially as they are the reigning European champions. But it’s not the first time that the winners of the Euros have fallen in the qualifying stages of the World Cup: Czechoslavakia (1978), Denmark (1994) and Greece (2006) have all gone missing after winning the continental prize two years earlier. In the reverse situation (World Cup winners attempting to make the cut for Europe), Italy in 1984 were the only champions (1982) who lost their momentum. 

Italy’s defeat in the play-off was certainly unexpected, but their decline has been a slow burner and hasn’t been without its high points. Any other nation would be delighted with their record in the 21st century: one World Cup win (2006) and one European Championship success (2020), along with two Euro finals (2000 and 2012).

And while two successive blanks in the current World Cup format looks dreadful, other major nations have missed out on two consecutive finals, including Spain (1970 and 1974), Netherlands (1982 and 1986), France (1990 and 1994) and Portugal (1990, 1994 and 1998).

Doubtless, the post-mortem will go on for some time in Italy, the media are quite unforgiving and the future of coach Roberto Mancini has to be in some doubt. Despite votes for confidence for Mancini from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, the 37 year-old central defender, and the president of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriela Gravina, the press have already lined-up possible replacements. World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and Marcello Lippi have all been listed. 

Mancini, understandably, was crestfallen after North Macedonia’s win, apologising to the nation. He still has his supporters, though, and will long be credited with rebuilding the national team and few would deny the Azzurri deserved to win Euro 2020. Italy enjoyed a 37-game unbeaten run that was ended by Spain in the UEFA Nations League semi-final, but they rebounded well from that setback.

Why Italy didn’t win their play-off semi-final is a mystery, they enjoyed 66% possession and had 32 shots to their opponents’ four. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s 23 year-old goalkeeper, has come in for criticism and he’s had a bad month, being on the end of Paris Saint-Germain’s capitulation in the UEFA Champions League. But Italy’s problem is clearly at the opposite end of the pitch, they have scored 13 goals in their last 10 games, but five of those came in a victory against Lithuania. At the same time, they have conceded just seven goals in 10. Bizarrely, Italy were unbeaten in the qualifying group, but drew four of their eight games, again emphasising their lack of firepower.

With the World Cup now a dead duck, Italy have to look to the future. The days of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne and one or two others are surely over. After their revival last year in Euro 2020, Italy should have had the wake-up call they needed, but this defeat is something of a second wave, and frankly, it is easier for a big nation to qualify for the World Cup than it was 30 or 40 years ago. They will be foolish to ignore how and why this has happened.

Ajax, Barca, Bayern among Europe’s great treble winners

BAYERN MUNICH’s 2019-20 side joined the illustrious list of teams that have won the treble of domestic league and cup and Champions League.

The Bavarians’ success was remarkable given they changed their coach earlier in the campaign, appointing Hans-Dieter Flick as head coach. Flick had been the number two at Bayern and had filled similar roles with RB Salzburg and the German national team. Prior to that, he was coach of Hoffenheim in the regional league. While Flick inherited a team, he rekindled the fire at Bayern and won three major prizes. Bayern Munich joined eight previous winners of the “treble”:

Bayern Munich 2020

IT should be noted that Bayern Munich had won the previous seven Bundesligas when they clinched the title so there was already strong momentum at the club. Bayern started 2019-20 a little out-of-sorts and after a 5-1 defeat in Frankfurt, coach Niko Kovač was sacked. Hans-Dieter Flick took over, initially on an interim basis, and Bayern transformed their season. The CV-19 pandemic disrupted football but by the time the lockdown came into effect, Bayern were top of the table and had made their mark in Europe, including a stunning 7-2 win at Tottenham. Goals were not a problem for Bayer, especially with Polish forward Robert Lewandowski in the form of his life. After lockdown, Bayern won all nine of their league games, averaging three goals per game. In the DFB Pokal, they beat Bayer Leverkusen in the final 4-2. Meanwhile, their UEFA Champions League campaign saw them win every single game, scoring 24 goals in six group games and then beating Chelsea 7-1 on aggregate in the round of 16. The quarter-final with Barcelona resulted in a phenomenal and seismic 8-2 victory against one of the favourites. After Lyon were comfortably beaten in the semi-final, Bayern’s 1-0 win in the final against PSG confirmed their status as Europe’s best team in 2020.
Games played: 51 (Lge, Cup, Europe) – win percentage 84.31%
Team: Manuel Neuer, Niklas Süle, Benjamin Pavard, Javi Martinez, Jérôme Boateng, Alphonso Davies, Lucas Hernandez, David Alaba, Thiago, Philippe Coutinho, Ivan Perišić, Leon Goretza, Serge Gnabry, Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Müller, Kingsley Coman, Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski.

And here’s the others…

Celtic 1967

Jock Stein’s team actually won five cups in 1966-67: the European Cup; the Scottish League; the Scottish League Cup; the Scottish FA Cup; and the Glasgow Cup. Critics will look at Scotland today and say, “so what?”, but in 1967, the best Scotland had to offer was every bit as competitive as south of the border. Celtic in 1967, including the excellent Jimmy Johnstone, beat Inter Milan, the dark princes of catenaccio, to become the first British side to win the European Cup. Back at home, Celtic lost just twice in 34 league games and beat Aberdeen 2-0 in the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park in front of 126,000 people. For good measure, they disposed of Rangers in the Scottish League Cup final. Some might say that in the European Cup, they had an easy run to the final, beating Zurich, Nantes, Vojvodinia and Dukla Prague, but Inter Milan, coached by the godfather of defensive football, Helenio Herrera, were a tough nut to crack. Sandro Mazzola gave Inter the lead after seven minutes from the penalty spot. Tommy Gemmell levelled just after the hour mark and six minutes from the end, Steve Chalmers scored the winner. Legend will tell you that Celtic fans are still arriving back from Lisbon after celebrating this unlikely triumph.
Games played: 49 (Lge, Cup, Europe) – win percentage 77.55%
Team: Ronnie Simpson, Jim Craig, Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch, Billy McNeill, John Clark, Jimmy Johnstone, Willie Wallace, Steve Chalmers, Bertie Auld, Bobby Lennox

Ajax Amsterdam 1972

Ajax provided the perfect antidote to catenaccio, “total football” – a fluid system that called on any member of the team to play anywhere at any time during the game. An emerging Ajax reached the final of the European Cup in 1969 and were cruelly exposed by AC Milan, but a year later, Ajax’s rivals, Feyenoord, won the competition. In 1971, Johan Cruyff and his team-mates won the cup and a year later, they retained it by beating Inter Milan. Dutch football was in the ascendancy and Cruyff was becoming Europe’s – if not the world’s – top player. Ajax scored 104 and conceded 20 goals in 34 Dutch league games, and Cruyff scored a quarter of them. On May 11 1972, they made it “Double Dutch” as they won the KNVB Cup, beating Den Haag in Rotterdam. Twenty days later, they returned to the Dutch port to beat Inter Milan 2-0, both goals scored by the irrepressible Cruyff. On the way to winning the competition for the second time, Ajax beat Dynamo Dresden, Marseille, Arsenal and Benfica.  There was a wonderful liberated feel about the way Ajax played, in many ways, they were highly representative of the era itself, all long-haired, bead-wearing and trendily-dressed. If ever a football team was “cool”, it was Ajax. Games played: 48 – win percentage 87.5%
Team: Heinz Stuy, Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Horst Blankenburg, Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan, Gerrie Muehren, Sjaak Swart, Johan Cruyff, Piet Keizer

PSV Eindhoven 1988

PSV Eindhoven, the team linked to electronic giant Philips, became Holland’s top side as Ajax declined. They were not as glamorous as the Amsterdamers, and they relied a lot on the Danish national side that threatened to steal the show at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. Four of that squad – Ivan Nielsen, Jan Heintze, Soren Lerby and Frank Arnesen – were in the PSV team that reached the European Cup final. PSV beat Benfica on penalties in the final after a goalless draw. Also in the team was Ronald Koeman and Wim Kieft. They comfortably won the Dutch league, finishing nine points ahead of Ajax. And they beat Roda JC in the KNVB final.
Games played: 49 – win percentage 73.47%
Team: Hans van Breukelen, Eric Gerets, Ivan Nielsen, Ronald Koeman, Jan Heintze, Søren Lerby, Berry van Aerle, Gerald Vanenburg, Edward Linskens, Wim Kreft, Hans Gillhaus, Willy van de Kerkhof, Anton Janssen

Manchester United 1999

There have been fewer more dramatic European finals than United’s 2-1 win over Bayern Munich, with two goals in a matter of seconds – from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunar Solksjaer  – breaking the hearts of Bayern. United’s team, including the home-grown talent of David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and of course, the evergreen Ryan Giggs, was one of the most successful in the history of the British game. They finished one point ahead of reigning Premier champions Arsenal, thanks to a 20-game unbeaten run to the end of the campaign, and beat Newcastle United in the FA Cup final. In Europe, they beat Juventus and Inter Milan and had earlier played Bayern and Barcelona in the group stages. If ever anyone had it hard on the way to the final, it was United.
Games played: 59 – win percentage 57.63%
Team: Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham, Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville, Jesper Blomqvist, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Henning Berg, Jaap Stam

Barcelona 2009

You would be forgiven for believing that Barcelona have won everything for the past few years, but they’ve only achieved the treble twice – in 2008-09 and 2014-15. In 2008-09, they won 27 of their 38 goals in La Liga, scoring 107 goals in the process. In the Copa Del Rey, they thrashed Atletico Madrid 4-1 in the final. Meanwhile, in Europe, they beat Manchester United 2-0 in Rome with goals from Samuel Eto’o and the rising talent of Lionel Messi. Games played: 62 – win percentage 67.74%
Team: Victor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Yaya Touré, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Sylvinho, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez, Dani Alves, Éric Abidal, Seydou Keita, Bojan

Inter Milan 2010

Jose Mourinho picks up prizes wherever he manages, and in his two-year stint with Inter, he won everything in his second season. Inter won Serie A in his first season by a street mile, but in 2009-10, they were run close by Roma, who finished just two points behind. Inter also beat Roma in the Coppa Italia, with Diego Milito netting the only goal. The Argentine striker was the matchwinner in the Champions League final, scoring both goals as Inter beat Bayern Munich 2-0. It provided Mourinho with the perfect farewell.
Games played: 56 – win percentage 66.07%
Team: Júlio César, Maicon, Lúcio, Walter Samuel, Christian Chivu, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Wesley Sneijder, Samiel Eto’o, Diego Milito, Goran Pandev, Dejan Stanković, Thiago Motta, Suleyman Muntari, Mario Balotelli

Bayern Munich 2013

Bayern had been an emerging force for the past few years – beaten Champions League finalists in 2010 and 2012, so their dominance of European football in 2012-13 was no great surprise. Only Bayer Leverkusen beat them this season, 1-2 at the Allianz Arena. They finished a massive 25 points ahead of second-placed Dortmund and scored 98 goals.  VFB Stuttgart were beaten 3-2 in the DFB Pokal final. The Champions League saw some stunning performances – a double over both Juventus and Barcelona, and a memorable display in London as they put Arsenal in their place. This Bayern side had flair – Robben and Ribery – as well as the traditional German qualities of power and strength in Schweinsteiger.
Games played: 53 – win percentage 84.91% 
Team: Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Jérôme Boateng, Dante, David Alaba, Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Franck Ribéry, Mario Mandžukić,  Mario Gómez

Barcelona 2015

With a spectacular forward line that included Lionel Messi, Neymar and new signing Luis Suárez, who scored 122 goals between them in all competitions, Barcelona were a fearsome attacking force in 2014-15. They were pushed all the way by rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, but finished two points clear at the top. In the Copa Del Rey, they beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1. In Europe, they disposed of Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in the knockout stages before meeting Juventus in the final. In Berlin, Barca won 3-1, thanks to two goals in the last 20 minutes.
Games played: 60 – win percentage 83.33%  Team: Marc-André ter Stegen, Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Neymar, Xavi, Rafinha, Pedro.

Other clubs have won a European prize and completed the double at home: IFK Göteborg (1982), Porto (2003 and 2011), Galatasaray (2000) and CSKA Moscow (2005).

So, according to our data, Ajax 1972, with a win rate of 87.5% were the most impressive champions!

Everton, Leeds, Villa and Sunderland – all went close to winning football’s hallowed double

WHEN Arsenal won the double in 1970-71, it was the first time since Tottenham’s much heralded success of 1960-61. Everyone thought it was an astonishing achievement, yet it was only a decade after their North London rivals had swept up the major prizes. Prior to Bill Nicholson’s side winning

the double, you had to go back to 1896-97 (Aston Villa) and 1888-89 (Preston North End). It was popularly considered to be impossible to win both the premier prizes on offer.

Today we live in an age where the top sides want to win everything. But a leading club’s priorities don’t generally include the FA Cup – the Premier and Champions League qualification are the prizes that will be one and two on the “to do” list at the top clubs. The FA Cup and Football League Cup – wrongly – are consolation prizes. In the days when Tottenham and Arsenal earned their place in football folklore, success in Europe was a little bit of icing on the cake. The Football League and FA Cup, the everyday “bread and butter” competitions, were how managers and players were largely judged.

The creation of a group of “super clubs” has meant that winning a double is no longer out of the question. When you chase one prize, you go after two and when you position yourself nicely for two, you start to think about three or four. But you can aim for whatever you like and end up with nothing, as most clubs have found out.

Doubles started to become commonplace in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Double has been achieved 12 times, seven since Arsenal’s dramatic 1971 triumph: 1888-89: Preston North End; 1896-97: Aston Villa; 1960-61: Tottenham Hotspur; 1970-71: Arsenal; 1985-86: Liverpool; 1993-94: Manchester United; 1995-96: Manchester United; 1997-98: Arsenal; 1998-99: Manchester United; 2001-02: Arsenal; 2009-10: Chelsea; 2018-19: Manchester City.

Trbles of any kind are even rarer. The only time a domestic treble has been achieved was in 2018-19 when Manchester City were champions, FA Cup winners and Football League Cup winners. Manchester United pulled off the treble of League, Cup and Champions League in 1998-99. Liverpool have won two trebles, in 2000-01 (League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup) and in 1983-84, the League, League Cup and European Cup.

There have been many near-misses, where a club has won one trophy and finished runners-up in another, or even finished runners-up in both.

1903-04: Manchester City – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
Newly-promoted City beat Bolton Wanderers 1-0 in the cup final thanks to a Billy Meredith goal. They finished three points behind The Wednesday in the league, despite being top in the final week.

1904-05: Newcastle United – Football League Champions and FA Cup Runners-up
Newcastle won the title by a single point, but went into Easter a point behind Everton and finished with a flourish. Two weeks before clinching the title, they lost the cup final 2-0 to Aston Villa, after beating them by the same scoreline in the league a week earlier.

1912-13: Sunderland – Football League Champions and FA Cup Runners-up/1912-13: Aston Villa – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
Sunderland Villa were neck-and-neck all season and shared the honours in 1913. Sunderland ended with a 10-game unbeaten run, including a 1-1 draw at Villa Park that all but won them the title. A few days earlier, Villa had won a rough house cup final 1-0 at Crystal Palace in front of 121,000 people.

1947-48: Manchester United – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
United finished seven points behind champions Arsenal in the league, but won the FA Cup, beating Blackpool in the final by 4-2 in an exciting 90 minutes. United beat six first division sides to win the competition, one of the toughest roads to Wembley.

1953-54: West Bromwich Albion – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
A goal three minutes from time from Frank Griffin gave Albion a 3-2 victory in the FA Cup final against Preston. In the league, they finished just three points behind Black Country rivals Wolves. Albion’s team, which included the likes of Ronnie Allen, started the season well and were unbeaten in nine games, but ended the campaign indifferently.

1956-57: Manchester United – Football League Champions and FA Cup Runners-up
The “Busby Babes”, who won the league title by eight points, scoring 103 goals, were denied the double by an Aston Villa side who finished mid-table. In the FA Cup final, United goalkeeper Ray Wood was injured and Jackie Blanchflower took over in goal. Villa went two-up through Peter McParland and United’s only response came late on from Tommy Taylor, one of the Babes who perished in Munich.

1959-60: Wolverhampton Wanderers – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
Wolves lost the league title they had won in the two previous seasons to Burnley by just a single point, scoring 106 goals. In the Cup Final y, Wolves crushed Blackburn Rovers 3-0 in a bad tempered game remembered for the loutish behaviour of the crowd, who showered Wolves in rubbish as they went off the field.

1971-72: Leeds United – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
These were the days when Leeds were challenging for everything. They won the FA Cup by beating old rivals Arsenal 1-0, Allan Clarke scoring the goal. Two days later, they travelled to Wolves in the final game of the campaign needing a point to clinch the double. They lost 2-1 and Derby won the title. “I’m as sick as a pig,” said centre-half Jackie Charlton.

1973-74: Liverpool – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
Liverpool were always second best to Leeds in the title race in 1973-74 and finished five points off of top spot. But they easily won the FA Cup when they crushed Newcastle 3-0, two goals coming from Kevin Keegan and one from Steve Heighway. It proved to be Bill Shankly’s final triumph with Liverpool.

1976-77: Liverpool – Football League Champions and FA Cup Runners-up
“Pack up your trebles” said the banner at Wembley as Liverpool tried to add the FA Cup to their league title win. Champions by a point from Manchester City, the Reds lost 2-1 to Manchester United, but a few days later, won the European Cup. No treble, but not a bad season!

1984-85: Everton – Football League Champions and FA Cup Runners-up
Howard Kendall’s young team emphatically won the title by a 13-point margin over Mersey rivals Liverpool. They were unlucky in the FA Cup, losing to 10-man Manchester United by an extra-time goal. Everton also won the European Cup Winners-Cup.

1987-88: Liverpool – Football League Champions and FA Cup Runners-up
This was the Liverpool team of Barnes-Aldridge-Beardsley, playing some of the best football of modern times. They lost just twice in the league and won the title by a nine point margin over Manchester United. The Cup Final produced one of the greatest shocks of all time, Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang” winning 1-0 with goalkeeper Dave Beasant saving a penalty from Aldridge.

1988-89: Liverpool – FA Cup Winners and Football League Runners-up
Another great story unfolded at the end of the 1988-89 season. Liverpool won the FA Cup in an emotional Merseyside final, beating Everton 3-2. They were seconds away from winning the double when Arsenal scored right at the death through Michael Thomas to win 2-0 at Anfield and take the title back to London. It was one of those nights when you cheered, regardless of your allegiance (Tottenham fans excluded).

2002-03: Arsenal – FA Cup Winners and Premier Runners-up
Arsenal were five points off retaining their title, coming in second to Manchester United. In the FA Cup, they beat Southampton 1-0 in Cardiff, goalscorer Robert Pires.

2004-05: Arsenal – FA Cup Winners and Premier Runners-up
Arsenal won a dire FA Cup final on penalties against Manchester United. They were left trailing behind by 12 points in the Premier, Chelsea taking over from the “Invincibles”.

2006-07: Manchester United – Premier Champions and FA Cup Runners-up/2006-07: Chelsea – FA Cup Winners and Premier Runners-up
Chelsea lost the crown they had worn for the past two seasons to United, who finished six points ahead of Jose Mourinho’s team. But Chelsea won the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley in a lack lustre contest, Didier Drogba scoring the only goal in extra time to beat United.

2016-17: Chelsea – Premier Champions and FA Cup Runners-up
Chelsea were denied the double by Arsenal in the FA Cup final, Wenger winning his last trophy as manager of the Gunners. In the League, Antonio Conte won the title in his first season as manager of Chelsea.

Runners-up in both competitions
1927-28: Huddersfield Town – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1931-32: Arsenal – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1938-39: Wolverhampton Wanderers – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1961-62: Burnley – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1964-65: Leeds United – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1969-70: Leeds United – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1985-86: Everton – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
1994-95: Manchester United – Runners-up in both Premier and FA Cup
2000-01: Arsenal – Runners-up in both Premier and FA Cup
2012-13: Manchester City – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup
2017-18: Manchester United – Runners-up in both Football League and FA Cup.

Photo: PA