Analysing the Rise of Parma to the Brink of European Football in Serie A

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Analysing the Rise of Parma to the Brink of European Football in Serie A
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

He has scored big, timely goals, and he is indeed the captain, but Alessandro Lucarelli is also a defender.

Here he was scoring from the far left edge of the box, a low drive, a shot like a striker. It was the winner against Chievo Verona in the 93rd minute, and he himself could not believe it. He waved over his teammates and put his hands on his head as he sprinted away.

This is his ninth club, and he is 36 years old. He has finally found a home in Parma, which has become a sort of refuge for the journeyman. Antonio Cassano has played for Milan and Inter and Roma and Real Madrid, and now he is back scoring in the double digits for the first time since 2009. It is his seventh club.

Who knows how many Amauri has played for, as it might as well be countless. He has flopped all over Italy, but Parma brought him to the country in 2000. He left and came back and departed and returned again.

And it is also the seventh team Roberto Donadoni has managed. The 50-year-old is growing with this squad. He talks and they listen. When Parma beat Milan for the second time this season, they had to first reclaim the lead that they lost to a team with only 10 men. “Their enthusiasm is remarkable,” Donadoni, referring to his club, told Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia) after the game. “We went 2-0 up, Milan caught us, but then we scored another two. I like that spirit.” 

They have not lost a match in Serie A since 2 November against the only team with a longer streak than them in the league: Juventus. That’s 16 games unbeaten for Parma, a club record. It is the fourth-longest streak of any team in the top five leagues, as per WhoScored.com. They are currently one point behind fifth place, where Inter hold the last Europa League berth.

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But Parma also have a game in hand. Considering the winner of the Coppa Italia earns a Europa League spot, and that the finalists Fiorentina and Napoli already hold European places in the standings, Parma could even qualify for the European competition as they are in sixth place.

The prospect of European football is something familiar and yet foreign to Parma. They are members of the European Club Association and two-time UEFA Cup winners, and they won the Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup in 1993. The great Arrigo Sacchi began to coach there. Silvio Berlusconi was so impressed with his side after they beat Milan in the 1986-87 Coppa Italia that he hired Sacchi, who won a trophy with the Rossoneri in his first season.

Carlo Ancelotti, who has won domestic titles as manager in three different countries, and Cesare Prandelli, currently the coach of the Azzurri, began their second career at Parma. Now Donadoni is getting the attention he deserves. Sky Italia report that Milan may hire him in the summer. He could even win the Panchina d'Oro, given to the best coach in Serie A. Via James Horncastle of ESPNFC:

After all, he's done an admirable job at Parma. They were 15th and threatened by relegation when he replaced Franco Colomba three years ago. Parma won each of their last seven games and concluded the campaign in eighth. The Tardini became a tough place to go again. Undefeated there between March 17, 2012 and January 27, 2013, Parma finished eighth again last season, which considering their resources is quite remarkable. 

In 2007, the whole integrity of the club had vanished. Their holding company went bankrupt, and Parma went up for auction in 2007. All prestige fell with it. Several bids failed. The businessman Tommaso Ghirardi, at only 31, bought Parma with a bid totalling €30 million, per La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t ESPN). Parma had spent almost two consecutive decades in the top flight, and finally they were relegated.

So perhaps it is fitting that they have reminded us all, in their centennial year, that they are still alive and willing to compete in Serie A. They are not just a footnote. Ghirardi has cobbled together a squad of nomads who could not find life elsewhere. They are sifting through rubble. The numbers are wild: 222 players have arrived at Parma since the summer, 228 leaving the club on different kinds of deals at some point, as per transfermarkt.co.uk.

What they have left is one of the eldest squads in the league. The average age of players who have appeared at least five times for Parma is just over 29. Donadoni has fielded the oldest starting XI in Serie A several times this season, according to transfermarkt.co.uk, and their best players are 30 and over.

Of course there is Jonathan Biabiany, the speedy 25-year-old winger who accelerates and causes havoc in the box. Marco Parolo is 29, and Gabriel Paletta is 28. Even Paletta’s hair is thinning. These are the prospects on a team of veterans. Both got called up to the Azzurri in recent months, Paletta for the first time—he constantly ran down Diego Costa, making his own debut for Spain in the friendly in Madrid—and Parolo for just the second. They are establishing their careers.

Others are trying to revive them. Amauri scored 23 goals in two seasons for Palermo, and the fans in Sicily needed a new favourite. Luca Toni had left for Fiorentina, and the Brazilian-Italian scored sensational goals before moving to Juventus. Now back at Parma, Amauri has scored six goals in his past eight matches, the latest a great back-heel winner against Milan on the weekend. Donadoni said the 31-year-old trains hard and makes decisions difficult for him.

Most of all, Cassano needed this chance after squandering so many. He has 11 goals and five assists in Serie A this season. He says he has lost weight and taken a diet. He has never played in the World Cup. As Paolo Bandini wrote earlier in the week for Bleacher Report UK, Cassano “has always remained capable of exceptional feats.” Cassano wants to play in Brazil. Another chance, this time his last.

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"I don't know if there's still a chance,” Cassano told reporters, via BBC, “but I'm doing everything to give Prandelli something to think about.”

Donadoni seemed to suggest that Cassano is finally listening. “Antonio knows that he has to play that role wherever I place him on the field,” the coach told Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia). “If he accepts those conditions, then it goes well. If he doesn’t, then he’s in trouble.”

Cassano has not started every game, and he has not sulked on the bench. He has even smiled. There is an open line of communication. “As with Juventus and Antonio Conte and Roma with Rudi Garcia,” said Marco Parolo (h/t Football Italia), “our strength is the mentality of a group that unitedly follows the ideas of their coach.”

And the rest of the squad rounds out. Antonio Mirante, at 30 years old himself, is a solid goalkeeper. He is reliable and safe, and he can make the spectacular and the simple save, diving for and scooping up the ball, limiting the rebound. Parolo can unleash a shot from afar, and sometimes they go in. Lucarelli is the fourth-highest goalscorer on the team. He has recovered the most balls (600) of any player in Serie A, per legaseriea.it, and he has the highest rating (7.74) in the league, according to WhoScored.com.

Aside from some momentary lapses inside the box—sometimes they scramble for the ball and look a little lost—Parma have conceded just 31 goals in 27 games. This is a team.

Up next are Genoa, followed by Juventus, Lazio and Napoli. It is tough to think Parma can go 20 games unbeaten in the league as Juve have. But here we are, talking about them anyway.

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