INSIDE STORY: Sampdoria dreaming of the glory days

Adam Digby 13/12/2016
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Luis Muriel (l) and Fabio Quagliarella (c) have scored 14 Serie A goals between them in 2016/17.

A glance at the Serie A standings shows Sampdoria are once again sitting in mid-table, unlikely to be involved in the relegation battle but with only an outside chance of clinching a Europa League spot. In recent years, they have regularly flirted with both, finishing in a Champions League berth in 2010 but dropping into the second tier just twelve months later.

For football fans of a certain generation however, the club evokes memories of Italian football mid-90s heyday, their iconic shirts bringing the feats of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini to mind. Serie A title winners in 1991, they also reached a European Cup final – beaten by Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona “Dream Team” – and won the Cup Winner’s Cup.

Players such as David Platt, Des Walker, Gianluca Pagliuca and Attilio Lombardo all pulled on that unique Blucerchiati shirt, helping the side to become one of the league’s most prominent and watchable sides. Even in the past few seasons, the likes of Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano brought attention to Samp, only to be sold off as the club struggled to compete with Serie A’s biggest sides.

A succession of managers were still given a major boost by their time on the bench however, Gigi Delneri leaving to take over at Juventus while both Sinisa Mihajlovic and Vincenzo Montella – both former Sampdoria players – went on to become coach of AC Milan. The latter is impressing with the Rossoneri this term, but struggled at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, slumping to a 15th-place finish and getting caught up in yet another relegation battle.

Yet he was still handed the reins at San Siro, prompting Sampdoria to turn to Marco Giampaolo (right)as his replacement. The 49-year-old was in charge of Empoli last year, actually improving their performance after coach Maurizio Sarri moved on to Napoli and impressing fans and neutrals alike with their combination of expansive attacking play and defensive resilience.

“Empoli was an important and positive experience for me,” Giampaolo revealed in an exclusive interview with Sport360.

“I was at a club and in an environment where the philosophy was very similar to mine. I worked with a squad full of technical players like Mario Rui, Leandro Paredes and Piotr Zielinski, who now play for big clubs, and that period remains one of the most unforgettable and exciting of my entire career.”


The first two players he mentioned moved to AS Roma, while Poland midfielder Zielinski has quickly established himself in the starting XI at Napoli. But Giampaolo now calls the city of Genoa his home and – while they may not be fighting for the title as they once did – the importance of the club is not lost on their new boss.

“Samp are one of the biggest clubs in Serie A history,” he continued.

“They’ve won the Scudetto and the cup a few times, as well as an international trophy. Genoa is a beautiful city and they love their football here. The atmosphere is great but there is nowhere in the world without pressure. Results are important everywhere, in good times and bad. Samp’s project is making progress.”

That nod to the weight of expectation was especially true at the start of the season, Giampaolo’s side winning their opening two games but then losing four and drawing two as the Derby della Lanterna approached. That fixture pits the Doriani against their bitter rivals Genoa, the clash arguably the most keenly felt on the peninsula with an intensity to rival that of Roma-Lazio meetings.

Pressure was building and it would have been hard to see Giampaolo keeping his job had they lost, but a 2-1 win would prove to be the turning point in their campaign. “The team always believed in my football ideas and philosophy. That’s the best thing that can happen for a coach,” he adds, looking back on that difficult period.
“If players are with you, nothing else matters. We had some bad results but our performances were good and we have never lost sight of our aim of playing football as we know how.”

That derby win was due in no small part to the wonderful partnership emerging between strikers Luis Muriel and Fabio Quagliarella, the latter setting up his Colombian team-mate to open the scoring. Both regularly find themselves on the scoresheet, with the Italian enjoying a renaissance after a difficult time at Torino, recently netting the 100th Serie A goal of his career.

“Giampaolo is meticulous in his planning – he’s a great coach and we’ve developed a nice understanding in terms of the way we see the game,” Quagliarella tells Sport360°. “He expects a lot but always stands up for his beliefs. That’s important because he conveys positivity to the team even when results aren’t going our way.”

Together they have helped spark a strong unbeaten run that has lifted Sampdoria up the table, although Giampaolo is unwilling to say he has improved the team after the departure of his predecessor.

“You can’t compare Montella’s Samp to mine, there are 13 different players,” he says. “Every time I join a new club I start from scratch. I’m not influenced by what people tell me. My work isn’t
affected by any of that.”

Sampdoria games are often punctuated by shots of president Massimo Ferrero in the stands, a larger-than-life character who often ties a club scarf around his head like a bandana and cheers the team as loudly as anyone. Yet his coach insists that the owner is very different away from the stadium, demanding the very best from everyone who works at the club and ensuring the players have everything they need to succeed.

“Ferrero is a president who never interferes the football side of things,” Giampaolo reveals. “He brings his enthusiasm and he puts everything into perspective. When he’s in Genoa we often meet and go to a good restaurant. If we can’t, we keep in touch via phone or text message. Ferrero is always nice and fun to be around but he expects top performances in the workplace.”

The coach is also quick to point out that the crowd at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris are playing a crucial role in the club’s resurgence.

“The fans make the difference. Our supporters want to be driven on by the team and they love players who never give up,” Giampaolo says, a smile breaking across his face as he discusses the atmosphere at the Marassi.

“Doria supporters are amazing – every time the team need them they are crucial in helping the players. When you play Sampdoria you should know that you face two opponents – the team and the fans.”

Just as they did two decades earlier, that formidable combination is making its presence felt in Serie A, notching wins over Internazionale and Torino while earning a credible draw against Fiorentina.

“Everyone learns by making mistakes,” Giampaolo says as our interview comes to an end and it seems he and his team have done just that, putting their poor start behind them and becoming an entertaining side to watch once again. Sampdoria are back.

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Six moments Mihajlovic sparked controversy

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In a recent interview with Corriere dello Sport, Sinisa Mihajlovic had much to say about the many questionable incidents during his time in football. He was often in the spotlight for controversial behaviour on and off the football pitch.

The former defensive midfielder was still very highly regarded for his precision, accuracy with passes and set-pieces; alongside fellow Serie A specialist Andrea Pirlo, the Serb holds the record for most free-kick goals with a tally of 28.

But while the Inter and Lazio faithful will fondly remember his tenacity, that memorable hard-nosed temperament often led to unsavoury episodes in his career. Here, Sport360 selects five controversial moments indicative of the 47-year-old’s stint as player and manager.

SPITTING

Great defensive players have often resorted to mind games with their opponents. Mihjalovic was well-versed with this notion, but his tempestuous nature meant he took it too far on a couple of occasions.

The first spitting incident occurred during the 1998 World Cup when Yugoslavia faced Germany in the group stages. Unhappy with Mihajlovic’s tough challenge, Jens Jeremies voiced his indignation towards his opponent, who proceeded to spit in his face.

The other incident was in a Champions League encounter between Chelsea and Lazio, when the Serb vented his frustration with Adrian Mutu by spitting again. On this occasion, a lengthy eight-match ban was his punishment from UEFA.

RACIAL ABUSE

Years prior to that Chelsea episode, Lazio hosted another Premier League club in Arsenal at the Stadio Olimpico. Mihajlovic was in a volatile mood throughout the match and had several run-ins with Gunners before initiating an infamous war of words with Patrick Vieira after the final whistle.

The Frenchman accused Mihajlovic of racist abuse and the police were quick to react, conducting an investigation that could have left the Serb possibly facing jail time. He apologised for his behaviour and, fortunately for him, Vieira didn’t press charges (see 5:00).

WAR CRIMINAL TRIBUTE

In the past, Mihajlovic’s relationship with war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic left him exposed to public criticism. Known as Arkan, the former commander of a voluntary paramilitary forces, dubbed the ‘Tigers’, was responsible for countless atrocities during the Yugoslav Wars. In fact, Arkan was for many years on Interpol’s most wanted list.

After finally being caught, and as he was awaiting trial, Arkan was assassinated in a hotel in 2000. Mihajlovic sparked public outcry after paying tribute in the Belgrade press, hailing the deceased nationalist as his friend. He went as far as asking Lazio fans to brandish a banner in the war criminal’s honour and even bared his own torso to reveal the group’s iconic symbol.

NATIONAL ANTHEM

Like many over the years, including Wayne Rooney and Colin Kaepernick, Serbia’s Adem Ljajic suffered a harsh backlash for his refusal to recite the lines to his country’s national anthem ‘God of Justice’.

Then-coach Mihajlovic was so unimpressed with his player’s lack of compliance that he publicly lambasted the former Inter man’s reluctance to sing with his team-mates. Ljajic was banned from future involvement in the national squad until he toed the line of fierce nationalist Mihajlovic.

POLITICALLY CHARGED CLASHES

The Yugoslav Wars had a profound effect on Mihajlovic and his unfaltering love for his nation was manifest during a historic encounter between Yugoslavian rivals Hajduk Split (Croatia) and Red Star Belgrade (Serbia) in 1991. Hajduk’s Igor Stimac insulted Mihajlovic’s family, provoking the Serb to attempt to seriously injure Stimac, who did little to defuse the situation.

Mihajlovic eventually lost his composure and  scythed down another Hajduk player, an incident that led to a temporary stoppage of play with both sets of players engaging in a brawl. Mihajlovic was sent off for his offence. History would soon repeat itself a month later in June with Mihajlovic given the marching orders after seeking to exact a personal vendetta.

SEXISM

During his time as AC Milan manager, Mihajlovic endured a difficult relationship with club president Silvio Berlusconi. And following a string of unfavourable results, the Serbian tactician was sacked.

Kevin-Prince Boateng’s partner, TV presenter Melissa Satta suggested Cristian Brocchi, future interim manager, should be regarded as the primary candidate in line for replacement, citing her underlying reason as his ability to make a ‘healthy impact’.

When asked by a popular Italian programme his thoughts on Satta’s thinly-veiled criticism, Mihajlovic kicked off a sexism storm, saying: “I’m not sexist, but I don’t think women should talk about football, they are not suited to talk about it.”

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The evolution of Suso

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On his 23rd birthday, Suso scored a majestic brace in the Derby della Madonnina, and was very close to bringing AC Milan a sweet win over city rivals Inter Milan. Ivan Perisic might have made it 2-2 deep in injury time, but it didn’t take anything from the Spaniard’s performance.

On Saturday, he scored once again and added two assists in the 4-1 win at Empoli. There is no doubt that the Spaniard is steadily becoming one of the most important players for Vincenzo Montella’s team.

Liverpool don’t really require their services anymore, but some of the Anfield so-called flops are flourishing elsewhere these days.

Mario Balotelli has found his feet at Ligue 1’s surprise leaders Nice. Iago Aspas is enjoying life at Celta Vigo and scored at Wembley on his international debut for Spain. Peter Gulacsi excels in goal for RB Leipzig at the top of the Bundesliga and Brad Jones is doing a remarkable job for Dutch leaders Feyenoord.

Suso might yet prove to be the best of them all, quite simply because he is the youngest. As Montella says, “he has an enormous potential, and needs to grow in his consistency and self confidence”.

The potential was there for all to see when Suso was a 16-year-old talent at Cadiz. Scouts from all parts of Spain came to see him in action, and Real Madrid were keen on bringing the midfielder to their academy. And yet, the young prodigy chose Liverpool thanks to a call made personally by Rafa Benitez.

It was right before the manager left Anfield in the summer of 2010, and thus Suso could be considered a farewell present of sorts. Two years later, that gift seemed ready to be unwrapped as Brendan Rodgers took over, and his tiki-taka plans suited Suso perfectly.

The midfielder has always admired Andres Iniesta and tried to emulate him on the pitch. What a magical story it could have been if he became Liverpool’s very own San Andres!

The manager noticed Suso’s skills and followed him closely during the European Under-19 Championships in Estonia, which Spain duly won, and happily added him to the first team squad. Everything looked bright, and the debut couldn’t have been more emotional.

After Jonjo Shelvey was famously sent off against Manchester United, Rodgers decided to give Suso his chance. The 18-year-old completed all his passes, and got a lot of praise, even though the Reds eventually lost. He started in the next five Premier League fixtures, and the future looked promising.

It was not to last, though. A couple of more disappointing games saw him benched and he gradually lost Rodgers’ trust. He didn’t start a game for Liverpool after December 2012, and a loan was needed to put his career back on track.

Getting experience at Almeria in 2013/14 proved valuable, and some of his performances were truly spectacular, but upon returning to Anfield, Suso found that the team’s style of play had changed entirely. Gone was the possession play and he struggled to even get on the bench.

His contract was due to end in 2015 and with no considerable offer from the club forthcoming, he chose to leave as soon as possible, even having a medical at Milan without informing Liverpool beforehand. The Reds sold him for about €1million in January 2015, and the player claimed: “I have grown, but haven’t noticed a lot of trust in me”.

For about a year, there was no reason for the Premier League side to regret the decision. Suso barely played at Milanese side under Filippo Inzaghi, and was completely ignored by Sinisa Mihajlovic who replaced the former striker in the summer of 2015. The Spaniard became so irrelevant that few fans noticed a loan move to Genoa last January. And yet, that proved to be a masterstroke.

Gian Piero Gasperini saw the qualities of Suso in a different light. For him, he was not Iniesta, but rather Arjen Robben – a left-footed dribbler who could play on the right wing of a 3-4-3 formation and cut inside at every opportunity. The results were outstanding.

When Suso scored a magnificent hat-trick against Frosinone, all of Italy sat up and took notice. Robben would have been proud of each of the three strikes, and the Spaniard’s confidence soared.

Sampdoria coach Montella witnessed Suso’s ability when Genoa demolished his side in the local derby. He scored twice in the 3-0 triumph, and his future boss had been convinced. When he took over at Milan in the summer, the Spaniard became an integral part of his plans.

That was even more logical, because the Rossoneri didn’t have a good alternative to play on the right wing. The situation was so grim in the previous seasons that Keisuke Honda was asked to fill the role, even though he despised being exiled to the flanks.

Thus, Suso became an important player in Montella’s 4-3-3 tactics, and duly scored a stunner against Napoli in only the second game of the season. The coach made every effort to make the Spaniard feel at home and asked him to be more incisive. “Suso is a little shy, and should take more risks. He has the quality to do that”, the Italian said.

The advice was most certainly implemented in the derby. Suso’s strikes were taken superbly, and he even scored the second goal with his weaker right foot, a testament to his level of confidence. Following the great performance at Empoli, he now has five goals and four assists in just 14 Serie A matches this season.

If his meteoric rise continues, Liverpool might live to regret letting go of him, at a ridiculously inexpensive fee no less.

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