Everything Else

Let’s be honestit feels a little ridiculous to be writing about sports right now. We’re in the midst of a long-overdue reckoning with this country’s toxic legacy of racism and police brutality; the economy is a mess and we all know someone, maybe ourselves, affected by un- or under-employment; and oh yeah, a poorly understood and frequently deadly disease is still ravaging the planet. So yes, sports as a diversion or as something to expend energy on seems downright frivolous. To tell you the truth, I haven’t found myself ready or able to write much about them, even though there have still been plenty of things to say even with leagues closed down. I’ve not seen much reason to put my voice out there when there are so many more that deserve to be heard.

And yet here I am writing about soccer. I guess I’m grasping at some sense of normalcy, and while Serie A’s return can’t really be described as “normal” for a soccer season, I’m unabashedly excited to have this little piece of my life back. So I’m going to share it with you, whether you’re interested or not (and Sam’s not here to shut down my Serie A content so BUCKLE UP).

The German Bundesliga has been back for a few weeks now, and La Liga from Spain and England’s Premier League will all be back in action soon too. But, lots of Serie A games will be on the various ESPN channels because, well, they got a lot of time to fill. So what the hell is going on when this league re-starts? The title race is actually interesting for one thing, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Beginning with the End

They’re starting with the semi-finals and final of the Coppa Italia (which I’m sure is clear that it’s an Italian national tournament). It may seem odd to start with the end of a competition when everyone is rusty, but I think it’s actually a good thinglet the few teams still in it get this out of the way and then everyone can focus on the scudetto (league title) and whatever the hell the rest of Champion’s League and Europa League end up being. So this Friday, Serie A’s version of the Patriots, Juventus, plays AC Milan, who have been terrible. To be honest though, Juve wasn’t playing all that well before the world fell apart, and given that everyone is starting from such a weird place, I guess it’s possible Milan pulls off the upset. But it sure isn’t likely. Juve has too much depth and Milan is woefully short on that. Although, running into the suspension of the season, Maurizio Sarri was using Paolo Dybala, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain as the attacking trio, and since that time Dybala got sick with COVID-19 for months on end, and Higuain showed up to training overweight and out of shape, so that front three that had been working so well may not be anymore. Still, I think they have enough talent to turn it on well enough to get past hapless Milan, but it will be interesting to see how their increasing age and slowness plays out now.

Saturday is Napoli-Inter, and as a Napoli fan I’m a bit terrified but also trying to be positive (and I’m just happy to see my fucking team again). Inter had been playing like shit right before the pandemic hit, losing to both Juve and Lazio in league play which basically ended their realistic chances at the scudetto. Napoli, on the other hand, after miserably underperforming for the first two-thirds of the season, were finally pulling their heads out of their collective asses. Our best center back, Kalidou Koulibaly, was hurt but should be back now, which would be a huge boost to our suspect (at best) defense. Thing is, Inter’s coach Antonio Conte loves to play the soccer version of the prevent defense. If Inter scores once (and they need two because Napoli is already leading in aggregate), they’re going to drop back and let Napoli dominate in possession. And Napoli excels at dominating possession but not finishing. They make one dumb mistake that leads to a goal when they’ve had 70% possessionit’s their specialty. So if Inter plays to their strengths they can probably take this, but it’s equally possible that the prevent defense blows up in their face if anyone on Napoli can finish.

Regardless of what happens, these are four powerhouses of the league all in various stages of growth, decline, and rebuilding-on-the-fly, so it’ll make for interesting viewing. And Juventus just might lose, so there’s that.


Now, what of the actual league play that kicks off (HAHA GET IT) on June 20th? The title race is the most interesting it’s been in a few years, and the current wackiness is just another element to that. Juve has won the last eight years and currently is top of the table with 63 points, but Lazio is right there with them with 62. It’s unfortunate because Lazio is the team of, by and for fascists, so you can’t actually root for these fuckers, even though they have the league’s top scorer in Ciro Immobile, who is entertaining as hell to watch. Anyway, it’s at least competitive and Inter is still making some noise in third. Atalanta, hands down the most fun team to watch and the league’s best Cinderella story, is fourth and it would be fantastic to see them pass Inter and make the latter sweat for the last Champion’s League spot next year (year? Season? Whatever length of time…what is time anyway?).

From there it’s a multi-car pileup in the middle of the table, but it means on paper the last Champion’s League spot is in play, plus the Europa League spots are up for grabs. Roma and Napoli are both in the running, as long as there’s no dramatic collapse on either side. Roma had also lost one of their best players to injury, Niccolo Zaniolo, who should be back before this whatever-end-of-a-season is over. In short, this season was already exciting and more unpredictable than usual, so seeing how it all sorts itself out should be a fun time in an already sports-starved summer.

Italy took a serious curb-stomping from the coronavirus, and their hardest-hit areas were the northern regions where most of these Serie A teams hail from. Atalanta in particular is the home team of Bergamo, the northern city that was the epicenter of the pandemic for a long time, as if we needed another element added to their story (and it’s another reason why you absolutely have to root for them in Champion’s League, outside of them playing against your team of course). No matter what happens, it’s a huge emotional lift for the country to have its calcio back. Remember, when Hank Scorpio asked Homer his least-favorite country, France or Italy, he followed up Homer’s answer with an astute observationnobody ever says Italy.

Everything Else

We’ve already covered the Premier League, but on your weekend mornings you may also run across random Italian soccer games. Serie A is on ESPN but mostly the network’s app, so I guess you Luddites out there may not see it. But if you do, here’s a crash course on what you’re watching. We’ll move north-to-south down the peninsula (no, that’s not a euphemism):

Juventus: The league’s best and most likely to win the season. Juve is the best team in Serie A and will probably win it. Again. They’ve won the championship (called the “Scudetto”) eight times in a row. They’re like the Patriots and Yankees rolled into one and yes you should hate them passionately.

But unfortunately they’re legitimately good. Convicted-tax-cheat-and-accused-rapist Ronaldo wins games at will when they need to be bailed out, but they also have scoring depth in Mario Mandzukic and Paolo Dybala, the latter of whom is still young and talented despite having had a tough previous season. Their backfield was aging and slow, so they took care of that by adding Matthijs de Ligt, one of the best defenders in the world. New coach Maurizio Sarri, who won the Europa League with Chelsea last year will likely play a 4-4-3, and the Scudetto is theirs to lose.

Torino: The Mets to Juve’s Yankees, or the White Sox to Juve’s Cubs, if you wanna be a dick about it. Torino is a mid-table team with one decent striker. And his nickname in Italian is “The Cock.” Not even making that up.

Internazionale: One of the best teams but continually falling short of expectations. Known as “Inter,” they’re making a credible run at Juve’s dominance. They have a new coach, Antonio Conte, who is one of the most successful Italian coaches of recent years, and they landed Romelu Lukaku, who should more than make up for their drama-filled albatross Mauro Icardi, who they’re still trying to unload. They’ll be competitive like they always are…and lose to Juve like they always do.

AC Milan: Been underperforming and will likely be better. Milan should be good this year—they seemed to have found their striker in Krzysztof Piatek, they added a bunch of midfielders to make up for the injury-depleted group last year, and they’re sitting out of Europa League (financial shenanigans), which means they’ll be rested and focused on getting back into a Champion’s League spot.

Atalanta: Last year’s Cinderella story, doomed to not repeat it. Atalanta squeaked into the fourth Champion’s League spot and yes you should root for them because come on, you’re not that dead inside. But truth be told, they have no depth and are likely to be mid-table this year.

Brescia: Recently promoted but surprisingly interesting. So Brescia just got promoted, which generally means they’re going to suck, but they just signed native son Mario Balotelli, one of the most infamous Italian players who’s legit a top-flight guy, although also a nutjob and on the downswing. This club also has the league’s version of Crash Davis, the leading scorer in the B league, Alfredo Donnarumma, who will be paired with Balotelli as the scoring attack. So it might be interesting at times, but with no defense they’ll still be kind of a trainwreck.

Hellas Verona: Don’t even worry about it. They were relegated, now are back, and will certainly be relegated again.

Udinese: Again, don’t worry about it.

Genoa: Attempting to suck less. This team brought in a bunch of new players after barely avoiding relegation. Lasse Schone helps their midfield, their backfield is also strong on paper, and they may have some competition amongst their strikers between Christian Kouamé, Andrea Pinamonti and some other dudes you’ve never heard of. Could be a sleeper pick?

Sampdoria: Perennial shit show. This team’s best player is nearly my age. And their new coach got his ass fired from Roma midway through the season last year for general awfulness. Expect to be underwhelmed.

Parma: Will be fortunate to not get relegated.

Sassuolo: Lots of turnover in the lineup, will probably steal a few untimely wins. Sassuolo is by no means a good team, but with the lineup going through the blender, they’ll probably make life difficult for a couple teams at inopportune times.

Bologna: High drama, will be a mid-table finish. This club was rescued mid-season by Sinisa Mihijlovic, who somehow lit a fire under their asses to get from the relegation zone to a solid 10th place. He was recently diagnosed with leukemia and intends to keep coaching, but obviously a terrible development.

SPAL: Dull and will stay that way.

Fiorentina: In rebuilding mode. Fiorentina was awful last year but they have new management and a whole fresh lease on life. We’ll see.

Lazio: Hanging around the top of the league, but they’re fascists. Seriously, Lazio is the team for fascists in Italy. Even IN ITALY people are like oh yeah, they’re fascists. So you can’t root for them. Their fans do all sorts of anti-Semitic shit all the time—fuck this team.

Roma: Full on re-building. Roma was a reliable Champion’s League team and it sucks, but they’re going through a necessary rebuild. They have good young players in Nicolo Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Cengiz Under and a few more, although they lost their best defender to Napoli. Paolo Fonseca is untested in Serie A but had success with Shakhtar Donetsk, and his 4-2-3-1 may actually work quite well with their personnel if Edin Dzeko is in the striker position. It may be a long road back to the top but this could actually be a decent rebuild.

Napoli: Should FINALLY FUCKING BEAT JUVE WHY CAN THEY NOT DAMN IT ALL. Guess which one is my team? In all honesty, they underperformed last year and were still second in the league. Anything less than beating Juve for the Scudetto will be a disappointment, and it’d be nice if they could get past the fucking group stage of Champion’s League. Napoli strengthened their backfield with Roma’s Kostas Manolas who joins Kalidou Koulibaly, legit one of the best defenders in the world. They also hit the cheap-young-talented trifecta with midfielder Elif Elmas. And as of this writing, they were on the verge of signing Hirving Lozana from PSV, who will absolutely help their lack of scoring, since Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, love them as I do, are getting older and not faster. So it’s been a solid transfer season. Their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, won’t hesitate to move from a 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 and can be trusted to make relatively decent decisions, except for playing Mario Rui, who should be fired into the sun and maybe can be now that we have Manolas.

Cagliari: Could be decent, and at least they’re woke. Their midfield should get some help with Radja Nainggolan from Inter, who now has something to prove since he was kinda dumped unceremoniously. They’ve got other randos who are alright but nothing special. However, last year when local farmers were protesting shitty prices, some of the players took part in the protests so at least they’re standing against corporate exploitation.

Lecce: Prediction—we hardly knew ye. Again, don’t’ worry about it.

Everything Else

I was trying to decide what to compare the Champions League final to, and—spoiler alert—there isn’t really something that’s comparable in a 1-to-1 way. At first I thought Super Bowl, but this isn’t like two teams coming from two conferences, a neat and clean path to the championship, although the hype and significance of the game itself may be reminiscent of the Super Bowl.

This isn’t like the Stanley Cup Finals either, even though they’re a circuitous path to winning. Champions League includes the top teams from leagues across Europe, so the clubs change (to a degree) each year as league play has the knock-on effect of determining a Champions League berth. And alas, as much as we would prefer never to watch the Ottawa Senators play a professional game again, this variability doesn’t happen in the NHL.

It’s not even really analogous to the World Cup. Yes, both tournaments feature pool play and then knockout rounds, but that’s like saying basketball in the Olympics is the same as the NBA Finals.
It’s not—national(ist) sentiment is different than rooting for your club. Suffice it to say, this is a unique event that combines arduous schedules and length of time, intense fan loyalty, and an international flair all into one.

How Did We Get Here?

And what about the teams themselves? It’s Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, whose name will never not be funny to me because it’s so stereotypically British (say “hotspur” in your head with a British accent). On the one hand, these are both Premier League teams so what the fuck? On the other hand, this is part of the charm—there’s no best of the worst coming from one division or one conference; they earned the right to be here, league be damned.

Is it a David and Goliath scenario? Ehh, not exactly. Liverpool is a powerhouse, but they had issues of their own getting here. Up and down their lineup they’re stacked, including having two of the world’s best forwards in Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, literally the world’s best defender in Virgil van Dijk, and yet another superlative in goalkeeper in Alisson Becker. However, in the semifinal they ran up against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and promptly got their ass kicked in the first leg 3-0. To make matters worse, in the second leg a bunch of those “world’s best” I just named didn’t even play—notably Salah and Firmino. And yet, they came out and destroyed Barca 4-0, thanks to substitute Georginio Wijnaldum and his two goals coming within minutes of each other early in the second half. This changed the entire nature of the match, since they had to not just win it but win by more than three goals—really fucking hard to do. (Another relative rando, Divock Origi, had the other two so clearly they can do it without the big names.)

In a way it’s almost like two Cinderella stories because as crazy as Liverpool’s comeback was, Tottenham’s berth is even more insane. They were seconds away from losing to Manchester City in the quarterfinals when a goal got called back for being offside, letting the Spurs squeak by what is, on paper at least, a much better team. A hat trick by Lucas Moura in the second half of the second leg of the semis against Ajax got them here—not unlike Liverpool popping off for a bunch of goals in the last possible moment. And all of this happened without their top striker, Harry Kane, who’s been injured for months. Again, like Liverpool, the entire team made the difference as opposed to reliance on one star player (as Barcelona and Juventus with Messi and Ronaldo, respectively, are painfully aware).

So Where Is It Going?

That’s all fine and good—now what the hell is going to happen, right? Well, Liverpool is ostensibly the better team, particularly with Salah and Firmino playing, and is definitely a big favorite to win. But then again, the Spurs should have been out two rounds ago, should have lost to these other, better teams, and sometimes emotion and momentum are enough in a one-match situation, just like a game 7.

Personally, I think Tottenham will do their thing where they dominate possession but make just enough mistakes for Liverpool to capitalize. Van Dijk practically lets no one get by him with the ball, and I expect the Spurs will struggle to get past him and the rest of the backfield, and even if they do they have Alisson to deal with. Meanwhile, Liverpool can take advantage quickly, move the ball through the midfield and have enough scoring threats to catch Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris on the back foot. He’s not terrible, but I’ll take Alisson over Lloris ten out of ten times. And they only need to do it once, maybe twice, and then shut down Son, Moura and Kane, who will likely play but I question if he’ll be much of a factor coming back from a months-long recovery for an ankle injury.

This is what is likely to happen, but this entire run has been full of unlikely turns of events so I reserve the right to hedge on this. To complicate things further, both the coaches are also world-class-superlative guys. Mauricio Pochettino has done incredible things with a veritable MASH unit all year and may be coaching himself to a better gig, and Jurgen Klopp has been here twice and never won the final, so there’s both experience and ridiculous determination for the prize (especially after losing out on the Premier League title by one fucking point).

It will not be dull and it won’t lack for championship drama—that much I’m confident about. Because, oh yeah, on top of everything, one of those finals that Klopp lost was with Liverpool last year, and Salah got injured early in the game and that is some major motivation for everyone involved. It’s more pressure too, but between the down-to-the-wire Premier League race and this drama, they should be getting used to it.

Even if you’re not that into soccer, this one will be worth your time.