Sicily’s Serie A representatives are currently experiencing contrasting fortunes. While Palermo struggle from one crisis to another – Gian Piero Gasperini is back in the coaching hotseat three weeks after being dismissed – Catania purr smoothly. So smoothly in fact, they are being spoken of as possible European qualifiers.
The Elefantini have quietly progressed to seventh, with victories over impressive duo Lazio and Fiorentina, plus Roma, standouts. After 26 matches they sit just two points from the Europa League places and five from the Champions League. President Antonino Pulvirenti declared this week “just to even be in the European fight is an honour.”
Their latest result was a 2-1 victory at Parma – where they had never triumphed – secured with 10 men following Nicola Legrottaglie’s dismissal. First half goals from Francesco Lodi and Keko sealed only their third away win of the campaign.
Catania are on track to surpass their highest number of home wins – 11 – in a Serie A campaign, currently two adrift of that number. Their record at the fortress Stadio Angelo Massimino is a major catalyst for this Euro push. It is away from the foot of Mount Etna where the concern lies. Since returning to the top flight in 2006-07, Catania have won just 12 matches on the road, with this season’s three the most since that first one back.
Yet simply avoiding relegation is no longer the aim. “It is something to be very proud of that we no longer have to talk about safety in February,” said Coach Rolando Maran. “We are doing something great and we know it. Now we must target other objectives, but always remaining humble.”
Midfielder Lucas Castro, one of 10 Argentines in the squad, has lofty aspirations. “It's important for us to reach Europe next season...The goal is to go as far as possible and to pursue as high a position as possible.”
Following their weekend triumph Maran had to rein in expectations. “Champions League places? Let’s not go overboard…” But they are glancing at competitions alien to them. “We can’t hide anymore,” noted Pulvirenti. “We owe it to the city and the fans to try to stay onboard that train of dreams which could take us into Europe.”
Catania’s highest ever Serie A finish is eighth, achieved twice in the 1960s. They are on target to eclipse that mark despite losing the impressive Vincenzo Montella at the conclusion of last term and hiring Serie A novice Maran. The 49-year-old had never contested a top-flight campaign in 30 years as a player and Coach before moving to Sicily, but after guiding Varese to the Serie B Play-Off Final, the Trento native has seized the opportunity.
Maran has continued Montella’s path, building upon a strong spine in a 4-3-3 shape. Central defensive pairing Legrottaglie and Nicolas Spolli protect Mariano Andujar, while midfielder Mariano Izco, Lodi and Sergio Almiron offer a mixture of battling and creative qualities.
Star regista Lodi was so impressive last term he was considered by Cesare Prandelli for the Euro 2012 squad. That form has carried over to the new season and with it has come interest from Milan and Inter.
Further afield is a trident attack which includes pocket rocket Alejandro Gomez – another to command interest elsewhere, including from Montella, who wanted to take him to Fiorentina – and Gonzalo Bergessio, their leading scorer with seven.
Catania are not exactly prolific scorers – just 34 goals in 26 games – but a miserly home defensive record – only 10 goals conceded – and a 2013 consisting of just one loss and two goals conceded in eight matches means they are to be taken seriously in the European reckoning.
There’s no avoiding the subject given the constant reminders of their position. Whether Catania can book trips to Britain and Eastern Europe later this year may be determined in the next month. The Etnei face Inter, Juventus, Udinese and Lazio in a March of truth. Should they achieve the target or not, credit must go to Maran and his squad for an outstanding campaign.
Think you know your Italian football? Share your knowledge, tips and comments to win cash prizes in OLBG's tipster competition - £5,000 monthly.