After six games Sampdoria top the Serie A table for the first time since winning the Scudetto in 1991. At a time when all football fans are concerned about the big teams dominating every year, Adamo Digby takes a look at a club providing us with a refreshing alternative to the usual suspects.
From the outside looking in, everything about Sampdoria indicates a team which should find life difficult. After finishing last season in 13th position, there have been no big money signings, the transfer record has stood at £8m since 1998.
There is no influx of foreign talent, indeed the club only has four non-Italian players, and only two are regulars. The manager, Luigi Del Neri, has had 17 jobs in his 25-year career. The only star, Antonio Cassano is an outcast, unwanted by everyone. The leading scorer, Pazzini, was discarded by Fiorentina as recently as January.
This collection of the unwanted, discarded, and largely disregarded has come together to provide yet another surprising chapter in the Sampdoria story. Without the distraction of European football this season, they seem to be thriving. At the heart of it all is, obviously, Antonio Cassano.
It is true that he has been in fine form in the first six games. Although he has only scored once this term, he has had a big hand in most of their goals, playing Pazzini, Mannini, and Gastaldello on numerous occasions. Throughout the six games he has tormented defenders with his array of touches, body swerves, and trickery.
But while it is easy to give all the credit to FantAntonio, as everyone seems to, it is unfair not to discuss the players around him. Cassano has lost weight, kept his tantrums to a minimum and become a better team-mate (it is World Cup season after all!). But he was in the same vein of form last year, and despite his efforts, Sampdoria finished in the bottom half.
Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini formed devastating partnership, netting 24 goals from January to May, the rest of the team were often hugely disappointing.
The first sign of a difference is in the tactics. Del Neri replaced Mazzarri, and his 4-4-2 has replaced the 3-5-2 that leaked 52 goals last term. The team now looks more solid, and is difficult to break down. The loan arrivals of Luciano Zauri and Marco Rossi have made an immediate impact, as has a new zonal marking system.
This commitment to better defending has been supported throughout the side, with Cassano and Pazzini harassing opponents deep-lying midfielders and defenders, applying pressure high up the field.
In attack the midfield appears more balanced, creative and decisive. This is personified by Mannini, who got one goal all season for Napoli last year, yet now scored three in as many games.
Then there is the skipper, Angelo Palombo, one those players who goes quietly about his work, performing his midfield duties without trying to do things beyond his talent, sacrificing personal glory for the good of the team.
The heartbeat of this team, he has also broken into Marcelo Lippi's thinking as a replacement for the ageing Gattuso. Daniele Gastaldello has been in fine form at centre back, while keeper Luca Castelazzi made a number of great saves during Saturday's deserved victory over reigning champions Inter.
The most refreshing thing about this side is that, much like the side of 1990-91, the team seem genuinely to enjoy spending time together and are becoming renowned for dining out together, both after training and on their days off.
The lack of foreigners may be instrumental in this, and the language barrier is even less an issue when you learn two of the stranieri are Swiss, the other two Argentine. Again the "cast-offs" tag will play its part, forming a common bond among the group.
Nobody knows how the season will play out, but Sampdoria certainly seem to be enjoying the ride. Its great to see one of Serie A's other teams looking down on the rest, and doing it playing good football with a team in every sense of the word, and watching the big teams fight back will provide yet more magic in Serie A.
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