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How Inter ace Icardi went from ‘vile piece of sh*t’ to Europe’s most wanted striker

Just a couple of weeks ago, Luciano Spalletti enthused: “Who doesn’t want Mauro Icardi?”

Certainly, these days, one would be hard pressed to find any club in Europe that would not be delighted to have the Argentine attacker within their ranks.

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Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have all been linked with Icardi this season, while there is mounting speculation that Real Madrid will make a move for Serie A’s top scorer, whose buy-out clause is only €110 million.

However, just over a year ago, Icardi was considered more trouble than he was worth. 

Despite an impressive strike rate in Italy, Argentina still wanted nothing to do with a player who had courted controversy in his homeland by marrying the ex-wife of his compatriot and former friend Maxi Lopez. 

Furthermore, on October 16, 2016, Inter fans decided that they had had enough of their captain. 

When Icardi missed a penalty in a home game with Cagliari, some Nerazzurri supporters celebrated. They did so as they stood behind a banner strewn across the Curva Nord that read: “You’re not a man. You’re not a captain. You’re just a vile piece of sh*t.”

Mauro Icardi Inter banner

Mauro Icardi Inter Cagliari

Why such vitriol against one of their own, the only consistent performer in an otherwise average squad? 

The answers lay in a book, Icardi’s book, ‘Sempre Avanti‘, in which he had boasted about taking on the club’s ultras after a defeat at Sassuolo in February 2015.

“I took off my shirt and shorts and gave them to a kid,” he wrote. “It’s a shame that a head ultra flew over to him, took the shirt from his hands and threw it at me with disgust.

“This is when I start insulting him. ‘Piece of sh*t, you are acting all arrogant with a little kid to show off to the rest of the curva? Do you think you’re hard? You should only be ashamed.’

“In the locker room, I was acclaimed as a hero because nobody had ever faced off that way with one of the fan leaders.”

Unsurprisingly, the ultras took issue with both the accuracy and tone of Icardi’s take on the clash. “Icardi,” read a statement released by the ultras, “as far as we’re concerned, you’re finished!”

And it seemed he was; his days at Inter looked numbered. 

The only trouble was that nobody was willing to take a risk on a striker who made enemies as easily as he scored goals.

Consequently, while Icardi was fined for his outburst, he stayed at San Siro. Furthermore, he was allowed to keep the captaincy. 

However, he had lost a lot of supporters – and not just in stands but also in the dressing room.

Felipe Melo Mauro Icardi PS

Mauro Icardi Inter

Felipe Melo left Inter to join Palmeiras in January of this year but when asked about Icardi’s leadership skills in June, he stated: “He’s still very young and he has to grow, but he’s also very strong right now. If he doesn’t score, Inter don’t win, that’s all too obvious.

“But the captain’s armband is another thing. I think it’s too much for him. A player who is captain must have the respect of his opponents. He’s someone who, when you look at him and listen to him, you should think ‘s***!’.

“And I’m also referring to the opposition, who should be afraid of him in a positive sense, and this is not the case with Icardi. 

“There have been too many things in the past. I don’t see him as a real captain today. Maybe in a few years, because he’s a champion, but right now he shouldn’t wear the armband.”

It was expected that incoming Inter boss Spalletti would concur. Instead, the man who had had no issue in taking on Francesco Totti at Roma immediately took to Icardi, having been impressed by his desire, commitment and willingness to learn.

The feeling was mutual. After years of playing under weak-willed coaches, Icardi was invigorated by the methods of a coach he compared to “a hammer”. 

He felt Inter finally had someone capable of restoring Inter to their former glory. As a result, he was willing to do whatever Spalletti asked of him, even if that meant dropping deeper to do more defensive work.

“Icardi inside the penalty area is impossible to stop,” Spalletti argued. “He is lethal. I would like him to join in more with the team play, but that takes nothing away from his finishing.”

Luciano Spalletti Mauro Icardi PS

Mauro Icardi Inter Stats PS

Indeed, Icardi has been sensational so far this season, scoring 16 goals in just 15 games. There is no deadlier goalscorer in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues right now. 

Both his shooting accuracy (75.61 per cent) and his shot conversion rate (39.02%) are better than those of Edinson Cavani (64%; 34%), Neymar (72%; 36%), Mohamed Salah (68.89%; 26.67%), Harry Kane (50.91%; 18.18%), Robert Lewandowski (58.7%; 30.43%), Cristiano Ronaldo (39.62%; 3.77%) and even Lionel Messi (58.46%; 20%).

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What’s more, his all-round game is improving. He still has a lot less touches per game than his striking rivals but he is far more involved in Inter’s build-up play, as Jorge Sampaoli noted when recalling Icardi to the Argentina set-up.

“We need a striker who, as well as goals, has the characteristics of an assist-maker,” the Albiceleste coach explained.

Icardi’s improvement – both in terms of his all-round game and his attitude – is why he is back in the Argentina team. It is why Inter are top of Serie A. It is why the ultras love him again. And why Spalletti was right when he claimed that, nowadays, everybody wants Mauro Icardi.

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Buffon, Pjanic give Juventus concern ahead of Olympiacos clash

Juventus could be without Gianluigi Buffon and Miralem Pjanic for Tuesday’s key Champions League clash with Olympiacos, head coach Massimiliano Allegri has confirmed.

The veteran goalkeeper has a calf complaint, while midfielder Pjanic is struggling with a muscle strain, and both are doubts for the meeting with the Greek champions.

Mario Mandzukic is fit again after missing the win over Napoli, while Gonzalo Higuain will also play, but defender Giorgio Chiellini is not in the squad for the match in Athens, leaving Allegri with some concern about his options.

“Higuain will play, he’s fine physically and mentally. Mandzukic is back,” Allegri told a news conference.

“There are two problems: Buffon and Pjanic. Miralem has a muscle strain; Gigi has a calf problem but, if he can’t play then [Wojciech] Szczesny will play.

“With Chiellini out, one of Mattia De Sciglio or [Daniele] Rugani will play. If Pjanic doesn’t play, we have [Claudio] Marchisio, [Rodrigo] Bentancur and [Sami] Khedira.”

A win will guarantee Juve progress to the last 16 along with group winners Barcelona, but a defeat would allow Sporting CP the chance to climb above them into second place if they beat the Catalans at Camp Nou.

But Allegri, whose side ended Napoli’s unbeaten run in Serie A on Friday, has urged his players to ignore the Barca result and focus simply on beating Olympiacos.

“It’s more important than Napoli because we have to win,” he said. “We need to show respect and we don’t need to think about what will happen in Barcelona.”

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Olympiacos are guaranteed to finish bottom of Group D, having lost four and drawn one of their first five games, but head coach Takis Lemonis wants them to put on a special display for their fans.

“Certainly, we are in a bit of a special situation, but first of all there is the prestige of the game; secondly the points are important for our UEFA nation ranking,” he said,

“Another point is we must always have the incentive to play well. Of course, I’m not troubled about incentives. In any case, it is important to be completely focused and play our best game.”

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Napoli 0 Juventus 1: Higuain hands boost to title defence against former club

Gonzalo Higuain overcame a fractured hand to help Juventus pull within a point of leaders Napoli in the Serie A title race, scoring the decisive goal in a tight 1-0 win over his former club.

Higuain had been a doubt for Friday’s contest against the team he left for Juve in a €90million move in July last year after undergoing surgery on his left hand.

But the Argentina striker was named in the starting XI and needed just 12 minutes to make what proved to be the key contribution as Juve boosted their momentum in the hunt for a seventh successive Scudetto, while Napoli’s hopes of a first league title since the 1989-90 season hit an early setback.

Napoli have lit up both Serie A and the Champions League this season with their entertaining and free-scoring style of play under Maurizio Sarri.

Yet they were frustrated following Higuain’s opener, with Gianluigi Buffon untested in the Juve goal in the second half. The Turin club are now second – a point ahead of Inter, who can go top with a win over Chievo on Sunday, having played a game more – and remain three clear of Roma, who beat SPAL 3-1 in the day’s earlier game.

Both teams must quickly turn their attention to Champions League football in midweek, with Napoli taking on Feyenoord and Juventus visiting Olympiacos as they each bid to seal a place in the last 16.

Higuain forced Pepe Reina into action in the fourth minute as he was denied at the near post after being played in by Douglas Costa.

The same two players were involved when Reina was beaten eight minutes later.

Costa started a quick counter-attack and Paulo Dybala’s superb pass found Higuain, who slotted the ball inside Reina’s left-hand post.

Napoli responded well, though, and Marek Hamsik forced Buffon to parry behind with a long-range strike.

But Costa continued to cause Napoli problems on the break, another marauding run leading to a cutback that Higuain saw deflected for a corner, from which Medhi Benatia lashed wide.

Lorenzo Insigne curled towards the roof of the net only to be thwarted by Buffon, who then kept out his header from the resulting corner.

Dybala threatened to double Juve’s lead before the break, but could not produce the finish to match his surge into the Napoli half.

Jose Callejon flashed a shot wide as Napoli continued to be frustrated despite dictating the play, and the San Paolo grew further exasperated when the hosts were denied a penalty when Dries Mertens went down as he battled for the ball with Giorgio Chiellini.

Napoli were grateful to Reina for keeping them within touching distance in the 68th minute, the Spaniard turning over Blaise Matuidi’s strike into the ground after the France midfielder latched on to Miralem Pjanic’s perfectly weighted cross-field ball.

Insigne drove wide of the far post on the half-volley in what was Napoli’s last legitimate chance, Juve successfully sitting deep to secure a result that will, despite Napoli’s position at the summit, reaffirm their status as title favourites.

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Higuain’s celebration a dig at De Laurentiis

Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain claimed he was searching for Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis after scoring what turned out to be the winner in Friday’s Serie A clash.

Higuain scored his fifth goal in his last five appearances against Napoli, the team he left for Juve in a €90 million move after the 2015-16 season.

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The Argentine striker has since traded barbs with De Laurentiis and been the subject of the ire of the Partenopei faithful, and he celebrated after opening the scoring at the Stadio San Paolo by placing his hand on his brow and scanning the stands.

Higuain explained after the match the gesture was aimed at the Napoli chief, telling Sky Sport Italia : “I looked for him but I could not see him. Maybe he hid himself.”

Juve’s victory moved them one point adrift of leaders Napoli, though Inter could go top with a win over Chievo on Sunday.

Despite his bitter relations with De Laurentiis, Higuain had only positive words for former boss Maurizio Sarri.

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“I’m very fond of Sarri,” he said. “He made me improve a lot and I will always be grateful to him. I love him as a person and as a coach. I wish him the best.

“We will keep in touch with one another and maybe we will find ourselves together in another team. It would be a great pleasure for me.”

After cutting Napoli’s advantage in the Scudetto race, Massimiliano Allegri’s side must now turn their attention to sealing a place in the last 16 of the Champions League in their final Group D match against Olympiacos on Tuesday.

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Mandzukic, Howedes out of Napoli showdown

Mario Mandzukic and Benedikt Howedes have been left out of the Juventus squad for Friday’s top-of-the-table Serie A clash with Napoli.

Napoli 11/10 for victory

The duo picked up injuries during training on Thursday and will not be involved in the showdown at the San Paolo.

“Mario Mandzukic is unavailable after picking up an injury to the calf muscle in his left leg, while Benedikt Howedes has picked up an injury to the quadriceps muscles in his right thigh, both during the course of today’s training session,” Juve confirmed via their official website.

Striker Gonzalo Higuain is in the squad despite head coach Massimiliano Allegri’s concerns about rushing him back too soon following hand surgery.

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There were also doubts about Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi but both have been included in the 21-man travelling squad.

Champions Juve head into the match four points behind Napoli, who are top of the table and yet to be beaten in the league this season.

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