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Friday November 5 2010
The First Flight of the Donkeys

Ahead of this weekend's clash, Giancarlo Rinaldi goes back to August 2001 when Chievo made their top-flight bow at Fiorentina in spectacular fashion

The Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence has seen some famous events over the years. David Bowie and Madonna have gigged there, Giancarlo Antognoni almost died on the pitch during a match and it hosted a World Cup quarter-final at Italia '90. Nine years ago, however, it was the runway from which the Flying Donkeys of Chievo Verona first took to the skies.

Even at the time, the opening match of the 2001-02 season seemed like a watershed moment. Fiorentina were, just for a change, a club in crisis. Their financial calamities had forced the sale of most of their superstars. The visitors, on the other hand, were a side hungry to make their mark in their first ever game in the top flight.

Despite their troubles, the Viola still boasted some famous names. Italian internationals like Enrico Chiesa and Angelo Di Livio were supplemented by the skills of Portuguese hitman Nuno Gomes. With Roberto Mancini looking suitably dapper on the bench, they should have had too much for their upstart visitors.

But that August Sunday afternoon delivered a different verdict. Luigi Del Neri had his team of relative unknowns pumped up for their Serie A debut. With an aggressive 4-4-2 formation which would become his trademark, they put their more illustrious opponents to the sword from the kick-off.

Simone Perrotta opened the scoring with just six minutes on the clock. Flying wing-man Luciano, then still operating under his false-passport name of Eriberto, cut the home defence apart while the wily Eugenio Corini pulled the strings. The Tower of Siena, Bernardo Corradi, softened up the Viola backline before strike partner Massimo Marazzina delivered the killer second goal early in the second half.

Chievo did not even need to call upon the services of future World Cup winner Simone Barone or current Juve stalwart Nicola Legrottaglie to boost their fortunes. They remained on the bench as time after time their teammates' enterprising play dismantled the Tuscan outfit. When Chiesa missed a penalty with about 20 minutes left to play, the writing was on the wall.

It was to prove to be an omen of the shape of things to come for both teams. The Florentines would lose 22 of their 34 Serie A games that year and finish in the relegation zone. Their fate only got worse as they were demoted to Serie C2 due to their financial collapse. It was without doubt the club's darkest hour.

In Verona, however, Chievo continued to rub salt into the wounds of their bigger neighbours Hellas who were also relegated at the end of the campaign. Del Neri's men went from strength to strength, losing just one of their opening 10 matches in the Division – a pulsating 3-2 defeat to Juve, clinched by a Bianconero penalty. They ended the season a phenomenal fifth which put them into the UEFA Cup.

Since that fateful day when the Veronese announced their arrival on the calcio scene they have become a mainstay of Serie A, suffering relegation only once but bouncing back straight away. Fiorentina, for their part, scrapped out of the lower Divisions under the name Florentia Viola, and eventually returned to the top flight and even Champions League football.

The two sides go head to head again in Florence this weekend in one of the controversial lunchtime kick-offs which have irked supporters all over Italy. Fiorentina need a triumph to take themselves away from the relegation zone, while a Chievo victory could keep them in European contention. It all sounds spookily similar to their first fateful clash almost a decade ago.

FIORENTINA v CHIEVO RECORD IN SERIE A

Played 12

Fiorentina wins 8

Draws 1

Chievo wins 3

Fiorentina goals 17

Chievo goals 11

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