INSIDE STORY: Sampdoria dreaming of the glory days

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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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