Davide Nicola, Serie A’s Houdini, pulls off another escape act with Empoli | Nicky Bandini

Estimated read time 7 min read

It takes a confident magician to hold their nerve until the last moment of an escape act, allowing the audience’s anticipation to give way to concern and then panic. Could a hidden key have slipped free from anxious fingers? Will the water in that sealed tank keep rising? Might it be too late by the time anybody realises they needed saving?

Davide Nicola has earned his reputation as Serie A’s Harry Houdini. In 2016, he took charge of a Crotone side who had just been promoted to Serie A for the first time in club history. After 29 games, they had 14 points.

Then Nicola, whose teenage son had died after being knocked off his bike in a road accident three years before, made a bet with reporters. If he could save Crotone from the drop, he would mark the achievement by cycling the 800 miles back to Vigone, the Turin suburb where his family lived and the accident occurred. He succeeded, dragging his team out of the relegation zone with a win over Lazio on the final weekend.

His first great escape, but far from the last. In December 2019, Nicola was hired by a Genoa team who sat bottom of Serie A and had gone through two previous managers that season. Again, he secured their top-flight status with a win on the final day. Nicola was nevertheless fired in the summer, before being hired by Torino the following season, navigating them to safety as well.

Next came Salernitana. Bottom of the table and eight points from the last safe spot when Nicola was appointed in February 2022, the Seahorses lost just five of their remaining 15 games, to avoid the drop. He was let go midway through the following season despite having the team on course to stay up once again.

That worked out well for Empoli. The Tuscans were 19th when they came calling this February, having just fired Aurelio Andreazzoli, their second manager of this campaign. He and Paolo Zanetti had collected 13 points between them in 20 games.

Circumstances had not been easy. Empoli sold their goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario to Tottenham in the summer as well as the starting full-back Fabiano Parisi to Fiorentina. The Italy Under-21s keeper they signed to replace Vicario, Elia Caprile, suffered an ankle injury that kept him out for all of September.

Yet the greater struggles were at the other end. Empoli scored 11 goals in 20 games before Nicola’s appointment, with the strikers Mattia Destro and Francesco Caputo both showing their age and the younger Nicolò Cambiaghi looking more at home when allowed to play behind the attack instead of being forced to lead it.

The most promising young forward was Tommaso Baldanzi, who struck against Juventus to earn a draw in Nicola’s second game at the helm. He was sold to Roma five days later.

His departure was offset by two January arrivals up front, each a blast from the past. Alberto Cerri and M’Baye Niang were heralded as future stars as they made their professional breakthroughs a decade ago – the former a 6ft 4in target man for Italy’s youth teams and the latter a living lightning bolt who drew comparisons to Thierry Henry while at Milan.

Neither player’s career has panned out as envisaged. Cerri struggled in top-flight stints with Pescara and Cagliari and spent the last two and a half seasons with Como in Serie B. Niang bounced between clubs in France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey with some successes along the way, though those registered less strongly with Italian audiences than the time he played rock, paper scissors with Mario Balotelli to decide who should take a penalty.

Both would play a part, though, in Nicola’s latest escape act. Cerri bagged the only goal of a 1-0 win over Napoli in April, before suffering a thigh injury that would keep him out for much of the rest of the season. Niang, despite starting only five matches, became Empoli’s highest scorer.

Davide Nicola joined Empoli in January.View image in fullscreen

His impact was immediate, making his debut off the bench against relegation rivals Salernitana in February with the scores level at 1-1. Niang restored his team’s lead from a penalty then set up another goal in injury time.

If Nicola was a magician then Niang was that hidden key, kept out of sight in the dugout until required to wriggle out of another tight spot. All his goals came as a substitute, and each was essential, earning draws against Fiorentina and Udinese as well as wins over Salernitana, Sassuolo and Torino.

Empoli arrived at this final weekend in the relegation zone. The good news was that the two teams immediately above them, Frosinone and Udinese, were playing each other, meaning that a win would guarantee survival for Nicola’s side. The bad news was that they were up against sixth-placed Roma.

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They got off to a positive start, Matteo Cancellieri side-footing home at the end of an early counterattack. But Houssem Aouar equalised for Roma before half-time.

A draw could theoretically have been enough to secure a relegation playoff against Udinese – so long as Frosinone beat the Friuliani. But despite dominating that match, and forcing several athletic saves from Maduka Okoye, the Canarini were unable to make a breakthrough. Instead, in the 76th minute, the Englishman Keinan Davis came off the bench to score what turned out to be the only goal of the game for Udinese.

Empoli’s task was now clear: win or be relegated. The more they struggled, the less likely escape seemed. Razvan Marin rattled a long-range shot off the crossbar but there was no clarity, no sense of building momentum. The magician’s tank was filling with water, the last gulps of air disappearing.

And then, in a blink, they were free. Niang strolled through an open door in the Roma defence that appeared as if it had always been there, concealed only by misdirection. He slipped his shot under Mile Svilar, and the trick was complete. Empoli were free from peril.

Matteo Cancellieri is thrown in the air by Empoli supporters in wild celebrations on the pitch.View image in fullscreen

The final whistle went, and fans flooded the pitch. Two hundred miles away, Frosinone were experiencing the opposite emotions, their Serie A status stripped away after a game when they had done everything right except put the ball in the net.

Of these three relegation rivals, Frosinone were the only club who stuck by their manager, Eusebio Di Francesco, through the whole campaign. His opposite number, Fabio Cannavaro, sought to console him as he wept beside the pitch.

Back in Empoli, Nicola was in his element. This was his fifth time finishing 17th in Serie A, all with different clubs. He said in post-game interviews: “This is the one that has made me the happiest – more for other people than for myself.” He thanked the fans for giving his team a lift, the players for raising their levels and the board for their support.

“Empoli are an example that ought to be studied,” he continued. “They have the setup of a big club, but they remain humble. This group of lads will go down in history.”

By avoiding relegation, Empoli have ensured a fourth-consecutive season of top-flight football – something they have never achieved before. Only Serie A’s great escape artist could make the unprecedented feel so inevitable.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Inter Milan 38 67 94
2 AC Milan 38 27 75
3 Juventus 38 23 71
4 Atalanta 37 31 69
5 Bologna 38 22 68
6 Roma 38 19 63
7 Lazio 38 10 61
8 Fiorentina 37 14 57
9 Torino 38 0 53
10 Napoli 38 7 53
11 Genoa 38 0 49
12 Monza 38 -12 45
13 Verona 38 -13 38
14 Lecce 38 -22 38
15 Udinese 38 -16 37
16 Cagliari 38 -26 36
17 Empoli 38 -25 36
18 Frosinone 38 -25 35
19 Sassuolo 38 -32 30
20 Salernitana 38 -49 17

Source: theguardian.com

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