Catania hoping to upset likely lads with Europe in sight
RESULTS Sat 16 Mar Catania 3-1 Udinese, Bologna 0-2 Juventus Sun 17 Mar Siena 0-0 Cagliari, Napoli 3-2 Atalanta, Pescara 0-2 Chievo, Fiorentina 3-2 Genoa, Milan 2-0 Palermo, Sampdoria P-P Internazionale, Torino 1-0 Lazio, Roma 2-0 Parma
While Palermo are preparing for life in Serie B, across Sicily Catania are pushing towards the promised land of Europe.
Saturday evening's impressive 3-1 demolition of another Europa League hopeful, Udinese, saw the Elefanti charge into seventh place just three points off their record haul of 48 achieved last season under Vincenzo Montella.
Inter Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina and AS Roma are all targeting a Europa League place with outside hopes of landing third but Catania could still pull off the surprise of the season and supersede one of these established names with a top-six finish.
Club president Antonio Pulvirenti set out a five-year plan to cement the team's place in the top flight but expectations have been surpassed each year; 43 points in 2009, 45 the following campaign and a one-point improvement a season later. But now the 50-point barrier will be smashed well before the end of this term.
Along the way each coach has put themselves in the shop window for moves to bigger clubs. But from Walter Zenga, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Diego Simeone, Montella and now Rolando Maran, they have all bought into the idea of taking a step forward each year within limited financial means - even if the training facilities are some of the best in Italy.
In fact, Catania can be considered the southern followers of the Udinese model which has enjoyed success through an extensive scouting system in South America and, in particular, Argentina.
The current squad has 10 Argentines in its ranks and it was the attacking trio of Lucas Castro, Pablo Barrientos and Alejandro Gomez that tore Udinese apart at the weekend.
The diminutive Gomez grabbed two goals - one a header - while the third came from Italian midfielder Francesco Lodi (the provincial Andrea Pirlo as he is known) who, with veteran central defender Nicola Legrottaglie, forms the 'home grown' backbone of the side.
"I love you this much!" Gomez celebrates scoring against Udinese
Last season Montella employed a 3-5-2 formation which encouraged the wing-backs to offer support, but Maran has switched to a 4-2-3-1. Gonzalo Bergessio leads the front line and, if anything, Catania are even more pleasing to watch thanks to an exciting supporting cast.
The coach from the north of Italy, who took Varese into the Serie B play-offs last year, has inherited the majority of Montella's core and there is a great understanding between the players thanks to last season's exploits.
Their first goal against Udinese highlighted the strengths of playing quick, short passes on the break. Barrientos threaded a pass through to Gomez, who exchanged a swift one-two with Castro on the edge of the area before slotting home a low shot.
Heading into the pivotal encounter, Maran's men had lost narrowly at Juventus and before that had somehow thrown away a two-goal home lead against Inter to lose 3-2.
However, despite these two hardly unexpected setbacks, they immediately produced a decisive win at Parma to stay in the race for European qualification.
It was that victory on the road which instilled a belief that, even if they could not overcome Inter or Juve, there were enough points still available to ensure they will not fall away into mid-table as they did last season.
Picking up valuable away points will help but it has been Catania's home form which has really impressed. At the Stadio Angelo Massimino they boast 10 wins, just one fewer than Juventus and AC Milan, including a 4-0 mauling of Lazio and 1-0 victory over AS Roma.
With Lazio losing at Torino, Roma overcoming Parma and Inter's game at Sampdoria rained off, there is everything to play for and Catania are still very much in the mix with two months of the season left. The elephant in the room cannot be ignored any longer.