Almost three decades after shocking the Italian sporting establishment by winning the Scudetto in 1985, promoted Hellas Verona FC are enjoying another outstanding campaign in Serie A.
Wednesday's 2-0 success against UC Sampdoria, the fifth home victory in as many games at the Bentegodi Stadium this season, allowed Verona to surpass ACF Fiorentina and move level on 19 points with fourth-placed FC Internazionale Milano. "We are performing above expectations," admitted coach Andrea Mandorlini.
After the Veneto club were relegated to Serie B in 2002 and then to the third tier in 2007, only a play-off triumph against Pro Patria in 2008 saved Verona from fourth division football. Their ever-loyal supporters never abandoned the team, though – 25,000 turned up to witness Verona's 1-0 defeat by Calcio Portogruaro on the last day of the 2009/10 campaign as their beloved side narrowly missed out on Serie B promotion.
Twelve matches into the next season, Mandorlini was appointed coach and the former Inter defender immediately led his charges back into Serie B via the play-offs. A return to Serie A was finally secured last term.
"The success we are enjoying now is the fruit of a few years of hard work," said the 53-year-old Mandorlini, who guided CFR 1907 Cluj to a Romanian league and cup double in 2010. "We have experienced players who are leading by example for the youngsters, there is great enthusiasm in the team. My job is to help them keep their feet firmly on the ground."
Perhaps the best known of Mandorlini's leaders is 36-year-old FIFA World Cup-winning striker Luca Toni, who scored his fourth goal of the campaign against Sampdoria. "It was an important victory, we needed it after the bad defeat [4-2] at Inter at the weekend," said Toni. "Our objectives remain the same – we want avoid relegation and reach 40 points as quickly as possible."
Alongside Toni, young talents like home-grown midfielder Jorginho, 21, and forward Juan Manuel Iturbe, a 20-year-old on loan from FC Porto, are flourishing. Yet inspirational performances are coming all over the pitch: right-back Fabrizio Cacciatore has already scored three goals this season, while goalkeeper Rafael and captain Domenico Maietta – veterans of Verona's third-division days – have impressed.
Parallels with Osvaldo Bagnoli's title winners of 29 years ago, studded with stars like Hans-Peter Briegel and Preben Elkjær Larsen, might be premature. But in the romantic city of Verona, legendary home of Romeo and Juliet, dreaming is never forbidden.
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