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Jun 1, 2011

Sampdoria's fall from grace

Genoa owner Enrico Preziosi is a sometimes abrasive character who has frequently fallen foul of football's authorities and his own fans. You wouldn't trust him to be gracious to losers, but he was - and it was not just any loser. It was Sampdoria, Genoa's local rivals and the subject of much scorn, grief and disbelief across the nation after their unexpected plunge to Serie B just 12 months after qualifying for the Champions League preliminary round.

"Those of us on the other side of town can't really celebrate in a situation like this," Preziosi said. "I am happy Genoa are above Samp, but I don't like this." Preziosi went on to praise Samp captain Angelo Palombo, the rugged Italian international midfielder who had apologised to his fans by bowing in front of them right after a home defeat to Palermo on May 15 that sealed his side's fate.

Palombo had played far below his usual standard in several matches, but you could say the disease spread far further than central midfield, which he usually patrols in that hunched posture and busy style of his.

In fact, it would be hard to find anything that really worked for Samp after Giampaolo Pazzini joined Inter and Antonio Cassano, who'd clashed with and insulted owner Riccardo Garrone in late October, left for AC Milan during the winter market. Readers may remember a story ESPNsoccernet published in mid-February with the headline 'Heaven or hell for Sampdoria': at that stage, more than one month after the 2009-10 strike duo had left, it was clear the side would either find the inner resources to lift themselves out of the mental and technical depression they had fallen into, or crumble. It was to be the latter, in a way that was almost too painful to watch.

After beating Bologna 3-1 on February 13 in a bizarre match that saw them score three times within the first quarter of an hour, Sampdoria did not win again at home and won just once more overall as they took a 1-0 victory at Bari on April 23. The list of home matches between February and the end of the season beggars belief: a 1-0 defeat to Genoa, a 2-0 defeat to Inter, a 3-2 defeat to Cesena, a 1-0 defeat to Parma, a 2-1 defeat to Lecce, a 3-3 draw with Brescia and a 2-1 defeat to Palermo.

Compare this to the previous season, when Samp had never lost at home, beating Inter, Milan, Juventus and Napoli along the way and showcasing a brilliant style of football under the direction of Gigi Del Neri. You could say what happened next was bad both for the club and the now unemployed former coach, and this may be at the root of the current problems.

Del Neri was replaced by Mimmo Di Carlo, a good manager who had done well with Chievo. Di Carlo's favourite formation is 4-3-1-2, a radical change from his predecessor's 4-4-2, which Di Carlo tried to smooth by using basically the same players with a twist: Stefano Guberti, while nominally starting several matches in left midfield, often drifted behind the two strikers to play the trequartista role, but any coach worth his UEFA Pro Licence knows it's not as simple as that. Franco Semioli, a frequent starter, is much better as a wide man in a 4-4-2 than as the third midfielder in the 4-3-1-2, something that jumped out at the viewer as early as mid-August, when Werder Bremen's three-man midfield dominated in the first leg of the Champions League preliminary round.

With Semioli soon taking himself out of consideration because of a series of injuries, Di Carlo tried different players - Koman, Mannini - at the position and often went back to a straight 4-4-2 with Guberti moving inside only when specific tactical situations so required. Results were not great, but as long as Pazzini was there his goals papered over the widening cracks: after opening his account late, on October 31 at Cesena, the Italy striker then scored a hat-trick at Lecce, an equaliser against Milan and the opening goal against Bari and Roma (both wins). He was then sold to Inter - so Samp can't say their plight isn't of their own making - and the bottom fell out. Simple as that. Federico Macheda and Massimo Maccarone, who arrived in January, were huge disappointments - Big Mac scored three goals, Kiko none - and the side never recovered a semblance of attacking power after that.

Maccarone, in fact, quickly attracted the ire of fans for his profligacy and what was seen by some as lack of effort, an accusation that should always be taken with a pinch of salt whenever it is directed at any athlete. But it is significant that before Sampdoria played at Bari, one of the supporters was overheard pleading with Maccarone, and Macheda, to "get a yellow card", which would at least show the sort of aggression fans thought was lacking.

Di Carlo's sacking on March 7, the day after the disastrous home defeat to a Cesena side who'd been ineffective on the road all season, changed little. His replacement, Alberto Cavasin, immediately tinkered with the side, bringing along his favourite 3-5-2 which he sometimes adapted to 3-4-1-2 then turned to 4-4-2 late in the season. You could say none of this mattered, though. Tactics and substitutions seemed less important than spirit, and while Samp battled and fought their way through the first part of matches, as soon as opponents scored you could see heads drop and the body language get worse.

Nothing you could point out on the tactical side can explain what went on during those excruciatingly painful home matches in March, April and May. Missed penalties, fluffed goal chances, mis-kicked clearances, and the wrong type of spirit. The last time Samp were leading a game all season came against Bologna on February 13, and there was one curious effect of the negative attitude that gripped the side every time it went behind: actual effort was never lacking, but it was often channelled in the wrong direction, resulting in the Genovese version of headless chickens running around with attitude but little discipline. The goal that effectively sent Samp down, for example, was scored by Palermo on a three-on-one break late in the game when the Blucerchiati were throwing everything but one of Garrone's oil derricks into the visitors' penalty area. One clearance, one missed tackle in midfield and Abel Hernandez and Mauricio Pinilla were able to finish them off.

By that time, Genoa, the team across town had already made its changes and benefitted from them. Gian Piero Gasperini, the coach, had been sacked on November 7 and replaced by Davide Ballardini, a silent, pragmatic type who made things safer at the back by going from a three-man to a four-man defence - he had the players for that, of course - and steering the side to a comfortable position despite the January sale of defender Andrea Ranocchia to Inter. The move, which boosted the club's coffers, was countered by the arrival of Antonio Floro Flores from Udinese, who ended up scoring an impressive ten goals in the second half of the season and forming an excellent partnership with Argentinean Rodrigo Palacio.

One of those goals helped determine Samp's fate. Genoa played Samp at home on May 8 in a match that was always going to be controversial, but really blew up late. Floro Flores scored in first-half injury time, then Nicola Pozzi equalised 21 minutes into the second half. At that point, Samp seemed to be ready to raise their game and push for a winner, and Genoa appeared tired. This irritated some of their fans, who'd already had mixed feelings when Genoa, beating Brescia and Lecce in successive weeks, had indirectly helped Samp's chances of staying up.

In a crescendo of booing and discomfort for the home side, who were down to ten men after Giandomenico Mesto had been sent off in the first minute of added time, Mauro Boselli, the little-used Argentinean striker on loan from Wigan, collected a long pass inside the Samp penalty area, turned and fired a low shot in the far corner for a 97th-minute derby winner. You could at once hear the Genoa fans' anger turn into delight and the air leaving their opponents' deflated tires and lungs.

That contentious evening in Genoa was probably when Samp's fate was really sealed. The "too good to go down" syndrome will now dissolve as soon as the rebuilding takes place. As Edoardo Garrone, the son of the owner, said, it's time now for some house-cleaning.

A new sporting director, Pasquale Sensibile, has already been hired, but his current side, Novara, are still involved in the Serie B play-offs so he's not allowed to talk to Sampdoria players yet. He has hinted, though, that Palombo, Pozzi and Daniele Gastaldello may be on higher wages than a Serie B club can afford and this may lead to their exit, while most of the loanees wouldn't have been invited back even if Samp had somehow managed to stay up. In addition, the value of young players like Andrea Poli and the less-rated Daniele Dessena has decreased after an indifferent season and the club may have to settle for less for them, if they're sold, while out-of-contract Reto Ziegler has already rejoined former sporting director Beppe Marotta at Juventus.

Cavasin was not retained, and Samp have apparently lined up Gianluca Atzori, a 40-year old former player who was not given enough time at Catania last year and has now brilliantly led Reggina to the Serie B playoffs. Reggina's opponents in the two-legged semi-finals? Sensibile's Novara. Interesting.

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