Europe’s favourite underdogs – Benevento look to complete Italy’s greatest of escapes

At first glance, Benevento look doomed. A small club based in the South-West of Italy, Benevento Calcio are enjoying (perhaps not in the literal sense) their first taste of top-flight football after winning back-to-back promotions. Their foray into the big-time has already been record-breaking, and may be looked back on as one of the most incredible stories of Italian footballing history.

Six months after their Serie A debut – which they narrowly lost 2-1 to Sampdoria – Benevento find themselves 11 points from safety and seemingly destined for an immediate return to Serie B.

Before offering Benevento fans a few crumbs of comfort as their fight for survival nears its climax, Ryan Elliott takes you on a whistle-stop tour of their season so far, a journey which has left the whole footballing world rooting for them.

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A Ritual of Fire

Benevento lost their first 14 league matches – with a 4-0 home thrashing to second-tier Perugia in the Coppa Italia also thrown in there – which is officially the worst start to a season in Serie A history.

During this early season horror-run, Benevento lost 9 of these first 14 matches by just a single goal. Their quest for a first Serie A point was repeatedly frustrated by the agony of conceding stoppage-time winners.

The tone was set in just their third match of the season. Benevento were denied a well-deserved point against Torino with Iago Falque scoring the only goal of the match in the 93rd minute.

Things got worse before they got better.

Their trip across the Tyrrhenian Sea to face Cagliari was one such day. The visitors went behind after just nine minutes, conceding a goal so scrappy it wouldn’t look out of place in a Sunday league blooper reel, and then gave away a penalty which Cagliari’s Marco Sau put into Row Z. Was this to be a turning point in Benevento’s fortunes?

Wave after wave of Benevento pressure followed, and in the 94th minute they were fortuitously awarded a penalty, which striker Pietro Iemmello tucked away to finally secure their first Serie A point at the 10th attempt – or so they thought.

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Less than 60 seconds later, Benevento hearts were broken – not for the first or last time – as Leonardo Pavoletti scored a brilliant stooping header for the home side, agonisingly looping over Alberto Brignoli in goal.

Three weeks later, playing at home against Sassuolo and still searching for their first point, the tale of Benevento Calcio’s calamitous season reached its nadir.

Benevento fell behind just before the hour mark, courtesy of a Brignoli howler, shattering the stereotypical misconception that European goalkeepers are good with their feet by attempting (and failing) a pass which a team on 0 points can ill afford to get wrong. He got it wrong, and Benevento found themselves in the familiar position of being behind.

Shortly after Benevento equalised, Gaetano Latizia brainlessly got sent off and Andrea Costa attempted to execute a volleyball spike in his own box two minutes from time to concede a penalty.

Sassuolo missed the resulting spot-kick, only to score a 94th minute winner courtesy of a towering Federico Peluso header.

It would be hard for even the most iron-hearted football fans not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Benevento at this point.

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The Flying Lombard

When Gennaro Gattuso was appointed AC Milan manager on the 27 November, the fixture list couldn’t have been kinder to him.

A club legend on the pitch, Gattuso would have been desperate to endear himself to I Rossoneri’s fans by immediately getting a win under his belt.

His first assignment? A trip to hapless, pointless Benevento.

It was the perfect start for Gattuso when Milan took the lead courtesy of Giacomo Bonaventura’s smartly placed header. From a position of relative comfort, nobody could have predicted what was to happen next.

Benevento equalised early in the second-half from a rebound off Gianluigi Donnarumma, but their lead lasted just seven minutes, as Milan took advantage of some shambolic defending to restore their advantage.

In the 75th minute, Benevento received an enormous slice of luck. Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli was given his marching orders for a second yellow – despite a blatant Benevento dive – but they simply couldn’t make their numerical superiority count.

In the 94th minute, Benevento’s Danilo Cataldi put the ball down 25 yards from goal to take one final free kick. This was to become the most famous set piece in Benevento’s history.

As the ball was fired in, the man who leapt highest was on-loan from Juventus, and while six feet off the ground and horizontal, goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli sent a Van Persie-esque diving header flying into the far corner.

The Stadio Ciro Vigorito exploded. Manager, coaches, players, substitutes and ball-boys descended on the jubilant Brignoli. These fairy tales make football the best sport on the planet.

At the 15th attempt, Benevento earn their first Serie A point, against AC Milan, in the final minute, courtesy of a diving header from their on-loan goalkeeper. Astonishing.

This felt like a slice of redemption for Brignoli:

“[He] has been harshly criticised for some mistakes,” remarked de Zerbi who continued to say, “If you believe until the very end, luck does not always turn its back on you.”

Gattuso was less glowing:

“A knife wound would have been less painful than that goal.”

Jimmy Glass is untouchable when it comes to goalkeepers scoring, but Brignoli’s effort surely comes in at a very close second.

Repeating History

So, what’s the point of this piece? 11 points from safety with 13 matches left seems pretty bleak.

Lets go back to last season in Serie A and the story of Crotone, a story which Benevento will be looking to emulate.

A wretched start to their campaign saw Crotone eight points from safety at the start of April. They went on to earn 20 points from their last 27 available – securing safety on the final day.

Yes, Benevento are further behind, but time is still on their side, and recent signings of Bacary Sagna and Sandro have added some much-needed experience to the squad.

While Crotone’s story is remarkable, if Benevento somehow achieve the impossible, it will truly be Italy’s greatest ever escape.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanEJourno

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