President Tommaso Giulini felt the sting of last term’s failure. Narrowly avoiding relegation, dealing with protests from fans and considered a dumping ground for has-beens and never-weres. Something radical had to be done in order to prevent even flirting with demotion in this extremely special year.
This club was founded in 1920, so 2020 represents their Centenary, but is also the 50th anniversary of their legendary Scudetto in 1970. To mark the occasion, they invested in a new museum, are working on the new state of the art stadium and decided the squad had to look the part too.
Radja Nainggolan’s return set the scene, turning down far more lucrative deals to rediscover his joy for the game in a city he called home, having played here from 2010-14. The entire squad was revamped, with €18m spent on Boca Juniors midfielder and Uruguay international Nahitan Nandez after months of tense negotiations.
The common theme in Sardinia was revitalisation. Giovanni Simeone was drafted in on loan from Fiorentina, desperate to find his scoring touch again. Marko Rog was determined to show what he could do in Italy after a disappointing spell at Napoli. Robin Olsen was a Sweden international, yet he had such a bad debut Serie A season with Roma that he lost his place to Antonio Mirante and became a national joke for his howlers.
Their start to the campaign seemed to suggest the critics were right, that all these players and this club were destined to flop all over again. They were empty-handed after two rounds, suffering back-to-back home defeats to Brescia and Inter. Rolando Maran was already on the chopping block.
However, the collective determination to prove everyone wrong saw Cagliari start a 14-match undefeated run in all competition – including eight victories – that is still going strong. They've taken three-points from Napoli and Atalanta away from home, as well as a draw against Roma and a 5-2 thrashing of Fiorentina.
Cagliari are a side that possess that never-say-die attitude, but also have a core group of players that have the quality to produce for one another, as well as create moments out of nothing. Whilst Joao Pedro is the man scoring the goals, with 11 in the league, the likes of Italy Under-21 international Luca Pellegrini at left-back and Nainggolan in midfield have been equally irreplaceable.
All three of those players were heavily involved in the sensational 4-3 comeback win over Sampdoria earlier this month, with Joao Pedro scoring twice, Pellegrini with two assists and Nainggolan also getting on the score sheet.
In the last game against Sassuolo, they again came from two goals behind, this time to avoid defeat, with Joao Pedro once more finding the back of the net. They are finding ways to score goals, which has been an issue at the club for a while, currently averaging over two per game. Whilst Joao Pedro has the majority of those, players all over the pitch are chipping in. Nainggolan has four, all of which have been trademark screamers. Giovanni Simeone has the same amount, as well as Marko Rog, Lucas Castro, Alberto Cerri and Daniele Ragatzu all with two each.
Defensively, they have also improved. Whether it has been Luca Ceppitelli, Ragnar Klavan or Fabio Pisacane, they have conceded just the 19 goals so far, which is around the same amount conceded by the rest of the top four. One of the main principles of football is scoring more goals than you conceded, and so far, Cagliari are doing just that.
In Italy right now, Inter and Juventus are leading the way at the top, but the remaining places in the league are all up for grabs. Lazio's current form suggests they will get top four, but that final spot could be anyone’s. Roma and Atalanta both have European commitments to deal with after Christmas and Roma, while Napoli, Milan and Fiorentina have a lot of lost ground to make up.
Some will think that Cagliari will drop off in the second-half of the season, and they might well do, but the signs suggest they are no fluke. The players have belief, the quality is there and, should they keep their key players fit and healthy, there is every chance of playing European football in their Centenary year.