When not enjoying, or suffering through Antonio Conte’s Catenaccio tactics for Inter Milan, or cursing the performances of Roberto Gagliardini, Alex (@AlexDonno) and Nima (@NimaTavRood) are both experts when it comes to all things Azzurri and Serie A.
For these reasons, they were the perfect people to speak to about Chelsea’s Italian connections, from the brilliance of Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli, the unfair treatment of Roberto Di Matteo as a manager, and the curious case of Jorginho.
Rob: Nima, Alex, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me. I think it’s best to start with the man many Chelsea players think is the best to wear the blue shirt. Gianfranco Zola. I think a lot of people underestimate just how good it was, due to his lack of trophies?
Nima: For starters, I’m not quite sure about a lack of trophies! He won 2 FA Cups, won the Cup Winner’s Cup and everyone I know connected to Chelsea says he is the best player to play for Chelsea. Come to think of it, I’ve never met anyone that doesn’t seriously suggest he isn’t one of the best players ever in the Premier League!
Rob: I agree and I can see your point, but I was referring to more about the lack of Premier League, or Champions League/European Cups. For instance, you never hear him talked alongside the likes of Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo?
Nima: I think that is because Zola played in the early days of the Premier League, before it had become the best league in the world. It’s the same for me when it comes to evaluating the best player of all time. You can’t do it, you need to divide football into different time periods.
I do think that Zola is underrated domestically in Italy, and possibly unlucky too. He had his heyday at Napoli, but of course they had Diego Maradona so Zola wasn’t the star. He then moved to Parma and was a star for Parma, but he was competing with people like Roberto Baggio, Totti and Del Piero for the National team. Similar to Enrique Chiesa, he never got the recognition he deserved because other players were so good.
Rob: I’m guessing your personal opinion on Zola is a positive one then?
Nima: Zola was a little genius. A classic No. 10, I rate him very highly in Italian football history. I’ve never heard any Chelsea fans say that anyone was a better player for them in the Premier League era.
Rob: I think that is quite definitive! Alex, a question for you now, and a manager that you know well as he manages Inter now! Antonio Conte: how would you assess his spell at Chelsea?
Alex: Conte at Chelsea was a success, but not a huge success. He won a Premier League title in his first season at Stamford Bridge, yes. However, his relationship with Chelsea turned rotten so quickly after that. I’ll remember his tenure more for the infighting. Conte is not the type of manager to adapt to the wishes of others.
Rob: I can imagine that is probably why he and Roman Abramovich fell out.
Alex: Conte demands everything, and if he doesn’t get it, he disrupts and complains until he either gets his way or gets his resignation papers. The mess that came from his eventual sacking and legal dispute with the club will ultimately sour the memory of Conte’s time with Chelsea.
Rob: A very fair summary and it was sad it ended that way in my opinion. Nima, I want to quiz you on managers now. Claudio Ranieri or Roberto Di Matteo: Who was treated harshest?
Nima: Without a shadow of a doubt, it is Roberto Di Matteo. A world on Ranieri: I respect him as a person and it was great to see him win the Premier League with Leicester City. It was the recognition he deserved, but he wasn’t treated harshly by Chelsea. He was given money and resources and failed. Look at Jose Mourinho: He took Ranieri’s squad, added Drogba and turned Chelsea into a trophy-winning machine.
Rob: And Di Matteo?
Nima: Di Matteo won the Champions League and FA Cup, but it was the way he won them. Chelsea had been rinsed by Napoli in Naples, AvB was sacked, he came in and turned the tie around. Chelsea were dead and buried and yet he took them to the Champions League which Abramovich always craved.
Rob: So why did it all go wrong so quickly?
Nima: Abramovich wanted success and Chelsea tried to play a high defensive line with John Terry. The team wasn’t balanced for that style of football. You can’t play like Barcelona with heavy players, like AvB found out.
Roberto Di Matteo did brilliantly with what he was given and achieved fantastic results. I think he could have done more if Abramovich had shown more understanding and patience for the project, but that is not how Roman works!
Rob: Alex, onto a player where it seems to have gone wrong very quickly. What’s happened to Jorginho: he used to be so important but now looks surplus to requirements?
Jorginho is definitely misunderstood. While his game can lack flair, and he won’t light up the score-sheet, his short passing and the rhythm he creates can be essential. I’m not expecting him to land at Juventus, but only because I cannot see Chelsea and Juventus agreeing on a counterpart in a swap. If it were up to Sarri, he would have Jorginho on the next flight to Turin. Jorginho was absolutely perfect for “Sarri-ball.
Nima: I think it’s possible Jorginho might return to Napoli on a loan deal. They want to challenge for the Serie A and I don’t see him fitting in Lampard’s long term plans. Milan have Ismael Bennacer so they don’t need him. There’s also room at the inn for AS Roma. But I do think Napoli are looking for a change with the likes of Allan, Ghoulam and Hysaj moving on, so they might try to bring him back.
Rob: We’ll come onto Sarri in more detail later, but I think your summary is very fair. Nima, I want to go back a few years now to a player that didn’t quite shine at Chelsea. Pierluigi Casiraghi.
Nima: I feel bad for him, I really do. His career was a constant case of ‘almost’. He was almost the star at Juventus, almost the star at Lazio, almost the star at Chelsea. He was a very talented player.
Rob: One that could have achieved more?
Nima: He could have done so much more on the national stage. Casiraghi was a very good player and had a great reputation, but he could never stay fit to constantly deliver for his club, or the Azzurri.
Rob: Onto someone that did achieve a lot, Gianluca Vialli. The first world class star at Chelsea, Nima?
Nima: Absolutely. You only need to look at Gianluca Vialli’s career: he achieved fantastic things in Italy with Juventus and Sampdoria, and then won titles as Player-Manager for Chelsea. He was a fantastic player, phenomenal. One of the world class stars of Italian football in the 90s.
Rob: Can you elaborate a little bit more on Vialli from a playing perspective?
Nima: Vialli and Mancini at Sampdoria were a joy to watch. There was so much footballing IQ, and knowledge in that team.
Rob: I know some people have suggested that Vialli might have been a bit arrogant?
Nima: I don’t see it as arrogance, I think it was confidence. He believed he was better than others because he was! It was not his fault that he was world class and you can’t hold that against him! There is a difference between knowing you are good and looking down on others and Vialli certainly didn’t look down on people. He was a natural winner.
Look at his time at Juventus, a club where winning is the only thing that matters. It is a requirement, not an option. He won it all.
Rob: And then the move to Chelsea?
Nima: Going to Chelsea was the natural move. Vialli had achieved everything possible domestically and the Premier League was starting to become an exciting option for players. In particular, you’ll know Chelsea had an exciting project with foreign players during the mid-90s.
Rob: The topic of a ‘project’ inevitably brings us back to Maurizio Sarri. Alex, your thoughts on why it didn’t work out? Was Sarri tactically inflexible, or again unfairly treated?
Alex: I thought Sarri did a nice job at Chelsea, I really did. To me, winning the Europa League and taking Chelsea back to Champions League were commendable accomplishments. For that reason, I think Sarri was underappreciated at Stamford Bridge. He accomplished quite a bit in a short period of time.
Rob: I can sense a ‘but…’ coming!
Alex: With that said, the split was probably beneficial for both sides. For Chelsea, under a transfer ban, bringing in Lampard to work with younger players made a ton of sense. For Sarri, the opportunity to go back to Italy and coach an ambitious Juventus side was a huge opportunity. Plus, Sarri wanted to be nearer to his aging parents.
Nima: Just as an additional point on Sarri’s transfer plans, certainly, he’d would like to take Emerson back to Italy this summer. Juventus and Inter both want him and I think he’ll prefer Inter because of Antonio Conte.
Rob: Finally, as I ask all my interviewees: 3 names you’d suggest from the Serie A for Premier League transfers this summer, either to Chelsea or other teams? Nima, if you’d like to start.
Nima: I’ll start with Federico Chiesa. I think he is a phenomenal player, in fact he has the talent to become a Ballon D’or winning player in the future if all goes well and he stays fit. I hope he joins Inter, I don’t know if he will stay in Italy, but he is so technically impressive and fast, he is fantastic.
My second name is a young man, Gaetano Castrovilli. A central midfielder, who is already showing so much movement and fantastic tenacity at a young age.
Finally, I’ll go for the obvious choice of Sandro Tonali. He is so mature despite the fact he is so young, he has so much footballing IQ. I know that Andrea Pirlo has said that Tonali is better than him at the same age, so that says everything you need to know.
I’m confident that Italy have a world class team coming to dominate international football and these are just three examples of it.
Rob: Some very popular names there. Alex, do you want to offer your names?
Alex: I’ll start off by Nahitan Nandez, the Argentinian midfielder at Cagliari. He’s a gritty midfielder with plenty of physicality and skill, a really good dribbler.
Next, Ricardo Orsolini at Bologna. They signed him from Juventus recently, but the Bianconneri have a buy-back option. I think Orsolini is a real future star, he has the makings of a deadly winger.
Finally, I’ll say Marash Kumbulla. He’s a powerful Albanian central defender, being linked heavily with Lazio and more recently Inter Milan. He’s a rock-solid central defender with a knack for goal-scoring and very sound defensive skills.
Rob: Some really interesting names there. Thanks very much for your time and insight, Nima and Alex!