A look at Italian Football in 2018
2018 was a year of highs and lows for Italian football, with a few surprises, some old friends leaving us, Juventus winning another double, some shocking new faces in Serie A and a missed World Cup. Let’s go through 2018, month by month, and take a look at what happened in the world of Calcio.
The start of the year saw Napoli leading the Serie A table, one point above hated rivals Juventus. The biggest excitement of the winter transfer window was the transfer of Mario Rui from AS Roma to Napoli for €8 million, an attempt to strengthen the defence for their title race. Napoli would stay top of the table for the remainder of January, and Lazio would manage to score an impressive 10 goals in their first 2 games of the year, in an effort to remain in the Top 4 to qualify for the Champions League in the 2018/19 season. In the Coppa Italia Quarter Finals, Atalanta would upset Napoli 2-1, and Juventus would vanquish Torino 2-0, which was followed by the first leg of the Semi Finals, with Juventus beating Atalanta 1-0 and Lazio and Milan managing a 0-0 draw. The only managerial casualty in January was Siniša Mihajlović at Torino, who was replaced by current manager Walter Mazzarri. The game of the month was SPAL vs Lazio, a 7 goal thriller with Immobile scoring 4, leaving the final score as 2-5.
As we move into February, Juventus would start to pile the pressure on Napoli with a 7-0 thrashing of Sassuolo, leaving Napoli only 1 point ahead. This nail biting race would continue for the rest of the month, with both teams refusing to drop points in the race for the title. In the Champions League, both Italian teams had a rough first game of the Round of 16, with Juventus throwing away a 2-0 lead against the hungry Tottenham Hotspur, leaving them to scratch their heads with a 2-2 draw; Although, this was preferable to Roma, who lost 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk, although they managed to score a crucial away goal (which would prove important next month). In the Europa League, Lazio and Milan would both win to advance to the Round of 16, whilst Napoli and Atalanta would both fall in disappointing games. In the Coppa Italia, Juventus would beat Atalanta 1-0 again, whilst Lazio and Milan would again end 0-0, with Milan wining the resulting penalty shootout 5-4. The month would end with Napoli first, Juventus second, Lazio third and Inter Milan fourth.
Far and away the biggest tragedy in Italian football this year, the awful death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori at the age of 31, just before the first gameday of the month. Due to this, many games were delayed to the next month, and the world of Italian football took time to reflect on the beautiful life and career of Davide Astori. In other news, Napoli would finally drop the ball, losing 4-2 to Roma, a mistake that they would regret as Juventus would manage a 93rd minute winner against Lazio to take the top spot. Both Italian teams would recover from their failings in their previous Champions League games, with each team winning to advance further into the knockout stages. There would be less success in the Europa League, with Milan falling to Arsenal 5-1 over both legs, whilst Lazio would win 4-2 over Dynamo Kyiv to progress to the Quarter Finals. Finally, we would see a Ventura-less Italy return to the pitch, however a 2-0 loss to Argentina followed by a 1-1 draw with England did nothing to shake the air of disappointment and depression surrounding gli azzurri. The month would end with Juventus first, 4 points clear of second place Napoli, with Roma in third and Inter fourth.
Looking at the Champions League fixtures that kicked off April, it was a bad start for both the remaining Italian teams. Roma lost 4-1 to Barcelona away, and Juventus lost 3-0 at home to the reigning champions Real Madrid. Lazio would fare better in the Europa League, beating a strong RB Salzburg 4-2, although they would end up losing overall, 5-6 on aggregate. In the league Juventus would continue to grow their lead, with Napoli dropping points with a 0-0 draw against AC Milan, whilst the battle for the last Champions League place between Lazio and Inter would remain excruciatingly close, only 1 point separating them for the majority of the month. However, with Juventus dropping points in an unexpected draw against 18th place Crotone, the title race was far from over. The highlight in the league was the Juventus v Napoli fixture, with an extra time header by Koulibaly reducing the point deficit to just 1. Despite this, the last match day in the league for April would show trouble for Napoli in the title race, with the Neapolitans losing 3-0 to Fiorentina, and Juventus scoring 2 late goals against Inter Milan to capitalise on their rivals’ defeat. The league table at the end of April was Juventus first, again 4 points ahead of the second place Napoli, Roma and Lazio tied for third and fifth place Inter 4 points off the Champions League places.
Yet, the excitement about Italian football wasn’t only limited to the league, with the Champions League providing even better story lines this year. Roma’s 3-0 comeback at the Stadio Olimpico to defeat Barcelona was a huge shock, and a great result for a side many thought were already down and out. On the other side, we saw the return fixture of Real Madrid vs Juventus, which provided a different set of shocks all together. With Juventus managing to score 3 in normal time, it seemed as if they had managed to dig themselves out of the hole they’d found themselves in, before Benatia gave away a silly penalty in extra time. Buffon, livid with anger, rushed the referee and was quickly given the marching orders, a depressing end to his Champions League career with Juventus, and Szczęsny could do little to stop a thunderous penalty from Ronaldo which sealed Juventus’ fate. Yet again, they had fallen short in the most important competition in European football. Roma would end their month in European football with a tough loss to Liverpool at Anfield, 5-2, although the late 2 goals scored left many feeling that they could climb that deficit again. April also saw 2 more managerial casualties, with Massimo Oddo of Udinese being replaced by Igor Tudor and Rolando Maran of Chievo being replaced by Lorenzo D’Anna.
May would spell the end of the 2017/18 season, and Napoli wouldn’t recover from the silly games they’d dropped points in. Juventus would win their seventh title in a row, as well as their fourth Coppa Italia in a row, beating Milan 4-0 in the Stadio Olimpico. Roma would beat Liverpool 4-2 in Rome, but this wasn’t enough to undo the mistakes made at Anfield, ending 7-6 on aggregate in favour of Liverpool. This would also be the final game of long term Juventus keeper Gianluigi Buffon, leaving the Old Lady after 17 years.
Lazio lost what was essentially a Champions League play-off game against Inter Milan in the final game of the season, resulting in heartbreak amongst all Laziale and jubilation for all the Interisti; For the first time since the 2011/12 season, Inter were back in the Champions League. After a short relegation battle, the 3 teams that would be departing us for Serie B were finalised: Benevento, Hellas Verona and Crotone. In their place for the 18/19 season was Frosinone, Parma and Empoli, although there was some controversy surrounding the behaviour of the Frosinone ball boys in their final play off game against Palermo (due to them throwing balls on the pitch every time Palermo were on the break). Now, for the managerial changes. Roberto Mancini took over as the manager of the Italian National team, Napoli hero Maurizio Sarri left for Chelsea, replaced by respected manager Carlo Ancelotti. Roberto Donadoni left Bologna, replaced in June by Filippo “Pippo” Inzaghi, Diego López left Cagliari and was replaced by former Chievo manager Rolando Maran. Giuseppe Iachini left Sassuolo, his role being taken up by Roberto De Zerbi and finally Igor Tudor finished his time with Udinese, and Julio Velázquez took over.
This May also completed one of the great Italian fairytale stories, with the promotion of Parma back in the top flight. 4 season earlier in 2015, Parma was in the depths of Serie D due to consistent financial troubles, and yet they achieved back to back promotions, which in this season culminated in their return to Serie A. The fans’ amazing loyalty is one of the things cited for helping the club along the way, and its a just achievement for the players, the fans and the club to be rewarded with such a stunning return. Captain and local hero Alessandro Lucarelli, who played at the club from 2008 to 2018, retired during the promotion party, and was commended for his loyalty helping lead Parma back to glory. In his honour the 6 jersey was retired.
And there we have it. The conclusion to the 2017/18 season, Napoli’s incredible 91 points was still not enough to topple the domestic giant that is Juventus. Results in Europe were poor though, and despite Roma’s fairytale run, wasn’t enough for any Italian teams to get their hands on some European silverware. Now onto the preseason.
Whilst the rest of the footballing world had their eyes on the World Cup, the heartbreak of the previous November was still fresh in the mind of Italian football fans, missing out on their first World Cup since 1958. At the start of the month, Italy played two friendlies, a 3-1 loss against eventual World Champions France, and a 1-1 draw against fellow World Cup missing Netherlands.
The transfer window opened, and some early rumblings took place. Justin Kluivert, son of former professional Patrick Kluivert, moved to Roma for around €18 million. Radja Nainggolan moved from Roma to Inter for an undisclosed fee (rumoured to be around €30 million), Javier Pastore from PSG to Roma for €24.7 million, João Cancelo from Valencia to Juventus for €40 million, Stephan Lichtsteiner from Juventus to Arsenal on a free and finally Douglas Costa from Bayern Munich to Juventus for €40 million.
Whilst some of these were very exciting, the true surprise was just around the corner.
France won the 2018 World Cup (the second worst part about that World Cup for Italians), and yet that wasn’t the highlight of the Italian football world in July. Instead, it was the shock transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid to Juventus for a whopping €112 million, a clear move from Juventus that showed their intention for the Champions League in the 2018/19 season. In the first 24 hours alone, Juventus managed to ship 520,000 Ronaldo shirts, a ridiculous amount considering the average cost of one being between €60-€80. Also in the transfer news was the incredible price Liverpool paid for Roma keeper Allison, €72.5 million, a necessary appointment considering the mistakes made by Karius in the Champions League final a few months prior. Sampdoria lost breakout midfielder Lucas Torreira to Arsenal for an undisclosed fee (rumoured to be around €30 million, a bargain in the current transfer market).
July also saw AC Milan finally get new ownership, with the previous Chinese owner Li Yonghong failing to pay €300 million in debts. The club was taken over by US hedge-fund Elliott Management, who invested €50 million into the club and brought into familiar faces to the board including Paolo Maldini and Leonardo. They also managed to circumvent the one year ban imposed on them by UEFA in European competitions, after their breaching of the Financial Fair Play.
As the start of the 2018/19 season drew nearer, we saw the swap of Bonucci from AC Milan back to Juventus after one season, with Higuain going the other way (clearly needing to make room for Ronaldo at Juventus), and Caldara also joining him. André Silva went to Sevilla from AC Milan (to great personal success) and Steven Nzonzi left from Sevilla for Roma for around €30 million.
According to the Italian papers before the season began, the team to beat Juventus and break their dominant streak had finally appeared. The “Anti-Juve”. That team was Inter Milan. Bolstered with new signings such as Radja Nainggolan, Lautaro Martínez, Sime Vrsaljko, Keita Baldé, Matteo Politano, Stefan de Vrij and Kwadwo Asamoah, Inter had the squad and depth that many considered able to compete with Italy’s most successful team. However, an opening day loss to Sassuolo wasn’t the best start for the apparent “Anti-Juve”.
We saw Ronaldo’s first game in a Juventus shirt, where he was treated to a visit to the ever beautiful Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi (truly one of the worst stadiums in the league) to face provincial side Chievo Verona. Shockingly it was a close game, ending 3-2 with a late winner from Bernardeschi. A week later, and Napoli would come down from 2-0 to beat AC Milan 3-2, a good result for new Napoli manager Ancelotti, helping the fans move on after the departure of Sarri. The month would end with Atalanta failing to beat FC Copenhagen, after two 0-0 draws and a loss on a penalty shootout.
September saw the beginning of multiple European competitions for Italian teams, with both the Champions League and the Europa League, as well as the newly introduced Nations League. Napoli and Roma both failed to win, but Inter, Juve, Lazio and Milan all came away with 3 points (Inter doing it in dramatic style with 2 late goals in the last 10 minutes). As the month developed, Juventus began to pull away, sitting on top with 9 points, whereas previous runners up Napoli dropped points in a 3-0 loss to Sampdoria. Juventus beating Napoli 3-1 in Turin is one of those games that could prove decisive in the title race, a game Ancelotti could regret losing for the rest of the season. Also, special mention to Quagliarella’s ridiculous back heel goal against Napoli, which is my favourite goal in Italian football in 2018, which can be seen below.
Internationally, Italy kicked off their Nations League campaign with a disappointing start, a 1-1 draw to Poland and a 1-0 loss to Portugal. Despite playing dramatically nicer football than under Ventura the year prior, the lack of a traditional striker to score goals was already being noted as an issue (especially considering the trouble Immobile of Lazio had transferring his club form to the international stage).
Chievo Verona finally saw the conclusion to their legal troubles of false accountancy, being deducted 3 points and fined €200,000, a relatively small penalty considering how terrible their false accountancy really was (essentially creating false profits to allow themselves to stay registered within Serie A)
By the start of October, Krzysztof Piatek had become a household name for Italian football fans, as this previously unknown player was quickly the top scorer in the league, even above the €112 million Ronaldo. Juventus had only dropped points once so far in the season, and that was in a 1-1 draw with Genoa, which left them top of the table with 28 points by the end of October. Inter and Napoli were tied second with 22 points, and both AC Milan and Lazio were tied for fourth with 18 points. The first Milan derby of the season provided wonderful choreography from the fans, and the game ended 1-0 with a 92nd minute winner from the ever clinical Mauro Icardi.
In Europe, Inter beat dutch side PSV 2-1, before losing painfully to a strong Barcelona 2-0. Napoli faired slightly better, beating Liverpool 1-0 with a 90th minute winner from Insigne, before throwing away a lead against PSG to come away with a 2-2 draw (a mistake they would curse as the group developed). Roma scored 8 goals in their 2 games, giving them a strong base to qualify from, and potentially repeat their Champions League form from the previous season; These would be the best moments for Eusebio Di Francesco, as his Roma side would struggle in the league, sitting on 8th by the end of the month. Furthermore, Juventus would win both their games, with Dybala scoring 4 times over both as Juve walked through their group with apparent ease. Milan would win one and lose one in the Europa League, although the nature of their loss to Real Betis was incredibly worrying for Milan fans. Finally, Lazio would take a 4-1 battering from Eintracht Frankfurt before recovering some pride with a 3-1 win over Marseille.
The Italian national team took to the pitch twice as well, with an uninspiring 1-1 draw against Ukraine before finally winning a game in the Nations League, at the expense of Poland, although it took a 92nd minute winner to achieve this. Italy’s goal drought had seemingly no instant solution, with club scorers like Immobile disappointing and Balotelli having fitness and disciplinary problems.
The first 2 managerial casualties took place in October as well, with Lorenzo D’Anna of Chievo being removed after 8 games, with a season tally of 0 wins, 2 draws and 6 losses (leaving Chievo with a shocking -1 point), and he was duly replaced by Italian villain Gian Piero Ventura, the man responsible for Italy failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The other managerial change was more of a shock, Davide Ballardini of Genoa. Despite a satisfactory record of 4 wins, 0 draws and 4 losses, and overseeing breakout star Krzysztof Piątek becoming the current top scorer, he was replaced by Enrico Preziosi for Ivan Jurić, a move that left many scratching their heads.
November was a busy month in Italian football. In the first gameday of the month we saw a number of high scoring games, such as Napoli 5 Empoli 1, Inter 5 Genoa 0, Lazio 4 SPAL 1 and Torino 4 Sampdoria 1. However, the real highlight of that first week was the 97th minute by Romagnoli for Milan against Udinese, a much needed win for Gattuso and his men. The second game day saw Higuain have one of the worst days in his career, missing a penalty against his former club Juventus, before being sent off due to his fit of rage. The only other shock in the remaining game days of the month was Napoli dropping points against Chievo, a very worrying sight for Napoli fans considering Juventus still only had dropped points once so far in the campaign. By the end of the month, Juventus were 8 points clear of second place Napoli, with Inter and Lazio in third and fourth respectively.
In the Champions League, we saw Juventus shockingly lose to a poor Manchester United in Turin, with 2 goals in the last ten minutes to give Mourinho and his men a much needed victory, and what better way for the manager to celebrate than to rile up the Juventini with his “I can’t hear you” gesture (seen above). In the other CL game for Juventus, they secured qualification by beating Valencia 1-0. Roma won away at CSKA Moscow, before losing to Real Madrid in Rome, Napoli drew with PSG at home before beating Red Star Belgrade, keeping their knockout qualification tight and finally Inter luckily scraped a last minute draw with Barcelona, before falling to an impressive Tottenham side in London (Putting their knockout qualification down to a precarious position in the last game of the group stage). For Lazio, they secured their qualification in the Europa League, however made no effort to fight for the top spot by fielding a weakened side against Apollon Limassol (and losing 2-0 for their effort), whereas Milan draw 1-1 against Real Betis and thrashed group minnow F91 Dudelange 5-2. This left Milan needing anything but an awful result against Greek side Olympiacos in the final game to qualify.
In Italy’s final game of the Nations League group stage, they managed to avoid relegation to the second tier by securing a 0-0 draw with Portugal, before beating a young USA side 1-0 in an international friendly (although painfully it took a 94th minute winner from a right winger to achieve this). Clearly the striker struggles would continue as Italy were playing much nicer football, but still unable to convert this play into a goal.
3 more managers got the chop in November, starting with Aurelio Andreazzoli of Empoli, who was duly replaced by Giuseppe Iachini. In one of the most depressing managerial moments of 2018, Gian Piero Ventura was fired from Chievo Verona after just 4 games, with Ventura only getting 1 point from those 4 games; This also led to a rather amusing Instagram rant from Chievo hero Sergio Pellissier. Co-incidentally he left the club exactly one year after his Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup in Milan, with their 0-0 draw against Sweden in the San Siro. Finally, Julio Velázquez was sacked by Udinese and replaced by Davide Nicola, due to Udinese’s poor placement in the table at 17th.
What a depressing month in the world of Italian football. Before even mentioning the league, we must look at how the Italian teams faced in their respective European campaigns. Three teams made it out of their groups, and all of those teams lost their final group game. Juventus, who topped their group, lost 2-1 to Swiss side Young Boys, Roma lost 2-1 to Viktoria Plzeň, finishing second and finally Lazio lost at home to Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 (A strange co-incidence that all 3 teams that qualified lost their games 2-1). The other Italian teams had an even worse night. Napoli finished third in their group (due to goals in all group matches), and ended their campaign with a decisive loss to Liverpool 1-0. Inter drew their final game against PSV, but that put them equal to second place Tottenham, leaving the group to be decided by the head to head (Inter losing due to not scoring an away goal) and finally we had Milan. Oh Milan. 11 years ago they were winning the Champions League, and now they were crashing out of the Europa League group stage, due to a shocking 3-1 loss to Olympiacos.
There were little shocks in the next round of the Coppa Italia, except for one. Serie A mid-table side Genoa faced a shocking defeat to Serie C side Virtus Entella, 3-3 after extra time, with Genoa losing 7-6 on penalties.
Another 2 managers finished the year with removal, Ivan Jurić of Genoa (who were in 14th place), replaced with former Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, and 19th place Frosinone’s Moreno Longo, who was succeeded by Marco Baroni.
The first game day featured little excitement or shocks, although a 2-2 draw between Roma and Inter proved exciting to watch. On the other hand, the second game day of the month was the opposite. Multiple, incredible games. First off we had a close Derby d’Italia, although again Juventus came out on top thanks to Mario Mandzukic. Then there was a nail biting game between Cagliari and Roma, which ended 2-2, featured 2 red cards for Cagliari, a goal in the 84th minute and the equaliser in the 95th, a painful result for Di Francesco and his team. Lazio versus Sampdoria also ended 2-2, with a goal for each team in deep extra time (Lazio’s second thanks to Immobile in the 96th minute, followed by a stunning equaliser for Sampdoria from Riccardo Saponara in the 99th minute). Finally we saw a 3-3 draw between Sassuolo and Fiorentina, which featured a red card for both teams, and Sassuolo going from a 3-1 score line in the 88th minute to a 3-3 draw by the 90th (impressive to note that it sequenced as a goal in the 89th minute, a red card for Fiorentina in the 90th minute before the equaliser also in the 90th minute).
The third game day gave us a Juventus win in the Turin Derby (thanks to a goal from Ronaldo) and a 90th minute winner for Napoli against Cagliari, amongst other, less memorable results. The fourth also offered little worth remembering, but the fifth was the complete opposite. In my opinion, it was the darkest game in Italian football in 2018. Napoli versus Inter Milan. Whilst the game finished 1-0 to Inter, and there were 2 late red cards for Napoli, the real story wasn’t what happened on the pitch, but off it. For the majority of the game, Napoli centre back Kalidou Koulibaly was both booed and received “monkey noises” every time he touched the ball, a clearly disgusting racist attack (it’s little surprise his frustration led to his eventual dismissal for “clapping” at the referee after receiving a yellow card). Napoli had asked 3 times for the game to be called off, which was not given, an action condemned by many. Outside of the ground, 4 Napoli fans were stabbed, and 1 Inter Milan fan, 35 year old Inter Ultra Daniele Belardinelli, was killed after being ran over. This game showed the world the darkest side of Italian football, and it received much international press coverage in the following days, and some even called for a suspension of the league (although this didn’t happen).
The final game day of 2018 also had some games to watch, with Chievo Verona finally recording their first win of the season, a 1-0 win against Frosinone. We also saw a back and forth game between Napoli and Bologna, which luckily finished 3-2 for the Neapolitans, as well as a 6-2 thriller between a strong Atalanta side and Sassuolo. Finally, there was the controversial game between Juventus and Sampdoria, in which 2 fairly weak penalties were awarded to both teams, and a disallowed goal for offside for Sampdoria, a game that left many Italian football fan’s complaining about the apparent “luck” Juventus had in these 50/50 decisions (potentially due to something writer John Foot refers to as the referee’s “psychological slavery” to the big teams, especially Juventus). Also worth noting was Fabio Quagliarella’s goal in this game, his ninth goal in nine consecutive games, a feat that hadn’t been managed since David Trezeguet in 2005.
This left the Top 4 at the end of 2018 with Juventus in first with 53 points, their greatest ever point tally at a half season, Napoli in second with 44, Inter third with 39 and Lazio fourth on 32. On the other side of the table, the relegation zone had Chievo bottom with 8 points, Frosinone 19th with 10 points and Bologna next with 13 points.
And that wraps up the world of Italian football in 2018, with its highs, lows and everything in between. I didn’t mention every result or exciting moment, and so if you think I missed anything important, or you wanted to mention your own favourite moment in the world of Calcio in 2018, then please feel free to contact me on Twitter below.Follow @ApolloHeyes