Last year was perhaps the most successful in the 111 year history of U.S. Città di Palermo – although only in it’s current guise since 1987 – they were rightly lauded for a superb season which almost saw them clinch a Champions League spot. Ultimately, they were beaten in that chase by the equally impressive Sampdoria, but 2009/10 was undoubtedly a superb time to be a Rosanero supporter.
It is hard to judge of course, given that despite a long and storied history they have yet to lift a single top honour and can only point to two Coppa Italia finals in the 1970’s as their closest chances. The four time Serie B winners quickly spread huge doubts among their passionate fan base this past summer when they sold two of last seasons best players for relatively small fees.
Simon Kjær was always likely but selling Edinson Cavani for a sum less than €17 million – and that is to be spread over four years – caused real worry. The fact he moved to Napoli caused most concern, as much for strengthening a rival as weakening Palermo. Seeing their former player storm to the top of the scoring charts should have seen those feeling intensify, but strangely it has not.
As this season got underway, doubts grew as the team looked poor and earned only a point in its first three games against Cagliari, Brescia and Inter. With a trip to Turin in week four it was looking like the detractors were being proved correct in their assessments that this new look Palermo was too young and had failed to improve in the summer market. The following emphatic 3-1 victory shocked everyone, as much for the manner of their impressive performance as the final scoreline at the Stadio Olimpico.
Javier Pastore is unquestionably the most in-form play-maker in the league. Last year he scored just two goals, but this year he has eight already making it his highest scoring season as a professional. He is being closely followed by Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea, club President Zamparini knows his stock is on the rise but is quick to note;
“He will remain with us for another two years, I’ll only give Javier up when his value is equal to that of Messi, he could be the new Zidane”
In midfield the surprises are the Slovenian pair Josip Iličić and Armin Bačinović. Both players were opponents of Palermo in the Europa League playoff last season, playing for NK Maribor. They had already been acquired by the Sicilian club, although it seems the players were not informed by their club until after the tie was completed.
Bačinović has already replaced Fabio Liverani in the side while Iličić is a lively threat who teams perfectly with Pastore to torment opposition defences and he has goals against Juve, Fiorentina and Inter to his name. He is perhaps as deserving of credit as the Argentine, but is drawing less media attention and that is allowing him to mature a little quicker.
The decisions of last season all seem to be paying off, perhaps none more so than Salvatore Sirigu & Ezequiel Munoz. The young Italian goalkeeper has not only made the starting berth for Palermo his own but has also battled Emiliano Viviano for the Azzurri gloves in Gigi Buffon’s prolonged absence. Munoz, a 20 year old from Boca Juniors, has slowly but surely been instilling confidence on the pitch – ensuring the club and its fans did not rue the departure of Kjær too long.
With Federico Balzaretti and Mattia Cassani in brilliant form at fullback – surely the best pairing in the league – and forming a partnership that National team boss Cesare Prandelli should not look past in his search for starters in the Azzurri set up. They often act more like wingers than classic full-backs, perfectly complimenting the attacking mentality of the side and style of play demanded by coach Delio Rossi.
However their attacking tendencies make the role of the central defenders and midfielders that much more demanding, and it is here Palermo’s only obvious weakness is highlighted. Having to be constantly cover for open spaces on the flanks, particularly against side that exploit a counter-attacking style is beyond one or two members of the first team, as the losses to Udinese and Lazio proved.
Cesare Bovo is perhaps most to blame, as he is simply ill-equiped for the task being asked of him. What is needed in his place is a genuine leader, an organiser and a talker, someone to captain the side (whether or not their wear the armband is immaterial) and guide the exciting crop of youngsters during high pressure situations and difficult matches. Were Zamparini to invest here the rest of the league would certainly need to start paying more attention to the Rosanero.
One of major keys to this seasons success has been their switch in formation, with the tactically astute Rossi changing from 4-3-1-2 to 4-3-2-1. A subtle change perhaps, but one which allows Pastore and Iličić to supporting a lone striker, a situation changed by the return of talisman and Captain Fabrizio Miccoli from injury. However the simplest solution seems merely to mean pushing Iličić into a more advanced role, causing huge problems as teams struggle to contain such a creative and fluid front three.
It remains to be seen if this young, talent-laden team will reach its potential at Stadio Renzo Barbera, or will be sold on for good profits like its predecessors. Yet Palermo always seem to work this way, not afraid to cash in and reinvest the money in purchases from abroad. Often the new signings come from teams and leagues off the beaten track and from areas ignored by Europe’s bigger clubs. This is no coincidence as the scouting network seems both shrewd and effective.
Zamparini has an impressive recent record and there are plenty of reasons for celebrating this latest group he has constructed. As always with the President there is a fear he will grow bored and fire Rossi, indeed the two have had something of a disagreement through the press recently.
Through it all however the coach has remained professional and dignified, endearing him further to the clubs supporters. Currently sitting an impressive seventh as their rise continues, Palermo – along with Napoli – are certainly the more enjoyable sides to watch in Serie A this season. Fans at the Stadio Renzo Barbera will pray that continues, that their President’s trigger finger remains redundant and that they can enjoy the climb to becoming a top side a while longer.
Read Al Volo every Wednesday on Back Page Football.