Eric Giardini covers Italian soccer for TSG.
Welcome Back, Coppa Italia. We’ve Missed You
A strange thing happened this year in soccer – the domestic cups actually carried importance. From England to Spain to Italy, these cups, which were usually marginalized by the major clubs as an inconvenience, became key fixtures on a congested club calendar.
In England, the Carling Cup saw more regular first team players than I can recall – especially from Arsenal. Having Arsenal trot out youngsters to gain experience was the norm until the cries for silverware grew too loud for manager Arsène Wenger to ignore and the Gunners first team squad was seen more in the cup fixtures. Ultimately, Arsenal lost in the final to Birmingham on a late winner from Obefemi Martins, which has Arsenal still in search for silverware.
A rebirth of the domestic cup also occurred in Spain where the Copa del Rey received a shot in the arm with these words from The Special One: “I think the Copa del Rey is an important competition. I know that many people don’t value domestic cup tournaments, but I do value them.” Mourinho kept his word, took each round seriously, and fielded a strong lineup (Cristiano Ronaldo played in eight of Madrid’s nine cup matches after having played in zero the previous year) all the way to defeating Barcelona in the final – Madrid’s first Copa title in 17 years.
Our cup renaissance tour concludes in Italy with the Coppa Italia. The Coppa, the last of these newly “important” competitions to crown a winner, is currently midway through its semifinal stage with four clubs in the top eight of the league vying to meet on May 29 at the Stadio Olimipco in Rome to hoist the trophy. Inter and Roma are meeting in one semifinal while Milan and Palermo are in the second. After the first leg, Inter holds a 1-0 away advantage over Roma and Milan and Palermo are tied 2-2. The second legs are being played in Milan and Sicily, respectively.
(Very Brief) Coppa Background
Although the Coppa Italia has been around since 1922 (with the second tournament being held in 1935), it has only been continuously played each year since 1958. Prior to the invasion of Italy in 1943 during World War II, the Coppa had been played from 1935-1943; however, it wasn’t until 1958 that the tournament was around to stay. Juventus and Roma are tied with the most Coppa titles with nine. There has been a recent dominance over the past six tournaments of Roma and Inter. These two clubs have met in five of the past six finals – including last year’s 1-0 Inter victory. Inter leads the head-to-head 3-2 in these recent finals.
Over the past few decades, with the rise of larger European competitions, the Coppa has been in decline in popularity. One reason for this is the lack of emphasis that the clubs themselves put on the competition. When the clubs do not put a premium on the matches, why should the supporters? Compared to other domestic cups, England in particular, the financial reward for doing well in the Coppa Italia is not there. The money made from television rights, or from sponsorship or FIGC, was not seen as incentive enough for clubs to risk their players in these midweek matches. The lack of money available domestically, coupled with the exponential rise in money available in European Cup matches, led Italy’s big clubs to put an emphasis on qualifying for Europe and, once there, doing well.
Something changed in this season’s Coppa. The big clubs began taking the competition seriously and, although maybe not to the same degree as Serie A and European matches, managers and players were fully engaged in the Coppa.
Prior to the first leg against Palermo, Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri came out and said how important the cup was to him and his squad. “We want to honor this cup. We have the chance to try and win the Scudetto and at least make the Coppa Italia final…It’s a very important semi-final for us and we want to try and reach the final…There is enthusiasm and it’s important we use it to get to an important objective like the cup final.” While this may very well have been “coach speak,” I think Allegri actually means what he said, and his cross town rivals are playing a major role in this.
Inter’s recent league and, to a lesser extent, cup domination has irritated many around the peninsula. By winning the past five Scudettos and three of the past seven Coppa Italias, other clubs, understandably, are fed up with Inter’s winning ways in Italy. While their run of league championships is about to end, they are favorites to advance to their sixth final in the past seven years. Conversely, Milan has not won any domestic silverware since 2004 and the chance to take two titles away from Inter this year is just too sweet to pass up.
The remaining three clubs in the semifinals have their own incentives for winning the cup. Inter and Roma both suffered slow starts to the league campaign which put a damper on the title aspirations both sides had heading into this season after only being separated by two points in the table last year. That, coupled with Champions League knockouts, has the Coppa Italia as the only piece of silverware that can be won by either of these clubs. While the trophy was not at the top of either’s list heading into the season, winning will be a cause for optimism heading into the summer. Palermo, similarly, has been disappointing this season. There is only so much that TSG favorite Javier Pastore can do and the Sicilian side currently sits in eighth place with no shot at qualifying for the Champions League. With only the slimmest of chances for Europa League, based on their final standings in Serie A, a Coppa Italia victory is their ticket to European soccer and the expense of the sixth place finisher in the league.
Adding to the excitement of this year’s cup has been the matchups from the Round of 16 on.
Great matches including Roma defeating Lazio in the Round of 16, Inter defeating Napoli on penalties in the quarterfinals, and Roma defeating Juventus in the quarterfinals were the highlights. With these fixtures, neither team wanted to lose to a rival which led to great, exciting soccer. These fixtures, and the new mentalities by the clubs regarding the cup, brought the fans back. In the 17 matches from the Round of 16 through the final in the 2009-2010 Coppa Italia, the average attendance was 15,543. For comparison, the average attendance for 2009-2010 league matches was 24,603. This year’s Coppa Italia, through the first leg of the semifinals, has an average attendance of 19,413 (league average is 23,916). With the second semifinal leg and the final, I would expect the Coppa attendance to be over 20,000 – which would be approximately a 25% increase from just last season.
The first semifinal match pitted the defending champions Inter against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in a rematch of last year’s heated final (which saw Francesco Totti try to inflict serious harm on Mario Balotelli). The match itself was a rather lackluster affair which more closely resembled a war of attrition rather than a soccer match. Although soccer is a 90 minute match, it sometimes ultimately comes down to one or two plays that determine how a match swings. The first was a missed (and I mean missed – at the 0:40 mark) opportunity for Roma early in the match and the other was a stroke of pure brilliance from Inter. Not surprisingly the match ended 1-0 heading to the second leg in Milan. You might think I’m shortchanging this recap, but trust me, I’m not.
The real fireworks occurred the next day in Milan as Milan and Palermo battled to a 2-2 draw. Zlatan Ibrahimović, amazingly, was able to stay on the pitch long enough and not be sent off to put Milan up 1-0 in just the fourth minute. Palermo, to their credit, battled back and took a 2-1 just after halftime through goals from the two biggest summer transfer targets in Italy: Javier Pastore and Abel Hernández. Milan answered just 15 minutes from time with a goal from one of their January signings Urby Emanuelson and the match ended 2-2 with Palermo scoring two giant away goals. Highlights here (and what a strike from Hernández, you deserve that dance Abel).
2nd Leg Preview
Inter v Roma
Although, technically, Roma is still in the tie, I do not see things falling right for i Lupi and Inter should progress to the final solely based on the fact that Totti is still out through suspension. As you may remember, Totti was handed a four match ban for the aforementioned kick on Balotelli in last year’s final. While the club was able to advance past Lazio and Juventus without Totti, Inter is in a different league than those two clubs and the suspension has finally caught up with the capital club. With the form of Totti since the calendar turned to 2011, one wouldn’t be able to count out Roma in the second leg if available, but that’s not the case this year. The Inter machine, on the other hand, is continuing to move along. While this has been by all accounts a disappointing season for Inter, they still sit in second in the league and know what it takes to be champions and how to grind out results when needed. I think that is what will happen when these two meet on May 11th. That being said, it won’t be easy. Familiarity has bred contempt between the two squads. Between their two league fixtures that are played yearly and their penchant for being drawn together in the Coppa, the knowledge, and dislike, between the two is there.
Palermo v Milan
In contrast to the other match, the underdogs from Sicily have the upper hand in the second leg. The two away goals scored at the San Siro will prove invaluable. On March 19, Palermo defeated Milan 1-0 at home, but read into that what you will. Palermo has been a rollercoaster all season with big wins and big losses.
Palermo should also look at this match as their first real chance to garner a big piece of silverware. For a club whose biggest recent trophy won was the Serie B championship in 2004, they should be up for this match with a chance to advance to the finals. Finally, Palermo’s roster has been subject to summer transfer rumors since the winter transfer window ended. It is likely that their entire roster will be dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder with many of the biggest clubs in the world tracking the transfer status of their players – specifically Pastore and Hernández. So realistically, this may be Palermo’s only real chance to win a competition in the near future. I think Milan’s mindset was decided over the weekend with their match with Roma. With a point, Milan clinched their first Scudetto since 2004 and the hangover, both literal and figurative, may still be with the club. With a league title, I would expect many of the Milan players to over look this match with Palermo. I think the two away goals will prove to be the decider and Palermo will advance to face Inter.
With the recent reemergence of the importance of cup soccer, the second legs of these Coppa Italia semifinals qualify as can’t miss matches – and the same goes for the final at the end of May. The varying storylines – the upstarts from Palermo, the trophy grabbers from Milan, and the season salvagers from both Roma and Inter – provide excitement and intrigue to the matches ahead. The final in Rome should come down to Inter v Palermo, but the beauty of cup soccer is you never know and that’s why I’ll be tuning in to watch every minute of the upcoming matches.