Following a disappointing start to the season, Grasshopper-Club appear to have rallied under new coach Ciriaco Sforza. A 1-0 victory at third-placed Neuchâtel Xamax FC last weekend lifted Swiss football's most successful side into fifth spot in the Super League, three points off a European berth with one match to play before the winter break.
Expectations were high when Sforza, a decorated midfielder during his playing days, took charge at the Letzigrund Stadium. Succeeding Hanspeter Latour in June, the former FC Luzern boss called his appointment a "major honour" and said he would settle for "no less than third place", while the supporters hoped for a more attractive style and a first European qualification since 2006.
Sforza was also encouraged to help implement the club's new policy of greater youth development, an approach which has suited the 39-year-old. "A club like Grasshoppers have to aim to develop their own players," he said. "It's important to put our philosophy into practice. We need to give the youngsters a chance." Sforza stayed loyal to his talented tyros despite four defeats in his first five outings, and the likes of striker Nassim Ben Khalifa, midfielder Vullnet Basha, and defenders Enzo Ruiz and Gianluca D'Angelo have responded well.
With Grasshoppers floundering in the Super League's bottom three with seven points from their first nine games, the turning point came with a 4-0 home win over FC Aarau followed by a last-gasp 3-2 success at FC Sion. The Super Hoppers then took ten points from their next six matches. Even runaway leaders BSC Young Boys went down 2-1 to the ever-maturing Grasshoppers, while FC Basel 1893 were the only side to amass more points (19) over the same period than Sforza's fledglings.
There have been losers, however, from Sforza's promotion of youth. Antonio Dos Santos, a first-team regular for many years, was loaned to Sion after failing to feature in his trainer's plans; Ricardo Cabanas, Grasshopper's captain and a cult figure among the fans, had to battle to regain his starting slot. It is a credit to both player and coach that former 1. FC Köln midfielder Cabanas has since played a major part in what Sforza describes as "a thoroughly positive development within the team".
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