One of European football’s most pleasant surprises last season was the performance of Italy’s forgotten side, Hellas Verona. The team had its heyday in the 80’s, with the Nicklas Bendtner-esque Preben Elkjær leading them to their only Scudetto in 1985. Last season, they were promoted after a decade in calcio purgatory, and proceeded to remain in the running for a European spot until the final weeks of the season.
The main reason for that improbable run was the improbable resurgence of evergreen Luca Toni. The Gialloblu rescued the then-36-year-old from the five-year nomadic existence he endured after Bayern Munich cast him aside. He rewarded his saviours by scoring 20 goals for Verona, good enough for second in the league (behind young Ciro Immobile, who Torino sorely misses). Toni’s rediscovered form — along with the efforts of winger Juan Iturbe and playmaker Rômulo — helped Verona’s offence tie Inter Milan for fifth in the league.
But as good as the Venetian club were at scoring goals, they were equally awful at the back. So when Iturbe left for Roma, and Juventus picked up Rômulo on loan, long-time coach Andrea Mandorlini knew he had to take a different approach.
Enter Verona’s shock signing: MLS reject and Mexican bad boy, Rafael Márquez. The former Monaco and Barcelona defender left New York under a cloud, returning to the Mexican Liga with León. But his 11th-hour move to Serie A in August sent gasps through North America’s soccer media. Surely the surly defender would be bad for the dressing room.
Well, so far so good. Márquez’ partnership with Greek international Vangelis Moras seems to be working. Mandorlini also brought in Moras’ compatriot, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, on loan from Catania to play in front of the back four. Pair these moves with the solid play of Rafael (the Brazilian keeper, the second of three Rafas on the books; the other two are named Rafa Marques and Rafa Márquez… but I digress) and you have a club that has only conceded a single goal in three matches.
Of course it’s still early… and Verona have yet to find the scoring touch from last season. Toni has a single goal and that was a penalty. Meanwhile Mandorlini has been playing with the four positions between Toni and Tachtsidis, rotating new boys Lazaros and Boško Janković with long-time players Juanito and Emil Hallfredsson. The correct combination is still forthcoming: substitute Artur Ioniță’s goal against Torino on Sunday was their first from open play. But their defensive work has left Hellas Verona in third place in this infant season.
Mandorlini’s side face Genoa at home tomorrow, before facing Iturbe’s Roma on the weekend, who sit top of table. By then, we should have some idea if the new look Verona is ready to stay in the top-flight.