Less than a month into the start of this season Cagliari were thrown into turmoil after a disagreement between Coach Roberto Donadoni and President Massimo Cellino. He was sacked and Massimo Ficcadenti appointed. Not much was expected with little time to prepare, however Ficcadenti masterminded an opening day win away at Roma and after five rounds the Isolani were fifth, a point from first place. The rot then set in and perhaps harshly, Ficcadenti was dismissed after ten matches. Cagliari’s main concern in his last five matches was a lack of goals – only one scored. New boss Davide Ballardini did little to arrest the slide initially, with just a single victory in his first six matches in charge.
That was 2011. The situation looks brighter at the start of 2012 for the Rossoblu. The season re-started with a bang – a 3-0 home victory against Genoa, a match which saw as many goals at the Stadio Sant’Elia scored in 90 minutes as there had been in the eight games prior. Last Sunday, Cagliari showed tremendous fighting spirit and defensive qualities to come away with a point from the Juventus Stadium, after trailing to Mirko Vucinic’s early strike.
Ballardini’s men lie tenth, amongst the mid-table logjam but clear of the relegation zone. Should they improve their home form, a comfortable mid-table position beckons. Their win versus Genoa was just Cagliari’s second at home. Away from the Sant’Elia the Sardinians have triumphed three times; although points gathered home and away are equally split.
Andrea Cossu netted his first goal of the season against Juve and while the stats seem against him (also just one assist to his name) the playmaker is critical to Cagliari. The midfield is built for him. Powerful runners and more defensive minded players surround. He, along with other veterans Daniele Conti, Alessandro Agostini and Michele Canini, are long-time servants of the club and provide the inspiration.
Alongside the veterans are an exciting group of youngsters. Davide Astori was this week mentioned as “the best Italian defender that there is right now” by his Coach. Co-owned by Cagliari and Milan, he has grown in Sardinia and should the Isolani hold on to him for at least another season it will be beneficial to both club and player, who is in the sights of Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli. Lorenzo Ariaudo is another defender with potential, while Albin Ekdal is fast becoming an accomplished central midfielder.
Radja Nainggolan is the jewel of the Cagliari midfield, raising interest from Juve, Milan and Inter. Comfortable on and off the ball, it appears only an offer around €15m will tempt Cellino into selling the 23-year-old. While with his mazy match-winner against Catania, Colombian striker Victor Ibarbo made Serie A sit up and take notice. He added to his tally against Genoa and with pace and trickery, is another Cagliari will look to keep as long as possible.
Hard-working midfielder Davide Biondini departed for Genoa a week ago, with Cagliari deciding to cash in now for €1m rather than receive nothing in June. The club acted quickly to sign Daniele Dessena from Sampdoria on loan and the player has slotted into the side for the first two matches of 2012. Their main January aim now is to find another midfielder, with Cesena’s Marco Parolo linked, plus ward off any suitors for their stars.
Inherently, this is the problem Cagliari faces. Without the financial clout to challenge for a European position they are forced to sell to survive. On paper their first eleven is a solid unit capable of challenging for a top half finish and far too good to be relegated. There is a healthy mix of young and old in the ranks to build upon, if the club allows it. Cellino also needs to put faith in his Coach and not sack at the first sign of trouble. This too is critical for stability and with it Ballardini will look to equal or perhaps even better their ninth placed finish in 2008/09 – the best Cagliari performance since 1992/93.