At the start of every fresh season in a football calendar, there are several attraction factors. While the big name transfers manage to cover the maximum column space in tabloids, there’s a less-fancied yet equally interesting aspect that the fans look forward to. It’s the teams making it to the top tier after battling their way through the lower divisions for one or sometimes even a number of seasons. Often we find teams in the promoted lot who are otherwise pretty familiar names in the top-flight circuit continuing to go up and down from time to time, but there are also clubs who wouldn’t have played in the top division for time immemorial and a chance therefore is invaluable to them. Speaking the least, the new names thrown in the mix spice up the league and are elementary to the exciting prospects that a new season presents.
In this segment, we introduce the three teams having been promoted to compete in the top tier of Italian football. Serie A in itself for reasons both right and wrong is a league where excitement never ceases for events on the field, and perhaps more due to the ones off it. For the last couple of seasons, the promoted sides have more easily been identified on the league tables because of the asterisk mark visible next to their names indicating the point penalties they’ve faced owing to their rather disgraceful involvement in betting activities. This also significantly hampers their performance in the league as their primary agenda of survival is pushed back even before the battle starts. Fortunately, no such news has surfaced yet this year and you may safely assume there will be a level playing field for each of Sassuolo, Verona and Livorno as they gear up to compete, bluntly put, in the bottom half of the table.
Manager: Eusebio Di Francesco
Serie B 2012-13: Champions
Key Players: Emanuele Terranova, Alessandro Longhi, Simone Missiroli, Domenico Berardi
Contextualizing things a little, we are here talking about an industrial belt in the Modena province with a population not reaching 50,000. One of the many football clubs from Italy’s better developed Emilia-Romagna region, Sassuolo symbolizes everything about a ‘small club’ – pretty much in the literal sense of the term too. Joining Bologna and Parma, they now become the region’s third representative in Serie A and are already a very exciting story for journalistic research. It’s not been a long time since their days of struggle to make it to Serie B and in a matter of a few years, it is nothing short of living a dream for the club to knock at the doorstep of one of Europe’s most prestigious leagues.
It hasn’t been all that rosy however for Sassuolo as they have experienced the disappointment of missing out on sealing a Serie A spot twice after coming agonizingly close in recent years. The highly praised current manager of Milan, Massimiliano Allegri was the one who lead Sassuolo to Serie B, but after his departure things took a little time before settling down. In their maiden season in the second division, Sassuolo finished 7th, narrowly missing out on a play-off spot. The following season, they finished 4th but their dreams of making it through the play-offs was shattered by a 3-2 aggregate loss to Torino. After a disastrous campaign in 2010-11 where they were nearly relegated back to Serie C1, Sassuolo appointed then-Inter primavera coach Fulvio Pea. The move bore fruits with a third place finish, but the team once again faltered at the final hurdle losing to Sampdoria in the play-offs.
It is slightly astounding for a club that was founded way back in 1922, to have never made it to the league that is at the top of the pyramid of Calcio, before this season. However, not very often do teams earn their first-ever promotion to Serie A by convincingly winning the second division. Although eventually finishing only two points above the second placed Verona, Sassuolo always maintained a handsome distance from the teams competing for the play-off spot. Their stay in the Coppa Italia was cut short by Catania early in the season with a third round elimination, but their start to the league campaign was truly sensational. With 8 wins in their first 9 games, Sassuolo were a cut above the rest very early on and barring an odd result or two here or there, the momentum was never slowed down.
Their success in Serie B was categorically yielded from what has been a thoroughly collective effort over the course of the entire campaign. It’s both strange and impressive at the same time to note not a single Sassuolo player features in the list of top ten goal-scorers in the league. In fact, as many as four players amassed 11 goals each in their league triumph – one of them being team’s highly reliable first-choice centre-back, Emanuele Terranova. The others with the same number of goals to their name were Juventus’ on-loan forward Richmond Boakye, former Juve Stabia striker Leonardo Pavoletti and the 18-year-old Sassuolo youth system graduate, Domenico Berardi. Of these names, how many the club will manage to retain for their maiden spell in Serie A still remains to be seen. They need to take a leaf out of Pescara’s faith and be more alert with their transfer activities over the summer – not only in not losing too many key players in one go, but also in making some smart signings both from the clubs recently relegated as well as from those in the second division that missed promotion by a whisker.
The fact that Sassuolo owner Giorgio Squinzi, CEO of Mapei Group, is one of the richest men in Italy might give them the much needed financial muscle both in holding on to their valued assets as well as in buying some quality players. The priority for now will be to hold on to the on-loan players who have all impressed, while the necessity to add a central defender should surely be addressed immediately. Coach Di Francesco prefers playing an attacking 4-3-3 with inverted wingers and therefore only players suitable to play in this system should be looked at in the market.
– With inputs from Dean Eddyshaw. You may follow him on Twitter.
Manager: Andrea Mandorlini
Serie B 2012-13: Runners Up
Key Players: Daniele Cacia, Fabrizio Cacciatore, Emil Hallfredsson, Raphael Martinho
With Palermo getting relegated, Serie A has surely lost out on a spicy, colourful and intense two-legged derby fixture from its calendar. But up North, the city of Verona is certain to be spiced up to another level with the return of the city’s older club Hellas Verona after a decade-long wait since their relegation in the disastrous 2001-02 season. That happens to be the last time Verona and Chievo contested in the top-flight with both teams registering a win each in the two fixtures. When the two met for the first game in November, both sides were enjoying a good start to the season having occupied slots in the top four; but during the second one, the gulf had long been evident and subsequently the season saw Verona getting relegated.
The fortunes of the two cross-town rivals have gone in the opposite direction since as Hellas Verona have had to spend the entire last decade largely in obscurity. What started as a heartbreaking demotion to the second division football in the year 2002, only grew further in humiliation as they slipped to Serie C1 after a forgetful 2006-07 season. It took them four years before earning promotion back to the second division, and after losing out in the play-off semi-finals to Varese in their return season to Serie B, this time Verona managed not to lose the way and ensured they earned the last spot for direct entry to Serie A in the following season. The Gialloblu have seen several managerial changes and have also been hit by the unfortunate accidental death of then-incumbent chairman Pietro Arvedi.
That their struggle has remained enormous is the reason they will value this opportunity to play the biggest of teams in Italy way more than any other regular promoted team would. Their first realistic, achievable and probably emotional goal will be to win bragging rights over local rivals Chievo as the entire Serie A awaits the return of Derby della Scala. One thing that the return of Verona assures is a rise in the number of cases of crowd indiscipline and hooliganism. Their ultras are in a league of their own and time and again has their shameful behaviour deterred the image of the club in public eye.
Very recently during the last season in Serie B, as they travelled to face Livorno, a certain section of travelling fans began to chant slogans mocking the death of former Livorno youngster Piermario Morosini. The gesture was heavily criticized and Verona mayor himself publicly apologized to Livorno, their fans and Morosini’s family. Verona ultras are known proponents of right wing ideology, and racism naturally reflects in their behaviour. There have been cases in past of fans blocking a move that the management was trying to make for defender Maickel Ferrier. There aren’t any prizes in guessing the colour of his skin.
However, leaving off-the-field discussions aside for a while, Hellas Verona are expected to replicate what the likes of Atalanta, Torino and Sampdoria achieved on their return to Serie A. They aren’t likely to set the league afire by any means, but they should steadily pave their way to safety somewhere in the top bracket of the bottom half of the table. Former Fiorentina and Lecce forward Daniele Cacia signed for Verona at the start of last season and has ended up as the top scorer in Serie B, netting 24 goals. At 29, he isn’t exactly at a stage in his career where he can find many suitors lining up for his signature and thus Verona can bank upon him to deliver for the second season running. His Argentine partner in attack Juanito Gomez also knows the business of scoring, despite not being the technically most skillful striker around.
The midfield too is in a decent shape with the likes of Emil Hallfredsson, Raphael Martinho and Armin Bacinovic completing a successful season in Serie B. The team chemistry is present; all that remains now is to adapt to the demands of big games as quickly as possible. For a provincial club, Verona are reasonably stable with Andrea Mandorlini being at the helm for last three years. Verona have won the Serie A title once in their history in the 1984-85 season. For the record, Serie A used to boast of players like Michel Platini, Diego Maradona and Alessandro Altobelli back then.
Manager: Davide Nicola
Serie B 2012-13: Third, Qualified winning the playoffs
Key Players: Vincenzo Fiorillo, Luca Belingheri, Paulinho, Federico Dionisi
Italy is a very interesting study in political paradoxes. Having been ruled under an extremist fascist regime, they have also been home to a strongly-founded communist party. Livorno is the place where communism was born in Italy through the PCI, and in today’s age the city’s football club remains perhaps communism’s last strong symbolic representation in the country. Livorno-born striker Cristiano Lucarelli is known for openly expressing his political views and has on several occasions been seen displaying communist messages during his goal celebrations. Lucarelli had once gone on record saying Livorno never receive any favours from Italian referees because “we are communists”. The club fans – ultras in particular – never shy away from displaying a banner or two expressing their anguish against fascism and its practices.
The above may give you a heads-up on what’s in store as Livorno prepare for their return to Serie A the same season as Hellas Verona have made a comeback. Lazio’s presence in the league only adds to this political excitement quotient that Serie A now has on offer. With the mutual feelings of aversion between these clubs with contrasting political ideologies and affiliations, their face-offs will not be any less intense than a local derby.
Livorno owner and Chairman Aldo Spinelli is an equally fascinating character who may not let the fans miss Maurizio Zamparini too much. Ever since acquiring the club in 1999, although Spinelli has overseen several promotions, he has hired and fired 17 different managers in these 14 years – quite an astonishing number in an ideal world, but football in Italy is far from ideal anyway. At the time Spinelli took over Livorno, the club was virtually only 8 years old after it was deemed cancelled in 1991 and was forced to start from Eccellenza.
Livorno wasted no time in earning promotions though, as they made it to Serie B in 2001, thus climbing up four divisions in ten years’ time. After three seasons in the second division, Livorno finally earned their promotion and made a very strong start to their return to Serie A in the 2004-05 season. Livorno earned a respectable ninth place finish largely owing to the goal-scoring exploits of Cristiano Lucarelli who outscored the more known strikers in the league. The following season was the one where they came of age. For the better part of the season, they were in contention for a UEFA Cup spot but things went a little off the mark towards the end. However, the Calciopoli verdict against several clubs meant Livorno did earn a chance to play in the UEFA Cup where they were eliminated at the hands of Espanyol in the round of 32.
The next one year in Serie A was not significantly productive, and Livorno finally went down again at the end of the 2007-08 season. In another season’s time, they made a comeback to Serie A only to go down again immediately, hitting rock bottom at the end of the season. Livorno were nearly pushed further down to third division in 2011-12 after finishing 17th in Serie B. But the sinusoidal nature of their form has continued once again as they’ve earned another promotion after defeating Empoli in the play-off finals. It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise if things once again turn for the worse, and they struggle to find their feet in the top league.
Davide Nicola is for now expected to be in charge of the team, but you can hardly predict things with Spinelli. Should Nicola be able to retain most of his squad, Livorno have a chance of prolonging their stay in Serie A, especially given the growing fickleness among the teams in the bottom half there. However, the transfer rumours of Paulinho to Sunderland are already doing the rounds, and Livorno are very likely to ship him off at the right offer in order to take care of the books. Their midfield is still strong and contributes very proactively to the attack; Belingheri and Siligardi are second and third respectively on the goal-scoring chart of the club’s Serie B campaign.
Of the three, Livorno are the likeliest to go down again immediately simply considering their inconsistency and inability to perform at this level. Nicola is unlikely to survive one full season, and Spinelli’s Zamparini-esque revolving chair of managers might very well be seen in action as the season progresses. The re-appointment of Nicola sandwiched between two other sackings is not the unlikeliest scenario. There’s a reason Italian football never fails to captivate the attention of its followers, after all.