Benevento struggling to change course in historically poor Serie A start
The mission Roberto de Zerbi chose to accept at Benevento last week is not "Mission Impossible" -- they say nothing is, after all -- De Zerbi just considers it "almost impossible." It's only November and Benevento already need a miracle if they are to survive in Serie A. And don't they know it.
In the away end at the San Paolo in mid-September, a fan unfurled a banner saying: "Saint Gennaro, remember you're from Benevento." But Naples' patron saint has either forsaken or forgotten them. Napoli won 6-0, showing no mercy to De Zerbi's predecessor, Marco Baroni, whose goal against Lazio in April 1990 clinched the second and last of their Scudetti.
Statistically Benevento are the worst team in Europe's top-flight leagues and Sunday's 5-1 defeat to Lazio was their 11th in a row.
"We were beaten before we even walked on the pitch," De Zerbi lamented, promising it won't happen again. But the next fixture circled on the calendar is in Turin on Sunday, away to champions Juventus.
San Gennaro, if you're listening, give Benevento a sign. And not the one that "welcomed" De Zerbi on the night of his appointment.
On a bed-sheet strewn outside Benevento's stadium, the words "De Zerbi gypsy" were daubed in black spray paint, another deplorable racist incident that would have attracted greater attention had it not coincided with the Anne Frank sticker scandal in Rome.
Obviously some fans haven't forgiven De Zerbi for what he said in the heat of battle two seasons ago, when his Foggia side were going toe-to-toe with Benevento for promotion to the second division and claimed a 1-1 draw which the manager said was undeserved as "we massacred them." But that reminds us of how far they have come in such a short time: Benevento were in Italy's third tier as recently as May 2016.
They are the latest club to take the momentum of one promotion and carry it on into the next season without skipping a beat. Going up in back-to-back years has become increasingly common since Frosinone achieved it in 2015. While Benevento needed a playoff, SPAL won automatic promotion for a second year in a row this summer. And looking at the Serie B table as it stands, Parma's rise from the fourth division seems irresistible. Fingers crossed, the triple jump is on.
The problem, as Benevento are experiencing, is top-flight football can feel like too much too soon. Nicknamed "the Witches," they're melting as if Serie A were a bucket of water splashed in their face. The impact is just too great, and in Benevento's case we must not forget they were the second division's fifth-best team last year, finishing nine points off the last step on the podium. (Had Frosinone put just one more point between them and Benevento, a rule would have kicked in as it did a decade ago, whereby the playoffs go unplayed because the gap from the third-place team to the rest is 10 points or greater.)
Yet the enthusiasm that greeted Benevento's first-ever appearance in Serie A is dissipating. The mayor of Benevento, Clemente Mastella, is worried the town is now a laughing stock, the butt of jokes associated with being bad at something. Just listen to Andrea Stramaccioni. Criticised heavily after his Sparta Prague side suffered defeat, the former Inter and Udinese coach asked Czech journalists for some perspective.
"Come on," he said, "it's not like we're Benevento." A statement for which he later apologised.
Your heart would have to be made of stone not to feel sympathy for them. This is a town where the unemployment rate is as high as 20 percent. In 2015, floods caused €1.2 billion worth of damage to the region. So think twice before poking fun at Benevento. Their rise through the leagues gave locals something to look forward to and enjoy -- a 90 minute escape from their problems. They were a symbol of hope.
Everyone connected with the club expected this season to be Benevento's Everest, but it's not as if they lack the budget to compete. Silvio Berlusconi once said Benevento's owner, Oreste Vigorito, is "among the five people [in Italy] who could buy AC Milan."
The head of Italy's National Association of Wind Energy, Vigorito probably didn't expect Benevento to get blown away after investing €19m in new players this summer. Benevento out-spent eight other Serie A teams, including title favourites Napoli.
Overhauling last year's team means the side has looked like a group of strangers at times. So it wasn't much of a surprise that the sporting director followed Baroni out the door when he got the sack. Benevento's cause has not been helped by an injury to their best player: Amato Ciciretti. Blonde and covered in ink -- he kept a promise to get a Twitter tattoo if fans retweeted a post 500 times -- the maverick winger put Benevento in front at Sampdoria on opening night, before they lost 2-1, but missed four weeks with a muscle strain.
Almost simultaneously, captain Fabio Lucioni failed a doping test over a spray used to treat a graze contained the banned substance clostebol -- though he hopes to be cleared after Benevento's club doctor claimed responsibility, telling Italy's anti-doping authority the spray belonged to him and not the club.
Questions remain about De Zerbi's ability to turn things around. Cynics say he is a continuity appointment. Last year he couldn't keep Palermo up, losing seven straight before getting the axe.
For now Benevento keep losing. Their defeat to Verona last month broke a near-70-year-old record: Venezia started the season with seven straight defeats in 1949-50, a dishonour matched only by Legnano in the hall of shame in 1951-52. Both managed to stop the rot come Week Eight, though.
For Benevento, it's still ongoing and, unfortunately for them, appearing faintly on the horizon is the worst losing streak any team has ever had at any point of a Serie A season: Brescia's 15-game run between February and May 1995. All that redeems the Swallows in the eyes of history is the Serie A debut they gave to a 16-year-old Andrea Pirlo.
Nine points adrift of safety, Benevento look sunk, though the same was said of Crotone, who didn't get their first win of last season until this time. They looked dead and buried at Christmas but from March onwards posted the fifth-best record in Serie A, pulling off the Great Escape in the end.
Whether the same spirit is within the Benevento camp remains to be seen. Crotone kept faith in manager Davide Nicola throughout and the unwillingness of anyone to join a sinking ship in January helped foster a solidarity within the group that became the envy of the league.
To an extent, Benevento have been unlucky. It's not like they've been outplayed every week. Six of their defeats have been by a single goal and had VAR not been around they would have got their first point on Matchday Two, when Lucioni's stoppage-time equaliser was overruled on review against Bologna.
But the club need some help -- from Saint Gennaro, Tom Cruise or anyone -- if they are to put an end to their losing streak and keep their top flight dream alive.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.