FourFourTwo's man in Italy, Richard Whittle, on the rise of a manager and his rejuvenated Serie A force...
Italian football followers of a certain age will remember Parma as a swashbuckling side of the 1990s, jam-packed with up-and-coming star quality like Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo and Juan Sebastian Veron. They came close to winning the Serie A title and enjoyed success in the Italian, European Cup Winners' and UEFA Cups.
Earning a place among the 'Seven Sisters' that dominated the game, they were owned by the country’s biggest dairy producer, Parmalat, who bankrolled the club’s climb to the top and oversaw eight trophy wins before things turned sour (haw haw) in the early 2000s. Then-owner Carlisto Tanzi was jailed for financial fraud and the club was declared insolvent.
Renamed Parma Football Club and taken under the more austere management of Tommaso Ghiradi, the Gialloblu made their steady return to the top flight once more. Now, in the closing months of their centenary year, they are among Serie A's in-form teams.
Sunday’s win at Sassuolo extended Parma's unbeaten run to 14 matches, with their last defeat coming against Juventus in November. It fired them to within a place of a guaranteed Europa League spot, although their current standing in sixth will be enough anyway with Napoli and Fiorentina facing off in the Italian Cup final.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done. Another surprise package, Hellas Verona, are also on 40 points, while Lazio and Torino are just two behind. Resurgent Milan, despite their defeat to Juve at the weekend, are five points off the pace.
Their rebirth off the pitch has gone hand in hand with that of Roberto Donadoni's, who became something of an outsider in the Italian game when he succeeded World Cup winner Marcello Lippi in 2006.
If that wasn't enough pressure, Donadoni had to deal with the aftermath of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, which saw a number of bright hopefuls - including former Milan team-mate Demetrio Albertini - picking up the pieces from the fallout.
Despite sterling work taking an Antonio Cassano-inspired Azzurri to the quarter-finals at Euro 2008, it was a thankless task for a fledging coach who walked away refusing to take a pay-off. There were further bruising spells at Napoli and Cagliari, where impatient presidents soon turned their back on him when results did not go their way.
It seemed for a time that, even in his mid-40s, Donadoni was not going to get another chance in the big time until he found what has turned out to be the perfect environment at Parma. Expectations no longer centre around attempting to storm the citadel, but finding a solid base to retain respectability.
Taking over from Franco Colombo in the spring of 2012, he managed to lead Parma to a seven-game winning streak and an eighth-placed finish. He repeated that feat last year, and in doing so turned the Tardini stadium into a fortress where Parma didn't lose until January 2013.
That excellent home form has been carried into this campaign, with only Roma and Juventus taking away three points. Most importantly there has also been a vast improvement in their away form, with all three defeats so far coming in the first half of the campaign.
Donadoni has always retained a steadying personality, even when he was tormenting full-backs along the wing for Milan under, another Parma graduate, Arrigo Sacchi. It's this stabilising influence that has got the best out of the current squad; especially Cassano, who has always warmed to the arm around the shoulder approach.
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Although Donadoni comes across as a studious and serious character, he has allowed the players to enjoy themselves and moved pre-season training to the southern beaches of Puglia away from the humid north.
The mercurial Cassano has thrived in this more relaxed environment, and rather than slip off into the shadows his form and nine goals could yet see 'Fantantonio' force his way into Cesare Prandelli’s squad for the World Cup. Striker Amauri finally broke his nine-month goal drought in January and has since scored another three, while Jonathan Biabiany has gone from a pacy-but-infuriating dribbler to a genuine provider and goal threat.
It's not just the maverick talents of Cassano that Donadoni has encouraged. The former has also raised the bar for more solid performers like Marco Parolo, who scored the only goal at Sassuolo to take his season tally to seven, and Gabriel Paletta, whose only previous claim to fame had been playing three times for Liverpool.
The Argentine has been a revelation at the heart of the defence this season, and his aerial strength and calmness on the ball have earned the 28-year-old a call-up - along with Parolo - to the Italy squad that will face Spain this week. Previously, he had only played for the country of his birth at Under-20 level.
Parma’s progress up the table has led to rumours that Donadoni will move on at the end of the season, with Lazio and Swansea both mentioned. Before Clarence Seedorf returned to Milan he had also been linked with a return to the Rossoneri. However, now an even more determined and mature coach on the cusp of 50, Donadoni has insisted he won't be rushed into a decision on his future.
Donadoni may feel like sticking around, though. The club have refurbished their training centre and set up a youth facility along the lines of Barcelona’s La Masia, while refusing to sell Parolo, Paletta and Biabiany in January. The solid foundations are there to see Parma become not just a top mid-order side, but return among Italy's cream.