P16th (W9 D10 L19 GF43 GA59 Pts37)
Coppa Italia: Round of 16 Team rating: 4/10 Top scorer: Joao Pedro (16) Europe: N/A
Leonardo Semplici managed to turn things around in Sardinia and help Cagliari climb away from the relegation zone with a last gasp run of seven games unbeaten in Serie A, Martin Mork writes.
Cagliari didn’t imagine fighting for safety when Eusebio Di Francesco was brought in to replace Walter Zenga last summer, but the former Roma and Sampdoria coach never managed to rejuvenate the Casteddu after a poor second half of 2019-20.
Cagliari brought in several new faces ahead of the campaign, with Diego Godin the biggest signing from Inter on a free transfer last summer. Other arrivals included Riccardo Sottil from Fiorentina and Razvan Marin from Ajaz, both on loan deals.
Struggles with Coronavirus and injuries to key players didn’t help Di Francesco and one of the biggest setbacks of the season for the Rossoblu was the injury to influential midfielder Marko Rog. The former Napoli player ruptured his ACL and missed the rest of the season.
Cagliari never managed to turn things around under Di Francesco, despite winter signings like Radja Nainggolan from Inter, Daniele Rugani from Juventus, Alfred Duncan from Fiorentina and free agent Kwadwo Asamoah. The coach was eventually sacked and replaced by Leonardo Semplici in February after a run of 16 games without a win and 15 points from 23 games.
The former SPAL boss returned to Serie A to help in the relegation battle and with back-to-back wins and seven points from his first three games, he instilled some needed confidence and belief in the players at the Sardegna Arena.
A winless run of five games followed until the big turning point came in a thriller against relegation rivals Parma. Parma incredibly fumbled a 3-2 lead at the 90th minute and lost the relegation dogfight 4-3 at the Sardegna Arena. The rollercoaster of a match started with Giuseppe Pezzella’s stunning volley, before Juraj Kucka doubled the lead. Leonardo Pavoletti’s header gave Cagliari hope, before Dennis Man restored the two-goal cushion in Sardinia.
Cagliari continued to battle for the points and showed determination to end the winless streak of five league games. Gaston Pereiro stole the show in stoppages, as he curled one in for 3-3 and then set up Alberto Cerri in the 94th minute and practically determined the outcome of Parma and Cagliari’s season. Their controversial win away at Benevento at the beginning of May, gave them the edge in the race for survival. The Streghe complained about a late penalty kick revoked after a VAR check in the final minutes before Joao Pedro doubled the Sardinians’ lead.
Cagliari never looked back and went unbeaten until they had secured safety with a 0-0 draw at San Siro against Milan.
The Coaches – Eusebio Di Francesco/Leonardo Semplici
The former Sassuolo and Roma coach was believed to be an exciting appointment in Sardinia, but he had to prove the critics wrong after having only lasted seven games with Sampdoria in 2019-20. And he didn’t quite get going in Sardinia either. He was eventually sacked in February with the side sitting 18th in the table. Semplici was then appointed to turn things around and did exactly that. The former SPAL coach didn’t have an easy task in hand but managed to instil confidence with a great start. The tactician’s experience in the relegation tussle gave Cagliari new belief and the required boost they hoped for.
Player of the Year – Alessio Cragno
The Cagliari goalkeeper was one of the only members of the squad who was positive throughout the whole season, even in the most difficult of periods, the Italy international did everything to keep the Rossoblu in games. His record of only six clean sheets in Serie A this term doesn’t do him justice. His presence and match-winning saves has yet again been priceless for the Rossoblu defence. It’s not a coincidence that the 26-year-old’s name is mentioned as a potential transfer target for the Italian giants.
Defining moment – Victories against Parma and Benevento
One of the thrillers of the season came on April 17, the defining moment of Cagliari’s 2020-21 season which kickstarted the much needed upturn under new coach Semplici. That and the contested win over Benevento are what Cagliari can point to as the matches that save their season.
Did you know?
Only one Cagliari player reached double figures for goals – Pedro with 16. Only three teams scored fewer goals than Cagliari’s 43 – Udinese with 42 and relegated pair Benevento and Parma, with 40 and 39 respectively.