ROME (AP) — Chievo Verona and Udinese were among the pioneers in terms of showing how far a provincial club could go in Serie A by relying on smart scouting, a strong youth system and intelligent transfer moves.
Atalanta took that to the next level by reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League this year.
Now, Sassuolo is shaping up as the next surprise in the Italian league.
Undefeated through seven matches, Sassuolo sits in second place entering a visit to Hellas Verona on Sunday and is tied with Atalanta atop the league chart with 18 goals scored.
“You want to know the truth? Sassuolo is still at 60% of its capacity,” coach Roberto De Zerbi said.
After winning 2-0 at Napoli this month without three key attacking players — Domenico Berardi, Francesco Caputo and Filip Đuričić — De Zerbi has reason to boast.
Looking back, Sassuolo’s rise was already in the making last season when it drew twice with Juventus — 2-2 in Turin then 3-3 at home — making it the only squad the Bianconeri couldn’t beat en route to their ninth straight title.
Financed by the Squinzi family which controls the Mapei building materials company, Sassuolo’s squad is filled with talented young players and led by the 26-year-old Berardi.
His contract once co-owned by Juventus, Berardi has scored nearly 100 goals for Sassuolo stretching back to the club’s last Serie B season in 2012-13.
Labeled for years as one of Italy’s most promising young strikers, Berardi is now also coming into his own with the national team, scoring twice in the Azzurri’s last two matches to help secure a spot in the Nations League's final four.
For many, the biggest question about Berardi is why he hasn’t joined a bigger club.
“We’re accustomed to a world where everyone wants to move up a level, gain more attention and earn more money. It goes against the rules for him to stay — and remain happy — at Sassuolo," De Zerbi told La Repubblica. “He realizes that his strength comes from his surroundings.”
Berardi wasn’t the only Sassuolo player shining on the international stage over the last week.
Midfielder Manuel Locatelli, once a prized teenager with AC Milan, helped set up both of the goals in a 2-0 win at Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday.
With Italy’s under-21 squad, Gianluca Scamacca, who is on loan to Genoa, scored three goals in two games; and Giacomo Raspadori scored twice in a 4-1 under-21 win over Sweden on Wednesday.
“Locatelli is the best Italian midfielder,” De Zerbi said. “And if Raspadori continues like this he’ll become the (senior) national team’s center forward.”
Then there is Jérémie Boga, the midfielder swiped from Chelsea who De Zerbi puts second only to Lionel Messi in terms of dribbling by defenders; and the diminutive Maxime Lopez, whose stoppage-time goal sealed the victory in Napoli.
“Our players were chosen one by one. Nobody is here by chance,” De Zerbi said.
The players fit into De Zerbi’s offensive vision of the game, which is shaped by coaching greats Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola.
De Zerbi spent a week studying Bielsa up close in France when the Argentine was coaching Lille in 2017 and says he now devotes 80% of training sessions to attacking.
De Zerbi also draws from his own playing career, which never reached the heights he imagined as an attacking midfielder in AC Milan’s youth system.
“I really make every effort to promote my players’ characteristics,” De Zerbi said.
Based in a town of only 40,000, Sassuolo plays its home games in nearby Reggio Emilia at the Mapei Stadium — one of the few club-owned grounds in Italy.
Sassuolo patron Giorgio Squinzi, who died last year, had the foresight to buy the stadium at auction for 3.75 million euros ($4.4 million) in 2013 to coincide with the team’s first-ever promotion to Serie A.
The club’s best finish was sixth in 2015-16, resulting in a Europa League spot.
Now, in a season in which expected title contenders Juventus and Inter Milan have struggled more than expected and the big teams — Atalanta now included — are playing European matches virtually every week in a condensed schedule, Sassuolo sees an opportunity for more.
“It’s a unique season,” De Zerbi said. “We need to take advantage of that.”
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