On this day last year, Sampdoria sat 10th in Serie A. Diminished by the departure of their manager Gigi Del Neri during the previous summer and the exclusion of Antonio Cassano from the playing squad following a very public outburst against owner Riccardo Garrone, they were certainly not hitting the heights they had reached during their 2009-10 campaign. Nor—with 26 points already secured—did they seem like a relegation candidate. That was until a catastrophic collapse that saw them pick up just 10 more from their remaining 19 games.
The subject was raised on yesterday’s Serie A Settimanale in light of the recent struggles of other high-profile clubs. Palermo, eighth-place finishers and Coppa Italia runners-up last year, have slipped to 15th – but theirs is perhaps a unique situation, the club’s fortunes dictated constantly by the whims of owner Maurizio Zamparini who’s already onto his third manager this year. Fans of Fiorentina, however, might see more parallels with Sampdoria’s cautionary tale than they would like to admit.
The most obvious point of comparison is the deconstruction of one of Serie A’s most potent strike force. For Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini, substitute Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino. Mutu’s decline and departure might have been a more gradual process than Cassano’s exit from Samp – injuries and disciplinary issues from 2008 onwards keeping the Romanian out for long stretches – yet between them the pair were prolific. In 2008-09 they combined for 40 goals in 75 appearances in all competitions. In 2009-10 it was 30 in 67.
Neither lived up to such form last season, though Gilardino’s 12 goals were still enough to make him the club’s leading scorer (indeed, only two others exceeded Mutu’s tally of four). But if the departure of Mutu to Cesena in the summer was expected and accepted by the fans after his own falling out with the club’s hierarchy, then Gilardino’s exit to Genoa this January has been far harder to swallow.
The supporters had been forewarned – Genoa made an unsuccessful approach in the summer, after which Gilardino declined to extend a contract that ran only to 2013. The forward’s performances in the first half of the season also suggested a player whose head had been turned. A return of just two goals from 12 games were enough to convince the club’s owners, Diego and Andrea Della Valle, that they were better off accepting Genoa’s €8m offer while it was still available.
But presenting a logical case for the player’s sale is one thing; producing a suitable plan for his replacement is quite another. Sampdoria, too, must have felt that Inter’s offer of €12m plus Jonathan Biabiany represented a fair price for Pazzini last January; the presumption that Federico Macheda and Massimo Maccarone could fill the void, however, was plainly misguided. The pair combined for three goals in 27 league appearances.
Fiorentina do at least have half a plan in place – Stevan Jovetic, now that he is fully recovered from the torn knee ligaments which cost him the entire 2010-11 season, represents a more than adequate replacement for Mutu as the team’s seconda punta, its deeper-lying forward. More than a fortnight after Gilardino’s departure, however, nobody has been signed to fill the gap he has left behind. Instead, another forward – Santiago Silva – has been allowed to leave. In the absence of new arrivals, Adem Ljajic has been deployed as a striker with underwhelming results — failing to convert any of the number of presentable chances that fell his way against Roma and Lecce.
The most likely solution (though fans of the Viola might hesitate to call it that) would appear to be a move for Amauri, the Juventus forward with whom Fiorentina have already discussed provisional terms. While the striker may have done well during his loan spell at Parma last year, it’s hard for fans to feel enthused about a player whose time at Juve has been so catastrophic that some fans tried to sell him on eBay this week.
Much like Sampdoria’s move for Maccarone, this would be a transfer that smacks of expedience rather than any greater vision. The supporters’ fear is that this kind of thinking reflects a deeper malaise, of a disinterested ownership that no longer cares enough about the project they started back in 2002 – the Della Valle family resurrecting a club that had been hurled by financial crisis down to the fourth tier of Italian football – to do any more than the bare minimum.
Certainly the Della Valles seem to have taken more of a back seat of late. Andrea stepped down as the club’s president and handed the day-to-day running of the club over to an operating president, Mario Cognini, after becoming frustrated over the failure to reach an agreement with local authorities over the construction of a new stadium. Discussions over a suitable plot of land have not been abandoned altogether, but in the meantime the Della Valles spent more of last season helping to restore Rome’s Colosseum than on securing new signings.
This anxiety has been perhaps the greatest single factor in the rapid deterioration of the relationship between the club and its supporters – another significant common thread between this team and last season’s Sampdoria. During the defeat to last-placed Lecce on Sunday, fans abused and even spat on Cognini before six hundred of them protested and blocked the directors’ exit at full-time. A handful were eventually granted an audience with the president in order to calm the crowd.
These were the actions of a minority and most of the club’s fans would condemn such behaviour, but many share their sense of frustration. Benedetto Ferrara of La Repubblica wrote an open letter to Andrea and Diego Della Valle criticizing the violent behaviour but imploring them to get more involved. “It would be enough to substitute the old project with a new one, even a less ambitious one,” he wrote. “Nobody is angry that we are not battling for the Scudetto. It is the fact that we are not fighting at all that has taken our dreams away.”
The perception is that rather than a quick fix at one or two positions, a complete overhaul of the playing squad is now required. In a lament that will sound all too familiar to anyone who followed Samp’s demise, Fiorentina’s fans have protested for months now that too many players are cruising, that there is not enough commitment to the cause. In some cases, they have a point.
Riccardo Montolivo is the most obvious example of a player who no longer wants to be at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, who made his decision long ago that the time had come to move on. That the club refused to sell last summer reflected the understandable reluctance to give up an important asset for less than he’s worth, but in the end Fiorentina are losing out both ways, with the player set to leave for nothing when his contract expires in the summer while in the meantime performing at a level below what he is capable of.
But if Montolivo has conducted himself in a broadly professional manner, others have been more disruptive. Juan Manuel Vargas, Andrea Lazzari and Alessio Cerci have all been punished this season for staying out later than the club’s code of conduct allows. Less than a week after his initial misdemeanour, Cerci arrived late for a training session after missing his flight home from a visit to Barcelona. This weekend his popularity hit a new low after a message appeared on his girlfriend’s Facebook page goading Fiorentina’s fans over the Coppa Italia defeat to Roma.
Others stand accused of a simple lack of application, with Ljajic in particular said to lack the required focus. The former manager Sinisa Mihajlovic’s jibe that the player, procured from Partizan to much fanfare in the summer of 2010, needed to “cut his hair, eat less chocolate and not spend so much time attached to the computer” was delivered in a light-hearted tone, but there is an increasing sense the player is not working hard enough to realise his talent. Jovetic, too, enjoys his Playstation but the divergence in their rates of development in striking.
If all that paints a bleak picture then it must also be said that Fiorentina’s squad remains significantly more talented than Sampdoria’s last season, with players such as Jovetic, Vargas and Montolivo sought in the last two transfer windows by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. In Delio Rossi, Fiorentina have now appointed the manager who many fans had been clamouring for.
But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to learn from Samp’s mistakes. The Blucerchiati were doomed last season by their actions in January – realising too late what should have been obvious: that the replacements they had brought in up front were totally inadequate. Andrea Della Valle insists that the club are working to secure important signings in the coming days. When that window snaps shut at the end of January, they need to be certain they did all they could.