Italian success story Sassuolo face harsh new reality
MILAN (Reuters) - Tiny Sassuolo are often heralded as a model club after climbing from the Italian fourth division to European football in just 10 years.
Based in a town of 41,000 people, the smallest ever to have been represented in Serie A, their rise has been achieved almost exclusively with Italian talent and without the help of huge cash injections from little-known foreign owners.
They even own their own stadium, a rare luxury in Italy, even if it is 26 kilometres away in Reggio Emilia.
As with many provincial teams in Europe, however, their relative success has proved to be a double-edged sword, and participation in the Europa League is taking its toll on Sassuolo's small squad.
They have failed to win in their last six matches in all competitions and dropped to 16th in Serie A after losing 3-0 at home to Atalanta on Sunday. They are bottom of a tightly- contested Europa League group with five points from four games.
"Playing in Europe drains us of energy and the fact that we do not have replacements is an issue," coach Eusebio Di Francesco said.
Having yo-yoed between the third and fourth tiers for decades, Sassuolo's fortunes began to change after entrepreneur Giorgio Squinzi, owner of the Mapei company which produces building materials, bought the club in 2002.
Sassuolo won another promotion from the fourth tier in 2006, but this time they continued to climb.
Massimiliano Allegri, now coach of Serie A champions Juventus, led them to the second division in 2008, and, after several misses, they finally made it to the top flight in 2013 under Di Francesco.
Their first season was a battle for survival and Di Francesco was fired and replaced by Alberto Malesani before being reinstated five weeks later. He said on returning that he had never unpacked his bags.
Sassuolo escaped the drop by two points, helped by 17 goals from young striker Domenico Berardi. They finished 12th the following season and sixth last term to qualify for Europe for the first time.
This season, however, nothing seems to be going their way.
Berardi made a flying start, scoring seven goals in their first six games, but has been out of action with a knee injury since.
A 2-1 home win over Pescara became a 3-0 defeat after Serie A said they had failed to register substitute Antonio Ragusa in time. Sassuolo blamed a technical error.
Team captain Francesco Magnanelli, who has been with the club since their fourth division days, midfielder Simone Missiroli and defender Tim Letschert are others on the injured list.
"To be without (Alfred) Duncan, Magnanelli, Missiroli and Berardi, who were fundamental in the miracle which we pulled off last season, takes away something from our character and sense of identity," Di Francesco said.
Sunday's match was typical of their season as Atalanta went ahead with a goal which appeared to be offside and Sassuolo twice hit the crossbar in between two more goals for the visitors.
To cap it all, Di Francesco was sent off. Not surprisingly, the international break could not come soon enough.
"It will help some important players to recover, so we will go back to playing the way we know," Di Francesco said. "It’s a period in which everything is going against us.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Ed Osmond)