Vincenzo Montella's first task as Sevilla manager is to claim derby rights over Real Betis
Italian has plenty of jobs in his in-tray since taking over the Primera Liga club, the first among them victory in the Seville derby.
Vincenzo Montella has some pretty smart derby credentials. The Italian manager, who begins his career in Spanish league football on Saturday, grew up as footballer straddling the tetchy Genoese division of Genoa versus Sampdoria, soared as a striker in gladiatorial tussles between Roma and Lazio and found himself available, mid-season, for his latest managerial post having suffered somewhat in the eternal rivalry of Milan.
Whether all that can quite prepare a man for the full Andalusian ardour of Sevilla versus Real Betis is another thing. It is a fixture that has yielded 10 red cards in the last decade - and for a chunk of that period the clubs were not even sharing the same first division. Montella’s first appearance on the home bench at Sevilla’s Nervion arena could scarcely be more charged.
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Montella, 43, has been drafted in at Sevilla to arrest slipping standards, and naturally to maintain the lordly attitude towards the city’s other club, Betis. Eight points separate Sevilla, in fifth spot in the Primera Liga, from their noisy neighbours, who are 14th in a clogged mid-table that could look a great deal more attractive for Betis with three points from the derby.
For Montella, the prize for a win would be leapfrogging champions Real Madrid, who play on Sunday, and starting his reign in Spain in the position Sevilla’s president Jose Castro has set him as a minimum target. A top four finish would put Sevilla in next season’s Uefa Champions League.
That competition was the attraction for Montella, who was sacked in November by AC Milan after a year a half at San Siro and a poor run of winter form left qualification for Europe’s elite competition disappearing over the immediate horizon.
Montella’s perceived shortcomings at Milan were not so clear that his availability had not thrust him high up the list of men of interest to the Italian Football Federation as a potential national team manager.
But he accepted Sevilla for the challenge of a new domestic environment and a club with strong pedigree in Europe. He will take on Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United next month for a place in the Champions League quarter-finals, a meeting of the club who won the last Europa League final and the Sevilla who triumphed in the previous three.
Montella is under no illusions about the expectations of supporters accustomed to that regular run of trophies, nor his president. Castro terminated the employment of Eduardo Berizzo last month after 27 matches, half of them wins, and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Berizzo had begun treatment for prostrate cancer in November and amid the negotiations with Montella, Castro was obliged to answer accusations that given those circumstances, he had behaved ruthlessly towards the Italian’s predecessor.
“We replaced the coach, who is an excellent professional because the team was not giving us what we wanted,” Castro said.
What he seeks from Montella, popularly known as the Little Aeroplane - from the distinctive goal celebration he made as a player, and made very often while he was at Roma, with his arms stretched out - is a hardened centre.
Sevilla’s season has had its highs, notably the spectacular comebacks against Liverpool in the group phase of the Champions League: 2-1 down to 2-2 at Anfield; 3-0 down to 3-3 at the Sanchez Pizjuan – but also some heavy losses at Real Madrid, Valencia and Spartak Moscow.
There was also growing anxiety that the club’s time-honoured model for success and sustainability was not functioning. Sevilla in recent years have been a remarkable tale of shrewd scouting, lucrative retailing of players and a high turnover through which high, year-on-year standards have been maintained.
It’s a line that goes through the likes of Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic, and Carlos Bacca, to name just a few who were sold at huge profit, but had apparently stuttered lately.
Montella will, for instance, be expected to draw more from the 26-year-old Colombian striker Luis Muriel, signed for €20 million (Dh88.6m) in the summer. He has worked with Muriel before, at Sampdoria, which may be helpful.
And Montella is a liberator of talent, at least on the pitch. When he managed Fiorentina, his teams were capable of dazzling football; his Milan had their moments.
In Spain, where the stereotype of Italian tacticians as cagey and staid is hard to erase, at least from the media and pundits, Montella may be more to the Primera Liga’s taste than some imagine.
What he needs right away is the stomach for as fiery a derby atmosphere as he has experienced.
Updated: January 4, 2018 05:41 PM