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Open season for Serie A minnows

Serie A is now what the English First Division used to be. Perhaps it's still not a league where almost anyone can win the championship on any given season, as was the case in England in the '60s. But - with tactical sophistication having become oddly mixed with the kind of back-four defending managers have nightmares about - it has been hugely entertaining and given everybody a chance.

Witness last weekend's round of games, the second of the season: fresh off a solid 1-0 win at Udinese, Genoa were run ragged at home by Chievo, the temporary Serie A leaders; newcomers Brescia, soundly beaten at Parma last week, had little trouble dispatching Palermo 3-1; and Juventus and Sampdoria drew 3-3 in the kind of game that should force football historians to seriously consider whether Italy's long-standing reputation for catenaccio and stout defending has been lost forever.

Cesena's brilliant 2-0 win over Milan was, of course, the most surprising result. On an evening when their former coach Pierpaolo Bisoli, once a player known as a poor man's Hans-Peter Briegel for his haircut and on-field demeanour, was leading Cagliari to an incident-filled 5-1 win over Roma, Cesena made their grand return to the Serie A stage by achieving a result that will live in local lore for a long time to come.

Ever since the fixtures were published, the first home game in the top-flight for 19 years had been given increased significance by the identity of the opponents, whose status had, if possible, been augmented by the recent additions of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho.

They are big names, perhaps the biggest in a low-profile transfer market for Serie A, but players who were after all discarded by other clubs. This matter-of-fact truth, though, could not hold its ground in the face of the mass of newspapers and TV networks breathlessly trampling over one another in the rush to hype Milan's 'Fantastic Four' strikers and how they were going to bring all kinds of trophies to the Rossoneri.

They may still do it, and Milan coach Max Allegri always knew he'd need time for his new squad to gel, but the evidence on Saturday evening indicated an embarrassing gap between a hard-running, organised - even skilful - Cesena and a disjointed Milan.

The visitors' nominal 4-3-3 was at times extended to a 4-1-2-3 as Andrea Pirlo had to track back towards his central defenders to escape the pressure each of Cesena's midfielders, in turn, was applying on him.

When the home side had possession, Milan's three forwards rarely helped out in defence, despite Allegri's instructions from the touchline, and their slack tactical attitude, though hardly surprising, tilted the balance in Cesena's favour: not only did the Cesena players show an eagerness to run, they also had room to run into. That problem was exacerbated for Milan as all four of their defenders, except perhaps for Luca Antonini on the left, seemed to have a mediocre game covering space. In fact, Antonini was just doing his job, cutting inside to follow Ezequiel Schelotto before the winger was picked up by Thiago Silva, in the build-up to Erjon Bogdani's opening goal.

Milan's shortcomings were even more evident when the home side scored their second: despite being the Cesena player closest to his own goalkeeper when Ronaldinho attempted a shot from the left, Giaccherini easily outpaced all Milan defenders to score with his weaker foot from Bodgani's pass, in a shade of Alessandro Del Piero's mad dash upfield to connect with Alberto Gilardino's layoff for Italy's second goal in the 2006 World Cup semi-final.

Unable to create one-on-one opportunities because of Cesena's compact formation and constant doubling up defensively, Milan saw most of the ball but rarely threatened, and fully deserved to lose. It puts the spotlight on Cesena, whose strengths on the night influenced the match's outcome as much as the visitors' faults.

Back in the Serie A for the first time since 1991, and after a second consecutive promotion under Bisoli, the Cavalluccio (Sea Horse) are your typical unfancied, unglamorous side just trying to keep their heads above water.

Cesena sits less than half-an-hour's drive from the Adriatic Coast, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. That hyphen makes all the difference: call a Cesenate Emiliano instead of Romagnolo and he will not like it, as Romagna has a distinct culture from the rest of the administrative region it's part of. Stereotype-lovers would have a field day if they asked the average Italian to characterise a person from Romagna: friendly, funny (some of Italy's best stand-up comedians hail from this area), quick-witted, often from a rural background but always looking forward to spending some time on the beach.

The Riviera Romagnola has, after all, been called Italy's divertimentificio (fun factory), sometimes disparagingly, because for decades that's where young Italians, and a lot of Germans, went to spend their holidays. Once cheaper flights to more exotic destinations began hurting the Riviera's appeal, the whole system of towns (Cesenatico, Bellaria, Rimini, Cervia, Riccione further south) underwent a long, slow renovation, and the place has now again become one of the trendiest places to be. Where there once was your typical, no-frills beach-bed, you may now find a comfortable, padded sun-lounge with Wi-Fi access and dedicated waiter service. A few football players, among them Luca Toni, opened their own lido, while others are regulars in the Riviera's discos.

As for Cesena FC, they have spent just 11 seasons in the top flight since their foundation in 1940, two of them under Marcello Lippi. Their best result was sixth place in 1976, which allowed them to enter the UEFA Cup, where they were knocked out by Magdeburg with a 4-3 aggregate score. For a while, their popularity throughout Italy was helped by the exposure the seminal TV show Mai Dire Gol gave to their former chairman Edmeo Lugaresi, a passionate, enthusiastic man with a penchant for winding, non-sensical, baroque sentences.

Current manager Massimo Ficcadenti, 42, replaced Bisoli and brought his beloved 4-3-3 with him. The squad has 17 new players, among them Japan international Yuto Nagatomo, Swiss central defender Steve Von Bergen, former West Ham and Parma trequartista Luis Jimenez and former Liverpool goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri, who's currently the understudy to the experienced Francesco Antonioli.

Cesena's season-ticket record was shattered on the last day of sales last week - 10,802 were sold this time - despite some anxiety over the side's chances in light of the uncertainty over the new manager and the number of inexperienced players in the squad.

One of those players, the Argentina-born Italy Under-21 international Schelotto, already looks the part, although his best position on the pitch is still not clear. On Saturday, he posed a constant threat to Milan's left side, his non-stop running perhaps causing Milan players on that flank to believe they were seeing double. Worry not for the sight of the Rossoneri - it was just right-back Ceccarelli, very much Schelotto's look-alike for those not familiar with Cesena.


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