Leonardo Semplici has turned around the fortunes of Cagliari and, in doing so, has not only potentially saved them from relegation but has lifted the spirits of an island’s entire population.
As Joao Pedro wheeled away in delight soon after sealing a 3-1 win for Casteddu in their must-win relegation battle against Benevento on Sunday afternoon, the entire city of Cagliari let out a huge, long-held-in sigh after months of gloom and suffering.
The 2020/21 season started amidst renewed hope and optimism for Casteddu with the announcement of a lucrative kit deal with Adidas and the appointment of former Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco, a partnership that was set to excite and delight with an exciting, attacking style of play.
Fast forward 23 matchdays and it was what would turn out to be the coach’s last game in charge of Cagliari, a game that resulted in the club’s 14th loss of the season against Torino, leaving president Tommaso Giulini with no option but to fire the coach, just days after announcing that, if the team would get relegated to Serie B it would be with Di Francesco in charge.
The 1-0 home loss to Toro left Cagliari languishing in the relegation zone with only three wins and six draws out of their 23 games played and every member of the squad – barring the exception of captain Joao Pedro – looking limp, lifeless and lacking belief.
The defeat was met with anger and disbelief by all involved and Di Francesco soon made way for ex-SPAL coach, Leonardo Semplici.
Semplici immediately changed things, choosing the out-of-favour Leonardo Pavoletti ahead of the much-maligned Giovanni Simeone for his first game in charge against Crotone. A choice that was loved by Casteddu fans and one that paid off immediately; the big forward netting in a 2-0 win away against their fellow strugglers.
A change of personnel, formation and most importantly attitude has seen Semplici turn the Rossoblu’s season on its head by winning six and drawing two of his 12 games at the helm, thus seeing Casteddu climb out of the relegation zone, four points and one head-to-head advantage over recent victims, Benevento.
Most importantly, the 53-year-old manager entrusted Alfred Duncan – on loan from Fiorentina – with the task of breaking up play in the centre of the park, something that had been sorely missed after the terrible news that last season’s key man, Marko Rog, would miss the entirety of this season through injury.
Rog, last season, was also somewhat unsung as all of the plaudits went to Joao Pedro, as they have done this term – and rightly so – yet also to the returning Radja Nainggolan as Cagliari fans began to dream of Europe under Rolando Maran. Rog, however, was the lynchpin with his constant, gut-busting runs to cover the gaps left by the like of Nainggolan as Cagliari experimented with a more expansive style of play in a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
One year on, a few coaching and formation changes later and that steel has once again returned to the centre of the park. Duncan wasn’t present from the off against Filippo Inzaghi’s side, but it was evident that a change of formation in the second half, with Nainggolan moving to work in the ‘Rog’ role was a key factor in the game swinging in the Isolani’s favour.
Although Duncan’s defensive duties are also often overlooked, the compliments once again going to the impressive Joao Pedro and his tally of 16 goals, it’s no coincidence that the 28-year-old Ghanaian’s introduction from the off, mostly, along with Pavoletti and a change in formation has helped Cagliari to become a more, well-oiled unit with more options in terms of how they approach a game.
It seems to be the simple things that are now going the way of the Islanders and that’s all down to their new coach stripping things back to basics with renewed enthusiasm, hope and a certain sense of belief that had all but vanished just a few weeks ago.
Of course, the experience of Diego Godin coupled with the heroics of Alessio Cragno cannot go unmentioned, but as all too often in football, it’s the less obvious and perhaps less appreciated work of those who are prepared to give their all that goes somewhat unnoticed. Duncan is definitely one of those guys, as is the energetic Rog when fit and available.
The man who has knitted it all together though, Semplici, will go down as hero in Sardinia if he manages to drag Casteddu to survival after most supporters had resigned themselves to turning up to the Sardegna Arena, post-COVID, to watch Serie B football.
One thing is for sure, if Cagliari manage to get a positive result against Fiorentina in Serie A on Wednesday evening then they could be all but safe and Semplici won’t be short of offers to be bought a pint of Ichnusa or two by the locals when all is said and done.