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Youthful Sampdoria Trying to Turn 'Sci-fi' Champions League Fantasy Into Reality

Youthful Sampdoria Trying to Turn 'Sci-fi' Champions League Fantasy Into Reality

Thursday, 28 December, 2017 - 08:45
Lucas Torreira, right, and Karol Linetty have built an impressive understanding in a well-balanced Sampdoria midfield alongside the more creative Dennis Praet. Photograph: Simone Arveda/EPA

Don’t call it fake news. If you ask the Sampdoria manager Marco Giampaolo, the idea that his team might compete for a Champions League spot this season is more like “science-fiction”. That was the term he used on Saturday night, after guiding his team to victory in the Derby della Lanterna.

Why would we moot such a possibility? A 2-0 win only kept them in sixth place – five points outside the top four. It was not a surprising result on its own terms; Genoa started and finished the day in the relegation zone. The 14-point gap between the two teams before kick-off was the widest it had ever been for the first derby of a season.

And yet this was a landmark result. It was Giampaolo’s third consecutive derby win over Genoa, for one thing – the longest such streak enjoyed by any manager at the club since the early 1950s. More than that, it brought Sampdoria’s points tally to 23 after 11 games: their best start to a Serie A campaign.

“From today,” ran one article in the Genoese newspaper Secolo XIX, “things will never be the same as they were before.” That might be stretching things a little, but you could forgive the hyperbole. Sampdoria’s previous best start came under Vujadin Boskov back in 1990-91. They finished that season by winning their one and only Scudetto.

Times have changed a little since then. Victories are worth three points nowadays, for a start (though the record holds even if you adjust past seasons to the current system), and competition at the top is fiercer than it has ever been. Boskov’s Samp were top of the table after 11 games. Giampaolo’s version have Napoli, Juventus, Inter, Lazio and Roma running ahead of them.

The goals do seem to come easier now, though. Sampdoria have 24 already – seven more than that title-winning side did at the corresponding stage – spread between nine different players. Gastón Ramírez became the latest to add his name to that list when he opened the scoring on Saturday night.

There was a furious energy to Genoa’s early play, the 21-year-old Stephane Omeonga imposing himself in midfield while Adel Taarabt sought to break the game open with some virtuoso act. He fired wide at the end of a dash through the Sampdoria midfield, then took out four defenders with a turn and scooped pass. The ball reached Gianluca Lapadula by the penalty spot, but he miscued his attempted scissor kick.

Sampdoria would not be so wasteful. When a long kick forward from goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano was headed on by Duván Zapata in the 24th minute, Ramírez was able to hold off the challenge from Ervin Zukanovic and flick the ball into the net.

Their second did not arrive until late in the second-half but, when it did, it came from a more familiar source. Fabio Quagliarella had struck six times already this season, and made it seven when he side-footed into an empty net after Zapata had drawn the keeper out.

There is always a temptation to focus in on goalscorers. Quagliarella’s late-career resurgence has been a joy to watch, all the more so now that we have an insight into the horrific stalking experience that he lived through (a subject covered in depth recently by a fascinating long-form piece over at Bleacher Report).

He has been the constant in Sampdoria’s rotating cast up front over the past 23 months, providing more than just goals. “I’ve given assists to everyone,” he told Secolo XIX in the buildup to the derby. “This year it’s [Dawid] Kownacki and Zapata. Last year it was [Patrik] Schick and [Luis] Muriel. The club sold them for €60m, they should have given me a percentage!”

Quagliarella was joking, of course. He is humble by nature, and would be the first to point out that he is thriving at Samp because the team are, not the other way around. The most essential element of their progress under Giampaolo might not be the attack at all, but a young midfield trio who have grown together into a formidable unit.

Lucas Torreira, Karol Linetty and Dennis Praet – 21, 22, and 23 years old respectively – each came to Samp in the summer of 2016. They cost a shade over €15m (£13m) combined, with Praet accounting for two-thirds of that figure. From an economic standpoint that already looks like tremendous business, with all three capable of commanding substantially higher transfer fees.

The real coup for Samp, though, is how well they work together. Torreira excels at reading the game and breaking up attacks, Praet is a former No10 who carries the ball forward with confidence and has an eye for the killer pass, while Linetty is an all-rounder who has scored three times in 10 appearances – half of those off the bench.

How far can they go? Giampaolo was sensible to play down expectations and avoid putting any extra pressure on a team built around such a youthful core, but is the Champions League truly an impossible target? Perhaps we will know better once Sampdoria have hosted Juventus after the international break. A victory over the champions might sound like another science-fiction scenario, but this is a team owned by a movie producer, after all.

The Guardian Sport

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