Coppa Italia: Round of 16 / Team rating: 7 / Top scorer: Maccarone (10)
Many expected the newly-promoted side to struggle, but instead Maurizio Sarri and Empoli proved you can survive in style, writes Susy Campanale.
Empoli made the step up into Serie A 12 months ago in second place behind Palermo, but while the Sicilians shone thanks to stars like Paulo Dybala and Franco Vazquez, the Tuscans emerged as bastions of tactical organisation.
Maurizio Sarri had never worked in the top flight before, but by the end of his debut season Samuel Eto’o had declared himself ‘honoured to meet’ the Coach. Sarri replied in typically forthright style. “I asked if he was taking the mickey!”
It is perhaps a sign of inexperience that the results don’t accurately reflect the performances put in by Empoli. They often caused huge problems for bigger clubs, refusing to give up possession or simply go on the counter-attack. This side was determined to achieve Serie A safety with style and the plan certainly worked, albeit with a few too many draws.
The team really kicked into gear in January, when recalling Riccardo Saponara from Milan. The trequartista had already shone for Empoli in Serie B, playing a crucial role in their promotion, so was eager to return after struggling for any playing time at San Siro.
The 23-year-old showed precisely what he could do, scoring seven goals and providing four assists in 17 games. There’s an option to keep him at the Stadio Castellani permanently and that would appear to suit all parties.
People often talk of the key to safety being a mixture of youth and experience, but Empoli really do encapsulate that theory. Well-travelled Massimo Maccarone rediscovered his scoring touch with 10 goals, while 23-year-old academy product Manuel Pucciarelli got five. Deep-lying midfielder Mirko Valdifiori earned comparisons with Andrea Pirlo for his vision and received a maiden Italy cap just three weeks shy of his 29th birthday.
How much of this Empoli side will remain next season? That is another matter.
Called the ‘New Arrigo Sacchi’ for his organisation, focus on hard-working players and often sublimely beautiful football, it’s no wonder Sarri has been linked with jobs at Milan, Napoli, Sampdoria and Fiorentina. A specialist at promotions from lower leagues, he proved his style can thrive in the top flight.
It’s remarkable that the rock of Empoli’s defence is a 20-year-old in his debut Serie A season. The centre-back featured in every game, scored three goals and did it all without receiving a single booking. Arsenal wanted him, but Rugani is heading back to Juventus. The future of Italian defending.
- Daniele Rugani is the only man to have played every single minute of the 2014-15 Serie A season.
- Empoli have more stalemates than any other team – 18.
- Levan Mchedlidze’s first two goals this season were both within a minute of coming off the bench.
|33||GK||Luigi Sepe||27 (1)||-||-|
|26||D||Lorenzo Tonelli||28 (1)||5||-|
|22||D||Matteo Bianchetti||1 (1)||-||-|
|19||D||Federico Barba||18 (6)||2||1|
|50||D||Michele Somma||1 (1)||-||-|
|21||D||Mario Rui||34 (6)||-||3|
|23||D||Elseid Hysaj||36 (3)||-||2|
|2||D||Vincent Laurini||15 (1)||-||-|
|8||M||Franco Signorelli||13 (9)||1||-|
|25||M||Joshua Brillante||1 (1)||-||-|
|11||M||Daniele Croce||37 (2)||1||1|
|17||M||Tiberio Guarente||1 (1)||-||-|
|5||M||Davide Moro||4 (4)||-||-|
|27||M||Piotr Zielinski||28 (21)||-||3|
|13||M||Diego Laxalt||4 (4)||-||-|
|20||A||Manuel Pucciarelli||34 (9)||5||2|
|99||A||Rodrigo Aguirre||1 (1)||-||-|
|7||A||Massimo Maccarone||34 (4)||10||7|
|10||A||Francesco Tavano||26 (11)||2||1|
|9||A||Levan Mchedlidze||25 (19)||4||-|