On their return to Serie A for the first time since 2008, Richard Thomas believes Empoli have what it takes to beat the drop this time around.
Just over six years since their last appearance in Italy’s top flight, Empoli are back in the big time. The little club from a small town in Tuscany finished second in Serie B to Palermo last season, securing their promotion with a final day 2-0 win over Pescara.
It was ultimately a deserved accomplishment for the Azzurri, who built upon Coach Maurizio Sarri’s first campaign in charge - when they finished fourth only to miss out in the play-offs - to go one better this time around. Needless to say, however, the upcoming Serie A campaign promises to be one of struggle, with only the most optimistic tifosi predicting anything other than a battle against the drop back down to the second tier.
This is not to say there are no reasons for optimism. Despite their advancing years, strike duo Francesco Tavano and Massimo Maccarone provide Empoli with the sort of potential firepower that many clubs in the bottom half of Serie A lack. While Sarri is asking a lot by putting his faith in a 35-year-old and a 34-year-old, if they can reach even half of the combined 37 goals they scored between them last term it will go a long way towards ensuring safety.
Sarri has also made some astute-looking loan signings to bolster his squad for the year ahead. Exciting young winger Diego Laxalt has joined from Inter to help provide ammunition for the wily old front pair, while defender Matteo Bianchetti is captain of Italy’s Under-21 team and should help provide some much needed defensive solidity. Laxalt’s fellow Uruguayan Matias Vecino and the experienced Tiberio Guarente will also provide more strength in depth.
A series of resounding pre-season victories over lower League opposition will have built up confidence within the Azzurri camp, as will a 2-1 win over expected relegation rivals Sassuolo. These results will, of course, not count for much once Serie A gets underway next weekend but Empoli should have enough about them to give themselves a fighting chance of preserving their top flight status.
55-year-old Sarri, like many Coaches around the peninsula, has had a nomadic career. Empoli is no less than his 17th club since he took charge of lower League outfit Stia in 1990. Promotion last season with the Azzurri is his most high-profile achievement as he prepares for his first campaign as a top-flight tactician.
Empoli’s chances of survival will largely depend on the ability of veteran forwards Tavano and Massimo Maccarone to prove they still have what it takes in the top flight. Tavano top scored for the Azzurri during last year’s promotion campaign, finding the net on 22 occasions. Young forward Emanuele Rovini has returned from Udinese, but with no further attacking additions the 35-year-old will be relied upon to deliver again.
Uruguayan Under-20 international Laxalt has arrived in Tuscany on an initial season-long loan from Inter. Signed by the Nerazzurri last year, boss Walter Mazzarri immediately sent the 21-year-old out on loan to Bologna. Having rejected similar moves to Stuttgart and Almeria this summer, the midfielder may prove a good capture for the Azzurri.
New arrival Bianchetti, who has joined on loan from Verona for the season, is currently the Italy Under-21 captain. With Empoli expected to be up against it this term, he will have plenty of opportunities to persuade new Nazionale boss Antonio Conte that he can eventually make the step up.
Bassi; Laurini, Tonelli, Bianchetti, Hysaj; Valdifiori, Croce, Vecino, Laxalt; Tavano, Maccarone
Empoli have made some decent additions this summer. It will be a struggle, but if Tavano and Maccarone can fire again they may have enough to survive.
|Sepe (Lanciano via Napoli)||GK||Pratali (released)||D|
|Bianchetti (Spezia via Verona)||D||Eramo (Ternana via Sampdoria)||M|
|Laxalt (Bologna via Inter)||M|
|Vecino (Cagliari via Fiorentina)||M|
|Aguirre (Liverpool Montevideo via Udinese)||A|
Image sources: Empolicalcio.it