Palermo and Empoli promoted automatically
8 June ~ This season, for the first time, the Serie B promotion play-offs will be contested by six teams. This innovation was introduced to reduce the number of meaningless end-of-season matches that could be at risk of being fixed, and the result was that eight of the 11 last-day fixtures had something riding on them. There is no doubt that is a positive, but there is something wrong when you have to dangle the carrot of promotion to Serie A in front of a team that finishes eighth in an attempt to prevent corruption.
The battle for the final promotion place, which will be decided on June 18, will begin with fifth-placed Modena at home to eighth-placed Spezia and sixth-placed Crotone at home to seventh-placed Bari. The winners of these one-off games will play, respectively, Cesena (fourth) and Latina (third) in home and away ties, which will also be the case for the final. In all these ties, the team that finished higher in the regular season will only need to avoid defeat to move on, with extra time only in the quarter-finals.
As expected, Palermo made an immediate return to Serie A, ending up 14 points clear of second-placed Empoli. After taking only seven points from their first six games, they never looked back once the experienced Beppe Iachini replaced Gennaro Gattuso, winning 23 and losing only three of their remaining 36 games. Despite this, crowds were disappointing, averaging under 10,000. Palermo wrapped up promotion with five games to go when they won 1-0 at Novara.
Empoli took the second automatic promotion place on the last day of the regular season with a routine 2-0 home win over Pescara, the second goal coming from the 35-year-old Francesco Tavano, one half of a prolific attacking duo, the other being Massimo Maccarone, once of Middlesbrough. Tavano finished with 22 goals and Maccarone with 15, though the division's leading scorer with 26 goals was Matteo Mancosu of Trapani.
The presence of Latina in third place emphasises one of the surprises of the season. Together with Carpi and Trapani they were debutants in Serie B and most people expected them all to struggle. But, along with the other promoted team, Avellino, they all did very well. Avellino were also in with a chance of the play-offs till the final day. That Latina came within four points of automatic promotion was extraordinary, but it also underlined the generally low quality of Serie B.
Of the other relegated teams, Siena, hampered by an eight-point penalty, missed the play-offs by a point, while Pescara disappointed. They were not alone. Fancied Brescia's appalling home form saw them flirting with relegation for a time, but far worse were Varese, Novara, Padova and Reggina, four big clubs by Serie B standards. The first two will contest the final relegation spot, while Padova and Reggina will become founder members of the new unified third level Lega Pro.
They will be joined by rock bottom Juve Stabia, who managed just 19 points and two wins in 42 games. They actually have some quite good players, and it is hard to believe that they managed just those two wins for purely footballing reasons. Once their fate was more or less sealed, other factors may have contributed to their results. There were certainly, as always, some strange games.
If crowds were up, it was because of Bari. They nearly went to the wall. Then the Matarrese family left the club after 37 years and crowds shot up from a few thousand (1,856 against Siena on February 8) to over 30,000, peaking at an incredible 48,744 for the 4-1 win over Novara on the last day. In the meantime the club had been bought by former referee.
Promoted to Serie B are reviving Perugia and first timers Virtus Entella, plus the winners of play-offs between Pro Vercelli and Sud Tirol, the team of German speaking city of Bolzano, and Frosinone and Lecce. Richard Mason