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.
Remember how we never win a match at the San Siro? And how, not counting the Champions League final in 2020, which was against Manchester United and thus not exactly at the San Siro, we haven’t done so in this decade, or at all since a highly random 4-3 win over Inter in the Champions League quarterfinals in 2019? And remember how I have a huge psychological hangup about this, and while not exactly intimidated by Inter and A.C. Milan—hard to be intimidated by teams you so roundly excel in most competitions—still go into each new season with the thought that those six points are essentially out of play more or less openly in mind?
Yeah. Well, this is why it’s not always a good idea to let your entire season come down to back-to-back away games against two teams that play in the same arena. Because the arena might turn out to be the site of a festering curse that dooms you to oblivion, and then where will you be? (Yes. You will be in oblivion.)
Not that the Naming Rights was a walk in the clouds in its own right, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We should set the scene. We, Pro Vercelli, universally agreed to be the greatest team in the universe, after having led Serie A unchallenged for most of the 2021-22 season, now find ourselves in the midst of a micro-slump that’s seen us fall into third place behind the two Milan teams—not really third place, because we have games in hand, but a sort of technical, senseless-anxiety third place that feels like the same thing. On top of that, after dispatching our cataclysmic rivals Barcelona 8-6 (agg.) in the Champions League quarterfinals, we have now drawn our even more cataclysmic rivals Milan in the semis, and the two legs of the tie are bookending another trip to Milan to play our even more cataclysmic rivals Inter in a match that should just basically hit the dynamite plunger on all of Serie A. So that’s the backstory. Milan at the Naming Rights, Pisa away (to clear the palate, gentlemen), then Inter at the San Siro, then Milan at, sigh, the San Siro.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. That Pisa game? We won 3-0. Sorry to be anticlimactic.
We went behind early in the home leg against Milan when Antonio Simone found a crease in our entire massed defense, tiptoed through it while no one was watching, and slotted home the pass from Mejdi Cherif. We equalized before halftime through Andreas Andersson, and though we dominated the second half (16 shots on goal to their three), we couldn’t score. Neither could they, of course. Our games against each other tend to be bog-punchouts to a much greater extent than you’d expect from two teams running a thunderbolt 3-4-3. Anyway, we finished 1-1, and pundits in Italy waxed on about the importance of the away goal.
I packed up my poor fainting heart and got on the bus for the two-games-in-four-days campout at the Rampart of the Black Festival (my pet name for the San Siro). The 1910 Derby was an absolutely typical RBF game for us: we held our own statistically, had a bunch of pretty good shots blocked by Inter’s superterrestrially fired-up goalkeeper, went down 2-0 before halftime to goals by Inter’s Brazilian striker André, and barely managed a consolation goal through Michele Carbone in the 81st minute. The win gave them a four-point lead at the top of Serie A, and left us looking a little dazedly at our two games in hand. Nothing a manager hates more than a pressure-packed match against Salernitana.
Second leg against Milan at the San Siro: We knew we had to score, thanks to the away-goals situation, but, in an absolutely typical Pro Vercelli Go To Lombardy! move, we decided to let them score first, sportingly inviting Diego Bacchin to head in a Gerard Desmedt cross over Hugo (who wouldn’t normally have been playing in such a big match, but Ibrahimovic was hurt and Riccardo Caprioli was suspended). Hugo had already picked up a yellow card for a foul against Simone, and—remember how we never win at the San Siro?—completed his solo triple play by getting sent off for obstructing Bacchin in the 59th minute. Trailing 2-1 on aggregate, playing against the architecture as well as the opposition, we were going to have to endure the last half-hour of the match a man down.
I took off Teixeira, put Fábio in as an extra defender, and tried to space out our remaining attackers in the hope that if we separated the defenders we might be able to beat someone off the dribble. I didn’t expect this to work, but somewhat amazingly, Michele Carbone took a long ball around Arno Veenboer in the 61st minute, leaving Veenboer no choice but to slide in from behind and knock the ball out for a corner. Which, even more astonishingly, young Alessio Capuano headed into the net—his first-ever goal for Pro Vercelli. We never win at the San Siro, but we were level at 2-2. And we stayed level. Begin extra time.
I would have been happy at this point just to play for penalties. But in the 95th minute, Michele Carbone (again!) and Erdem Ak combined on a 1-2 the last segment of which sailed ahead of about six Milan players before Carbone drilled it into the net. Let’s watch.
After that, things got ragged, and feelings were hurt. But we held on for the 2-1 win and took the semifinal 3-2 on aggregate. We never win at the San Siro, but sometimes we win at the San Siro after all.
As a side note, one point that emerges from all this bustle is the extent to which the team is now in the hands of the younger players. All season long, guys like Michele Carbone, Riccardo Caprioli, Erdem Ak, Michele Proietti, Alessio Capuano, Paolo Martini, and now Alessandro Polenta have been the ones to save us when their older and statistically riper colleagues have been idling by the curb. Carbone, whom I bought essentially as an afterthought at the end of the transfer window, is our leading scorer, and he’s being chased only by Michele Proietti, who’s still only 19. We are increasingly an Italy U21 side with a few international veterans thrown in for good measure.
We get Roma in the Champions League final, in a rematch of our first CL final back in 2019. Thankfully, the match is in Gelsenkirchen, far, far away from the San Siro. We’re also playing Roma in the Coppa Italia final, interestingly. Also: We beat Salernitana to make up one of our extra games over Milan and Inter, moving us into second (ahead of Milan) and leaving us just a point behind Inter with one last game in hand.
Our last three matches are against Juventus, Atalanta, and Bologna. If we can win that Juventus game—and it’s at the Naming Rights—it’s going to be awfully hard for anyone else to beat us to the scudetto.
by Brian Phillips · September 18, 2009