FEATURE | On-form Cagliari could reach Europe
Cagliari went into the international break sitting fourth in Serie A, just behind third placed Lazio on goal difference. Rolando Maran’s side have matched their best-ever start to a Serie A campaign and with the Sardinians currently occupying a European slot, but can they turn their impressive early season form into a genuine run at the Euro spots?
When Nicolo Barella left Sardinia for Inter in the summer he left behind a struggling side who, despite his own form, finished 15th in last season’s final standings. The Rossblu faithful could have been forgiven for longing after the Italy international as they fell to early season home defeats to Brescia and Barella’s Inter.
Those home losses could have dampened Sardinian spirits but since the Inter defeat they have gone on a ten-match unbeaten run. At the heart of the turnaround has been an unexpected new signing and some smart re-investment of the money made via the sale of Barella.
Cagliari struggled for goals last season and no team that survived relegation scored less than Maran’s side with their record of 36 goals in their 38 league matches. In addition to that the man responsible for 16 of those goals, Leonardo Pavoletti, was ruled out with a long-term knee injury picked up on the opening day of this campaign.
Sporting director Marcello Carli looked to youth as he signed Fiorentina’s Giovanni Simeone on a season-long loan with an obligation to buy next summer. The young Argentine had found himself down the pecking order in Florence as Vincenzo Montella placed Dusan Vlahovic and Kevin-Prince Boateng ahead of him in line for a starting place.
Rossoblu boss Maran will be hoping that Simeone is more like the striker of two seasons ago, rather than the out-of-form figure that struggled to get going in the last campaign.
Early signs are good as Simeone’s four goals in eleven games is only one short of his return for the entire 2018-19 Serie A campaign. His clever back-flick finish in the demolition of his old team just before the international break was certainly more like the 2017-18 vintage and Cagliari will need that scoring form to continue in the absence of Pavoletti.
Simeone’s introduction into the side seems to have helped bring the best out of Brazilian Joao Pedro. The 27-year-old has proven a great foil for Simeone and he is also just one goal short of his own tally for last season. Pedro is the Rossoblu’s current top scorer with six-from-twelve to start off the season and he is clearly enjoying his second-striker role playing around the more central position of his fellow South-American.
The new-found attacking intent of Maran’s side owes not just to his front two but to the surprise signings alluded to earlier. Radja Nainggolan had joined for Inter for £34.2 million in the summer of 2018 but after a decent, if unspectacular, season he was deemed surplus to requirements by Inter-boss Antonio Conte.
The team that finished fifteenth in last season’s table didn’t seem like the obvious choice of destination for the Belgian international who played for the club between 2010 and 2014. There was a more personal reason for his choice as his wife Claudia is from Sardinia and she began treatment for cancer in the summer.
The Belgian’s form since arriving at Cagliari is a testament, not only to his abilities on the football field, but also to his strength of character as he finds himself in an incredibly difficult period in his personal life.
Nainggolan has been a key figure in the Rossoblu’s recent run of form and he’s been a vital link between midfield and attack in Maran’s team. He’s adopting a more attacking midfield role than perhaps one would have thought when he was first brought into the side.
He’s always been capable of finding the net and has already struck twice this season in addition to three assists.
At 31-years-old the Belgian also provides some vital experience to a midfield which includes fellow summer recruits Nahitan Nandez and Marko Rog who are 23 and 24 respectively. The early signs are good for Cagliari but talk of finishing in the European places may prove to be premature.
The squad isn’t quite as deep as most of the other contenders for the European places and Maran may need to hope for some luck on the injury front as the season goes on. There are also a few big-guns sitting outside the qualifying positions who will still have designs on recovering from slow starts.
In Cagliari’s favour is that they have no European football this season to act as a distraction from league business. Less games could also help keep the players fit so they don’t need to stretch their relatively small squad. If you believe in omens, how about this?
The last time Cagliari started a season this impressively, in the 1969-70 season, they went on to win the Scudetto. The title may be out of reach this time around but Maran’s men have put themselves right in the mix to be considered as genuine contenders for the top-six.