Will modern man Motta do an Alonso and stick with Bologna over Juventus? | Nicky Bandini

The calendar showed 1 April, but there was nothing fishy about a league table that showed Bologna in fourth place. Thiago Motta’s side have held that spot for more than a month, even if it was striking to see after Monday’s 3-0 win over Salernitana that they had closed to within two points of Juventus in third. The gap was 20 at the start of February.

April Fools’s Day in Italy is known as Pesce d’Aprile – April Fish. The tradition is for children to stick paper pesci on people’s backs and see how long they go unnoticed, but journalists have been known to mark the occasion with made-up stories, as happens in other countries. Bologna supporters must hope the headlines now linking their manager to Juventus turn out to be fake news.

A report by SportItalia’s Michele Criscitello claimed the Bianconeri had already reached agreement with Motta on contract terms including salary and duration, as well as a shared vision for developing the team. The manager had said one day earlier that he was not thinking about his future beyond the next game.

Both claims may be true. Any such negotiations would not be conducted by Motta but by his agent, and agreements in principle can be reached without firm commitments being made. What we can say is that it would be no surprise for Juventus to look in his direction.

No team in Serie A have outperformed expectations this season like Motta’s Bologna. They have won eight of their last nine matches, the only interruption coming in a 1-0 defeat to the runaway leaders Inter. Their 38 points from 16 home games are second only to those same Nerazzurri.

Motta’s coaching has had a transformative impact on several players’ careers. Riccardo Orsolini, who opened the scoring against Salernitana with an Arjen Robben-esque move inside from the right flank to finish across goal with his left boot, has reached double figures in consecutive seasons.

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This is one Riccardo Orsolini will have on REPLAY! ✨

The bend on that is UNREAL! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/j6PTIrKKLy

&mdash; Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) April 1, 2024

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Now 27 years old, he had won just two Italy caps prior to 2023 but looks increasingly likely to earn a place in Luciano Spalletti’s squad for this summer’s Euros. Introduced off the bench for the final 15 minutes of the Azzurri’s recent friendly against Ecuador, he served Nicolò Barella with a delicious through ball for the goal that sealed a 2-0 win.

Then there is the other Riccardo, Calafiori, who provided the assist to Orsolini on Monday. A graduate of Roma’s academy, identified by the Guardian’s NextGen Series in 2019 as one of the brightest prospects to watch in his year group, he failed to break through into the starting XI under José Mourinho but joined Bologna for €4m last summer after a positive season with Basel in Switzerland.

Previously a left-back, Motta moved Calafiori into central defence. He has thrived there, encouraged by his manager to play on the front foot and use his speed to interrupt attacks as well as bring the ball out of defence. Calafiori has three assists this season and ranks joint-fourth in Serie A for passes intercepted.

Riccardo Calafiori and his Bologna teammates celebrate victory over Salernitana with fans in the Curva Andrea Costa. Photograph: Gianluca Ricci/IPA Sport/ipa-agency.net/Shutterstock

Lewis Ferguson has been another player to thrive under Motta, taking on the captain’s armband and linking play brilliantly behind the attack. Up front, Joshua Zirkzee’s elusive and explosive playing style has captured the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. Signed for €8.5m from Bayern Munich in 2022, recent headlines have set his price at more than eight times that figure. Bologna’s sporting director, Marco Di Vaio, said last week: “The numbers you read are too low.”

Yet the stars on Monday were others. Bologna’s second goal was scored by Alexis Saelemaekers, playing on loan from Milan after three underwhelming seasons with the Rossoneri. The third came courtesy of a rampaging run from the journeyman defender Charalampos Lykogiannis. And there were important saves made at the other end by Federico Ravaglia, who has spent much of this season as Lukasz Skorupski’s backup.

These stories reflect Motta’s commitment to meritocracy, giving starting opportunities to whichever players earn them on the training ground. They speak also to the fluidity of his formations.

Mocked for many years in Italy over a throwaway comment during a 2018 interview about playing with a 2-7-2 formation (he described the goalkeeper as part of the back two), Motta was in fact only articulating a then developing trend in football coaching: to consider players as having roles and duties on the pitch more than rigid positions. His modern approach is one part of why clubs like Juventus are looking in his direction.

Would that be the right move, though, for Motta? Where Bologna’s arrow is pointing clearly upwards, Juventus are in a tailspin. Their 1-0 loss to Lazio on Friday was sealed late, but they deserved nothing more from a game in which they were a clear second-best to opponents playing their first game under new manager Igor Tudor.

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Massimiliano Allegri returned to Juventus in 2021 as a safe pair of hands to put the club back on track after their run of nine consecutive league titles was ended with a fourth-place finish under Andrea Pirlo. Nobody expected sparkling football from a man who has rarely been associated with that, but they did anticipate improved results.

Massimiliano Allegri take out his frustration on a water bottle during Juventus’s defeat to Lazio. Photograph: Federico Proietti/DPPI/Shutterstock

Despite periods of optimism, those have not been delivered consistently. Juventus finished fourth again in 2021-22, and would have been joint-third last season without their points deduction. They kept pace with Inter for the first half of this campaign, and were top of the table as recently as January, but a dismal run of just one win in their last nine matches has put even Champions League qualification at risk.

Bologna’s supporters continue to hope that, if their team can finish this season strongly, the prospect of leading them into Europe’s top club competition might persuade Motta to stick where he is for another year. Although he did not speak directly about his future on Monday, he was asked about Xabi Alonso’s choice to stay with Bayer Leverkusen after leading them to a likely Bundesliga title.

Motta kept a poker face as he replied: “I think that’s a just and respect-worthy decision. I wish him the best because he’s a truly great manager.”

Is it too soon to think that Motta deserves the same label? Bologna will not match Leverkusen this season in lifting a trophy. But a team that have not played in any European competition since they were beaten by Fulham in the 2002 Intertoto Cup would celebrate a return to the Champions League almost as enthusiastically.

“We’re having a good moment, beautiful both for the results and for the way we’re playing,” said Motta on Monday. Tougher opponents than last-placed Salernitana lie in wait. But Bologna have shown already over the last 28 games that they will not be intimidated by swimming with Serie A’s biggest fish.

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Inter 2-0 Empoli, Lecce 0-0 Roma, Cagliari 1-1 Verona, Sassuolo 1-1 Udinese, Bologna 3-0 Salernitana, Fiorentina 1-2 Milan, Lazio 1-0 Juventus, Genoa 1-1 Frosinone, Torino 1-0 Monza, Napoli 0-3 Atalanta.

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Serie A results

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Inter 2-0 Empoli, Lecce 0-0 Roma, Cagliari 1-1 Verona, Sassuolo 1-1 Udinese, Bologna 3-0 Salernitana, Fiorentina 1-2 Milan, Lazio 1-0 Juventus, Genoa 1-1 Frosinone, Torino 1-0 Monza, Napoli 0-3 Atalanta.

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The Guardian

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