Time Icardi Got Credit He Deserves

As a commentator I’m always conscious of not over-using certain adjectives, and saving them for when most truly appropriate, so as not to lessen their impact.

When describing an in-form centre-forward there can always be the temptation to refer to them as ‘deadly’ – yet it’s a word that, in my view should only be used to describe the most clinical and consistent of centre-forwards – a bracket which Mauro Icardi fits very nearly in to. In fact, I’d go far as to say he is one of European football’s most-underrated players, and the best out-and-out centre-forward in world football right now.

Now, my latter assertion is admittedly a big claim, and one that will have many of you shouting out names like Kane, Aguero, Lewandowski, Suarez, Higauin, Aubameyang, Griezmann and Cavani. All of them are fine players, but having watched Icardi closely for several years, I can honestly say that, excluding Messi and Ronaldo, I haven’t seen a better finisher in that time.

Arguably Icardi’s greatest strength is how few chances he needs to score a goal – something so well evidenced by his hat-trick in the Milan derby back in October. Serie A’s 2nd highest scorer, Icardi has a shot accuracy of 71% (source Squawka) in Italy’s top-flight this season – compare that with some of his fellow top-forwards – Kane’s is 54%, Lewandowski’s is 55%, Aubameyang’s is 56% – also a way off that percentage are Messi (57%) and Ronaldo (44%). Even under Roberto Mancini the season before last, when Inter had a reputation as being more conservative and pragmatic, when chances for Icardi were less frequent, he still managed a goal/game ratio of just under 1 in 2.

The next thing I’d point out is his consistency. Be it in an Inter side hovering around the Europa League places, or one challenging for the Scudetto as they are right now, Icardi has been a reliable source of goals for several seasons. One goal short of 100 in Serie A now, he’s managed 89 in 145 league appearances for Inter. In his last 54 league appearances, Icardi has scored 42 goals – and he’s never gone more than two league games without a goal this season.

These are very impressive numbers – and you don’t need to watch Icardi play for long to begin to admire his movement, positioning, alertness to an opportunity and his finishing – four key attributes for any top centre-forward, and he’s world-class in all of them.  Mentality may be an unseen quality, but that’s also very important to appreciate with Icardi – a player very confident in his own ability, unfazed by captaining one of Italy’s biggest clubs, not overly distracted by off-field dramas (there have been a few) and increasingly fond of the big occasion. He is also no flat-track-bully – last season he scored against Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Milan and Fiorentina, amongst others.

So why then is a player this good underrated? Well, I think there are several reasons – some of them valid, including the first one I’ll reference – his lack of Champions League exposure. He’s yet to make his debut in that competition, and so prestigious has it become that it’s difficult to be judged as a world-class talent without playing in it.

Icardi chose to leave Barcelona for Italy in 2011, but I think it also goes against him that he doesn’t play right now in Spain or England. Serie A is a brilliant league, and very much on the up, but rightly or wrongly it doesn’t currently have the same world-wide profile of the Spanish and English top-flights.

The Argentina national side certainly does attract plenty of attention, and will do even more so with a World Cup coming up on the horizon. The problem is that Icardi is far from certain of a place in the squad that will travel to Russia. Competition is clearly intense with players like Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Dybala also available to Jorge Sampaoli, but it is still something of a sporting travesty that Icardi has reached the age of 24 and only been capped four-times by his country – three of those appearances coming in the last twelve months.

There is a theory that his face just doesn’t fit when it comes to Argentina, and that’s partly explained away by the baggage that Icardi’s carried around for many years relating to his former teammate Maxi Lopez, the ex-husband of Icardi’s wife Wanda Nara. Whether that theory holds water or not is open to speculation, as is how damaging to Icardi’s chances of being judged a top player that episode has been – not to mention a controversial autobiography and disagreements with his own supporters.

It’s almost undeniable that potential suitors would see him as an off-the-field risk – and that may have put off club’s currently in Europe’s very top-bracket – but I think it’s also important to note that Icardi really doesn’t seem to want to leave Inter, and it may well be that he finally earns the credit I believe he deserves when the club that he’s remained loyal to returns to the top table of European football, something that could be just around the corner.


Sarri Close To The Holy Grail?

Style with substance. It is surely the Holy Grail for most football coaches. They are independently hard enough to achieve – and one is sometimes forsaken for the other, so those who can find a way to combine them, particularly at the highest level, are rightly lauded.

It is early days in the Serie A season, but Napoli head-coach Maurizio Sarri appears tantalisingly close to producing that magic formula, that Eureka moment. Napoli have been playing some of the most attractive football in Europe for some time now, but there have been missing ingredients – factors that turn great entertainers in to winners.

Much of it is down to mentality, and for all their mesmerising football, Napoli have not had that crucial extra edge. The type of thing that for so long I’ve strongly associated with the current Italian champions, Juventus. That ability to win matches without playing well, a collective belief that they belong at the top, the confidence/arrogance of champions, a team-spirit and team ethic that bonds, inspires and roots out those who can’t or won’t buy in to it.

Whilst the season is long, and making predictions can be a mug’s game, I have to say I’m becoming more and more convinced that Napoli do now have those qualities, that they could be champions, that this could be the season they deliver a first Scudetto since Maradona and co in 1990. From the outside looking in I see a group of players who, as Lorenzo Insigne alluded to recently, are sick of playing well but ultimately falling short – they now want to be winners.

They are the first side in Serie A history to win the opening seven matches of the season with at least 25 goals scored – they are on a club-record run of 12 Serie A victories in a row, and are unbeaten in 19 top-flight matches, another club best. All impressive statistics which illustrate the level of consistency expected of champions, but these figures only tell part of the story. It is the manner and variety of Napoli’s performances that suggest to me that they are as close as this group has ever been under Sarri to delivering the Scudetto. Whether a side has the ability to win a demanding and competitive league championship is almost always better assessed by how they perform on an average day than a good one. I read more in to the 2-3 win at SPAL, than perhaps I do the 6-0 win over Benevento. To recover from a goal down against sides like Lazio and Atalanta also shows impressive resilience and character. Napoli are no longer just about blitzing teams, they can also show grit and determination.

These qualities aren’t just stumbled over, they are honed and developed, and Maurizio Sarri’s hard work over the last few years is really paying off now. His influence on the side tactically and technically is clear for all to see. But what he now has is something all coaches must surely crave – continuity and consistency. Minimal changes over the summer, and star names tied down to long-term contracts – there is great familiarity amongst this group of players in terms of the coach’s demands, expectations and the style of play. They all get it, they all buy in to it, and it shows on the pitch.

All that said, the physical demands of Napoli’s intense style mean there’s always the risk of fatigue, particularly if Sarri continues to be reluctant to fully utilise the strength in depth that they’ve now amassed. How he rests and rotates going forward could be crucial in the title race – as will the performance level reached by the defending champions, who seem to have dipped slightly from the exceptionally high standards of last season. Even so, wrestling the Scudetto away from The Old Lady will require a tremendous effort, but there’s every possibility this could be the season where Neapolitan dreams come true, and style finally meets substance.

Italy’s New ‘Golden Generation’ Remain On Track

Italy’s U21s may have just come up short in Poland, but Adam Summerton believes their European Championship experience will pay future dividends

I liked Luigi Di Biagio’s pre-tournament assertion that Italy’s U21s were the country’s best group at that level for 20 years, despite critics later suggesting he’d set himself up for a fall. It was clever and showed a clear understanding of both his own development role and the potential importance of this group to the senior set-up – in the very near future in some cases.

He may well truly believe what he said, but I also think Di Biagio knows that as an Italian, above all else, he needs to prepare players who are able to handle the expectation that goes with wearing the Azzurri senior shirt – players who are mentally tough and tournament savvy. Increasing the expectation on their shoulders was shrewd in my opinion – it provided an even sterner examination at a crucial stage of their development.

I say this because while Italy won’t win this summer’s U21 European Championship, I believe they have a great chance of being the most successful of any of the nations involved in terms of integrating players from the U21s in to next summer’s senior squad for the World Cup. I’d say at least nine of those players, possibly more, should feel they have a good chance of earning a place on the plane to Russia – namely Donnarumma, Rugani, Caldara, Conti, Pellegrini, Gagliardini, Chiesa, Berardi and Bernardeschi. Add in other names like Romagnoli (22) Belotti (23), Verratti (24), El Shaarawy (24), De Sciglio (24) and Spinazzola (24), and it’s abundantly clear that there are exciting times ahead for the Italian national side.

Compare that assertion to the widely held view of only a year or so ago that Italy were struggling to produce young players and needed a big rethink on how to best achieve that. I recall a mood of frustration and even mild embarrassment before Euro 2016, when it was suggested in many quarters that this was the poorest Italian side to contest a major tournament in several generations. Antonio Conte’s squad last summer had an average age of 28.43, with nine players aged 30 or over. Even a year in advance I think we can say with some certainty that Ventura’s squad for Russia will be significantly younger and far better balanced in terms of age. The old cliché ‘a great blend of youth and experience’ would be entirely appropriate when you consider elder statesmen like Buffon, Barzagli and De Rossi are also likely to be present – three previous Euro U21 winners – while Chiellini made the U21 Team of the Tournament in 2007.

All four players learnt a lot from playing in exactly the sort of environment that Italy’s current crop of youngsters have just experienced. Indeed, Italy already have a head-start in that respect on a nation like England, who didn’t include eligible players like Sterling, Rashford, Alli, Stones and Dier. So while Luigi Di Biagio might not have been able to overhaul a very good and technically gifted Spain side in the semi-finals, let’s not lose sight of the real end game, and what youth tournaments are all about – the true benefits of his work may still be to come, and for an U21s coach that’s how it should be.

Mo Salah Is Much More Than A ‘Chelsea Reject’

With Liverpool said to be on the verge of signing Roma forward Mohamed Salah, Adam Summerton hails his improvement during two-and-a-half seasons in Serie A 

When Roma acquired the services of renowned recruiter Monchi, attention inevitably turned to which gems he would identify to improve the Giallorossi – what didn’t get mentioned quite so much was the difficulties he’d have in keeping and/or replacing last season’s key players. Mohamed Salah’s imminent departure to Liverpool, while not unexpected, leaves a big hole that will be hard to fill – a player who directly contributed to 26 goals in 31 Serie A appearances last season (15 goals, 11 assists).

Still lazily labelled a ‘Chelsea reject’ by those who’ve probably not bothered to watch him a great deal in recent years – the truth is that Liverpool are getting a much more mature and well-rounded footballer than the one who endured a difficult first-spell in English football – not that he was given much of a chance at Stamford Bridge. It would have been hard enough as a young player to make the considerable step up from the Swiss Super League to the Premier League, but almost impossible when given just six league starts in twelve months.

The best thing Chelsea did for Salah was to let him go out on-loan to Serie A. It was in the beautiful surroundings of Florence that the Egyptian international began to repair damaged confidence, scoring six goals and providing three assists in the second half of the 2014/15 league season. His brief spell at the Artemio Franchi is perhaps best remembered for a fantastic performance away against Juventus in the Coppa Italia, where he scored both goals in a 1-2 win for La Viola – at the time it was Juve’s first home defeat in just under two years, for Salah it was a sign of things to come.

Having worked under Vincenzo Montella at Fiorentina, Salah then joined Roma in the summer of 2015, scoring 14 goals and providing 6 assists in his first Serie A season at the Olimpico, firstly coached by Rudi Garcia and then his eventual replacement Luciano Spalletti. The latter’s tactical acumen is often referenced by his many advocates and this is a key area in which playing in Italy has helped mould the Salah of today.

Playing under an innovative coach whose approach demands tactical flexibility, invention and experimentation – Salah has clearly learnt and improved. He still has the tremendous pace, directness and trickery that first caught people’s attention at Basel, but the Egyptian international is now smarter, cleverer and more aware of others on the pitch. Probably the best example I can give of this is the excellent relationship he developed with Edin Dzeko last season. The campaign prior had been a very difficult one for the former Manchester City striker, and I often thought part of his problem was actually a lack of understanding with Salah. It’s a credit to both of them and indeed Luciano Spalletti that what had previously been a weakness developed in to a key strength for the Giallorossi – Dzeko ended the season as Serie A’s top-scorer with a very impressive 29 goals, seven of them created by Salah, the league’s most effective partnership in that respect.

Striking up new understandings at Anfield is now the challenge for a player who leaves Italy in far better shape than when he arrived. Salah deserves great credit not just for bouncing back from his Chelsea experience, but also for returning to the scene of his career’s biggest disappointment in England. Those who’ve watched him develop over the last two years won’t be surprised by that strength of character though. Indeed it will be more useful than ever to him in the coming weeks and months as he handles the considerable pressure and expectation that comes with being Liverpool Football Club’s record signing. I’m sure Monchi will enjoy spending the cash.

Opportunity Knocks For Di Francesco

As a new-era begins at AS Roma, Adam Summerton suggests new head-coach Eusebio Di Francesco has been dealt a very good hand

It was one of the worst kept secrets in Italian football, but when Eusebio Di Francesco’s appointment as Roma head coach was finally confirmed, my first thought was ‘what a great opportunity’. He inherits a talented and reasonably well-balanced squad that, under Luciano Spalletti, has just set a club-record Serie A points tally and achieved automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League. He joins a club with a very ambitious owner who continues to pursue, with great vigour, a new stadium project that could make a huge difference to Roma’s chances of long-term success. I’d also highlight the presence of Monchi as someone many in football would be keen to work with.

Yes, there’s much work to do to close the gap on Juventus, but Roma appear in safe hands and with much to be excited and optimistic about in what will be viewed by many as the ‘post-Totti’ era. It’s also arguable that Il Capitano’s recent departure provides an opportunity in itself. A truly magnificent footballer who has deserved all the plaudits he’s received, but while, simply because of age, his on-pitch significance has decreased significantly over the last few seasons, the political challenges brought by his presence only seemed to increase.

A player so revered and iconic – managing the winding down of his career must’ve been very difficult for all concerned – and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that it was a continual distraction and frustration for Luciano Spalletti in particular. You only had to look at how weary he became of questions on Totti’s playing time and future in press conferences. Some will say Spalletti could’ve managed the situation better, or more sensitively, others will feel he was put in a no-win situation, but whatever your view is, it is surely hard to argue that the whole situation wasn’t, at best, a distraction, and, at worst, de-stabilising. Many in Di Francesco’s position, while rightly respectful of the immeasurable contribution made by Totti to the club’s history, would surely feel an understandable sense of relief that what had become such a thorny political issue was concluded ahead of their arrival.

So significant was Totti’s presence that his departure also adds to the sense of a new era at Roma, something that Di Francesco will hope promotes patience. Ironically though it is a significant link to the past that will perhaps endear Di Francesco most to followers of the Giallorossi. A Scudetto winner alongside Totti in the 2000/01 season, it remains the club’s most-recent league title. A side that played some great football under Fabio Capello, who skilfully crafted a system and style of play that cleverly maximised the best talents of those available to him.

The same challenge is now laid down to Di Francesco, who must surely be enthused and invigorated by the opportunity to recreate that sort of success at his old club. What’s also significant is that he is able to do this with the knowledge that the style of play he implemented so adeptly and successfully at Sassuolo has been described as the “right fit for Roma” by Club President James Pallotta. Also endorsed and personally singled out by Monchi, Di Francesco begins life at the Olimpico in a very strong position and with the knowledge that he was Roma’s first-pick to take the club forward – we’d be hard-pressed to say the same about his predecessors’ position at Inter. Spalletti has left Roma in good shape though, indeed I think history could actually end up judging his second spell far more favourably than the present does, particularly if Di Francesco is able build on some very solid foundations and take the opportunity he has undoubtedly earned.

Cautious Optimism Needed at Milan

Despite an impressive start to the summer transfer market, Adam Summerton argues AC Milan supporters can’t afford to get too carried away 

When it comes to football club ownership, as many supporters have found to their cost, actions most definitely speak louder than words. It’s why followers of AC Milan seem understandably optimistic after a very proactive summer so far by the club’s new owners.

The Rossoneri were always going to be in a greater rush than most, not least because their season begins in the 3rd qualifying round of the Europa League on the 27th of July. But the planning and spending we’ve seen so far is possibly about much more than just being ready for that tie, they seem really intent on sending out a message, on proving they mean business.

By the 8th of June, to have extended Montella’s contract until 2019 and signed Musacchio, Kessie and Rodriguez is, just in terms of organisation and administration, a pretty impressive feat. And we hear there is still much more to come, with exciting names like Conti, Keita, Biglia and Belotti being spoken of.

It must be hard for Milan supporters, so eager for a return to the good old days, not to start getting carried away, but that would be a mistake. Yes, there is much to be positive and optimistic about, but there is also an awful lot of rebuilding still to do, and it’s so important that this is recognised and remembered – for the foreseeable future feet need to stay firmly on the ground.

I say this because I’ve observed a club that has been held back for several years partly because of an inner unwillingness to fully accept and deal with its current status a way outside of both Italian and European elite. It’s a club that has fallen a long way, is crying out for stability, and one where there has been more pressure than patience – coaches and players haunted by and sometimes judged on former glories.

You can’t build lasting success overnight, and to go from being a decent side to world-beaters in one summer is a rare feat – there almost always has to be a process and players who begin that journey can play their part, without necessarily being there until the successful conclusion. Suso, for example, is unlikely to ever be as good a player as say, Roberto Donadoni, but right now he has a significant role to play in helping Milan towards a top-four finish. Would Suso then be good enough, as a first-pick, to help them go on and challenge for the Scudetto, or the Champions League? I’m not so sure. But given the chance, this is a squad that can and will naturally evolve – it is how this great club, one with such vast potential, can negotiate the steep climb back to the top.

Overseeing all that will be Vincenzo Montella, who handled himself very well last season – remaining professional and dignified during the sizeable challenges of a protracted takeover, and delivering both a trophy and a return to European competition in his first season. He undoubtedly has a platform for growth but will be mindful of the pressure and expectation that this financial outlay will bring. The troubles of city rivals Inter came after a summer of optimism, where they were only outspent by Juventus, yet ended up experiencing a campaign of off-field upheaval and a 7th place finish. Morale within the Nerazzurri squad seemed a big problem and that is something, particularly in the midst of an overhaul of the playing staff, which Montella will be keen to protect and promote at Milan. Throw in the potential for an extra 15 + games if things go well in the Europa League, and it’s clear that while the Rossoneri’s new era is off to a promising start there are many challenges ahead to overcome before Milan are truly back where they feel they belong.

Napoli – The Way Forward

For me, as a fan of football there are few things better than watching players who are, week-in-week-out, almost guaranteed to get you off your seat. What’s so special about this current Napoli side is that they have a whole team of those players. The great entertainers of Serie A, football with a heart-pounding intensity – in my opinion they and Monaco have been the most exciting teams to watch in Europe this season.

Unlike their French counter-parts though Napoli are, barring an astonishing turn of events, going to end the season trophy-less. So the pressing issue going forward is how can Maurizio Sarri turn plaudits in to prizes?


If Napoli are to win a Serie A title in the coming years, the strong likelihood is they’ll need to finish above Juventus, and what The Old Lady do better than any other side in Europe right now is get the balance right between attack and defence. It sometimes means they have to be pragmatic, and Max Allegri doesn’t mind sacrificing entertainment for success. After a 1-nil first-leg win over Monaco in the Champions League semi-finals, he said if you ‘if you want to have fun, you should go to the circus’. For Napoli to lose the high-intensity and expression in their play would be to kill their identity, the things that make them so great – but if they are to win trophies there has to be a better balance struck, they have to pick their moments better, particularly in the really big games. It’s seems strange to say this about a team that tends to dominate possession, but above all else Napoli need to play better when they don’t have the ball.


Again I will reference Juventus here because I think it’s entirely relevant. The Bianconeri, in chasing a treble, have had to rotate meticulously this season, and they have the squad to do it, but I feel this is an area where Napoli have to be cleverer. Last summer I thought Napoli re-invested the Higuain cash very wisely. Tiredness had been a factor at the end of the 15/16 season because the first-eleven barely changed – so this extra strength in depth provided an opportunity, particularly with a high-intensity style, to rest and rotate. But has Sarri really made the most of the extra depth? Does he really trust all those who were brought in last summer? Whilst injuries have been a factor with some of those recruited, it’s still surprising that we haven’t seen the likes of Maksimovic, Tonelli, Giaccherini, Rog, Diawara and Zielinski begin more league games – between them they’ve only made 39 starts in Serie A this season. At the time of writing, Napoli have seven outfield players who’ve started 25 league games or more, for Juventus the figure is four.

Tactical flexibility

It’s easy to forget that when Sarri came to Napoli he didn’t have the easiest of starts – taking two points from their first three league games in 15/16 playing a 4-3-1-2 formation. That early form led to quite a lot of criticism and scepticism, which melted away after Sarri switched to a 4-3-3 set-up for the visit of Club Brugge, thumped them 5-nil and went on a tremendous run thereafter. It’s my view that this formation still suits Napoli’s players best, but I believe it’s a squad with the capability to be much more tactically flexible than we’ve actually seen so far. You have to wonder how scarred Sarri is by the flack that came his way in the very early days, from Maradona amongst others. Perhaps that plays a part in his reluctance to change things too much, but while any change always brings an element of risk, that extra flexibility might, on occasion, be a necessity for Sarri to find ways of winning the tighter games and outwitting the best coaches – it may also aid the pragmatic approach referenced earlier.


I read a lot of player interviews before commentating on games, and one with Jose Callejon, published on Football Italia back in March, I thought was particularly telling – it had originally been broadcast on Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli

“We feel as if we are an important team, but we need to know we are because at times I don’t think we have that mentality.

“Those on the bench and in the crowd also need to know we are a strong team, we can win something. On the pitch we need to enjoy ourselves, give enjoyment to the crowd and to our teammates.

Rightly or wrongly I read a lot in to that, particularly the first line. As wonderful as Napoli are, as close as they are to being a truly top side, do they collectively believe they are good enough to take those extra steps that are needed? Again, it’s a stand-out difference between Napoli and Juventus right now.


It’s important to finish on a positive, because there is so much to love about this Napoli team, and that’s perhaps why those involved seem keen to stay – Lorenzo Insigne has already committed to a new long-term deal and the word is that Dries Mertens will be next. It’s also been reported that Maurizio Sarri may be close to committing to a new four-year contract, and many Neapolitans will hope this turns out to be true. A man who was born in the city, and in the same year that the Stadio San Paolo was opened. He supported the club as a boy, even though he actually grew up in Tuscany. A forward thinking and innovative coach with an incredible drive and attention to detail – soon Sarri will be preparing for a third season in charge of Napoli at the same time that there’s instability and uncertainty in the coaching positions at the likes of Roma, Inter and Fiorentina. Whilst new coaches at those clubs may bring with them new ideas, squad overhauls and lots of change, Napoli fans know they are much further down the road of development – much of the hard work is now done, for Sarri it’s now just about tweaking and perfecting in his search for that winning formula.