Published On: Mon, Apr 23rd, 2018

Benevento's relegation a loss for Serie A after eventful top-flight debut

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The story only had one possible ending. Benevento‘s first-ever Serie A season was doomed from the beginning. Club president Oreste Vigorito was convinced “malignant” forces were to blame for Benevento’s bad luck, for all of the goals his team conceded late, and the points his players wasted. They are, after all, nicknamed Le Streghe – the witches of Benevento. Superstition is rife in southern Italy, and after watching their team lose each of its first 14 matches in the Italian top flight, the people of Benevento could draw no other logical explanations.

With captain Fabio Lucioni suspended for a positive drug test and manager Marco Baroni fired after a historically bad start, relegation was certain. Benevento was finally condemned to Serie B following Crotone‘s comeback win over Udinese on Sunday, but instead of begrudging acceptance, there was applause.

Related: Benevento sent back to Serie B after eventful top-flight debut

Even in defeat, Benevento’s purposeful and confident play won admirers. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Teams stuck in the drop zone have so often been reduced to negative, cagey football. Instead, Benevento was taking chances.

Once the joke of Italy, the Serie A debutant quickly became the darling.

“You haven’t gotten rid of us,” Vigorito said. “Sooner or later, we’ll be back. The world doesn’t end here. We still think we can do something more in football.”

It wasn’t easy to win back respect. When Roberto De Zerbi took the reins in mid-October, he found a team that had scored two goals and conceded 22 in nine matches. Benevento had been embarrassed by the league’s elite and struggled to see out matches that were there for taking.

But things changed with a draw against AC Milan. When goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli threw himself at a cross and somehow headed in a late equaliser, the horrendous losing streak finally came to an end. Benevento earned a first Serie A point, and it hadn’t been lost on a superstitious Vigorito that there was snow falling in nearby Napoli, a very odd thing to happen so far south.

And it was from that point on that Benevento became a real team. De Zerbi had already gained a reputation in Italy as a forward-thinking coach, emphasising combination play and an overall commitment to possession football. He encouraged his defenders – who had been so shaky in the opening months of the campaign – to play from the back. De Zerbi also opted for a back-three in order to push his full-backs high and create width. It was enterprising and fun to watch. Although Benevento reverted to a more defensive shape in away matches, De Zerbi treated supporters to a more expansive brand of football at home. And it worked, with further wins coming against Chievo, Sampdoria, Crotone, and Hellas Verona.

“He’s a miniature (Pep) Guardiola because he takes care of all the details and always wants us to play with the ball and move together,” Bacary Sagna, the former Manchester City defender who joined Benevento on a free transfer, told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

The January arrival of Malian striker Cheick Diabate helped. His sturdy hold-up play enabled Benevento to play longer balls without losing possession, adding a bit more unpredictability to the team’s approach. He produced some massive goals as well, scoring an average of one goal every 56 minutes. Benevento could build up and send vertical balls when the opportunity arose. It was a nice blend to have.

It’s no easy feat for a relegation side to hold its own like this. Understanding its limitations and lack of quality, most teams fighting against relegation will defer possession out of respect for superior opponents. Not Benevento, which has averaged 46.8 percent possession and an 80.8 percent passing rate with four matches remaining. Those numbers are far better than any of its immediate rivals at the bottom of the table.

“The football we express isn’t that of a last-place team,” goalkeeper Christian Puggioni told Sky Sport Italia.

Yet it always felt like, no matter what Benevento did, salvation would never arrive. The defeats continued to rack up – some in heartbreaking fashion. Eleven points were lost thanks to goals conceded after the 90th minute. Two particular matches against Cagliari were gut-wrenching, with the Sardinian side dealing late blows in both fixtures to win 2-1.

Benevento couldn’t perform a miracle as Crotone did last year, when the Calabrese outfit won six of its final nine games to avoid the drop. Three-goal defeats still happened. For all of De Zerbi’s work, defending remained an issue. There were heavy defeats to Roma and Lazio, and by the time Benevento pulled off another remarkable 1-0 result against Milan – this time at the San Siro – its future had been written.

Serie A was indeed a step too far for this 90-year-old club. It had never even played in Serie B until the 2016-17 season, and yet in two short years, via an extraordinary win in the promotion play-offs, it reached the very top. The jump was sudden and startling. There were numerous additions – 15 recruits arrived in the summer – and time was needed to find the right combo.

But even though the end was inevitable, it managed to leave a remarkable impression on a league it was hardly ever ready for.

“Benevento arrived in Serie A too early,” Vigorito added. “We climbed onto a train with travellers we did not expect.”

As club officials continue to debate whether Serie A should be reduced, it was encouraging to see De Zerbi’s 20th-placed team do exciting and spectacular things.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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