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The Toe Poke

Heaven or Hell for Samp

Perhaps it was all meant to be like this. Perhaps soccer was indeed created to carry out an educational message. Forget all the deserved hype about the newly crowned Superbowl heroes the Green Bay Packers and how a team from a tiny town in North-east Wisconsin can survive and prosper in a league where the likes of New York and Chicago are represented. That beautiful structure is not real life. It is, rather, like real life should be.

In the archaic world of European sports, reality bares its teeth in a more menacing, sinister manner, resembling the scary portrait that Italy's own Dante gave of Minos, the guardian of Hell who decides which 'circle' each poor soul - no pun intended - who is sent for judgment before him has to descend into. In Dante's 'Inferno', Minos was not supposed to distinguish between rich and poor.

Real life, though, has a more subtle way of going about its own business, and so in our soccer structure if your name is Inter, Juventus, Milan, perhaps Roma, you are redirected towards heaven no matter how sinful you've been; any other name or status, and Minos will welcome you with the bone-chilling growl Dante described in his unparalleled opus.

Sampdoria, sadly, are among the great unwashed, forced by a modern-day divinity to be subjected to the forces of Hell's putrid gale. They - along with crosstown rivals Genoa, whom they meet on Wednesday - represent one of Italy's biggest towns, Genova, a peculiar place with its own soccer culture and a compelling stadium whose architectonic beauty is hardly matched by a playing surface that seems to come straight from Hell.

Sampdoria, currently 10th in the Serie A table with that game in hand, won their first and only Scudetto back in 1991, led by a motley crew of players who made history out on the pitch, then in the season-ending squad photo, where they all appeared with their hair bleached blond. They only lost the following season's European Cup final to Barcelona in extra-time, then were dropped back to reality towards the end of the century, spending four years in Serie B before rejoining the elite in 2003.

Samp fans never really believed the glory days would return, though. Riccardo Garrone, the 75-year old oil tycoon who took over from the Mantovani family almost a decade ago, hardly fits into that age-old class which dominated Italian soccer for so long, the so-called ricchi scemi (foolish rich) who would spend fortunes on teams with no return but the soothing adoration of the masses, who did not care about money being wasted as long as it was for their own pleasure.

Garrone, whose attitude and tactics haven't always been welcomed by Samp fans, took the strongest action yet under his regime in late October, when he kicked Antonio Cassano (whom he'd rescued from the depths of Real Madrid's doghouse and presented with a new lease of life) out of the squad, asking a special court to cancel his contract immediately.

Cassano's sin? Turning down Garrone's request to accept a plaque at a fans' function, then exploding into a profanity-laced tirade when the owner tried to talk him into changing his mind. Garrone often repeated that Cassano's behaviour was "inexcusable", although it could be suggested that his 'punishment' - a transfer to Milan with a salary cut he won't even notice and a chance to win the Scudetto - is rather bizarre.

Ironically, Garrone's wedding present to Cassano last summer had been a dinner set inscribed with a caricature of the owner spanking the player - as if to represent the father-like attitude Garrone displayed towards his former star. Which obviously made Antonio's "betrayal" all the more painful.

But with Cassano a thing of the past - he was widely booed when he returned with Milan in an Italian Cup match last month - Samp fans have more pressing matters to deal with now. The January transfer market saw the sale of centre-forward Giampaolo Pazzini to Inter and the departure of reserve striker Guido Marilungo to Atalanta, which meant the striking duo which had lifted the Blucerchiati ("Hooped blues") to fourth place and the Champions League preliminary round last year, were no more.

Former Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone, ex-Inter youngster Jonathan Biabiany and Manchester United loanee Federico Macheda are not in the same class, of course, and this apparent lack of ambition has again created unrest. Before exploiting a half-asleep Bologna defence for three goals in the first 15 minutes on Sunday, Sampdoria had failed to score in five consecutive matches and seven out of eight stretching back to mid-December - the only win in those 55 days coming in a come-from-behind effort over Roma on January 9.

With any sort of attacking prowess gone, even on the defensive side of the ball the situation had deteriorated, owing perhaps to injuries which prevented coach Mimmo Di Carlo from fielding his best unit. Samp conceded four in a disastrous performance at Napoli on January 30 and have looked shaky ever since; an attitude that caused a few anxious moments on Sunday when Bologna got one back midway through the second half.

The simple fact is, Sampdoria, like most of the other clubs not allowed into Serie A's 'Heaven' by virtue of their status, will always bounce between a good season and a mediocre one. They will always see their best players leave for pastures news, although one can hardly think of a better place to play than the Luigi Ferraris - provided you don't care about the health of your ankles.

Luigi Del Neri's Sampdoria were a pleasure to watch last season, before the coach and the influential general manager, Beppe Marotta, were spirited away to Juventus. New man Di Carlo, who had used the 4-3-1-2 with some success at Chievo, inherited a squad more suited to Del Neri's 4-4-2 and has tried to do his best, sometimes sticking to the 4-4-2 with wingers Franco Semioli (currently injured) and Stefano Guberti stretching opponents while Cassano, cutting in from the inside-left, would probe the central defenders and captain Angelo Palombo would partner young Andrea Poli or Fernando Tissone in the middle.

At times, especially earlier in the season, Guberti actually moved inside to act as a trequartista in a hybrid version of the 4-3-1-2, but the difference was not noticeable in the results.

In defence, Di Carlo's preferred four seem to be (from the right) Zauri-Gastaldello-Lucchini-Ziegler, the Swiss himself a subject of much transfer speculation, but he has only been able to field them three times in the past couple of months, and perhaps it is not surprising to note all four played well in the win over Bologna.

That match may well become a watershed in Sampdoria's season: before Palombo scored in the eighth minute, only five different Sampdoria players had found the net in Serie A this season, and two of them (Pazzini and Cassano) are not in the squad anymore. Daniele Gastaldello, with a much-awaited headed goal, and Maccarone provided the other scores against the hapless Rossoblu, signalling perhaps the beginning of a new phase in the team's season.

Genoa await at the gate now, though. They may not be as scary as Minos, but you can never trust your neighbours, can you?


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