Think of Davide Nicola less as a football club manager than as a public servant. Speaking before his Crotone team’s match against Inter this weekend, he told reporters that his main goal was to “make this end to the season interesting”.
Well, somebody needed to do it. The 2016-17 edition of Serie A has often felt less like a competition than a series of foregone conclusions – Juventus strolling towards their sixth consecutive Scudetto with Roma and Napoli locked into the remaining Champions League places and no change to the identities of the bottom three since November.
Crotone themselves have spent the entire season in the relegation zone. Competing in the top-flight for the first time, the Calabrians took a single point from their opening nine games, and didn’t make it into double figures until the fourth week of 2017. Overmatched and unable to coax new talent aboard their sinking ship in January, they looked doomed to drop straight back down to the second tier.
Except, Nicola never quite agreed with that assessment. Even as Crotone sat 19th in the table, eight points adrift of safety at the start of this month, he refused to accept that their race was run.
If his remarks to reporters weren’t sufficient to make this point, then his actions during a 3-0 defeat by Napoli were. Nobody had expected his team to get a result at the Stadio San Paolo, yet he raged so furiously against refereeing decisions that he wound up being sent off for the first time in his career.
Nicola was ridiculed a week later for suggesting in the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Fiorentina that his team was just missing “qualcosetta” - a tiny something. How deluded was this guy, to say such a thing when his team had already lost 21 matches this season?
Less so than you’d think. Crotone had genuinely been unfortunate not to take a point against Fiorentina, conceding right at the death. Even before that, their performances were – quietly, slowly – getting better. Their disastrous start to the campaign had been influenced by the necessity of playing the first two months’ worth of home games in Pescara, some 375 miles away, while their Stadio Ezio Scida was upgraded.
Not that Nicola was unduly troubled by criticism. Even after Crotone’s long-standing president, Raffaele Vrenna, stood down, handing control over to his brother Gianni, he still knew he had the backing of the board. Theirs is the only team in the bottom three not to change managers since the start of the season. During the international break, Nicola kept his players’ spirits up by taking them to train on the beach.
They responded by beating Chievo 2-0 in Verona – their first away win in Serie A. Now the gap to 17th-placed Empoli was just five points, and Crotone held the head-to-head tie-breaker. Could they really save themselves? Nicola was confident enough to have already planned out a celebratory 800-mile bike ride from Calabria up to his hometown, Turin.
This was no idle fantasy. “I have it all planned out,” he explained to reporters. “I know the stages, the pit stops and the route I’m going to take.”
First, though, he had to keep Crotone in Serie A. The fixture list was daunting, with games against Milan, Juventus and Lazio still to come. Before that, was a home game against Inter. The Nerazzurri had lost their previous game, at home to Sampdoria, but surely that would only sharpen their focus for this one?
Apparently not. Inter arrived limp and lazy in Crotone on Sunday, a team that expected victory to come easy. Instead, by half-time they were 2-0 down and fortunate the gap wasn’t even bigger. They had been torn apart by Crotone side which attacked ruthlessly on the counter. The first-half stats showed that Inter had held 68.5% of possession, but taken just two shots to their opponents’ 10.
Diego Falcinelli scored both of Crotone’s goals, the first a penalty and the second a nerveless chip over Samir Handanovic from the left side of the penalty area. The keeper had Miranda to think for blocking Marcus Rohden’s shot off the line shortly before the interval.
Special praise is due to Falcinelli, whose 11 goals represent 44% of Crotone’s total in Serie A. The 25-year-old, on loan from Sassuolo, has had an undistinguished career to date, bouncing between lower-division teams without making a lasting impression. His efforts this season, though, have been noted. He was called up after the game to a national team training camp for emerging Italian talent.
So too was his team-mate Federico Ceccherini, a centre-back who helped to resist Inter’s attempts to rally in the second half. Although the visitors did pull a goal back through Danilo D’Ambrosio, and came close to equalising when Eder hit the inside of the post, Crotone rarely appeared rattled. They held on for a 2-1 win.
The most revealing statistic of this game might be the one showing that Mauro Icardi – he of 20 goals this season – touched the ball just 18 times. On a day when Inter would finish up with a whopping 72.5% share of possession, Ceccherini and his defensive colleagues did an exceptional job of neutralising their opponents’ most dangerous weapon.
Falcinelli laughed when asked afterwards if he would join Nicola on his bike ride to Turin, noting that the journey by car was quite bad enough. But the suggestion that the manager might be obliged to follow through on his plans no longer seemed so distant. Victory had moved Crotone to within three points of Empoli, who drew with Pescara a day earlier.
“The hard thing,” Nicola had pondered after the win over Chievo, “is getting other people to believe me when I say that I believe.” Few could still doubt him this morning.
• Lazio had a chance to inject some jeopardy into the race for the top three, but were simply outclassed by Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico. Injuries to Stefan De Vrij, Senad Lulic and Lucas Biglia certainly diminished the Biancocelesti, but after completing their Coppa Italia semi-final win over Roma in midweek, this was a sharp comedown for Simone Inzaghi’s team, who had no answer (though few do) to the exhilarating pace and movement of Napoli’s ‘Marvellous Smurfs’.
• The most marvellous, on this occasion, was Lorenzo Insigne, who not only scored twice but made a crucial goalline block to deny Patric. Maurizio Sarri said afterwards that he would not swap the Neapolitan forward even for Juventus’s Paulo Dybala. His words might be read as a message to club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, who does not seem to be making an awful lot of progress in his efforts to extend Insigne’s contract beyond 2018.
• Congratulations to Han Kwang-Song - the first ever North Korean to score a goal in Serie A. His was only a consolation strike at the end of Cagliari’s 3-2 defeat to Torino, but frankly the result doesn’t mean an awful lot to either team at this point. This was Han’s second substitute appearance, following a debut in the win over Palermo, and not one we can read an awful lot into (he has played a total of 13 minutes between the two games) but it will be interesting to see if it leads to further opportunities. Eighteen years old, he is yet to sign a full professional contract, but his manager, Massimo Rastelli, is obviously a fan, saying afterwards: “He sees the goal, he’s quick, he can dribble. Let’s give him time, he can do well.”
• Carlos Bacca didn’t seem to know which team Milan were playing this weekend but that didn’t stop the Rossoneri from thrashing Palermo 4-0. Suso marked his return from injury by opening the scoring with a beautifully struck free-kick, but more than that he gelled attacks together and provided a regular supply of crosses from the right flank. His presence is most welcome ahead of next weekend’s derby, which may go a long way to deciding which Milan side (if either) makes it into Europe next season.
• Juventus set themselves up for Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona with a 2-0 win over Chievo. This was always going to be routine, but the Bianconeri will be encouraged to see that Gonzalo Higuaín has rediscovered his scoring touch. He scored a brace on Saturday, just as he had in the midweek Coppa Italia game against Napoli. Previously, he had gone five matches without a goal.
Results: Atalanta 1-1 Sassuolo, Bologna 0-3 Roma, Cagliari 2-3 Torino, Crotone 2-1 Inter, Empoli 1-1 Pescara, Juventus 2-0 Chievo, Lazio 0-3 Napoli, Milan 4-0 Palermo, Sampdoria 2-2 Fiorentina, Udinese 3-0 Genoa.
This article was written by Paolo Bandini, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th April 2017 12.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010