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WHEN CROTONE PULLED OFF THE GREAT ESCAPE

Remembering Crotone's great escape: an unlikely push following a difficult start that was inspired by a wild proclamation which drove the team forward in the 2016/17 Serie A season.

As a small city on the Italian south coast, Crotone is of limited notoriety outside of Italians based nearby. Despite this, for a brief period in 2017, Crotone became the talk of the footballing world, a place afforded intense media spotlight due to the sudden and frankly remarkable upturn in the fortunes of their football team.

An industrial city with an unfortunate history of economic collapse to its leading industries, FC Crotone offered a rallying point for the entire community, even if they had never reached the top flight of Italian football. Under the guidance of Croatian Ivan Jurić, Crotone defied the odds during the 2015-16 season, finishing second in Serie B and securing a place at the top table of football in Italy.

As would be expected, the first season was a struggle for the newly-promoted club. Manager Davide Nicola, appointed prior to the start of the season, famously promised that if Crotone managed to survive at the end of the season, he would cycle from Crotone to his hometown Turin, a mere 1,300 kilometres away. As the season got underway, with Crotone losing 14 of the first 19 matches, collecting just nine points, Nicola seemed safe from the long journey. But, as if often the case, football finds new ways to surprise us all and although the club had managed just three wins, 14 points and were eight points adrift of safety, Crotone captured the attention of the watching football public, only losing once in the final nine games of the season to complete an escape worthy of Harry Houdini.

The promotion campaign of 2015-16 was certainly an unexpected one, with Crotone competing against richer and more storied Italian clubs such as Cagliari, Cesena, Bari and Pescara, but under the tutelage of Croatian Juric, and the goals of his compatriot on-loan striker Ante Budimir, I Pitagorici defied the odds and finished comfortably in second place. The season had raised hopes for Crotone to once more punch above their weight, but with Budimir signing for Sampdoria, and Juric taking the reigns at Genoa, preparations for a relegation battle were skewered.

A season of hardship started in a predictable fashion, with a 1-0 defeat away to Bologna. The second match of the season, a home fixture against Genoa, should have been a great moment for the fans of Crotone. A chance to express their support for their beloved side in their first ever game in the top-flight. Unfortunately, the Stadio Ezio Scida was undergoing renovations in order to meet the standards for Serie A and the team were forced to play their first three home matches at Pescara’s Stadio Adriatico-Giovanni Cornacchia, 372 miles north of their base.

As the cliché goes, relegation candidates need to try and make their home stadium a fortress if they are to stay up. That task becomes a lot harder if that stadium is near impossible for the average fan to get to for a standard home match.

The side battled hard in their matches, but ultimately could only pick up two points in the first 10 matches of the season, leaving the team rooted to the bottom of the league. An impressive 2-0 victory against Chievo gave the side a first-ever victory in the Italian top-flight, and there was hope that, with Diego Falcinelli’s third goal of the season, there would be an upturn in form leading to a positive run.

The following game saw I Pitagorici travel to the historic San Siro to take on an Internazionale side challenging for Europe. In an attacking sense, it was a poor performance from Crotone, failing to muster a single shot on target in the entire match. Defensively, however, it was a strong showing from the team for the majority of the match. The Nerazzurri ultimately found a way through, thanks to Perišić and an Icardi brace in the final ten minutes, but there was a source of optimism within the performance for Crotone fans to get behind.

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That optimism did not translate into on-field performances, with two late Andrea Belotti goals consigning the team to a 2-0 home defeat to Torino before a strong 1-1 draw against Sampdoria saw Crotone leave the bottom of the table for the first time since the opening weeks of the season. A second trip to the San Siro, this time to face AC Milan, saw a similar effort, with Milan scraping a 2-1 victory thanks to an 86th-minute winner.

Fifteen matches into the season and Crotone had accrued a measly six points but had very rarely been on the receiving end of a truly humiliating result, with a 4-0 defeat to Roma being the worst result of the season. The game following the Milan clash was a true relegation six-pointer as the old adage goes, with Crotone squaring off against fellow strugglers Pescara. Crotone appeared to have been undone by another late strike, with Pescara drawing level thanks to Hugo Campagnaro’s effort in the 82nd minute. Barely a minute later, and Crotone had summoned all their courage and determination, with Gian Marco Ferrari scoring the vital winner with just his second goal for the club.

It could have been a pivotal moment for the team, providing a springboard on which they could build some positive momentum. Unfortunately, the team would only pick up a further five points in the next 13 games, leaving Crotone second bottom and eight points adrift of safety. A trip to mid-table Chievo was hardly a game that had fans expectant, but it would prove to be the catalyst to one of the most extraordinary survival stories in footballing history.

The first half of the game was an entertaining affair, with Crotone perhaps having the better of the chances before finally making the breakthrough not long after half-time, with Ferrari heading home a corner to give Crotone a deserved lead. Yet, just a few minutes later, Chievo’s current captain, Sergio Pellissier, reached the end of a cross, steering his diving header into the back of the net and leveling the match. As the game progressed towards the last ten minutes, it appeared destined for a draw, but a Crotone team on the receiving end of many late goals found one of their own, with Falcinelli curling a delightful effort into the far corner of the goal from just outside of the area.

It was a pivotal moment for the players on the pitch, especially as 17th-placed Empoli lost meaning the gap closed to five points, and Nicola certainly recognised it as such. Having spent the majority of the season in an attempt to boost the morale of the players in spite of the poor results, he launched one more attempt to try and inspire his players to continue to give every last ounce of their effort. In his post-match interview, Nicola famously stated that, should his players manage to survive in Serie A, he would cycle the 1,300 kilometres from Crotone to his hometown of Turin. Only he knows if it was a journey he believed he would ultimately end up taking, but it certainly had the desired effect.

When attempting to build a run of form towards the end of a season in order to avoid relegation, teams ideally want to be playing against fellow strugglers. The last team they want to meet is a team fighting to reach the Champions League, but that is exactly the challenge that faced Crotone, who welcomed Internazionale to the Stadio Ezio Scida.

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Despite the odds being stacked quite heavily against the side, I Pitagorici raced into an early 2-0 lead, thanks to a penalty and a deft finish from star man Falcinelli. A second-half goal from Danilo D’Ambrosio proved only to be a consolation, and Crotone had achieved a remarkable result that made the possibility of survival seem more realistic than at any stage previously that season.

A 1-1 draw against Torino, with Simeon “Simy” Nwankwo grabbing a late equalizer, followed with Simy scoring the late winner the match after, a coolly dispatched volley securing a 2-1 victory away at Sampdoria. For any team, a run of ten points from four matches is incredible. For a team that could only manage 14 from 29 previously, it was a near impossibility. Despite the run, Crotone remained five points behind Empoli and safety, and with just five matches to go, it still seemed unlikely that the team would survive.

Another 1-1 draw, this time against AC Milan, saw the gap closed to just four points before Crotone travelled back to Pescara once more, although this time as the away side. For perhaps the first time in the season, Nicola’s squad entered a match as the favourites as Pescara had propped up the table for the majority of the season. In a tense match that was devoid of many moments of quality, experienced Bulgarian winger Aleksandar Tonev cut inside onto his right foot and unleashed a curling effort into the far corner from about 30 yards out. A tremendous finish, but one that mattered little still as Empoli picked up a vital 3-1 victory against Bologna. Despite picking up as many points in the last six matches as the first 29, Crotone still found themselves four points adrift, with just three matches remaining.

A strong 1-0 victory over Udinese, combined with Empoli’s 3-2 defeat against Cagliari, saw the gap reduced to just one point with two matches to go. Sadly for Crotone, those matches would be against champions-elect Juventus and Champions League hopefuls, Lazio, for whom a win would secure a place in Europe’s elite competition. For Empoli, the run-in appeared easier on paper, with games against Europa League-chasing Atalanta and already relegated Palermo.

Somewhat predictably, both Crotone and Empoli lost, 3-0 and 1-0 to Juventus and Atalanta respectively. It set up a final day that would be filled with drama, with Crotone needing to better Empoli’s result to leapfrog their rivals and survive relegation, despite spending almost every day of the season embedded in the bottom three.

Crotone started the match like a team in desperate need of the win, putting their more illustrious opponents under immense pressure. Their fast start was rewarded after just 14 minutes of the game, with Andrea Nalini firing home a low cross to send the home fans into raptures. Just eight minutes later, and things had gone from good to great to the side from the Italian south coast, with star striker Falcinelli heading home a free-kick to double the lead. 2-0 after just 22 minutes, and with Empoli still level at 0-0 in their match, Crotone were headed for safety.

An old cliché in football revolves around the underdogs scoring too early, and the fans of Crotone could be forgiven for fearing those clichés when Lazio’s main man Ciro Immobile coolly slotted home a penalty to halve the deficit. With Lazio chasing the win to secure their place in the Champions League, Crotone could be forgiven for fearing the worst.

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With the capital-based side beginning to assert their dominance, Crotone were having to dig in deeper than they had done all season before the moment which may have been the point at which their fans finally truly believed survival was actually on. With just a few minutes remaining before half-time, Lazio defender Bastos dived into a tackle and failed to win the ball. The referee was given little choice and the defender was shown his second yellow card and meant the visitors would have to play the second half with just ten men.

When Nalini added a third on the hour mark, Crotone were holding up their end of the bargain, but the match between Palermo and Empoli was still deadlocked at 0-0. A single Empoli goal would be enough to send Crotone back down to Serie B. However, two goals in eight minutes for Palermo saw the home fans begin to truly celebrate, and a late Empoli consolation was not enough to stop the party from beginning in earnest. Crotone had survived on the final day of the season against all the odds.

Manager Davide Nicola was widely credited with being the catalyst behind the remarkable story, with his continued efforts to boost the morale of his players arguably the most important part of the season. With the culture of a quick replacement of managers in the Italian league, the Crotone’s board decision to stick with Nicola throughout the whole season was to prove to be a fruitful one.

With his players having put their bodies on the line in the final run-in in order to keep the team in the division, it was Nicola’s turn to put his body on the line and uphold his promise to cycle from Crotone to Turin. With his side having defied all the odds, picking up an incredible 20 points in just eight matches, the journey may have perhaps felt like the most rewarding of his career.

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BY MICHAEL GALLWEY