The fight for survival in Serie A was blown wide open at the weekend.
After initially impressing under Walter Zenga, defeats in back-to-back relegation six-pointers leaves Crotone feeling the pressure. SPAL’s victory in Calabria brought squints of light at the end of a long tunnel and a reprieve for Leonardo Semplici, whose future has been in doubt for weeks. Safety is now but a point away, and belief restored in view of this weekend’s derby with Bologna at the Paolo Mazza.
Hellas have given themselves a chance too, surprising a few people with victory against a resurgent Torino. Fabio Pecchia and his team head down to Benevento on Sunday where the sense of opportunity is palpable. If he can get this team to string a couple of victories together for the first time this season Hellas might find themselves out of the bottom three come Sunday evening.
Often framed as a four-way battle, the scale of the relegation scrap has enlarged in recent weeks. All of a sudden Chievo fans are nervous, Sassuolo have got the jitters and Cagliari are looking over their shoulders. Lulled into a false sense of security, memories of how Empoli were sucked into Serie B a year ago offer a reminder that complacency kills. Once inertia sets in, escaping its clutches is easier said than done.
Injuries have devastated Chievo. Sticking with what worked before without the right personnel hasn’t worked. Moving away from it hasn’t either and fear has crept in. Cagliari are struggling for balance. Judging them on Monday’s 5-0 defeat to Napoli at the Sardegna Arena is harsh because in general they’ve played close games against the big clubs this year. But an inability to get results against the teams around them is acting like a brake on any progress that might steer the Sardi away from trouble.
The most fascinating case of all though has to be Sassuolo. For a club of their size, history and tradition it maybe shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to see them where they are: 16th with just a three-point gap between them and a return to the Cadetto.
And yet Sassuolo have the backing of one of the wealthiest owners in the league and the budget of a midtable outfit. The biggest deal in a January transfer window defined more by the deals that didn’t happen rather than those that did was in the end done by Sassuolo who agreed to pay Fiorentina €9m for Khouma Babacar.
That move was tantamount to applying the paddles of a defibrillator to the Neroverdi in order to revive their season and declare them “clear” of relegation. It wasn’t the first time the machine has been charged up either. Replacing Cristian Bucchi with Beppe Iachini at the end of November gave Sassuolo the kind of new manager bounce that initially looked like transforming them into a dark horse for Europe, much as Udinese threatened to shortly after the arrival of Massimo Oddo.
Iachini won four of his first seven games in all competitions. Sassuolo beat Samp at Marassi which is something only Lazio have done this season. They sent Luciano Spalletti’s Inter into crisis and prolonged the malaise hanging over Eusebio di Francesco’s Roma by claiming a point at the Olimpico. Since then the Iachini effect has worn off. Sassuolo have lost five of their last seven and the next fortnight looks crucial for them with Chievo and SPAL next up on the fixture list.
How has it come to this? Is it simply a case of the spell being broken now Di Francesco has gone? It’s a tempting case to argue and there is probably a grain of truth to it although last season was Sassuolo’s most disappointing since they made their debut in the top flight in part because of raised expectations. Evidently, though, problems had already started to emerge.
You can see why Sassuolo hired Bucchi. As a club they’re all about giving young Italians a chance whether they’re players or managers. It’s a big part of their identity and clearly they saw shades of Di Francesco in Bucchi. Unfortunately all didn’t go to plan and to some he looked out of his depth.
Before the former striker got the chop though he did say something interesting which I’ll paraphrase as follows: Sassuolo are no longer the team they were. They’re not used to fighting for their lives. A year in midtable and another competing and succeeding to qualify for Europe will do that to you.
Getting the players to reset and readjust to a different kind of season was a challenge, Bucchi inferred. He tried to snap them out of it and make a break with the past by experimenting with a different system. But it didn’t work and he admittedly looked a little foolish when Iachini reverted to the 4-3-3 Sassuolo played under Di Francesco and results picked up all of a sudden.
But maybe Bucchi was onto something. Motivating this group of players after they took this club further than anyone’s wildest dreams was a big ask. Leicester found themselves in a similar position after winning the league. How can you better that? What do you do?
Situations like these put clubs in a conundrum. Do you express your gratitude and keep the team together or make the sort of changes Juve make after every Scudetto, introducing enough fresh ambition to evolve the team and stop it going stale.
One imagines it’s easy to get comfortable in this part of Emilia-Romagna. Sassuolo’s players are well remunerated and there is no spotlight or scrutiny to speak of. Coasting is a danger that might befall you.
It’s a criticism often levelled at Sassuolo’s star player Domenico Berardi. Ordinarily hanging onto your biggest talent is a good thing. As is the loyalty Berardi has shown Sassuolo over the years. He has turned down the Old Lady on multiple occasions. But you now get the feeling the 23-year-old has stayed at the Mapei too long and his development has stunted, which neither helps the player, nor his club.
Squinzi’s insistence that Berardi is a €40m player no longer stands to reason and, unless the player rediscovers the form he showed in his first three seasons in Serie A when he emerged as one of the most precocious goalscorers the league has ever seen, it may be the case that Sassuolo have missed their window to make a fortune from the next big thing in Italian football who isn’t as big as many expected him to be at this stage of his career.
Not that Squinzi seems to care. He doesn’t need the money and told Gazzetta in September his “dream” is for Berardi to be a one-club man. But the goals have run out. It’s one of the reasons why Babacar was signed this winter. Sassuolo have the worst attack in the league this season. Ciro Immobile, Mauro Icardi, Fabio Quagliarella and Dries Mertens have all got more goals as individuals than Sassuolo have as a team. While it’s true they miss Gregoire Defrel and Lorenzo Pellegrini, who relocated to Rome with Di Francesco, it’s unjustifiable for a team of their potential to be in such dire straits.
Sassuolo didn’t just keep Berardi remember. They dug in and retained Matteo Politano who was in magnificent form until his move to Napoli collapsed on deadline day in January.
Formerly the owner of one of Italy’s great cycling teams, Squinzi knows this team risks getting dropped. Sassuolo haven’t given themselves a mountain to climb. They’re still a wheel-length ahead of SPAL. But they need to find a second wind. The time has come for them to get their heads down and pedal hard.