Everyone loves an underdog. It’s why Leicester City’s triumph was so popular and why Dodgeball was (and still is) such a good movie. In football, there is few better sights than seeing a major upset, usually in cup tournaments, when a smaller team topples a giant. That’s why the story of newly promoted Serie A side SPAL deserves attention and praise. After spending most of their history in the lower leagues, a 49-year absence in the top flight and two bankruptcies, SPAL are back in the big time against all odds.
Enjoying a similar, impressive opening as Huddersfield have in the Premier League, SPAL sit eighth in Serie A after one win, one draw and one loss. However, the is where the similarities end. SPAL have half the stadium size to Huddersfield at just over 13,000, and are dwarfed in terms of resources. This, if anything, makes their form all the more surprising.
Premier League followers will also recognise SPAL’s striker Alberto Paloschi, who signed a long-term contract with Swansea in 2015-16 and lasted six months. Good times. Forward Mirko Antenucci also made the move to SPAL after two years at Leeds United.
Their season opener was a 0-0 draw with Lazio, who have went on to beat a revolutionised AC Milan side 4-1. They then truly announced their presence in the top flight with a 3-2 win at home to Udinese, courtesy of a 94th minute winner by Luca Rizzo.
The club will be relying on a mix of youth and experienced old heads to keep themselves in the top flight. Playing an ambitious 3-5-2, veteran strikers Marco Borriello and Sergio Floccari spearhead the attack. Meanwhile, they have loaned youngsters Federico Mattiello and Mattia Vitale from Juventus, as well as Alberto Grassi from Napoli. The team will also be boosted in the near future by the return of promising goalkeeper Alex Meret from injury, on loan for the second year from Udinese, who was also called up to the senior Italian national side despite playing in Serie B last season.
The SPAL faithful, or ‘Spallini’, have had precious few highlights in their club’s history, with reaching the 1961-62 Coppa Italia final perhaps the pinnacle.
It’s fair to say they have also had a rough few years recently. In 2005, the club went bankrupt, renaming themselves Spal 1907. They put Parma’s struggles to shame by bankrupting again in 2012, this time rebranding themselves as S.S.D Real S.P.A.L. Then, at the end of the 2012-13 season, they merged with fellow Italian club, Giacomense, thankfully opting for a name with less abbreviations, S.P.A.L.
Since then they have progressed through the leagues, reaching Serie A thanks to back-to-back promotions under Leonardo Semplici – literally translated to ‘Leonard Simple’.
Keeping it simple seems to be SPAL’s recipe for success, with a priority being keeping an Italian core in the squad. Empoli also tried to implement a similar system a couple of seasons ago, building a strong Italian contingent within the starting eleven. The aim was that there would be no language barriers or confusion on the pitch, resulting in a team perfectly in-sync and therefore better defensively and harder to break down.
As with most tasks however, it is easier said than done as Empoli were relegated last season. SPAL will be hoping their project is more successful than Empoli’s was, who they have now replaced in Serie A.
The effects of the project have been immediate, with nine Italian players in the starting eleven for all three match days so far.
SPAL currently sit with the third lowest average possession in the league at 45%, and second bottom for shots per game. However, they also sit third highest for defensive actions per game, showing gutsy performances in a season that is likely to be long struggle for survival. Still, if anyone can do it, it’s the team that were bankrupt twice and promoted back to Serie A in the in the same time since Tottenham have won the league. Plus 45 years.