Predictability has become commonplace in the Serie A title chase in recent years, with Inter dominating the late 2000s under Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho, and with Juventus staking out a dynasty this decade. Since 2002, only Max Allegri’s 2010-11 side has managed to snatch the title from the two Italian giants’ grasps.
Despite the battles for the Italian league title being devoid of drama and unpredictability in the past 10 years, some of the remaining UEFA Champions League and Europa League places have been secured by a few surprise packets.
These clubs either rise up for a few years before fading into obscurity and accepting mid-table mediocrity, or worse, they eventually end up sinking into the abyss. Many of them were unable to translate their domestic form into success in Europe, but reaching those elusive spots in Serie A did bring a great contrast to the dourness of the so-called battles for the title.
One of the biggest surprise packets of the last 10 years was Genoa, who finished on 68 points with Fiorentina in 2008/09. Due to a superior head-to-head record, with the Viola winning 1-0 in Round 5 and then both sides sharing the spoils in a 3-3 draw in Round 24, the Florentine club occupied fourth spot in the league table, which meant they reached the final qualifying round of the Champions League, whereas the Rossoblu had to settle for fifth place and a spot the Europa League.
As manager, Gian Piero Gasperini earned Serie A promotion in 2006/07 with the Genoese team, and he secured European football in its second season back in Italy’s top flight. In the following season, crosstown rivals Sampdoria secured fourth place with 67 points, and earned a place in the final qualifying round of the 2010/11 Champions League.
Il Doria were battling for the Scudetto with Juventus in the early stages of the campaign before Inter and Roma surpassed them midway throug the season, but they were able to avoid dropping down to the Europa League spots during Luigi Delneri’s only season as coach of the club. The Blucerchiati were able to rely on the creativity of Antonio Cassano, who scored nine goals and provided another nine in 32 matches, while Giampaolo Pazzini found the back of the net 19 times.
Unfortunately for Samp, it all went downhill in 2010/11. They were eliminated from the qualifying rounds of the Champions League by Werder Bremen, losing 5-4 on aggregate after Claudio Pizarro sent the German side through with an extra time goal. Then, they dropped down to the Europa League, where they were eliminated from Group I after finishing below PSV Eindhoven and Metalist Kharkiv. To add insult to injury, they were relegated from Serie A, a relegation that was precipitated by a 2-1 defeat to Genoa in the Derby della Lanterna to send them into the drop zone.
Behind them in fifth with 65 points was Palermo, who started the season poorly under manager Walter Zenga, but his replacement Delio Rossi was able to turn the club’s form around, and the Rosanero were able to depend on the attacking flair of mercurial forward Fabrizio Miccoli.
Miccoli scored 19 times and provided eight assists in 35 Serie A games while Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani scored 13 goals. This Rosanero squad also included Italian international full-backs Mattia Cassani and Federico Balzaretti, promising Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, Argentinian starlet Javier Pastore in midfield, Danish defender Simon Kjaer, and Australian international midfielder Mark Bresciano.
Palermo’s adventure in the Europa League did not last very long, as it finished third in Group F behind CSKA Moscow and Sparta Prague, but the departures of Kjaer to Wolfsburg and Cavani to Napoli did not help.
Udinese 2010/11, 2011/12
If those aforementioned clubs merely dazzled for just one year, Udinese was able to qualify for the Champions League in successive seasons in the early 2010s under the guidance of Francesco Guidolin. Finishing fourth in 2010/11 with 66 points, they climbed one place higher the following season to finish third with 62 points.
The Zebrette failed to progress into the competition proper on both occasions though, losing to Arsenal 3-1 on aggregate in the play-off round in August 2011. They were eliminated at the same stage a year later by Portuguese club Braga 5-4 on penalties, after the tie ended 2-2 on aggregate.
The tie against the Portuguese team is best-remembered for the penalty miss from Udinese’s Brazilian midfielder Maicosuel, who attempted a Panenka and failed miserably as Braga goalkeeper Beto saved it. Despite their failures in Europe, one of the positive things from that period was the Friulani were able to produce an abundance of future stars under Guidolin.
Talismanic striker Antonio Di Natale was the focal point of the side, but the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Medhi Benatia, Samir Handanović, Gokhan Inler, Kwadwo Asamoah, and Roberto Pereyra were just a few of the players that emerged for the Zebrette during that period. Due to the transfer policy of the Pozzo family, Guidolin had to work with completely new squads each season.
Another miraculous finish was Parma’s sixth place finish in 2014, but they were prohibited from Europa League play in the following campaign due to President Tommaso Ghirardi not paying taxes, and therefore, they failed to obtain a UEFA licence.
Coached by former Italy tactician Roberto Donadoni, the Ducali had some seasoned Serie A veterans in their squad like Antonio Mirante, Alessandro Lucarelli, Daniele Galloppa, and Mattia Cassani, while centre-back Gabriel Paletta, central midfielder Marco Parolo, and the mercurial Antonio Cassano were selected to play for the Italy at the 2014 World Cup.
Tragically, the Crociati went bankrupt a year later after numerous ownership changes throughout the 2015/16 season, and they had to recommence in Serie D. Nonetheless, bankruptcy couldn’t keep them down for long, and the reformed team achieved three consecutive promotions and returned to Serie A in 2018/19.
While Parma were fighting to hoist themselves out of Serie D, their Emilia-Romagna rivals Sassuolo finished sixth in 2015/16, and reached the Europa League group stage. After relying on prodigious winger Domenico Berardi for goals in their first two seasons in Serie A and selling centre-forward Simone Zaza to Juventus, the Neroverdi made significant improvements as a unit and this time, they were less dependent on a couple of individual talents to turn matches around.
Coached by Eusebio Di Francesco, who achieved Serie A promotion with the side in 2012/13, the likes of Francesco Acerbi, Nicola Sansone, Šime Vrsaljko, Matteo Politano, and Gregoire Defrel would emerge as bright talents during this season, in perfect synchrony with the the manager’s high-intensity attacking play.
Sasol commenced the group stage with a 3-0 victory against Athletic Club, but the absence of Berardi due to injury hurt their chances to progress, and they finished on the bottom of Group F with just five points.
Atalanta was another team that remarkably qualified for the Europa League as it finished fourth in Serie A with 72 points in 2016/17. After leading Genoa to the Europa League in 2009, Gasperini repeated his miracle once again; in his first season at Begamo, La Dea qualified for Europe for the first time in 27 years.
His job was at risk in the early stages of the campaign but he granted playing opportunities to youngsters like Mattia Caldara, Franck Kessié, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Petagna, and Leonardo Spinazzola, and each one transformed the side.
Despite selling Gagliardini to Inter in January 2017, La Dea were able to maintain their form and qualify automatically for the group stage of the 2017/18 Europa League. They obtained impressive results, defeating English club Everton twice, with a 3-0 home victory that was played in Reggio Emilia instead of Bergamo due to their home ground not meeting UEFA requirements, and then thrashing the Toffees 5-1 in Liverpool.
After being eliminated by German club Borussia Dortmund 4-3 on aggregate in the Round of 32, Atalanta was able to focus on Serie A again and it managed to finish seventh in the 2017/18 campaign. Luck did not strike twice though, as La Dea were eliminated by Danish side FC Copenhagen 4-3 on penalties in the qualifying round of the current edition, after both legs ended 0-0.
Despite the ignominy of that elimination, teams like that will attempt to prove that qualifying for Europe in the previous campaigns were not flukes. Juventus dominating the top of the league clearly bores the neutrals, but anyone looking further down the table might be in shock.
Clubs like Sassuolo, Atalanta, and the other provincial sides have displayed the ability to exceed expectations and use the element of surprise to their advantage. Although they do not possess the glitz and the glamour, these teams add their own appeal to Italian football.
By: Vito Doria
Photo: LaPresse/Alessandro Fiocchi