On Monday night in Catania, Nicola Legrottaglie stood before a crowd of 500 people in a disused industrial plant and promised them eternal life. Perspectives on whether or not the player had lost his mind may depend on your religious persuasion. Legrottaglie was hosting the first meeting of his newly founded Paradise Mission – an evangelical Christian prayer group – in Le Ciminerie, a former sulphur refining complex which has since been converted into a convention center.
What we can say for certain is that Legrottaglie had already taken many of those in attendance to paradise. Just one night earlier, in fact, when the defender’s late winner against Lazio sent the city into paroxysms of delight. “Clamoroso al Cibali” (Sensation at the Cibali) was the headline in Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday, the same words famously used by the commentator Sandro Ciotti to describe the Sicilian side’s derailing of Inter’s title hopes with a 2-0 upset back in June 1961.
This victory might not have represented quite such a shock (although third-placed Lazio did boast one of the best away records in the league) yet the context did indeed render it sensational. Catania, who started the season with the stated aim of avoiding relegation, had just crossed the 40 point threshold with 10 games to go. Never before had the club accrued so many points (41), so many victories (10) and so few losses (seven) this far into a top-flight season.
By the end of Sunday night, the club was level with both Inter and Roma in sixth place, though the latter would win their game in hand against Genoa the following evening to pull back clear. Even then, they were too late to prevent the inevitable questions from being raised. Wasn’t it Roma who had dismissed Vincenzo Montella in the summer, so as to make room for Luis Enrique? How was it that their cast-off was achieving similar success on a fraction of the budget afforded to the new man?
Montella himself would likely have little time for such questions. Interviewed by Corriere dello Sport back in November, the former striker, much loved for his achievements as a player in Rome, said he had been unready for the role. Despite achieving extraordinary success as coach of Roma’s Under-15s by winning all of his 21 games in charge that season, Montella had experienced a mixed few months after replacing Claudio Ranieri as manager of the senior side in February last year. The team were fifth when he took charge, and finished sixth.
“I believe it would have been a mistake,” he told Corriere dello Sport when asked if he felt Roma should have given him more time. “I wouldn’t have said no if they’d offered the job to me, but I asked the directors not to put me in an embarrassing situation. I would have said yes but in a place like Rome it is difficult for the false-starts of a young manager to be pardoned.”
Such words may just be a coping mechanism of course, a way of laughing off a painful episode, yet humility has been a characteristic of Montella’s young managerial career. “Tactics interest me little,” he insisted when first handed the reins at Roma yet since then he has shown himself to be more astute in this department than might reasonably be expected of one so inexperienced. Already at Catania he has got his team to a point where they can be effective playing out of either a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2.
His initial decision to utilise the latter was, in fairness, a pragmatic response to the tools at his disposal. Montella quickly realised that a four-man defence was impractical for a squad so short of talent at full-back and instead midfielders such as Mariano Izco and the on-loan Davide Lanzafame were converted into makeshift wing-backs. Imperfect ones, certainly, but effective enough in a league where few teams boast genuine attacking width.
Marco Motta’s arrival on loan from Juventus in January then allowed him to shift back to a four-man defence. That the right-back has thus far looked a drastically better player than the one seen in either Rome or Turin over the last two-and-a-half years speaks well to Montella’s man-management.
The real stars of the show have been elsewhere though, with Legrottaglie not only matching his record scoring tally with his fourth goal of the season against Lazio, but also putting in defensive performances of the highest calibre, while Francesco Lodi enjoys his most effective season just behind the attack. The Argentinian trio of Pablo Barrientos, Alejandro Gómez and Gonzalo Bergessio have offered significant creative input. Reaching desperately for the appropriate words to describe the former in a recent interview, the sporting director Pietro Lo Monaco simply blurted out: “Barrientos is football”.
Lo Monaco himself might be the real star of this show as the man behind the transfer policy of a club who not only boast one of the lowest wage bills in Serie A, but have also been one of very few clubs in the division successfully turning a profit. The club has moved on players such as Juan Manuel Vargas, Jorge Andrés Martinez and potentially now Maxi Lopez (Milan paid to take him on loan and have an option to buy at the end of the season for €8m) yet continued to find viable replacements.
Montella, for instance, has Catania just five points shy of their all-time points record (46) in Serie A, but that mark was only set last year in a season which started with Marco Giampaolo on the bench and finished with Diego Simeone. The previous record had been set just a season earlier through the combined efforts of Gianluca Atzori and Sinisa Mihajlovic, and the one before that by Walter Zenga in 2008-09.
The club, in other words, has shown consistent year-on-year improvement regardless of who is picking the team. Little wonder Antonio Pulvirenti should be so quick to make amends when Lo Monaco attempted to resign in July. The team owner had been angered by Lo Monaco’s public suggestion that he was considering joining a consortium to buy Salernitana but would not countenance allowing the director to leave, describing him as “our Messi”.
Deserved praise, but this Messi has done all he can now for this season’s campaign by putting together the best team he could. Now it is up to those players and their manager, Montella, to see how far this sensational season can go.
“Our first objective was safety; now we have reached 40 points, we will set ourselves the target of reaching 50,” said Legrottaglie on Monday. “After that, why not aim for Europa League qualification?” One way or another, he is determined to guide the people of Catania through to the promised land.