Inter, AC Milan, Juventus, Napoli. All have faced Sassuolo, and all have been defeated, at one point or another.
In fact, Milan fans really dread taking on the Neroverdi, who have become a major thorn in the Diavolo’s side since first meeting in January 2014. That encounter indeed was one to forget for Rossoneri supporters, but one to surely remember for Sassuolo fans and neutral observers. Although Milan are no longer the side of old, to manage to come from 2-0 down to win 4-3 is nothing to scoff at. Especially if it is one’s first ever appearance in Italian football’s top flight.
On that evening, Domenico Berardi became the second youngest player to score a poker in Serie A after Silvio Piola did so as an 18 year old back in 1931, and more important, is still to date the only individual to net four in one league fixture against Milan. That match also ended up being the nail in the coffin of Massimiliano Allegri’s tenure with the club. And it was especially ironic considering that the very same Allegri had been instrumental in setting them up to eventually win promotion to Serie A, having guided them to Serie B during the 2007/2008 term.
Ultimately, Sassuolo went on to defy the odds during their debut Serie A campaign: by avoiding relegation. However, if many thought that they had seen the last of the plucky outfit, they would be sorely mistaken.
From barely surviving to thriving
In their nascent Serie A season, Sassuolo ended up finishing in 17th, and were saved from the drop by just two points. Their nine wins out of a possible 38 were also the joint-worst of any surviving side, with this effort only being matched by Cagliari who ended up two spots higher in the table. Still, at the end of the day, it is not how one survives, but a matter of if one does. And having been given a life-line, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side were not going to waste a golden opportunity.
Sassuolo’s sophomore season proved to be a more fruitful one. Yes, there was a humiliating 7-0 away loss to Inter on matchday two, which is their worst ever defeat since arriving in the top echelon. But there were some positives, including beating Milan home and away, getting some revenge on the Nerazzurri by defeating them 3-1 in the home leg, and winning four on the trot to conclude proceedings in May. Berardi also proved that he was not just another one-season wonder by netting a respectable 15 goals and in fact, hit 30 league goals in just 59 games. To put that in perspective, Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, took 70 to achieve that feat – and La Liga is not well known for its mean defenders like Serie A.
Last season really saw Sassuolo establish their growing reputation as “giant-killers”. They knocked off Napoli 2-1 to shock the Partenopei on opening day. In October, they also finally got the better of Juventus – and up until Hellas Verona on May 8th, were the only team to beat the Bianconeri. The Neroverdi also improved even further on their 12th-placed standing from the prior campaign. Not only did they finish in the top half of the table but also clinched sixth spot, which helped them to reach another monumental milestone: qualifying for European competition.
Europe comes calling…and so far, they’ve answered the call
Although Sassuolo have managed to show they can mix it up with Italy’s bigger sides, Europe is an entirely different proposition. The playing field is much wider and the challenge the Neroverdi will be facing will be inevitably much tougher. Some even speculated whether this was the end of the road for a team who had only made their top flight debut in 2013, and in fact, were playing in Italy’s third tier as recently as 2006.
Well, as Swiss outfit Luzern, and more significant, Serbian powerhouse Red Star Belgrade will testify, Sassuolo are more than ready to strut their stuff on the bigger stage. Both teams were thoroughly beaten 4-1 on aggregate as the Neroverdi managed 1-1 away draws before cruising to comfortable 3-0 wins in front of their home fans. And if one thought that Athletic Bilbao, a pretty solid side, would easily brush aside the Italian minnows, then one clearly has forgotten that even minnows have teeth. At this point in time, it’s Sassuolo who sit comfortably on top of their quartet after a solid 3-0 rout of their Spanish opponents – all without the services of Berardi, who is still out due to injury.
Di Francesco’s side also silenced those who wondered if their Europa League exertions would be too much for the continental debutants by beating Genoa 2-0 in their last Serie A fixture. That result, coupled with the 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao also showed a great deal of mental fortitude after losing 3-1 to Juventus on matchday three.
Still, picking up two back-to-back wins – all whilst keeping a clean sheet is no easy task. And with a very busy run of fixtures ahead, Sassuolo will likely rotate their squad for their upcoming tie with Chievo. That being said, they are a side in the ascendancy and can be backed at 2/1 to grind out a narrow win over Chievo – who are a tough customer on home turf.
The season is still young, and there are many more games to go. Still, in their fourth year in Serie A, Sassuolo look more than settled and one can certainly bet that there are more good things in store from a team that was slogging it out in the third tier just a decade ago.