With Cristiano Ronaldo into his second year at Juventus, former Pisa defender Paul Elliott believe they have everything to in the Champions League this season.
Elliott who himself joined Pisa in 1987, spoke exclusively to Forza Italian Football about his time in the peninsula, and what the future holds for Italian football.
How did your move from Aston Villa to Pisa come about?
“It’s very strange because Doug Ellis was friends with a guy called Gianni Paladini who went onto become chairman of QPR, but he lived in Birmingham and owned a load of wine bars and he arranged a friendly with Pisa for Villa to go out.
“So we went out there and I played in that game for Villa, I didn’t do too bad, but Mark Walters did better, and they [Pisa] really liked Mark Walters. And as I understand, they came back over to watch him in the UK
“It just so happened that Ian Rush had just signed for Juventus, and I had a really good month where I played against Liverpool and Ian Rush, [Kenny] Dalglish, Gary Lineker, and Kerry Dixon, and all of a sudden they were thinking ‘who is that centre half’.
“Villa got relegated that year in 1987, and Pisa got promoted to Serie A, and then as they say, the rest is history.”
You were only 22 years old when you moved over to Italy, so what was that like?
“Yeah, and I hadn’t realised until about a year ago that I was the first British defender to go and play in Italy since the late John Charles.
“It was brilliant though. I loved the people, it was a university town. I was back there just five months ago to open a new museum which commemorated the best years of the club, and the two years I was there was widely recognised as the best years of the club because they were in Serie A.
“So what it meant to a small provincial town like that was so much, and it was just up the road from Florence as well, so the derby was very strong and intense.
“It was great to go back, all the players were there and we hadn’t been back to the club since. It was great see all the coaches, staff and supporters. They had lots of memorabilia and reports from the time. It was nice to just reconnect with everyone. I was so honoured and proud.”
What was it like playing with a future World Cup winner in Dunga?
“Then we knew Brazilians, technically were always proficient and brilliant, but what Carlos could do when he didn’t have the ball, was press the ball. So he was a modern day [N’Golo] Kante back then. On the ball he was just amazing, a wonderful repertoire of skills as you would expect from a Brazilian and he was so fiercely competitive like a European.”
What did you learn from going over there at that time?
“Serie A then was by far the best league in the world, and that makes me feel so proud because my first game was against AC Milan, so you had [Ruud] Gullit, [Marco] Van Basten, [Paolo] Maldini, [Franco] Baresi, [Frank] Rijkaard, then my second game was against Napoli so I was marking [Diego] Maradona.
“There were lots of world class players playing at their peak, so as a young English black defender playing against them, it really was great for me. It was a great experience.”
Who was the hardest to play against?
“Van Basten. He had everything. He could run and jump, he was aggressive, left foot, right foot, could score goals, could make goals, had great movement, the lot.”
What does Serie A need to get back to the top?
“What there is more of now, is a better competitive balance, obviously Juventus have done fantastic winning eight-in-a-row, but you see what [Antonio] Conte is doing at Inter bringing in [Romelu] Lukaku and [Alexis] Sanchez.
“Napoli with [Carlo] Ancelotti will threaten, and there are great traditional clubs in Italy and it is a very competitive place to play.
“Juventus are the benchmark, they are the Barcelona or Real Madrid, but now there is a better competitive balance.”
Juventus’ main aim is the Champions League, can they win it?
“Bringing in [Aaron] Ramsey from Arsenal is a great acquisition, and I think that Juve are equipped to go all year. They are the Manchester City of that division, they have two excellent squads, so [Maurizio] Sarri’s challenge is to manage that.
“They are well equipped now to win the Champions League, They have dominated domestically, and can now have a real serious go [at the Champions League].
“When you get to the last eight or last four it’s very unpredictable, but they are so equipped now to go the whole nine yards.”
Could it be classed as a failure not to win the Champions League with Cristiano Ronaldo at the club?
“No, I think he will add value, but he can’t do everything alone. They have a lot of good players. Obviously their objective is to win it and they are capable. I’d like to think they have a really great chance, but the Champions League is unpredictable.
“Look at Manchester City, they got knocked out by Tottenham in the quarter-final, and no one was expecting that. There is such a fine line between success and failure at that, semi-final, final, level, you probably need luck more than anything.
“But on paper, with the strength and depth they have, they have Ronaldo, they can go the whole nine yards.”
Premier Sports will screen up to six live Serie A matches each week including Juventus v Napoli and Lazio v Roma this weekend. See premiersports.com for details of a Special Serie A offer.