The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
The season is nearing its apex. We’re clinging to the rock face and praying we can be the first to crawl over the summit.
We’re out of one competition, having turned up our worst result of the year to lose 1-3 to Juventus in the second leg of our cup semi. It was the first time we’d lost at home in any competition this season, and it came down to Jacob Larsen, who kept goal like he was committed to an ethic of hospitality. Mariano and Fedotov put the ball past him before halftime. The Ferj got one back for us in the second half, leveling the match on away goals—we’d won 2-1 at the Delle Alpi—but Mariano scored again in extra time. Even in FM, I can’t get a penalty shootout. So much for the treble.
Fortunately no one, anywhere, cares about the Coppa Italia. And we have a chance to take gory revenge on Juventus immediately, as we’ve drawn them in the semifinals of the Europa League, which we’ve reached after beating Olympiakos handily in the second knockout round and PSV on away goals in the quarterfinal. These will be our fifth and sixth matches against Juventus this season; we’ve won three of the first four, which is a good omen, but it’s hard to stay ahead of an opponent that knows you so well. And—this is the bigger concern, which I’m hesitant to confess in public—there’s a chance our players are getting nervous at exactly the moment in the season when they need to be relentless and sure.
It’s nothing too significant; just a vague air of uncertainty I’ve noticed around the Silvio Piola, from some of our young players especially. Larsen’s been unsteady, Teixeira’s scoring has declined, David’s been uncharacteristically moody. It’s as if the players sense that everything’s about to get serious and the pressure’s about to intensify, and are just passing through a moment where they haven’t yet decided how they’re going to react to it. They could wilt or they could rise to the occasion, and the stress of not knowing what they’ll prove about themselves is taking a little bit out of their play. I’m by no means in a panic about this; I think this is going to be the moment when they learn what it takes to be kings, and I’m trying to let them know I have faith in them. But I’m monitoring the situation and doing what I can to make sure the youngsters benefit from as much veteran leadership as possible.
On that front, Michael Dogan has been impeccable. He’s not just the best captain I’ve had at Pro Vercelli, he’s the best captain I’ve ever seen. He’s tireless, fearless, perceptive, and decisive. He knows when to take a player aside and give him a few encouraging words to lift his spirits; he knows when (and how) to put the fear of power into them if they’re letting the team slide. Our more temperamental players, like Teixeira and Jefferson Arteaga, absolutely will not make a troublesome peep when he’s around. The only player he can’t seem to reach is Ibrahimovic, who’s sunk in his latest deep funk over a transfer even as we approach the championship he supposedly cares about above all things. I think Ibrahimovic may be unreachable, and if we do win the championship, as awesome as he is on the pitch, I’m increasingly leaning toward selling him.
In the league, we have a six-point lead on A.C. Milan with four games to play. Since the last update, we’ve beaten Genoa, Juventus, Palermo (4-0), Lecce, Parma (4-0), and Salernitana. We’ve lost to Milan, 0-1 at the San Siro, and to Roma, 1-2 at the Silvio Piola (our second loss at home this year). Milan made things a bit easier for us by dropping a match to Juventus and drawing with Inter in the Derby della Madonnina. Now we have to hold our lead with matches remaining against Sampdoria, Torino (our last-ever game at the Silvio), Treviso, and Inter (!). Milan have a much easier schedule: Catania, Siena, Salernitana, and Udinese. If they win all those matches—and they should—then we’ll need at least seven points to take the title: in other words, we can only afford to lose once. They have the advantage in head-to-head competition, so if we finish level on points, our side is going to be left wondering what might have been.
It’s also possible, though much less likely, that Roma could surge ahead of us over the next three weeks. Inter, thank the blessed furies, are too far back to do any damage. And we’re guaranteed at least a Champions League place next year.
Regardless, these next few matches in Serie A and in the Europa League are the most important games in the modern history of the club. There’s a good case to make that they’re the most important games in the entire history of the club. We could win a major trophy—we could win a double—or we could fall. One way or another, we are going to see fire and the sword, and in three weeks the world is going to look a lot different from the way it looks today. Expect a flurry of updates over the next few days as we live through the transformation.
by Brian Phillips · May 22, 2009