The Keys Behind Parma’s Success This Season

For anyone who followed Italian football in the 1990s, Parma evokes feelings of nostalgia due to its ability to defy the odds and compete against the elite in Italy despite being a provincial club.

Bankrolled by dairy company Parmalat, the Emiliani were able to acquire world-class players like Gianfranco Zola, Fabio Cannavaro, Hernán Crespo, and Juan Sebastián Verón, while Gianluigi Buffon came through the youth academy.

The club then went through a period of decline when Parmalat went bankrupt in 2003 and reformed a year later, but they still managed to keep its place in Serie A. Parma from the 2000s through to the mid-2010s was a shadow of the club that had won numerous domestic and continental trophies in the ’90s, and then, the club endured bankruptcy in 2015, forcing them to start over in Serie D.

Since then, the club from the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy has risen like phoenix from the ashes, achieving consecutive promotions and returning to Italy’s top flight in record time. This season, the Ducali have won six games, drawn three, and lost six. Alongside the likes of Torino and Roma, they’re currently in a jampacked contest for a Europa League spot.

It seemed that controversy was to follow the club again after veteran striker Emanuele Calaió was embroiled in a texting scandal after Parma sealed Serie A promotion with a 2-0 victory against Spezia. He had messaged Claudio De Col and Claudio Terzi from the Ligurian side to take it easy, and coincidently, former Crociati striker Alberto Gilardino also missed a penalty.

The club was given a five-point penalty and Serie A promotion was at stake but then that was waved away and Calaió was punished individually, serving a ban until December 31.

Parma marked its return to Serie A with a 2-2 draw at home to Udinese, but it was a case of two points lost. Striker Roberto Inglese opened the scoring two minutes before half-time and Antonino Barillà extended the lead in the 59th minute, but two goals in a four-minute spell from the Zebrette denied the Crociati victory.

The draw was followed by a 1-0 away defeat to SPAL, which was played at a neutral venue in Bologna, and then, a 2-1 loss to Juventus. They picked up their first win of the season in unlikely circumstances and from arguably the unlikeliest of sources. A trip to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza was never going to be easy and Inter dominated the opening proceedings while the Ducali were hitting them on the break whenever possible.

Coach Roberto D’Aversa replaced experienced left-back Massimo Gobbi with youngster Federico Dimarco at half-time. Dimarco had joined Inter at seven years of age, working his way up to his first team debut. Loan spells soon followed, and after being sold to Swiss side Sion, Inter exercised their buyback option, bringing him back to the club before loaning him to Parma this season. He was lucky not to have given away a penalty and a red card for a handball on the goal line. With 11 minutes remaining, Dimarco launched thunderous long-range strike from the outside of his left boot into the right corner to give the Crociati the 1-0 victory. He took off his shirt and celebrated with his teammates, as a stunned Samir Handanović looked on in a state of shock.

Following the result against Inter, Parma won back-to-back games in Serie A by defeating Cagliari 2-0 at home, and this match will be forever remembered because of the mesmerising solo goal scored by Ivorian winger Gervinho two minutes into the second half.

The 31-year-old was over 80 metres away from the Isolani when he initially received the ball, but he dribbled past four defenders before smashing a right-foot shot past Sardi goalkeeper Alessio Cragno.

After losing 3-0 to Napoli at the San Paolo, Parma proceeded to win its next two league matches – 1-0 to Empoli and then 3-1 to Genoa – and both were achieved without first-choice centre-forward Inglese, who had suffered a hamstring injury.

Those victories were followed by a 2-0 defeat to Lazio at home and a 3-0 loss to Atalanta away, before drawing 0-0 to cellar-dwellers Frosinone in Round 11.

With Inglese back in the starting line-up, the Ducali travelled to Turin and won 2-1 against Torino. They were leading by two goals thanks to Gervinho and Inglese but they still held onto the lead despite Daniele Baselli pulling a goal back for the Granata.

After the away triumph, Parma won 2-1 against Sassuolo in a local derby between the two teams from Emilia-Romagna. Once again, Gervinho opened the scoring before Bruno Alves extended the lead. Although Khouma Babacar reduced the margin from the penalty spot, the Ducali held onto the victory.

Parma nearly succeeded in accomplishing another shock victory at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza when it led 1-0 early in the second half against AC Milan, but unlike their city rivals, the Rossoneri came back and won 2-1.

While Europa League action might be far away from the thoughts of the Gialloblu hierarchy, they are certainly performing better than Empoli and Frosinone, the other clubs that were promoted from Serie B in 2017/18. The Ducali strengthened their squad better than the other two and they have been well-coached by emerging tactician Roberto D’Aversa.

D’Aversa started out coaching at Virtus Lanciano in Serie B from 2014 to 2016, but he replaced Luigi Apolloni in December 2017 after Stefano Morrone had an interim spell of two matches in Lega Pro, and the German-born coach has achieved two consecutive promotions since.

His Parma side lines up in the 4-3-3 formation, defends deep, and attacks down the wings. Simone Iacoponi and Massimo Gobbi advance from the full-back positions while Gervinho and Antonio Di Gaudio flank Inglese in the forward line.

Parma’s management ensured that D’Aversa had a squad capable of succeeding in Serie A, and they stacked up his squad last summer with players who would dovetail into the system. They brought in 26 players, 19 of whom were either loan arrivals or free transfers.

Inglese has been a restless workhorse up top, providing plenty of defensive work while also netting four goals in 12 games. Bruno Alves and Riccardo Gagliolo have been mainstays in defense, while teenage defender Alessandro Bastoni has formed a partnership with Alves lately. Behind them, Luigi Sepe has been a solid goalkeeper despite the odd erratic moments, and in midfield, Leo Stulac and Barillá are two tough and tenacious battlers that provide a lot of energy and stamina. Fabio Ceravolo and Gobbi have been mainstays, while Luca Rigoni and Alessandro Deiola have been decent squad players.

Above all though, the star of the moment is Gervinho. After leaving Roma for Chinese club Hebei Club Fortune, the Ivorian winger returned to Italy this year, and is currently leading scoring for the Emiliani with five goals in 10 matches, including a goal against Juventus. Parma sporting director Daniele Faggiano convinced him of the project’s merits in a phone call this past summer.

“Gervinho knew he was coming to a team that was hungry and that he would have been a protagonist in a newly promoted,” said Faggiano.

Since joining, he’s been a vital part of Parma’s attack. He won Serie A Player of the Month for November, and in matches against Sassuolo and Torino, he’s been an unstoppable presence on the left flank. If Parma are to consolidate their status as a perennial mid-table club, or even as Europa challengers, Gervinho must be a key part of it.

This run might not be sustainable for the remainder of the season, but after the turmoil that the club endured, many Italian football fans would be glad to see Parma in the top half of the Serie A table. The club evokes nostalgia, but the current squad is making an impact in its own right.

By: Vito Doria

Photo: Getty