The degree of attention that a team is awarded in Serie A is often proportional to the cash that they command, so when a jewel emerges in the shape of a lesser team, most of the time it goes unrecognised.
After the last few weeks in Serie A, we think we may have found one. Massimiliano Allegri’s Cagliari just earned a pyrotechnic 3-3 draw against Napoli which places them at 23 points and in a highly solid position to defend their mid-table standing. Given their means, it is only logical that Cagliari should have stumbled into several defeats, but the nature of these defeats deserves as much attention as their victories. It has been eight or nine games since the last truly ugly or non-entertaining match by the Rossoblù. List the teams in the league, and count how many can claim that for themselves. Since we are on the subject of continuity, what of their young striker Alessandro Matri, who just went seven games in a row finding the back of the net? For the record, the last time someone achieved this was in the sixties, and the top athlete was Gigi Riva, one of the greatest prime punte in the history of the Italian game. Matri had his detractors last year, when he met trouble finding his form across the string of injuries which afflicted him, but these voices seem to have gone very silent now.
Matri has a great deal of qualities – he is versatile, fast, and blessed with a strong instinct for position and termination (he comes short perhaps only in long-distance shots). His rise to greater distinction has not gone unperceived, but what less people seem to notice is that his team has a tradition for finding players of his calibre. Last year, Cagliari nurtured and assisted Robert Acquafresca, who is now playing with Atalanta – another young and promising Italian talent. A few years ago, they were riding on the goals of David Suazo, who was eventually raided by Inter. Suazo suffered a lot of bench-time and his descent into oblivion now scarves the player’s quality, but critics should remember that, at the time of leaving Cagliari, he was being pursued by Milan and Roma as well as the Nerazzurri.
The point to stress is not that Cagliari have a good forward. It is the fact that they are continuously mugged of their best strikers, yet they somehow manage to keep going without setbacks, often improving on their results – witness the superb second half of the season which they underwent last year. This is testimony to the excellent organisation at the heart of their group, the kind of organisation which even the greatest (and richest) teams are often shorn of – Juventus this year, Roma last year, or Milan the year before that. Cagliari may not have the best players in Serie A, but they certainly have a teamwork among the strongest.
Another element that contributes to Cagliari’s success is the care they take in nurturing their defence. Among their central defenders we find Michele Canini, Lino Marzoratti and Davide Astori – all young, all Italian, and all good to a greater or lesser extent. Some of them need to solve some issues, of course. Canini, for instance, is strong at defending but he is very inaccurate at passing the ball, while Marzoratti should ditch his prudence and put a little more heart to go with his remarkable technical talents. Still, this is all within normality for a team with such modest means as Cagliari (their talents get stolen the moment they flourish, after all). And the fact remains that fielding three young Italian central defenders at a time when there are teams who splash fifteen million euros for the first available foreigner, and while the Azzurri despair on who will replace Fabio Cannavaro, is commendable to say the least. Oh, and of course there is Federico Marchetti, who has already been designated as the unimpeachable heir to Gianluigi Buffon. Add to this the midfield cocktail of young promise (Davide Biondini) and reliable creativity (Andrea Cossu) and you have an extraordinarily stable, remarkably well-organised team.
The Rossoblù are far from the richest team in Serie A. They are far from the most successful, either. But they may just be the best team in this league for the sheer efficiency with which they balance management, mercato and performances. Plunged in a tourney where everybody seems to have forgotten their good manners, from José Mourinho and Ciro Ferrara to Francesco Totti and Ezequiel Lavezzi (well done for the latter’s incivility towards Allegri this weekend, by the way), Cagliari also have the merit of playing the cleanest and most civil football – not a single red card from the beginning of the season to this day! Rhetorical as it may sound, good deeds are rewarded. Cagliari have suffered such few suspensions that they are allowed to field their first team almost every week.
Calling Cagliari the best team in Serie A may sound controversial, but perhaps we should remember that the measure of quality is not necessarily trophies and power. It is also a question of the beauty of your football and the values you uphold. Cagliari nurture youth, respect their opponents and work with dignity at all levels, from the directors in their offices to the players on the pitch. Models for behaviour are usually represented by those standing at the top. Yet the issues which have been upsetting teams like Milan, Inter, Juventus and Roma over the last few years suggest that the zone to learn from is the middle, not the peak. Bari, for instance, made mince of Juventus this weekend. People have been quick to bemoan the crisis of the Bianconeri, but few have recognised that Bari are, in fact, a very solid team, one which presses well on the wings and knows how to defend. Sampdoria and Genoa, proverbially mid-table squads or less, have taught a lot of lessons too. Now Cagliari – and Allegri – join the group. All of these teams are coached by young and promising tacticians, suggesting, among other things, that concerns over the emigration of Coaches like Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti and Luciano Spalletti are short-sighted. Perhaps the ‘best’ teams in Serie A really could learn a lesson from their middle-earth. The one that most resembles the squads listed above, after all, is Fiorentina. Look where Cesare Prandelli is now.