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Mar 18, 2010

Colomba ends the Bologna malaise

If you comb through the list of potential host cities for Italy's Euro 2016 bid, you will notice - or perhaps not - that Bologna's name is missing.

And you just need to take a look at its scenic but antiquated ground, the Stadio Dall'Ara, to understand why the smaller and more compact Dino Manuzzi, of current Serie B frontrunners and near neighbour Cesena, was included instead.

In other times, this could have led to much gnashing of teeth in Bologna (or you could just say Italy), where local rivalries carry much more weight than long-term projects, but the locals are much more interested in Bologna FC's current form and where that will lead them in the near future.

Having gained promotion back to Serie A two years ago, the Rossoblu immediately settled into the predictable pattern followed by most medium-sized clubs with no real money to spend: they filled their first squad with loan players, other clubs' rejects and a handful of highly-paid veterans. One of them, Marco Di Vaio, kept Bologna up almost by himself by scoring 24 goals, but relegation was avoided only on the last day of season after the club had gone through three different managers - another familiar development for struggling teams with little experience.

The owners, the local Menarini family, then kept faith with Giuseppe Papadopulo, who had coached the side in the last seven matches of the season. But the move soon showed its true colours, if you paid any attention to the whispers and innuendo that swirl around Bologna just as much as anywhere else. Basically, the Menarinis probably felt they owed Papadopulo some loyalty, but were never fully convinced he'd be the guy you could build a plan, or as the widely overused Italian word goes, progetto, around.

Papadopulo was sacked when the Rossoblu again had a torrid start to the 2009-10 season, with what was perceived as a fractured dressing room and poor play on the pitch, a situation compounded by Di Vaio's absence through injury in the first couple of games. The hugely disappointing Argentinian forward Osvaldo was left with too heavy a burned to carry on his still immature shoulders.

Osvaldo did score once, in the opener against his former side Fiorentina, but he proceeded to find the net only twice more, and he's now on loan at Espanyol. On October 20, with Bologna lying near the bottom of the table and playing conservatively, especially away from home, Papadopulo was sacked, and Franco Colomba replaced him.

Shadows of a recent, dark past materialised as soon as Colomba's appointment was announced. The Menarinis had created a storm last year when it turned out patriarch Renzo had met with an old friend, disgraced former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi, and listened to his advice on some football matters.

Soon, panic spread among many as Moggi's name is taboo in Bologna, just as is Juventus', dating back to much before the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. Sleeping with the enemy, as Renzo Menarini was perceived to have done, did not sit well with many. A poll conducted by local newspaper Il Resto Del Carlino showed readers overwhelmingly voted against Moggi - who is still suspended and barred from having any kind of official role in football clubs but can of course share a meal with whoever he wants - having any sort of influence over Bologna.

To the dismay of many, a bigger than expected share of readers, though, recognized Moggi's talent as a football observer and noted how Bologna needed help - wherever it came from.

When Colomba was named as Papadopulo's replacement, some noted that he had previously coached at clubs that had been known to be under some sort of Moggi influence, among them Reggina.

Despite hailing from Grosseto (Tuscany), Colomba, 55, has always been seen as an honorary Bolognese, having had his best years as an elegant midfielder with the Rossoblu first in 1973-75 then in 1977-83, with a total of 168 first team matches. A favourite studio and phone guest in several of the Sunday night and Monday evening Bologna football talk shows, he had never enjoyed much success as a coach in numerous stints around the country, but had also found himself in a lot of situations that were desperate to begin with.

Belying his smooth surname (which means "Dove"), Colomba swooped like a hawk on the negative attitude that had permeated the squad even after good results such as the last-gasp 1-1 draw at Juventus - who were then still perceived as title contenders - and instigated changes both in formation and the rotation of players.

He added to his arsenal through a series of shrewd January transfer moves, when he brought in, among others, wing players Antonio Busce and Francesco Modesto and strikers Henry Gimenez and Davide Succi. Bologna's midfield acquired the kind of consistency it had lacked before, though Colomba did experiment with a 4-3-1-2 which did not suit his players (hence, bad defeats at Parma and Catania).

His current choice, a 4-4-2 which more closely resembles a 4-4-1-1 with Brazilian Adailton playing just off the main striker, be it Zalayeta or Di Vaio, has its strength in the midfield duo of Gaby Mudingayi and Roberto Guana, whose seemingly endless reserves of energy set the tone for the rest of the side.

Mudingayi's story reflects Colomba's impact. The Belgian had completely fallen out of favour with the coach until he was given another chance, which Mudingay took with both hands, or rather feet. Thus, the partnership with Guana was launched, leaving former vice-captain Nicola Mingazzini as the odd man out of a three-man midfield Colomba employed until the January 10 home defeat to Cagliari.

Firecracking 2-1 and 4-3 wins at Fiorentina and Genoa in January and late February have contributed to Bologna's revival as much as the hard-fought 2-1 home win against Napoli. In fact, since the second part of the 2009-10 campaign began, Bologna's record is second only to Roma in Serie A.

Resting on a healthy 11-point cushion between themselves and the relegation zone, Bologna will have to avoid the kind of catastrophic collapse that saw them relegated in 2005, when their position in February had seemed all but secure.

And an extension to Colomba's contract will soon be signed. Listening to local phone-in shows, you get the impression this move would be welcomed by the majority of fans, who feel Colomba has both the desire and is a relatively young age.

But one other development has been hogging the headlines: the fate of Luca Baraldi's contract. Baraldi, 49, and formerly a high-ranking official with Lazio and Parma, was appointed in late November to strenghten Bologna and it was widely believed his presence would end suspicions over Moggi's friendship with Renzo Menarini.

Baraldi has definitely never been in Moggi's camp, and in fact he is also one of the witnesses for the prosecution in the Calciopoli trial that has been going on in Naples for some time. He has prepared a two-year plan to help Bologna streamline their operations, nurture young players and help generate more revenue while reducing expenses, which of course is the aim every sports organisation not named Manchester City.

Analysts in the local media have spotted a potential hurdle: implementing a two-year plan would mean setting in motion a series of contracts that would make the club all but unsellable, whereas it has been widely believed the Menarinis, having spent dozens of millions to help their local side, would not be averse to listening to offers, if the right opportunity came along. This may make the approval of Baraldi's project less of a certainty that it should be, so stay tuned.

And what about the Dall'Ara? Oh, never mind. Bring on Cesena for 2016, then.

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