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May 10, 2004

A basement battle

You cannot blame Modena for trying to bring back the good ole times: the resident DJ's choice of songs before Sunday's crucial match against Siena included stuff from Tears for Fears, A-ha and Soft Cell's Tainted Love, hardly the latest in pop music fashion.

One could wonder which good times Modena exactly wanted to evoke, since they spent most of the 80s in Serie C, but on second thoughts it might have been a ploy to lighten the atmosphere of the Siena clash, a match that could have had a bigger or smaller impact depening on other teams' results, as is typical of the closing stages of a campaign when attention is paid as closely to the scoreboard as to any action on the pitch.

Silly results are the norm at this time of the year, and Soccernet readers will already know that a fortnight ago some betting firms stopped taking bets on matches whose outcome was seen as too predictable, although none of those who were taken off the board went according to the huge sums that had been bet on them, so perhaps this is just another of the Italian paranoid traits of seeing conspiracies everywhere.

And as conspiracy theories go, within 15 minutes of settling down in my press box seat on Sunday I'd heard the following pearls of wisdom: 'Siena's shirt sponsor and main backer are Montepaschi (Italy's biggest and oldest bank), they have strong connections with the influential Leftist political parties so they'll stay up'; '... but Siena chairman De Luca fell out with Milan and League boss Galliani so they will be sent down instead'; '(former Modena coach) Malesani had to be sacked, he's a Gemini and so has twin personalities, he was never going to get along with some players' (I'm not making this up); last but not least, 'Parma were saved from extinction by the Masonry, all the influential figures in Italian politics are Masons'.

With this mindset - and remember, it was journalists speaking, not obsessed and bitter fans - why bother playing or turning up at the stadium?

The extent to which some end-of-season opponents can be seen as 'sympathetic' was clear after the Chievo-Modena match on May 2, which the locals won 2-0, with the visitors missing a penalty.

Some in the Modena camp grumbled about Chievo's effort, perhaps because they expected the Verona side to lay down and let the visitors take at least a point, which would have had a huge importance in their quest for safety.

It was really a no-win situation for Chievo: win - as they did - and others will think you tried too hard (isn't such a sentence surreal?); lose, and others in the relegation zone will be upset at you.

The Modena faithful: Perhaps not so full of faith after the weekend result.
The Modena faithful: Perhaps not so full of faith after the weekend result.

Modena had started the season well enough, but their loss of form from December to February saw them slip further down the table, and coach Alberto Malesani was dismissed on March 22 and replaced by one-time Modena player Gianfranco Bellotto.

Not that the boost of a new face and a partial change in tactics bore too many fruits: the Canarini (Canaries) kept having trouble scoring - their top marksman is Kamara with six, and only Amoruso has more than two - and leaked just about enough to sink lower and lower, right into the deep relegation zone.

This year, three teams will go down to Serie B, while the fourth from bottom enters a two-legged playoff against the sixth-placed team in B, with the winner gaining (or retaining) a spot in the top division.

It will be interesting to see how the Serie A team will prepare for those two matches, as they will be played in mid-June, one month after the end of the season, while their opponents will only have a few days' rest after their last regular season game.

With Siena fifth from bottom on 31 points after a disappointing 0-1 defeat at home to Brescia and Modena lagging just one point behind (along with Empoli), it was easy to see why the atmosphere at the Stadio Braglia was tense.

It is the perverse beauty of late-season matches, for the neutrals: as you approach the ground you can read the tension in the eyes of the fans, and whenever the ball is played into a potential goalscoring position there is a rush of adrenaline followed by a fraction of a second of silence when a shot is taken, fans holding their collective breath.

This happens everywhere every year, of course, but it still feels like the first time and it is part of the beauty of the game, although fans who have an involvement in proceedings would happily swap those emotions with the full-stomached bonhomie shown by other supporters whose teams played meaningless games on Sunday.

The big screen high behind Siena's end displayed the results from the other grounds as soon as a goal was scored, and there were predictable groans when Reggina (tied with Siena on 31 points) went 2-0 up against Milan, and cheers when Ancona took the lead against Empoli, but this was only a respite from the action on the pitch.

Diomansy Kamara: Not particularly high scorer for the Canaries.
Diomansy Kamara: Not particularly high scorer for the Canaries.

As expected, Modena were the more enterprising team, but proceedings were often brought to a standstill - perhaps not the most appropriate word given the circumstances - by the suspiciously long time it took some Siena players to get up after being fouled, which raised the temperature of Modena fans.

But the Canaries could not buy a goal and when Siena's Brazilian forward Rodrigo Taddei scored with a near post header a couple of minutes before the interval the writing appeared hugely on the wall for Modena.

Their increasingly desperate attempts to pour forward, with as many as four strikers on the pitch at the same time, were frustrated by Siena's well organized rearguard, and things looked bleaker when home captain Mayer was sent off for elbowing Nicola Ventola.

Siena doubled their lead nine minutes from the end, again with Taddei, and added a third in injury time after Marazzina had got one back for Modena, but by that time some home fans had already made their way towards the exits in silence, with their heads bowed in an apparent unwillingness to listen to radio commentators noting that Modena can still avoid direct relegation by taking all three points next week at Lazio.

The Canarini have won away from home only once all year, but this is the time of silly results, isn't it?

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