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Thursday, December 8, 2005
Meanwhile, in Serie A...

Roberto Gotta

A good argument can be made on behalf of the Champions League and its format, in that we can now watch decent football almost every week.

'We', of course, may be limited to those who can actually go and watch a match live, or have access (read: enough money) to the channels that air the CL throughout the world.

With as many as eight to choose each time during the group stage, the possibility of switching from a boring to an exciting one is high, although there are really no boring matches if one looks at them in a professional manner and tries to pick up the litte things that make a 0-0 as much a tactical masterpiece as a 5-4, last-kick-of-the-game win.

OK, UEFA may have killed and disfigured our beloved European Cup as we knew it in our youth, when I couldn't wait for those ten Wednesdays (and Wednesdays only) spread throughout the season and savoured each one of them, including, homework time, early afternoon live broadcasts from Eastern Europe where the stands appeared to be filled by soldiers under orders not to move, but it's clear there's no way back to those fascinating times, and we may just as well adapt and digest the best from what's on our plate now.

Among the victims of the Champions League's omnivorous appetite for headlines, though, are teams that are not taking part in any kind of European competitions.

Nobody's fault really if not of the system itself, but with Milan's crucial home match with Schalke 04 coming up, and the World Cup draw following soon, poor old Chievo's feat in beating the rossoneri last Saturday has been all but forgotten, or relegated to an oblique mention whenever the media were investigating the reasons for the recurrent defensive mistakes by Carlo Ancelotti's side (by the way, it was Shevchenko who 'lost' Poulsen yesterday on the free kick from which Schalke 04 equalised. So no defender was involved).

It's perhaps sooo last week to dwell on Chievo's famous win over Milan, is it? In the meantime, Juve won at Fiorentina, Roma were punished by Uefa for their dodgy transfer policies, Inter started licking their lips in anticipation of next Sunday night's Milan derby, a million newspaper articles and Web stories were written...

And poor old Chievo were left resembling a kid waving his white handkerchief from a departing ship. You know there's someone worthy of notice up there among the gesticulating throng, but you can't exactly tell who he is, and what he's trying to tell you and the more time you think, the further he is from you.

Well, we at Soccernet have an unusual memory even in these short-attention-span times, and here's a tribute to Chievo. The very fact they're still competing in the Serie A is a success in itself. Not because - you're read it a zillion times since their surprising promotion in 2001 - they're a tiny club from a corner of Verona, but because of last year's struggle against relegation.

Luigi Del Neri, the coach who'd led Chievo to success in the Serie A with his attacking style, had left for Porto, where he did not last past July, and had been replaced by Mario Beretta, a first timer in the top flight.

After a bright start which saw them climb to third place after six weeks, injuries and a loss of form by a few players took their toll and Chievo nosedived to third from bottom with three matches to go.

That's when Beretta, in a desperate move, was replaced by assistant Maurizio 'Icio' D'Angelo, who was in his first season on the staff after 13 years as a defender for the yellow and blue. D'Angelo, a fan favourite, made a lot of changes in the team and led Chievo to wins in Siena and against Bologna, and a draw at Roma on the last day, coupled with other results elsewhere, meant the Veronese stayed up.

But their near-death experience couldn't teach them much: with limited resources, a small fan base and an ownership which has never fallen prey to the utopian planning which led other clubs to disaster, Chievo could not spend a lot in the transfer market, and their choice as new manager, once D'Angelo had agreed to prolong his apprenticeship as an assistant, had to be another little-known man plucked from the lower divisions. Well, almost.

Giuseppe Pillon had technically just led Treviso, his hometown club, to the Serie A, although promotion had come in mid-summer after the Federation had demoted Torino and Genoa. By then, Pillon had been Chievo's manager for a couple of months, and had set about the task of rebuilding the morale of the squad who'd gone so close to going down.

His tactical preference, like Del Neri's, goes to the 4-4-2 with a consistent use of the flanks> But each manager has his own concept of how the 4-4-2 should be done, and Chievo's squad is built to play 4-4-2 anyway, he said in the summer.

A hard worker who demands constant concentration - not that you'll find many coaches who don't, anyway - he's met his match in a team that has been using last year's narrow escape as a motivational tool under the banner 'never again'.

The results have been excellent. Chievo have given away fewer goals than all teams except Juventus and Inter, and the match against Milan showed why.

The visitors had little time to think and play the ball, Chievo players were constantly closing down space, with the hard-working forward duo of Pellissier and Amauri the first line of defence and wingers Semioli and Franceschini ready to spring forward.

Milan strikers were immediately surrounded once they approached the penalty area, and after Khaladze's goal from a set piece and another scare for Chievo when Shevchenko missed a sitter, the tide turned.

Pillon said he'd studied Milan's defending on corners and free kicks and had seen their weaknesses, although Pellissier's equaliser did not come directly from a free kick but was more a result of quick thinking by Mandelli in lifting a pass towards the area which was met by Pellissier and fired home.

Simone Tiribocchi's gem of a goal 8 minutes from time originated from another piece of brilliant football, the substitute's touch to Obinna being rewarded by the Nigerian forward with a quick return pass which 'Tir' (short for Tiribocchi, but also, in Italian, the kind of trailer truck you don't want to see steaming forward in your rear window) sidefooted home with what is called here 'a billiard touch'.

It was ironic that Chievo scored their winning goal on what could have been a great breakaway move. Since the start of the season, their propensity for defending in numbers and counter-attacking quickly had earned them, before the Milan match, more wins away than at home, where opponents have chosen to sit back and wait.

In spite of Giunti's good start to the season, they do not have a high class playmaker, a man who can split defences open with a pass that can lighten up the place, so they need quick ball movement and to spread the pitch with their wingers. Just like Del Neri's Chievo used to do, only this year's edition seems more adept at defending.

Wisely, Pillon, who is a players' coach and not a dark-souled taskmaster, chases away any thought of complacency by claiming all he wants is put as many points as possible between Chievo and the relegation zone, which is now 15 points away.

He may lose Obinna, the 18-year old Nigerian forward on loan from Inter, during the January transfer window, as Roberto Mancini's side will in turn see their striker Obafemi Martins join Nigeria for the African Cup, but there's a chance Obinna himself, scorer of a brilliant solo goal in the 2-1 win at Sampdoria back in September that first gave notice that Chievo were for real, might be called up and that would certainly mean a change of tactic for Inter.

So, while your attention is caught between the Champions League's last matches and the World Cup draw, please remember that in what appears to be a parallel universe Chievo, who just beat one of Europe's best teams, are preparing for Sunday's match at Messina.

Not many, sadly, seem to care.

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