In 1998, I read a fascinating book by the author Joe McGinnis entitled “The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro”. In it the American author followed the fortunes of a tiny local team from Abruzzo, Castel Di Sangro as they embarked upon their first ever season in Serie B.
The book, which was a commercial success, took the reader on the journey of the provincial team through Serie B, culminating in their incredible escape from relegation, maintaining their place in Serie B while much larger and wealthier clubs, such as Palermo, Cesena, Cremonese and Cosenza were all relegated.
It was a fantastic book about how a small provincial side can seemingly do the impossible; play at a much higher level against large, established professional sides, and yet still retain their status in the second tier of one of the world’s most formidable football leagues.
And now, there is the perfect chance for a sequel because, if anything, Sassuolo’s achievements in Serie A this season defy all logic and reason and have proven that there is still very much a place in the modern game for the tiny underdog.
Who are Sassuolo?
Sassuolo are a tiny club based in the Modena province in Italy, close to the towns of Modena, Reggio and in between Parma and Bologna.
Until recently, the only reason you would have heard of the town was that it is Italy’s largest producer of ceramic tiles, with 300 factories located in the region. That changed however in 2012-2013 when after several seasons of near-misses, Sassuolo ended 91 years in the lower echelons of Italian soccer by earning promotion to Serie A.
This tiny club, whose actual home ground, the Stadio Enzo Ricci seats only 4,000 was too small for them to host Serie B games, so they played the entire Serie B season in a groundsharing arrangement with Modena at the Stadio Alberto Braglia.
However, for Serie A, a new, larger and more modern stadium was needed, so Sassuolo arranged to play at Reggiana’s Reggio Emilia stadium.
At the start of the year, Sassuolo’s manager, former Italy and AS Roma midfielder Eusebio Di Francesco , realised that his team were the odds-on favourites for a swift relegation back to Serie B, so he began a recruitment drive, bringing in several players on loan to supplement his small squad of young untried and older, experienced players.
Eight players were brought in on loan, but the season didn’t start as hoped. Four defeats in their first four games, including a 7-0 thrashing at home by Inter Milan saw them bottom of the table after four games. It took until the 20th October, when Bologna visited the Reggio Emilia, for Sassuolo to record their first win.
Slowly over the next few weeks, things began to improve. Two more victories against Sampdoria and Atalanta followed, as did a hugely creditable 1-1 draw away to title-chasing Roma and another 2-2 draw at Cagliari. By the start of December, Sassuolo had moved into 15th, three places outside the relegation zone.
However, a four game losing streak from December into January saw Di Francesco relieved of his duties. Alberto Malesani took over, but things went from bad to worse. A 4-3 win over Milan the only points they collected under Malesani, as they lost the next seven games to sit firmly entrenched at the foot of the table on 17 points after 26 games.
Malesani was dismissed and Di Francesco, surprisingly, appointed back to the managers chair in early March. A 0-0 draw at Bologna followed by a 3-1 home win over Catania boded, well but this was followed by three defeats in a row and with seven games to go, it seemed a formality that Sassuolo would go down.
Facing an in-form Atalanta side, Sassuolo went to Bergamo on 6th April knowing defeat could be the final nail in their coffin for the season, however they emerged with a fine 2-0 victory. This was followed by a 1-1 home draw with Cagliari and then another stunning away win against Chievo.
That Chievo victory saw Sassuolo move to 17th, out of the relegation zone. Could the miracle happen?
A home game with Juventus saw them lose 1-3, but results went their way in other games, ensuring Sassuolo remained out of the relegation places.
Then came the stunning finale, a 4-3 away win against fourth placed Fiorentina, followed by a 4-2 home win over Genoa, victories which not only moved Sassuolo from 17th to 16th, but placed them clear of the threat of relegation and confirmed Catania, Bologna and Livorno as the teams to drop down into Serie B next season.
With one game to go, away to Milan (whom they could complete an incredible league double over with victory at the San Siro), Sassuolo have taken 13 points out of the last 18 available to ensure their Serie A status next season.
The star of the season for Sassuolo has been on-loan Juventus striker Domenico Berardi, who has netted an incredible 16 goals in 27 games in Serie A this season, adding to the 11 he got in 37 games for the club last season in Serie B.
Another on loan striker Antonio Floro-Flores scored 7 goals in 17 games, while the form of stalwarts Gianluca Pegolo, Francesco Magnanelli, Alessandro Longhi, Simone Zaza and Luca Antei have also played a key role.
So while Juventus are rightly taking the plaudits for another league title and AS Roma, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Napoli and Lazio are looking at which players to spend their multi-millions on, remember too that perhaps the biggest and most heartening story of the Serie A season may well have come at the other end of the table.
And there’s at least one more chapter to be written in the story next season.
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