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.

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Pro Vercelli: Iron Fine as Sand

Every season has a personality, and this season has been pressing, hard-nosed, and resolute. Last year was like a race on a beach, not far from civilization—you could see the umbrellas just over the rise. This year’s been like forging across some frigid mountain pass at the top of the world and enduring the blows of nature. Scoring’s down, injuries are up, defenses are scornful, aspirations are cautious, the immodest are crushed. With five games left, we’re winning the league, but it’s an airless, precarious existence. Every team has it in for us, and we’re grateful for every moment of life.

We’ve spent much of the season alternating at the top of the table with Milan, but they’ve become a cautionary example and tumbled into third after reaching for too much, too quickly. They’ve only lost twice in 33 games, but they’ve drawn 11 times and have finally been passed by an Inter team that takes its wins where it can find them and knows how to survive, even with five losses. We aren’t leading the league in either scoring (fifth-place Parma have 11 more goals than we do) or defending (Milan have allowed just 19 goals in 33 games), but we’ve clung to the ice with our fingernails and won more games than anyone else in the league.

It’s helped that our new striker Albert Vrancken has found the net four times in seven starts, including game-winners against Lazio and Pescara. And it’s helped that our young defensive midfielder Paolo Martini has continued his startling rise and is now, at 19, unequivocally a starter for the team (even if he still has the haircut of a Courage Under Fire-era Meg Ryan). The defensive solidity of Ibrahimovic and the Ferj has helped immensely, particularly in our recent stretch of three straight 2-0 wins against Parma, Palermo, and Atalanta.

But ultimately, this year, Pro Vercelli is Michael Dogan. He’s leading not just the team but all of Serie A in scoring, assists, average rating, and man-of-the-match awards. He’s the only player on the team who doesn’t seem weighed down by the extra gravity of this season, and he’s used his command of all dead-ball situations to turn in some genuinely astonishing performances: scoring four goals—two penalties and two free kicks—against Bologna; setting up the tying goal for Ibrahimovic from a corner and then scoring the winner from a free kick in a 2-1 squeaker against Atalanta. He and Teixeira have a little routine in which Dogan gets the ball to Teixeira with an incisive pass in the area, Teixeira uses his preternatural ball control skills to win a penalty, and Dogan converts the penalty for a goal. Add in his leadership and his ability to play six positions, and it’s easy to see why we’re a different team when he’s not on the pitch.

The controversial move of the season so far was obviously the Galli sale, but thirteen games later it’s still hard to assess the impact. We haven’t missed Galli (who was hurt and not all that useful for us through most of the season) but he’s been decent for Juventus (three goals and four assists in seven starts), and the players we got in the deal have been mixed at best. Antônio’s played a lot but only managed one assist and an average rating of 6.8; Jorge Luiz has not seemed up to the task and has only featured in three games. We’ll presumably be able to raise some money by selling them during the offseason, but at the moment, this doesn’t seem to be the nail on which our fate will hang.

Speaking of Juventus, we lost to them for the second straight year in the semifinal of the Coppa Italia. Vrancken earned us a 1-1 draw at home, but they went up 2-0 before halftime in the away leg and Martini’s goal couldn’t make up the difference. Galli played no role in this, thankfully.

The Champions League this year has essentially been the opposite of Serie A; it’s goal-mad and frenzied, and we’re still alive after a crazy run of results. We played Bayern Munich in the first knockout round, winning 6-4 on aggregate:

Then, fatefully, we drew Inter in the quarterfinals. Dogan uncharacteristically missed a penalty in the home leg, and we needed an away-leg hat-trick from Teixeira to sneak away with a wickedly satisfying 6-4 win:

At least no one’s calling these matches boring. We’ve drawn Benfica in the semifinal, and if we win that, we’ll play the winner of Milan-Roma in the final (which is in Portugal, at the Estádio do Dragão, in case Benfica needed any more motivation).

Inter reacted to their quarterfinal loss by crushing Milan and Torino in Serie A, then beating us 2-1 in the 1910 Derby to move within three points of us at the top of Serie A. They’ll take the title if we end up on the same number of points, because the head-to-head-results tiebreaker sadly doesn’t include the Champions League. Our last five games are against Juventus (hard) and Siena (medium-hard), then Catania, Napoli, and Treviso, the 17th-19th-ranked teams in the league. So the schedule isn’t unfavorable, but the atmosphere is forbidding. If we defend our championship and win the double, this could be the greatest season in the history of Pro Vercelli; if we lose, it could be my most devastating experience as a manager. Pray that the avalanche misses us.

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Pro Vercelli: Iron Fine as Sand

by Brian Phillips · June 10, 2009

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