Coppa Italia: Fourth Round / Team rating: 9 / Top scorer: Berardi (7)
In just their third Serie A season, Sassuolo’s well-planned, continuing progress should be a model for others to emulate, writes Ross Highfield.
A 3-1 victory over Inter in their last game of the season saw Sassuolo complete four consecutive victories and secure an excellent sixth place finish. If Juventus win the Coppa Italia, the Neroverdi will be rewarded for their brilliant campaign with Europa League qualification.
In their first Serie A season in 2013-14, Sassuolo briefly followed the example of other struggling clubs and sacked Coach Eusebio Di Francesco in January. Thankfully, it took just over a month for the club to rectify the error, and Di Francesco returned in March 2014 to lead the club to safety. Under the continued leadership of the former Roma midfielder, Sassuolo have gone from strength to strength.
That early panic aside, Sassuolo’s owners have shown themselves to be patient and to plan for the longer-term in the trigger-happy world of Serie A. When the club failed to win for seven games in early 2016, there was no crisis, no immediate decision to sack an otherwise successful Coach. This patience was rewarded with three consecutive victories in late February and early March, including wins over Lazio and Milan. Sassuolo have also beaten Napoli, Juventus, and done the double over Inter in Serie A this season.
Their success has been built on a perfect blend of experience and young talent, led by one of Italy’s brightest young tacticians. At the back, experienced campaigners Andrea Consigli, Federico Peluso and Paolo Cannavaro have helped the club concede just 40 goals in Serie A this season, the fourth best in the division. Further forward, bright future prospects like Domenico Berardi, Nicola Sansone, Gregoire Defrel and Matteo Politano provide flair and creativity.
Perhaps most notable in a season where a match between Inter and Udinese saw no Italians featured in either side’s line-up is the strong Italian focus of Sassuolo’s squad. From the owners to the Coach, the club has planned so well, creating a squad with such excellent balance and players that complement each other.
Finishing sixth in Serie A is a huge achievement for a club of Sassuolo’s size, and is testament to the fantastic work of Di Francesco. Success for a smaller club like Sassuolo, though, does bring unwanted interest from bigger clubs. Already this season, Di Francesco has been heavily linked with both Milan and Lazio, and rumours are likely to continue about interest from elsewhere. For now, the Coach has signed a new contract, but as his stock continues to rise, it will be ever more difficult for Sassuolo to keep hold of him. The same goes for the Neroverdi’s key players. Berardi has not had a stand-out season, but is still likely to depart in the near future.
If this is the price of success, though, it is something that Sassuolo’s tifosi will gladly accept. In just their third season in Italy’s top tier, the club may achieved European qualification and have certainly exceeded all reasonable expectations.
Probably Italy’s brightest young Coach, Di Francesco is not short on offers to move elsewhere. To his credit, he seems to appreciate the stability of life at Sassuolo, with constant year-on-year improvements in his time at the club. Promotion from Serie B has been followed by 17th, 12th, and now sixth place finishes, all with entertaining and attacking football.
Unable to break through at Milan a few seasons ago, Acerbi has overcome huge adversity to establish himself as one of Serie A’s highest-performing defenders. Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2013, but he has described how the illness saw him develop a stronger focus on building a successful career. Part of one of Serie A’s best defences alongside journeymen like Cannavaro, Peluso and Consigli, Acerbi should find himself on the plane to France with the Azzurri this summer.
- Only Juventus, Roma and Napoli lost fewer games than Sassuolo in Serie A this season.
- In 14 games against Napoli, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina, Juventus, Milan and Inter, Sassuolo won seven and lost only five.
- Only three non-Italians started Serie A matches for Sassuolo this season.
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