A young lineup and an Ultras pep talk helped Samp to victory against fellow strugglers Genoa in the 'Derby della Lanterna'
For centuries the lighthouse atop the hill at San Benigno has helped guide ships home through the night. For decades it has also lent its name to a football match – the "Derby della Lanterna" denoting fixtures between Genoa and Sampdoria. But for once that moniker no longer felt appropriate. Heading into Sunday's appointment at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, both clubs had fallen into a darkness that not even the Lanterna's beams seemed capable of penetrating.
"This is the derby of the poor, the derby of the desperate. The derby of fear," wrote Stefano Zaino in the Genoa edition of La Repubblica on the morning of the game. Beyond being a fixture between two city rivals, this was also an encounter between the two most out-of-form teams in the division. Genoa had lost five games straight; but Sampdoria had lost their last seven.
Jobs were on the line. The Samp manager, Ciro Ferrara, who was appointed in the summer, had earned some credit by winning his first three league games, but had then drawn the next two and lost every match since. Both he and the club's sporting director, Pasquale Sensibile, were said to be at risk of the sack if the team did not get a result on Sunday.
That is if they were not chased out of town by the fans first; as Samp's form had turned, so had the mood among the club's support. Following the 2-0 defeat away to Palermo last weekend, a group of around 50 Ultras had met the team at the airport – jeering them, then attempting to block their bus from leaving the parking lot after they were denied a personal audience with the players and coaching staff.
On Tuesday a smaller and more orderly delegation of Ultras were allowed into the team's training facility to speak with Ferrara as well as the club's captain, Daniele Gastaldello. Over the course of 40 minutes, the two parties went through a familiar routine. The Ultras demanded greater effort and sacrifice from the players, and in return promised to continue backing the team; Ferrara and Gastaldello said they would give their all, and confirmed the importance of such support.
If Genoa's Gigi Del Neri was not yet in such dire straits, it was only because he arrived more recently. Appointed to replace Luigi De Canio on 24 October, he had only been in charge for four games – but had lost all of them. His strong connections with Sampdoria – a team he had formerly represented as both player and manager – made this an even more particular fixture.
Del Neri was at least able to rely on something approaching his strongest lineup – Marco Borriello returning from injury up front to resume his partnership with Ciro Immobile. Ferrara had no such fortune. With Maxi López, Eder and Nicola Pozzi all missing from the attack, he rearranged his preferred 4-3-3 into a more cautious 4-5-1.
Kick-off at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris had been preceded by a friendly between the teams' respective Under-13 sides, but Samp's fans might have been excused for not realising when those players had left the field. The average age of Ferrara's side was just over 24 years old, and leading the line was a 19-year old Argentinian called Mauro Icardi – who had never before started a Serie A game.
Such inexperience looked set to be their downfall during a frantic opening spell in which their goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, had to make sharp saves from Borriello and Ciro Immobile. But the tide would turn in an instant. Sixteen minutes in, Samp's Andrea Poli found himself in the way of a mishit drive from Enzo Maresca inside the Genoa penalty area. With impressive quickness of thought, he controlled the ball, swivelled and swept it past Sébastien Frey.
Ironically, this was to be one of Poli's finest performances since Del Neri himself was in charge. The midfielder was a key figure for the team that finished fourth in 2009-10 under their then manager, but had since seen his career stray off course – struggling to recapture lost form after an ill-fated season with Internazionale. If the sight of Del Neri might have provided some subconscious boost, the more likely explanation was Poli's redeployment on the left of Ferrara's new-look midfield.
Sampdoria's second goal would arrive in fortuitous circumstances – the Genoa defender Cesare Bovo bundling the ball into his own net after Frey had blocked an Icardi cross-shot – but they might easily have had more before the break. As it was, Frey managed to deny Icardi and Munari after each player was put through one-on-one in first-half injury time.
Del Neri introduced Juan Vargas and Andrea Bertolacci for Genoa at half-time, lending his team fresh dynamism, and with just over a quarter of an hour remaining they pulled a goal back. The circumstances were much the same as they had been for Sampdoria's opener – Vargas screwing a shot off target from outside the box, but seeing it intercepted and then driven home by Immobile.
Lady Luck, though, was smiling on Samp. Ferrara was preparing to replace Icardi in the 87th minute, but decided at the last moment to delay the change. Within moments Fernando Tissone had threaded through a pass which the striker clipped over Frey's outstretched leg to seal a 3-1 win.
"It's true," said Ferrara after the game when asked if he had been planning to make the change – before also acknowledging that the player would not have started if it were not for his team's injury crisis. "But in life you need a bit of luck … a dear friend of mine always says that the devil invented football, and he's right."
While his players ran over to the stands to celebrate, Ferrara quietly made for the tunnel. Though he told reporters that he simply did not want to steal his players' limelight, in reality he knows there is still much to be done. He added that he would allow the team Monday to celebrate, but by Tuesday they would need to be fully focused on next weekend's game against Bologna.
Although victory over their city rivals had restored some light to a dark situation, his team still finished the weekend just two points clear of the relegation places. Gazzetta dello Sport proclaimed his team the winners only of the "derby of the candle. To call it the Lanterna, at this stage, would be overstating it."
Samp, though, were at least in a much more desirable position than their rivals. Genoa finished the weekend in last place – falling behind even a Siena team who started the season with a six-point deduction. Del Neri remained locked away in the Genoa changing room until well past midnight, discussing how the team could pull out of this mess with the general manager, Alessandro Zarbano, and the sporting director, Rino Foschi.
For now the manager's position remains safe. But it is only getting harder to steer this team out of its turbulent waters.
• There were further dropped points for Juventus on Saturday as they were held 0-0 at home by Lazio. At the top of the table, though, only one team was able to capitalise – Fiorentina crushing Atalanta 4-1, while Napoli and Inter both drew. The Viola, up to third in the table and having won six of their last seven games, are now just five points behind the leaders. Even before this result, journalists were beginning to ask the inevitable question. "Are Fiorentina a Scudetto contender?" said Montella on Sunday. "It's nice that the fans can dream, but we just need to carry on growing as we are doing and be happy with that."
• The star of the show for Fiorentina this weekend, by the way, was a certain Mr Alberto Aquilani – who scored twice and set up another goal. "I am happy in Florence, I hope to stay here a long time," said Aquilani at full-time. It would be nice to believe that, three years on from his Roma departure, he has finally found a home where he can really focus on developing as a player – instead of whether or not he will still be around next year.
• No Serie A weekend would be complete without another discourse on refereeing mistakes, and this week's scandal relates to Inter's 2-2 draw against Cagliari. Andrea Stramaccioni was sent off for his protests after seeing the Nerazzurri denied a penalty when Andrea Ranocchia was brought down right on the edge of the area by Davide Astori in injury time, and the club's owner Massimo Moratti addressed the press at full-time. "The referee affected the result and on our part – mine in particular – there is some resentment," he said. "For the third game in a row there have been refereeing oversights, always against us."
If some of his words hinted at conspiracy, he was quick to shoot down that hypothesis when asked point-blank if he thought that anything more sinister lay behind these mistakes. "I don't see any design, I see incompetence," he said. "If there was a plot then that would be very serious, but I hope there isn't one."
Fanning the flames further was the subsequent response from Juventus. Under the headline "No comment", the club published on its website a link to a PDF file of the Italian Football Federation prosecutor Stefano Palazzi's 2011 ruling against Inter – in which he said that the club had been guilty of sporting fraud linked to the Calciopoli scandal, but could not be punished due to the statute of limitations.
• Returning to the actual football, Stephan El Shaarawy continues his prolific form for Milan – adding two further goals in the 2-2 draw at Napoli to take his tally for the season to 10 in 13 games. As Gazzetta dello Sport note, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic never started a season this quickly for the Rossoneri. The Swede had eight at the corresponding point last season, and seven the year before.
• Other highlights from that game: the Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani calling his team's own player – Christian Abbiati, a "shit goalkeeper".
• Giovanni Stroppa resigned as Pescara manager on Sunday following a 1-0 defeat to Siena. His was one of the most thankless jobs in the Italian top flight – charged with replacing Zdenek Zeman in the summer following Pescara's promotion to Serie A. With neither of the team's top goalscorers from last season – Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile – returning, and one of Italy's brightest midfield prospects – Marco Verratti – being sold to Paris St-Germain, even staying up was always going to be a tall order. After 13 games they sit 18th, and it will be interesting to see if his successor can really do much better.
Results: Bologna 3-0 Palermo, Catania 2-1 Chievo, Fiorentina 4-1 Atalanta, Inter 2-2 Cagliari, Juventus 0-0 Lazio, Napoli 2-2 Milan, Sampdoria 3-1 Genoa, Siena 1-0 Pescara, Udinese 2-2 Parma.