ROME: Upstarts Chievo look more like thoroughbred horses than “Flying Donkeys’ as they continue to defy the odds by charging their way into contention for the Italian championship.
Four points off the lead with almost half the campaign over, the tiny Verona club are perfectly placed to eclipse their performance last season – their first in Italy’s top flight – in which they qualified for the UEFA Cup after finishing a creditable fifth.
Tomorrow night the fifth-placed minnows host champions Juventus, level on points but ahead on goal difference, in a romantic encounter at the Bentegodi Stadium, just a few kilometres from the balcony where love blossomed for Romeo and Juliet.
The contest may not be as bloody as when the Montagues and the Capulets went head to head, but it could have a huge psychological bearing on the race for the title.
Despite being labelled as “one season wonders”, Chievo have continued to flourish in the role of underdogs this term – they have already beaten current league leaders AC Milan, title rivals Lazio and 2001 champions AS Roma.
Chievo coach Luigi Del Neri has been overwhelmed by his side’s spirit, which has transcended the club’s need to balance the books.
“It’s an achievement nobody at the club could have ever imagined,” said the affable 52-year-old, one of Italy’s finest footballing tacticians.
“The squad has changed as we had to sell in the summer, so I thought to repeat last season’s achievements would, quite frankly, be impossible. But we have a never-say-die spirit and that is one of the secrets of our success.
“Maybe we are not playing as well as last year, but we have more experience and know how to handle ourselves better.”
Owned by the wealthy Campedelli family, makers of festive cakes, Chievo are from the smallest community ever to be represented in the Italian First Division, a borough of less than 3,000 people.
After nearly 60 years in the amateur leagues, Chievo turned professional in 1986 when they were promoted to the professional ranks of Serie C2, the Italian Third Division.
When they reached the Second Division, fans of their more illustrious neighbours Hellas Verona, with whom they now share a ground, joked that “mules will fly the day Chievo meet us in Serie A” – hence the nickname.
Last season, as Chievo were cracking open the champagne after booking a place in Europe, Verona were relegated to the Second Division.
In tomorrow’s other action, table-toppers AC Milan welcome Piacenza to the San Siro while Lazio, in third place, entertain Udinese at the Stadio Olimpico.
Second-placed Inter Milan, level on points with leaders and city rivals AC Milan, face a tough challenge in Umbria against Perugia, 2-1 winners over Juventus in the first leg of their Italian Cup quarter-final on Wednesday.
Inter Milan defender Ivan Cordoba has identified Fabrizio Miccoli, scorer of both of Perugia’s goals in midweek, as the biggest threat.
“He’s exceptionally quick. We’ll have to keep an eye on him all the time.
“We can’t afford to give him a metre,” said Cordoba. – AFP