Coppa Italia: Fourth Round / Team rating: 8 / Top scorer: Toni (20)
After 11 years away, Hellas Verona returned to Serie A with a 2-1 win against Milan and never looked back. Lead by Luca Toni, the newly-promoted side spent much of the campaign flirting with Europe. Luca Persico reports on a remarkable season.
For a club of Hellas Verona’s stature, 11 years outside Italy’s top flight was too long. Relegated in 2002, the Gialloblu dropped to Serie C1 and even flirted with relegation to Lega Pro Seconda Divisione. The arrival of Andrea Mandorlini in November 2010 started Verona’s comeback. He first took them into Serie B, via a play-off win over Salernitana, before securing a return to Serie A at the second attempt.
Mandorlini had instilled discipline and created a structure that was simple, but effective. These values were pushed even more forcefully with his team in Serie A and the end result was a fantastic campaign.
Verona finished the season in 10th on 54 points. For most newly-promoted sides, that would be a wonderful achievement, but Hellas’ pride will be tinged with thoughts of what might have been. Going into the final round - a 5-1 defeat at Napoli - European qualification was still a possibility, but having been in and around the top six all season, a run of just three wins in 13 matches after the winter break had knocked them off track.
Four wins in their next five outings got Verona back in the hunt, before costly late equalisers against Lazio and Udinese left them up against it in Naples. For Mandorlini, the campaign’s left mixed emotions: “We had a great season, it’s just a shame that we dropped so many points in the final minutes of games.”
Mandorlini’s regret underlines how good Verona have been this season. The opening day win against Milan set the tone. A goal down, Hellas struck back with a Luca Toni brace to seal a 2-1 victory. The 36-year-old would end the campaign with 20 goals. What made Toni so valuable was that his strikes were spread over 16 matches and Mandorlini attributes Verona’s success to the forward: “One of the main protagonists has been Toni. His 20 goals have been vital, and hopefully he stays with us.”
Toni was one of handful of excellent signings made by Sean Sogliano. The sporting director remained loyal to the players who earned promotion and supported them with the likes of Juan Manuel Iturbe and Romulo, who became instrumental. Iturbe scored eight goals and is seemingly destined for a big move this summer - Verona will sign him outright from Porto first - while Romulo could be heading to Brazil with Italy, where Mandorlini is confident he can impress: “Romulo’s strength is his versatility and he should be called Italy’s Joker in the Pack, as he can perform in many different roles.”
These players have stood out amongst an outstanding team effort. Mandorlini’s methods have brought the best out of the bigger names, but also the likes of captain Domenico Maietta and goalkeeper Rafael, who have come up with Verona through the divisions.
Mandorlini’s rigid 4-3-3 - used in 36 matches - plays to Verona’s strengths. The defence and midfield are compact, while the pace of Iturbe and Romulo ensures Toni is well supplied.
Verona’s collective strength allowed them to cope with the loss of midfielder Jorginho to Napoli in January and was the catalyst behind memorable results in the derby against Chievo and at home to Juventus, which enlightened a wonderful campaign.
Until joining Verona in November 2010, the 53-year-old’s only notable managerial success was a trio of trophies won at CFR Cluj. Back to back promotions with Verona changed that and brought Mandorlini into the spotlight, while his team’s performance this season has cemented his place amongst Italy’s brightest tacticians.
The 36-year-old has been reborn this season. Initially brought in to provide experience, Toni has gone on to become indispensable. With 20 goals in 33 starts, he has propelled Verona to the brink of Europe and netted crucial strikes in memorable results against Milan, Juventus, Lazio and Chievo.
- Luca Toni contributed 32 per cent of Verona’s goals.
- The last newly-promoted side to finish in the top 10 was Bari in 2009-10.
- Verona’s 1-0 Derby della Scala victory over Chievo was their first in the League since 2001.
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