With Borussia Dortmund no longer the surprise package they once were and Atletico Madrid now firmly ensconced among the European elite, supporters looking for the latest hipster club may do well to take note of Serie A minnows Sassuolo.
A cool and well-dressed young coach? Check. Catchy song? Check. Entertaining players? Check. In truth, the Neroverdi have it all and over the next few years are likely to climb perhaps even as high as that aforementioned duo.
If that seems like a bold proclamation, the feeling is intensified when noting that the side from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region only made their top-flight debut three years ago.
Yet watching their rise over that time, it is impossible not to believe in their exciting project and look on in awe as they shake up the status quo of the game on the peninsula.
Two successive Serie B play-off losses did not dent their ambition, but it was the 2012 appointment of ex-Roma and Italy winger Eusebio Di Francesco that truly saw Sassuolo turn the corner. Under his tutelage, the club won the title and have not looked back since.
Owner Giorgio Squinzi has repeatedly shown he is unafraid to spend money in order to support the team, handing them Italy’s most lucrative shirt sponsorship deal by paying €22 million (Dh91.5m) per season via his paint company Mapei.
In December 2013, he also bought the stadium in nearby Reggio Emilia and renamed it the Mapei Stadium. This means that alongside Juventus and Udinese, Sassuolo are the only other Serie A club to own their own home.
That financial backing has allowed the club to retain its players, only selling them when their stock is at its highest. They have also invested in young talent, and most importantly they have brought in Italian players whenever possible.
Indeed, it is remarkable to note that last season’s squad contained just three foreign players, and one of those – Croatia full-back Sime Vrsaljko – was sold to Atletico last month for €16m (Dh66.6m).
This deal saw Sassuolo pocket a sizeable profit of €12.5m (Dh52m) on a player they purchased for just €3.5m (Dh17.3m) from Genoa in July 2014, repeating their sale of Simone Zaza just 12 months earlier. The striker was sold to Juventus for €18m (Dh72.3m), with the Neroverdi investing the majority of that fee back into the team and improving as a result.
Having also allowed Nicola Sansone to join Villarreal this summer for €13m (Dh54.1m), they will hope to continue their progress. A comfortable 3-0 win over Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League play-offs indicates that is indeed the case. Yet they never seem happy to just rest on their laurels.
“There’s still a slightly bitter taste for the chances we missed, but the team put in an excellent performance,” club owner Squinzi told reporters after that most recent outing. “I have no idea what the real substance of Red Star is, but if we’d won 7-0 or 8-0 it wouldn’t have flattered us, we completely dominated.”
At the heart of everything is Di Francesco however, and – in an exclusive interview with Sport360° – the Sassuolo coach believes that his team’s performances validate the club’s meticulous planning.
“We see this result as confirmation of the constant growth and improvement we have shown over recent years,” the 46-year-old says. “Our project is based on an attacking idea of play, investing in young players and a group based for the most part on Italian players.”
Adding, “that strategic vision has allowed a small club like ours to achieve great things,” Di Francesco is clearly happy with the support he receives.
He has been in serious demand during the past three years, with AC Milan strongly pushing for him to replace Clarence Seedorf in the summer of 2014.
“I cannot work where there is chaos” was his terse reply to those rumours, and it seems he has the perfect working environment at Sassuolo. Like his team, Di Francesco is young, vibrant and – with his glasses, tie and pocket square all carefully coordinated – creating an easily-recognisable identity for himself.
Sassuolo are different, they stand out from the crowd, so too does their coach. His side play a 4-3-3 formation which has largely been discarded on the peninsula, but they make it work through gritty determination and a willingness to press opponents and cover for each other.
Winger Domenico Berardi continues to write the majority of the headlines concerning Sassuolo, his incredible return of 38 goals and 22 assists in 90 Serie A appearances rightly grabbing attention. That has continued into the club’s first European adventure, the 22-yearold having scored four of their seven goals thus far in the competition.
“For us, being who we are is a great advantage when facing bigger clubs,” Di Francesco continues. “We are small, organised and dangerous.”
That is evident whenever Sassuolo play, veterans like Paolo Cannavaro and Francesco Acerbi adding some much-needed leadership and awareness, while captain Francesco Magnanelli has been with the Neroverdi since they were in the fourth division.
With him bossing midfield alongside the increasingly impressive Alfred Duncan, it is clear this unit can continue to grow, but their coach is unwilling to predict just how far they can go, even after signing a new three-year contract.
“I don’t know were we will be after that,” he says. “In football it’s hard to make predictions on a monthly basis let alone annually. I can say that I’m convinced that our project will continue to evolve positively.”
That win over Red Star has them on the verge of a place in the Europa League group stage, which would give Sassuolo an opportunity to test themselves against some of the continent’s very best sides – but their fondest memories remain elsewhere.
“Our best result was definitely on May 18, 2013, the day of our promotion to Serie A,” a smiling Di Francesco continues. “It was our last match of the season, a sort of final, against Livorno and a 1-0 victory with a goal from Missiroli in the dying seconds in front of a capacity crowd that exploded with joy.
“For all of Sassuolo as for me also that was our top moment… until now…” his voice trails off, seemingly wondering where the Neroverdi adventure may take him next. You should, too.
Max Allegri lauded the finishing of Juventus’ record signing Gonzalo Higuain after the Argentina striker came off the bench to score a winning goal on his debut.
Higuain scored less than 10 minutes after coming on a substitute as the Bianconeri beat Fiorentina 2-1.
Sport360’s deputy editor James Piercy looks at the key questions that could potentially define the outcome of this season’s Serie A.
Who do you think will emerge victorious and what are your predictions for the outcome of the league?
DO JUVENTUS HAVE ANY WEAKNESSES?
Even with a start that saw them win just one of their opening eight games and 11 points behind Roma by October, Juventus still managed to win their fifth-straight scudetto last season by nine points.
Unsurprisingly, the Bianconeri are heavy favourites to make it six titles on the spin, which would mean a record-equalling eight for goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
However, Massimiliano Allegri’s side may not have it all their way as there are some concerns heading into the new campaign.
Firstly, Paul Pogba has, of course, gone. Admittedly, ‘The Octopus’ wasn’t at his dynamic best in 2015/16 but the trimvurate of Pogba-Pirlo-Vidal is now broken up and Allegri must establish a new midfield unit, and maybe a new way of playing.
The purchase of Miralem Pjanic from Roma has a multi-layered effect: giving Juve a new playmaker to build around while weakening one of their biggest rivals. But he’ll need to take a leading role immediately, especially if Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio’s injury problems persist.
Dani Alves is sure to catch the eye but, at 33 and after eight seasons in La Liga, will need to adapt to a new way of playing and La Liga recruits haven’t always settled quickly in Serie A.
Finally, there’s Gonzalo Higuain. Serie A’s most expensive signing and a move from Napoli which works along the same lines as Pjanic.
The Argentine’s goalscoring pedigree is outstanding but how Allegri works him and the outstanding Paulo Dybala into the same team, with both keen to play a central role, will be intriguing.
CAN NAPOLI CHALLENGE WITHOUT HIGUAIN?
Higuain’s 36 goals will be tough for Napoli to compensate for, the same goes at the other end of the field if Senegalese centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly joins Chelsea.
Focus will fall on Manolo Gabbiadini who has shown glimpses of brilliant in Naples since arriving from Sampdoria in 2014 but far too infrequently.
More likely to be Maurizio Sarri’s go-to goalscoring hope is their new No99, Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik. The 22-year-old scored 47 goals in 75 games for Ajax and is developing nicely into a lethal finisher.
That all said, it’s asking a lot, in his first Serie A season, to expect him to effectively fire Napoli to a title. Lorenzo Insigne will need to maintain his progression, after a career-best ?? last season, while Sarri may choose to make a few more additions before the end of the month.
Napoli have confirmed Arkadiusz Milik will still wear the 99 shirt, despite departure of No. 9 Gonzalo Higuain. pic.twitter.com/HYhoU7Wh91— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFootball) August 12, 2016
CAN ROMA PROVIDE TOTTI WITH A FAIRYTALE FAREWELL?
The King of Rome turns 40 next month and, at least for now, it’ll be his 25th and final campaign for the Giallorossi.
A scudetto would be apt but the reality is Roma definitely need Juventus to fail spectacularly and Napoli to falter to achieve this.
The loss of Pjanic is considerable, even with Kevin Strootman nearing full fitness – although what sort of condition the Dutchman will be in is a mystery – and retaining Radja Nainggolan with interest from Juventus and Chelsea was impressive.
Defensively, Kostas Manolas remains one of the league’s best centre-backs while the addition of Bruno Peres from Torino at right-back is a fine addition, but rebuilding an entire backline, and an injury-plagued one at that, surely can’t be achieved overnight.
Coach Luciano Spalletti has also had a whole summer to hone his tactics which means the Gialorossi should be Juve’s closest challengers.
It's Totti's final season. Hope the world ends before that... Life can't go on pic.twitter.com/KMDtEomGJk— El Shibrawinho (@Tottieist) August 19, 2016
WILL THERE BE A CHALLENGE FROM EITHER MILAN CLUB?
Internazionale and AC Milan are now both under Chinese ownership and there is a positivity around the city they will soon be knocking on the door.
However, both have new coaches – Frank De Boer at Inter and Vincenzo Montella at Milan – and a title challenge now seems premature.
In De Boer’s case he’s been parachuted in with less than two weeks before the start of the season, while Montella is working with a squad lacking in individual quality.
Montella, Milan’s sixth coach in the last two and a half years, needs to draw the most out of a core built around potential young Italian stars and under-the-radar signings. A top-six target is perhaps more realistic.
De Boer is mostly operating with Roberto Mancini’s squad, although the additions of Antonio Candreva from Lazio and Ever Banega from Sevilla are common sense decisions which should bear fruit.