Coppa Italia: Round of 16 / Team rating: [6/10] / Top scorer: Joao Pedro (18) / Europe: N/A
It was an extraordinary start to the season for Cagliari after investing heavily for their Centenary year, but it all petered out, writes Martin Mork.
Rolando Maran’s Cagliari threatened to be the surprise of 2019-20 as they started the season in remarkable fashion and seemed highly inspired from a productive transfer market.
The Rossoblu jumped at the chance to bring Radja Nainggolan back to Sardinia, on loan from Inter, a situation that suited both parties well ahead of the new season. The Belgian did exactly what was expected of him at the Sardegna Arena and immediately took on the role of leader. He was joined by two other influential signings for Maran’s midfield, as Uruguayan midfielder Nahitan Nandez signed from Boca Juniors and former Napoli man Marko Rog made the engine room complete.
The squad was further bolstered by the extension of Luca Pellegrini’s loan deal from last season, despite the left-back moving from Roma to Juventus. He decided to continue for another season at Cagliari, who have re-established themselves in the top tier since the relegation in 2014-15.
Maran’s second season on the island started with a loss to Brescia and a serious knee injury to main striker Leonardo Pavoletti. They continued with another defeat against Inter in the second round before the new components in the team came together suddenly and spectacularly.
An unbeaten run of 13 games, including a 1-0 win against Napoli and a 2-0 victory over Atalanta, helped Cagliari establish themselves in the top half of the table. The coach received praise from every angle for his tactical approach. Joao Pedro and Giovanni Simeone both ended the season in double digits and contributed massively in Pavoletti’s absence, as the Rossoblu had their best start to a Serie A season since the Scudetto winners in 1969-70.
Cagliari were sharing fourth with Atalanta and Lazio after 11 games and continued with a 5-2 win against Fiorentina, looking highly involved in the battle for a place in Europe. But after the Fiorentina win, it all went wrong for Maran and his men. The team started losing their shape, the midfielders didn’t combine as well as previously, and the defence started leaking. At one point, the coach seemed to have lost the dressing room at the Sardegna Arena.
Cagliari struggled to find out what was going wrong after such a great start, but President Tommaso Giulini eventually felt forced to intervene and replaced Maran with Walter Zenga. However, it was a little too late for the Sardinians to turn their season back around. Under Maran’s guidance, the side had dropped from fourth to 11th after a run of 12 games without a win.
Zenga arrived just before the lockdown and didn’t get to train his side until the resumption in June. He managed to get some good results, but couldn’t help them from falling even further into the bottom half of the table. Cagliari never looked in danger of getting dragged into the relegation battle due to their good start to the season. It ended on a relatively positive note, as Leonardo Pavoletti was reintroduced as a substitute for his second appearance after having been out for practically the whole season.
The Coach – Rolando Maran/Walter Zenga
Rolando Maran went from hero to villain in no time in a season of two halves for the Rossoblu. The 57-year-old’s spot in the limelight faded from December, when everything turned for the worse at the Sardegna Arena. Maran, who had lifted Cagliari to fourth in Serie A, saw the Casteddu plummet down the table and a winless run of 12 games, including the exit from the Coppa Italia, cost him the job. Cagliari had gone from European dreams to damage control when Walter Zenga was brought in as his replacement, and even if it always felt like a temporary solution for patron Tommaso Giulini, he was not helped by the interruption. The new coach was brought in and immediately locked up in Sardinia for three months on his own during the coronavirus outbreak and was given little time together with the squad. Zenga has been replaced by Eusebio Di Francesco for the upcoming season.
Player of the Year – Joao Pedro
The Brazilian forward was asked to step up in the absence of Leonardo Pavoletti and did so in a remarkable fashion. The 28-year-old spurred Cagliari on to their best start of a season since the 1969-70 Scudetto winners. Before the break, he had netted 16 goals in 25 Serie A games and at one point he looked like he would challenge the Capocannoniere candidates in Italy. Pedro came from a difficult 2018, when he became the protagonist through a doping story and stepped up to fill the void left by Pavoletti and helped support Giovanni Simeone and Radja Nainggolan in the Cagliari attack. The attacker finished on 18 goals in 34 games, but contributed massively to the season.
Highlights – November
Maran’s men were looking like a real threat for the top teams in Italy early on. The best performance of the season came in a 2-0 win against high-flying Atalanta, drawing the Casteddu level with Gian Piero Gasperini’s Champions League side at fourth in Serie A. It didn’t look like a fluke when the Rossoblu followed up the big win with a thumping 5-2 triumph at home against Fiorentina. The disappointment after a 2-2 draw at Lecce, caused by a Marco Calderoni goal in stoppage time, showed the means and belief that the team belonged at the top.
Nightmare – Stoppage time
Lazio were pegged back, Simeone had given Cagliari the lead after eight minutes at the Sardegna Arena and it looked like the Rossoblu were going to get the three points against an ambitious Aquile side. Rafael had kept out every attempt from prolific Ciro Immobile and Joaquin Correa. Maran brought off Nainggolan in stoppage-time, running down the clock. But the match felt like it wouldn’t finish until Lazio had turned it around. Luis Alberto equalised in the 93rd minute, before substitute Felipe Caicedo grabbed the winner eight minutes into added time. The blow against Lazio on December 16 started a winless run of 13 games. Cagliari didn’t win again until June 27, when Torino arrived in Sardinia.
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