Sixty-five seconds. That was all it took for Pescara to start unravelling at Torino’s Stadio Olimpico. A pair of defenders failed to prevent Antonio Barreca sending a cross over from the left, a third was outjumped inside the box by Marco Benassi and two more lunged hopelessly after Iago Falqué as he pounced on the loose ball and drove it into the roof of the net.
Within 15 minutes, Torino had trebled their lead. It was 5-0 by the 61st. Pescara’s manager, Massimo Oddo, tucked himself into a corner of the visitors’ dugout and allowed the tears to well up in his eyes.
That Pescara should lose was hardly a shock. Theirs has been one of the worst seasons of any club in Serie A history. The Delfini arrived in Turin with nine points from 23 games, and three of those were awarded to them after Sassuolo fielded an ineligible player. Oddo’s team have not beaten anyone on the pitch in this entire league campaign.
But he had hoped against hope that this game could be different. Hoped because he is an optimist, a man who sees his empty glass as half-full and his undertalented squad as halfway-capable. Hoped because Torino were themselves without a win in six matches. Hoped because his team, and his town, needed some way to heal after the ugliest of weeks.
On Tuesday morning the club president, Daniele Sebastiani, had woken to the sound of an explosion and his home alarm system wailing. His Jeep was in flames on the driveway, and his Smart Car beside it was also catching. Firefighters were called and managed to prevent further damage to the house or his son’s car parked nearby, but together with the police they confirmed that this was no accident or rogue electrical fault: Sebastiani had been the subject of an arson attack.
Although no arrests have yet been made public, investigators are reported to be focusing their attention on sections of the Pescara fanbase. Protests against the president and the team have been a running theme of this season, gathering in momentum and intensity as the season has deteriorated.
The club’s Christmas dinner was disrupted by ultras who waited outside with a banner reading “Vergognatevi!!!” – “Be ashamed!!!” On that occasion, punches and kicks were aimed the cars of players and staff, who were exhorted to boycott the meal on the grounds that there was nothing in this season to celebrate.
Hundreds of fans then gathered to demonstrate outside the players’ exit at Pescara’s home ground – the Stadio Adriatico – after they lost 3-0 to Bologna. Results have scarcely improved since. Pescara did draw their next game, away to Palermo, but had lost their first five of 2017 even before heading to Turin.
The nadir seemed to have arrived at the start of this month. On 5 February, two days before the attack on Sebastiani’s cars, Pescara were beaten 6-2 at home by Lazio.
Sebastiani was targeted for abuse throughout the match, and afterwards suggested that he might consider walking away from the club. But if the arsonists were motivated by a desire to push him out then it is possible their actions will backfire. During subsequent interviews, he offered a suspicion that this was more than just mindless aggression – hinting that someone could be trying to drive down the price of the team.
“I don’t know if this was the act of some vandals or if there was some hidden leadership,” said Sebastiani. “It’s an act which throws mud over this city and our club which had won back credibility after dark years. [But] I’m not going to sell my shares to delinquents or people who think they can acquire them through an act of this sort … If I want to buy a suit, I go to a shop, I ask the price and I pay. If, instead, I set fire to the shop in order to buy the suit, then this is extortion, not a purchase.”
Part of a consortium of local business people who bought the club out of bankruptcy in 2009, Sebastiani assumed the presidency two years later, and in that role has twice guided them into Serie A – a division that they had not graced since the early 1990s. But the first of his top-flight campaigns ended in a last-place finish and a minus-57 goal difference. This one is going even worse.
Fans accuse Sebastiani of failing to invest the income generated by these promotions into building a stronger team and better structures to fall back on. He has countered that the gulf between Italy’s haves and have-nots that is simply too wide to bridge.
Ironically, Pescara’s lack of spending power almost rescued them on Sunday. Over the summer, they pursued a transfer for Arlind Ajeti, only to for Torino to gazump them at the last moment. The Albania defender has barely played for the Granata, but made the starting XI on Sunday and scored his team’s second goal.
At the other end, though, he was a disaster. Ajeti killed Torino’s hopes of a clean sheet by diverting a cross into his own net in the 73rd minute. Little more than 60 seconds later, his woeful marking on Gianluca Caprari allowed the striker to scuff a shot into the path of Ahmed Benali, who scored at the back post. Benali then added another, after a goalmouth scramble that began with Ajeti sending an attempted clearance straight to a Pescara player.
From 5-0 down, Pescara had fought back to 5-3. But it was too little, too late. The visitors fell to their 17th defeat of this league season.
There were reports afterwards that Oddo had resigned, but at time of writing there has been no official communication from the club beyond the words of the sporting director, Luca Leone, who said at full-time that “both my position and his are in the balance”. What is clear is that nobody has suffered this season more than the manager, himself born and raised in Pescara.
It is not the first time we have seen him weep. He cried at the start of this month, after Pescara let a late lead slip in a 2-1 defeat against Fiorentina. It is at once a sad image and a far more welcome one, for this team and this town, than that of burned out cars being lifted from a driveway.
• For anyone wondering how those three goals conceded reflect on Joe Hart specifically, given all the recent chatter about where he’ll be playing next season, then I will say that he certainly wasn’t the chief culprit on any of them. And he did make one very good save from Caprari in the first half.
• Perhaps even better was this save from Rafael to deny Paulo Dybala from close range after Mario Mandzukic’s header had come back off the bar. But the Cagliari keeper had already been beaten twice by Gonzalo Higuaín, who just cannot stop scoring in 2017. The Argentinian has struck eight times in seven league games since the start of the calendar year – the most of any player in Europe’s top five leagues.
• Just one goal behind Higuaín in 2017, though, is the irrepressible Papu Gómez, whom I wrote about in more detail last month. He marked Atalanta’s visit to Palermo with a goal and an assist, not to mention a massive cannolo. (Beyond being an excellent footballer, he has also struck up a tremendous Instagram bromance with his team-mate Andrea Petagna, who posted a picture of them as Jack and Rose from the movie Titanic on Monday morning. Nowadays even their vanquished opponents are trying to get in on the act.
• Radja Nainggolan made headlines last week when a video of him discussing his contempt for Juventus was passed to Corriere dello Sport. Shot surreptitiously on mobile phone, the footage shows the Roma midfielder sat in his car, and conversing with some fans (as well as lighting up a cigarette). Nainggolan repeats many times the words “I hate Juventus”, claims to have always done so and talks about how he would have given his testicles to beat them whilst at Cagliari. “I hate Juve because they’ve always won with a penalty, with a free-kick,” he says at one point. “I’m telling you that I came to Roma because I wanted to try to win against Juve, who have always had these helps.”
• Nainggolan is hardly the first to make such claims – indeed, the past week has been dominated by a back and forth between Inter and Juventus regarding refereeing decisions in the Derby d’Italia – but it must be said that the stats from this season do not lend his argument much support. Roma have won 11 penalties so far in this Serie A campaign, compared to Juventus’s two. Perhaps his sense has been skewed by the fact that Edin Dzeko keeps missing them? The Bosnian fluffed his second spot-kick of 2017 on Sunday, but made up for it with a goal later on from open play. Nainggolan himself had given Roma the lead against Crotone, keeping the pressure on Juve at the top.
• Napoli, too, kept up the pace by beating Genoa 2-0 on Friday. In fact, every single team in the top half of the table won this weekend except Lazio and Milan, who face off on Monday evening. But only one team has Dries Mertens pulling stunts like this.
• Dzeko wasn’t the only one to miss a penalty on Sunday. Chievo’s Roberto Inglese (whose name, you’ll be excited to hear, translates as ‘Robert English’) hit the post from 12 yards, and then went on to score a hat-trick in a 3-1 win at Sassuolo. To put that into context, he had only struck three times in total across the 20 matches he had played so far this season.
Results: Cagliari 0-2 Juventus, Crotone 0-2 Roma, Fiorentina 3-0 Udinese, Internazionale 2-0 Empoli, Napoli 2-0 Genoa, Palermo 1-3 Atalanta, Sampdoria 3-1 Bologna, Sassuolo 1-3 Chievo, Torino 5-3 Pescara. Monday: Lazio-Milan.
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