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Spectre of Berlusconi Looms Over Serie A Fairytale of A.C. Monza

A.C. Monza Badge (via Wikipedia)

The 2022/23 Serie A season has a new kid on the block in the guise of A.C. Monza. The club has spent most of the 21st Century in a state of financial woe, twice being declared bankrupt (in 2004 and 2015) and languishing between the third and fourth tiers of Italian football, but now they are gracing the top flight for the first time in their history.



So, what's changed for I Bagai (The Boys)? Monza is a city that's in the far north of Italy and closely linked with the sport of Formula 1, having hosted every single Italian Grand Prix bar one (1980). It's little more than thirty-five miles away from the border with Switzerland but, more importantly, it's just nine miles from the centre of Milan and the birthplace of a certain Silvio Berlusconi. The former three-time Prime Minister owned AC Milan between 1986 and 2017, initially overseeing the survival of the club and then investing great sums into making them one of the most successful and feared teams of the early nineties.


Further trophies and glory followed through to the end of the Carlo Ancelotti era (in 2009), but the years after that saw a significant decline in I Rossoneri's (The Red and Black's) ability to compete for silverware. This was maybe in part due to Berlusconi being focused on political scandals and efforts to ressurect his career in public office. After selling up AC Milan in April 2017 it would have been easy to think that Berlusconi had ended his direct love affair with football but, less than eighteen months later, Fininvest (the holding company controlled by the Berlusconi family) acquired A.C. Monza and started planning for the future.


The 2019/20 season saw Monza dominate Serie C and by March of 2020 the club were sixteen points clear at the top of the table! Of course, we all know what happened next, covid struck and the league was eventually suspended. With no prospect for the season being completed, Monza were declared champions on June 2nd and had finally made it back to Serie B after nineteen long and fruitless years.


During the 2020/21 season, Monza sustained a challenge for back-to-back promotions throughout the whole campaign, eventually finishing third. However, this meant having to navigate the lottery of the play-offs and I Brianzoli (The Ones from Brianza) succumbed to Citadella in the semi-final. This eventuality cost Cristian Brocchi his job and he was replaced by the head coach Giovanni Stropa.


Last season Monza were slow and steady in their pursuit of a Serie A fairytale promotion. From late November through to mid-March they hovered in and around sixth place, but six wins from seven league games between early March and mid-April lifted them up into real contention, before a sting in the tail. Monza lost away to Frosinone on matchday thirty-six out of thirty-eight and then won their penultimate fixture against Benevento, leaving the team second in the table at the start of the final day and on course for automatic promotion.


The stinger was that the party never got started. Monza slipped to a 1-0 away loss to Perugia and tumbled to fourth spot. It was to be the play-offs again, but this time they were not to be denied. Home and away wins over Brescia, 2-1, settled the semi-final, with Danish veteran Christian Gytkjær scoring a pivitol brace at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti.


The play-off final came down to a two-legged tussle with rivals Pisa, a team that finished on equal points to Monza but one place above them in third, courtesy of head to head points from Pisa winning 2-1 home and away. The challenge for Berlusconi's team wrote itself, they would have to find a way past their second worst opponent (Lecce having achieved a bigger aggregate score from their double over them). For the club from a Tuscan city with an odd leaning tower, this was their chance to return to Serie A for the first time since 1991, following a decade when they yo-yoed between the top two tiers for a total of eight years.


With everything at stake, Monza versus Pisa didn't fail to live up to the hype. In the first leg matters were pretty tight, but Monza made the most of their home advantage to be the more clinical side, building a 2-0 lead that was slightly deflated by a late, ninety-third minute consolation from Pisa. This last gasp away goal clearly changed the complexion of the tie and left the second leg with all to play for, and play was exactly what both teams did.


With the crowd behind them at the Arena Garibaldi, Pisa blew Monza away in the opening moments and were 2-0 up after just nine minutes. However, I Bagai clawed their way back into the game, halving the deficit after twenty minutes and equalising in the seventy-ninth, with both assists from Dany Mota. Monza were on the verge of promotion when Pisa levelled the aggregate scores in stoppage time and the play-off final went into extra-time. The team in white and red ultimately settled matters in the additional half an hour with two more goals, the last word being had by Gytkjær, for a 6-4 triumph and passage to Serie A.


During this past summer Monza have recruited but not overspent, instead they have been surprisingly restrained when considering the wealth of Berlusconi. The biggest outlay was €4 million on the young centre-back Andrea Carboni, from Cagliari. They also rubbed salt into the wounds of Pisa by picking up their right-back, Samuele Birindelli, for just €1.5 million, and taking the promising Gianluca Caprari on loan from Hellas Verona (with an expectation to buy for €3 million).


Most of the other transfer business has focussed on further loan signings with varying experience of playing for some of the bigger Serie A teams, plus they loaned Pablo Mari from Arsenal. Finally, the veteran defender Andrea Ranocchia joined on a free transfer after eleven years at Inter Milan.


Fast-forward to the present and Monza's first season in Serie A has begun with some difficulty to say the least. They lost each of their opening five games and scored only two goals in the process, with the heaviest defeats being 4-0 and 3-0 away to Napoli and Roma respectively. That being said, Monza were showing some fortitude at home as their worst result was 2-0 versus Atalanta. Mercifully, their sixth fixture delivered a historic first point as a Serie A side, when they drew 1-1 away to Lecce. Having made that step could they start to adapt before they were already set adrift in the relegation places?


As it turned out Berlusconi had other plans, as just two days after that positive result Giovanni Stroppa found himself relieved of his managerial duties. Stroppa may have deserved a little more loyalty, but his experience is far from unusual and having been an AC Milan player during the late eighties and mid-nineties, he would have known how Silvio operates.


Now Monza are under the stewardship of Raffaele Palladino, who has spent the past two seasons in charge of the under 15s and then the under 19s sides. His rise to a Serie A job has therefore come at a breakneck pace, although the thirty-eight year old did spend several seasons plying his trade as a player in Serie A, for Juventus, Genoa and Parma. A fact that added a little edge to his first game in charge this past weekend, when Monza faced the unenviable challenge of getting something out of their game with Juve. Of course, you may have already guessed what happened... Palladino achieved the perfect 'new manager bounce' and Juventus were beaten 1-0, with our old friend Gytkjær getting the winner and his first league goal of the season!


It's a result that stunned Serie A, regardless of how Allegri and his team have had a below-par start to their own campaign. It also meant that Monza have leapt up to third from bottom of the table and look like they could be one of those promoted teams that valiantly battle against dropping back down to Serie B. The opportunity is certainly there for Palladino to make a managerial name for himself, but the suspicion is that boom or bust will depend upon how many points they can secure from those other teams battling the drop, rather than expecting too many more bonzer days in Monza against the big guns.

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