16 January ~ When Pescara won 2-1 at Verona on the opening day of the Serie B season in August, few could have foreseen the importance of tonight's return fixture. Asides from yesterday's Milan derby, it is the biggest game in Italy in this round of matches. At the half-way point in the season, Verona are second in Serie B with 41 points, one behind stuttering Torino. Pescara are fourth on 39 points, a point behind Sassuolo. Verona started poorly and seemed destined for a season of consolidation, but nine wins and a draw in ten games have changed all that. Meanwhile Pescara, with a goal difference of 45 scored and 33 conceded, are proving to be a typical Zdenek Zeman team.
Pescara were last in Serie A in 1993, when they were captained by the current Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri. They have spent most of their time since then in Serie B, but also had several seasons in the third tier. They came close to extinction in 2008, and have never really looked like returning to the top flight.
Pescara's strength lies in their goal-scoring trio of captain Marco Sansovino and on-loan Ciro Immobile (Juventus) and Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli). But Zeman is the real driving force behind their current success. The manager continues to be an anomaly in Italian football, with his insistence that it is better to win 4-3 playing attacking football than 1-0 defending. Pescara are currently drawing crowds of over 10,000, which is excellent for Serie B and suggests that Zeman has the fans with him. It is just a pity that during the current match-fixing crisis nobody has had the decency to apologise to him for the vitriolic treatment he has received for saying for 15 years that there is something rotten at the core of Italian football.
Verona, also known as Hellas Verona, have a much richer history than Pescara, but the ten years since they went down from Serie A in 2002 have been an almost continuous nightmare. Until now. Five largely undistinguished seasons in Serie B ended with relegation in 2007. They then announced themselves as the Juventus of Serie C. This display of hubris was almost rewarded with relegation to the fourth tier. They spent most of the season at the foot of the table and only avoided further ignominy by winning a relegation play-off.
After a season of consolidation, Verona seemed on the verge of a return to Serie B in 2010. All they had to do was avoid defeat against tiny Portogruaro in front of 25,000 fans in the Bentegodi stadium. But a last-minute goal saw their opponents crowned champions. Unsurprisingly after such a demoralising defeat, they lost the play-off final to… Pescara.
Verona were finally promoted back into Serie B in 2011, when they beat Salernitana 2-1 on aggregate in a bitterly-contested play-off final. Salernitana’s very existence depended on the result. They went out of business and now a new team, called just Salerno, is playing in Serie D.
Many of last season’s players are still with Verona. If the team has a star, it is Icelandic midfielder Emil Hallfredsson. But their real strength is their teamwork. They were the last Serie B club in this season's Coppa Italia, and despite losing 3-2 to a stoppage-time free-kick at Lazio, they played much better than their illustrious opponents.
Throughout their time in the third division, Verona’s fans remained loyal, even though a minority of them were involved in racist chanting. Season ticket sales hovered around 10,000, above those of their hated rivals Chievo in Serie A. Verona fans would love to change places at the end of the season. It is unlikely, but possible. As for the result of the game in Pescara, it is anybody’s guess, which is as it should be. We can be more confident than usual, though, that a top game might actually live up to its billing. Richard Mason