Giampiero Ventura doesn’t take kindly to being called the grandfather of Serie A, but having just turned 62 the journeyman Bari manager has to go that little bit further in proving himself otherwise. Speaking ahead of Inter’s visit to the San Nicola on Saturday, Ventura offered a veritable master class in machismo.
“Change the record, it’s just not funny anymore,” he smirked. “In training camp I got my abs out to show you what I am made of. I just finished an exertive cardio test: I’ll only tell you that I broke the bicycle pedals. I explained to the doctor I had only just started warming up. And I am the so-called ‘dean’ of this League.”
Well, Ventura may not be a dean in the academic sense, but with 27 years of coaching experience and over 800 appearances on Italy’s benches, he’s certainly capable of handing out a lesson or two. And that’s just what he gave Jose Mourinho for the second time this season on Saturday night.
Without Andrea Ranocchia and Sergio Almiron, the team’s two most influential players, and four other regulars Bari were quite harshly given up for dead. The fact they had won their last five matches in a row at home, including a 3-1 victory over Juventus, was somewhat criminally overlooked.
It perhaps shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise then when Bari went 2-0 up, admittedly scoring twice in three minutes from the penalty spot early in the second half, but completely dominating proceedings all the same. Unprepared to change the way they play a second string Bari side persisted with the 4-2-4 that has brought them so much success this season and had more possession and more shots on target than Inter, much to the delight of 58,000 screaming home fans.
Inter managed to scrape a 2-2 draw and were also justified in feeling aggrieved when Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t sent off for bringing Goran Pandev down in the area with 15 minutes to go, an incident that resulted in a penalty and Diego Milito’s equaliser. But the overwhelming feeling in Puglia was that Bari had won. In fact, in four games against Italy’s traditional top three this season, Bari remain unbeaten.
And yet it was never supposed to be this way, or so the suits in Italy’s TV studios would have you believe. Bari dominated Serie B last year, winning with four points to spare, ending an excruciating eight-year exile from Italy’s top-flight. But then they imploded, allowing Antonio Conte, the manager who inspired their promotion, to walk away amid reports that Juventus were about to hire him.
The Matarrese family were looking to sell the club and had all but walked away when a €25m takeover led by the Texan Tim Barton collapsed. As the new season approached Bari looked as if they would start their long-awaited return to Serie A without a manager, an owner and even a sponsor.
The club’s fans were left shaking their heads, wondering if they would ever see a night like the one just over 10 years ago when a 17-year-old Antonio Cassano scored a wonder goal to give Bari a famous 2-1 victory over Marcello Lippi’s Inter. But somehow they rallied. In fact, Bari’s director of sport Giorgio Perinetti worked nothing short of a miracle.
First, Perinetti hired Ventura who was greeted with a great deal of scepticism given his time with local rivals Lecce. The last time Ventura had been in Serie A didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Messina fired him after a run of five defeats and only one win against the already relegated Treviso. However, Ventura’s stock had risen again with Pisa who he had led to the Serie B play-offs in 2007 playing a thrilling 4-2-4, something Conte admitted to replicating at Bari. Only Perinetti had the foresight to recognise that Ventura would fit in seamlessly at the San Nicola.
For his second miracle, Perinetti would build a squad capable not just of consolidation but also revelation in Serie A with the paltry sum of €7.2m, signing no fewer than 16 players either on loan, in part-ownership or on free transfers. Four players arrived from Genoa, most notably Ranocchia and Andrea Masiello, both of whom have performed so well as to attract attention from Juventus, Inter, Chelsea and Manchester United. Three more came from Udinese and two each from Sampdoria and Juventus, showing once again that who you know is just as important as what you know in the world of Italian football.
As the second half of the season begins, Bari lie 10th in Serie A just five points off third place. The question is, can they improve upon their best ever finish in Serie A, a seventh place in 1947?
Twist in the Milan Derby
Fixture lists often cause controversy, no more so than in Italy. Back in December when the Big Freeze practically brought Italian football to a standstill, Inter decided to play Livorno in sub-zero temperatures while Serie A’s other teams, including Milan consented to postpone their fixtures. Inter’s gutsiness looked to have given them an edge, as they would have a less congested fixture list in January when the postponements were rescheduled.
In practice, it meant Inter would have the week before the Derby della Madonnina completely free while Milan would have to play Udinese on the preceding Wednesday to make room for the postponement of their match against Fiorentina, something Adriano Galliani didn’t like at all. So he called Maurizio Beretta, the League’s President, and got the fixture moved much to Inter’s annoyance.
Jose Mourinho and Massimo Moratti are incensed not only because it means the risk they took in December didn’t pay off, but it unfairly gives Milan the chance to better rest their players ahead of the derby, which is particularly significant given the gap between the two teams is now just six points and Milan still have a game in hand. If Milan beat Udinese and then win the derby, they will draw level with Inter at the top of Serie A.
- Ronaldinho has helped Milan get back into the title race. He scored a hat-trick – the first of his career – in the Rossoneri’s 4-0 victory over Siena at the weekend. The 29-year-old has now scored five goals in two games going into next weekend’s all-important derby and preparations couldn’t be going any better, as Leonardo explained. “The derby comes at the right time and the fact the two teams are so close in the table puts even more focus on this match. We are going through a wonderful period of form, but only time will tell how far we can go.”
- Meanwhile, it emerged that Juventus’s 3-0 victory over Napoli in the Coppa Italia on Wednesday was a false harbinger of hope. The Bianconeri lost 1-0 away to Chievo for the first time in their history. Giorgio Chiellini, the team’s talismanic defender and future captain, lamented the fact Juventus haven’t had a single shot on goal in Serie A for three games. He also said there have been “too many shit performances.” The Bianconeri are now out of the Champions League places and face Roma next weekend, giving Claudio Ranieri the chance to get revenge on the club that fired him last season.
- Talking about Roma, the Giallorossi systematically destroyed Genoa 3-0 at home thanks to Luca Toni who scored his first two goals for the club. The 32-year-old combined really well with Mirko Vucinic to extend Roma’s unbeaten run to 11 games in Serie A. Ranieri’s side move up to third in the table, although the Giallorossi remain 11 points behind League leaders Inter.
- Alberto Malesani looks increasingly likely to become the 13th managerial casualty of the season in Serie A. Siena are four points adrift at the bottom of the table and have conceded 12 goals in their last three games. Expect new owner Massimo Mezzaroma either to bring back Marco Giampaolo or take a punt on Gigi Cagni, who is now more famous for his blog than helping Empoli qualify for Europe in 2007.
- The Derby delle Due Sicilie between Palermo and Napoli ended in a stalemate, but it was arguably the game of the weekend. Fabrizio Miccoli missed a penalty to win it for Palermo while Napoli preserved their unbeaten run in Serie A, which stretches back to the beginning of October.