Davide Nicola is in sight of pulling off the second miraculous escape act of his coaching career as his buoyant Salernitana side travel to Atalanta on Monday believing they can defy the odds and retain their place in Serie A.
Three straight wins in the space of a week have catapulted Salernitana to within three points of safety with a game in hand, bringing back memories of Nicola’s first famous escape act with another unfashionable southern club five years ago.
With 29 matches played of the 2016/17 season, Nicola’s Crotone had picked up just 14 points but an incredible run in their final nine, of which they won six and lost just one, allowed them to climb out of the drop zone on the final day of the campaign.
Nicola had promised he would cycle the length of Italy to his hometown of Turin should his team stay up and he was as good as his word, making the 1,300 kilometre (808 mile) trip from the deep southern region of Calabria to Piedmont in the far north-west.
Now Nicola has five matches to save Salernitana from a fate which looked sealed just over a fortnight ago, when they were nine points from safety, albeit with two games in hand, after losing 2-1 at Roma.
It was their third loss in as many games — extending their run without a win to 11 matches — and came following two goals in the final 10 minutes for the hosts which turned what would have been a stunning victory into Salernitana’s 20th defeat of a bruising season.
“Winning three matches in a row doesn’t mean everything suddenly gets easier, now comes the really tricky stuff,” Nicola said after last weekend’s enthralling 2-1 win over Fiorentina, during which he got so emotional with his players he whipped off a shoe and threw it to the ground in fury.
“It’s hard to make yourself heard in the stadium because our fans are so passionate, so I needed to come up with other ways to communicate with my players.”
In the top flight for the first time in over two decades, Salernitana have had a bumpy ride pretty much from the get go.
In June Salernitana were placed in trust as Lazio president Claudio Lotito owned the club and Italian FA rules banned ownership of two teams in the same division.
Given a New Year’s Eve deadline to find a new owner or be kicked out of the league, Salernitana were saved at the last minute when Danilo Iervolino’s bid to buy the club was accepted.
New sporting director Walter Sabatini then brought in 11 players in the January transfer window before sacking Stefano Colantuono and hiring Nicola in February with the team on 13 points.
In the meantime a spike in coronavirus cases during the winter led to them not playing two matches, one of which, against Udinese, was originally given as a 3-0 defeat which also came with a one-point penalisation.
That ruling was eventually overturned on appeal and the rescheduled fixture was then won 1-0 by Salernitana last week thanks to a stoppage-time strike from Simone Verdi — one of Sabatini’s January signings.
Atalanta have won just four times at home this season and Salernitana could also benefit from the result of Saturday’s derby clash between fellow strugglers Sampdoria and Genoa, with Samp just five points ahead of Nicola’s team and their local rivals.
Bottom side Venezia, who are on a run of eight straight defeats and have a daunting trip to Juventus on Sunday, then travel south for Salernitana’s final game in hand on Thursday.
The following weekend brings the visit of Cagliari, a huge match against a team who sit just above the bottom three after losing six of their last seven and which could very well decide the fate of an exciting relegation battle.