The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
We were playing Varese at their stadium. I was worried about the match. Our form had taken a turn for the worse since the winter break, and Varese were good: fifth in the league and arguably the strongest defensive team in Serie C2/A, with a weird 3-5-2 formation that I wasn’t sure how to crack. On top of that, we were suffering from some injuries: our star goalkeeper, Marciano van Dijk, was out for two months with a broken finger, and Andrea Salvati, our little Gattuso, had sprained his ankle. On top of that, Jorge Ibáñez had finally hit the slump I’d been fearing for two months, and hadn’t scored in something like 500 minutes of play.
If we’d ever been ripe to lose our unbeaten streak—currently standing at an incredible 26 games—it was now. That wouldn’t be a tragedy, necessarily; we were 16 points clear at the top of Serie C2/A, after all. But finishing the season unbeaten would be a special accomplishment, something I’ve never done before. And what better way to send the signal that Pro Vercelli is on the rise?
Before the match, I told the players I expected a win, which is usually suicide against a good team on the road, but after the run we’d had, piling up the pressure was the best way I knew to keep them from getting complacent. We took the pitch in a defensive formation—long balls from the defenders, fullbacks staying back—to play it safe while we felt out Varese’s intentions.
The game that developed was one of those frustrating slogs where both teams have roughly the same amount of possession and nobody creates many chances. In a match like that, you can see that your tactics aren’t getting the results you want, but the play is so murky that it’s hard to see what you need to adjust. I tried tightening up our passing and slowing down the tempo to draw the defenders out of position, but they were diligent about not closing down when they shouldn’t and all that happened was that we kept passing the ball away. I tried pulling back a bit more and playing for straight-ahead counterattacks, but their five defenders just ruthlessly smothered my forwards. Ibáñez took a knock and had to be brought off in the 36th minute. I started thinking about playing for a tie.
It looked like we were going to get one until the 89th minute, when our strongest defender, Gustavo, our captain, uncharacteristically missed an interception, letting their star striker Furio Bucciarelli through for an easy lob over our 17-year-old backup goalkeeper. We were down 1-0.
Well, that was that, I thought to myself. We were going to lose. I duly sent in the signal to throw everyone forward and play for an equalizer, but in my mind I was already writing a post about the end of our unbeaten streak. Two minutes bled away, as Varese’s combination-lock defense easily stymied our nervous attempts at safe-cracking.
And then, out of nowhere, in the 92nd minute, Varese right-back Andrea Marino stuck out his leg and tripped our left-back in the corner of the box, in full view of the referee. A penalty! Andrea Cognoni stepped up to the spot, hit the ball hard, and sent it into the back of the net. We’d hung on for the draw after all.
It was a stupid, lucky break that kept our unbeaten streak alive, a random flicker of good fortune in the chaos of a bad soccer game. Our run now stands at 27 games: 22 wins, 5 draws. We’re still not playing particularly well, and with seven games left in the season, including an away game at second-place Pizzighettone, I’m not at all confident that we can finish the year without a loss. But if we do, it’ll be worth remembering that we did it on the leg of Andrea Marino. Let him enter into Vercellese lore.
by Brian Phillips · December 22, 2008