Sale of a single player set up Cagliari’s sudden success

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              Cagliari's Giovanni Simeone celebrates after scoring during the Italian Serie A soccer match Cagliari and Bologna at the Sardegna Arena stadium in Cagliari, Italy, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (Fabio Murru/ANSA via AP)
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ROME (AP) — Cagliari could be on its way to becoming this season’s Atalanta in Serie A — and the lucrative sale of prized midfielder Nicolò Barella to Inter Milan is a big reason for the Sardinian club’s sudden success.

Cagliari moved into contention for the Champions League places with an authoritative 2-0 win at Atalanta on Sunday, marking the team’s best start since Luigi Riva led the team to its only Italian league title in 1970.

The victory stretched Cagliari’s unbeaten run to nine matches and lifted the team level on points with fourth-place Lazio and fifth-place Atalanta — which exceeded all expectations by finishing third last season and qualifying for the Champions League.

“Europe isn’t a banned word but we can’t think long-term like that,” Cagliari coach Rolando Maran said. “We’ve got to go match by match and remain tormented inside to make us grow, work and improve on a daily basis.”

It was the first time this season that Atalanta — which still leads the league with 30 goals scored — was held scoreless.

In July, Cagliari loaned homegrown gem Barella to Inter for 12 million euros ($13.4 million) in a deal that forces the Milan club to sign him at the end of the season for an additional 25 million euros ($28 million), plus a possible bonus of 12 million euros ($13.4 million). All told, the deal could end up being worth nearly 50 million euros ($56 million).

Cagliari then spent a club record 18 million euros ($20 million) to acquire midfielder Nahitan Nández from Boca Juniors, welcomed back combative midfielder Radja Nainggolan in return from Inter in another loan deal and also signed striker Giovanni Simeone (from Fiorentina), midfielder Marko Rog (Napoli) and goalkeeper Robin Olsen (Roma) to loan deals.

It’s all part of a process of revival that began five years ago when longtime club president Massimo Cellino sold the team to Tommaso Giulini, the owner of a chemicals business.

Cagliari dropped down to the second division after Giulini’s first season in charge but then won its first Serie B title the next season and has been back on the top league ever since.

Nández, Nainggolan, Simeone, Rog and Olsen have provided big contributions this season.

“(Selling Barella) was the correct choice,” Cagliari sporting director Marcello Carli said. “And then (Giulini) did very well to invest all of the money in the squad. Not everyone would have done that. Spending 10-15 million (euros) per player is no small matter for us.”

Still, it hasn’t been all clear sailing for Cagliari this season.

The team lost its opening two matches and drew negative attention for racist chants aimed at Inter striker Romelu Lukaku.

“The most frustrating thing, considering (the island’s) history of emigration, is to be considered a racist city,” Giulini said in an interview with Corriere della Sera in the aftermath of the Lukaku chants. “Even if it was just a few imbeciles, that doesn’t take away the fact that it needs to be eliminated.”

SMALLING’S STATUS

On loan from Manchester United, Chris Smalling has quickly become an indispensable player for Roma in central defense.

“Smalling has fully adjusted to the game here, he is playing well and he is a very important player for us,” Roma coach Paulo Fonseca said following the team’s 2-1 win over Napoli on Saturday.

Roma already seems interested in keeping Smalling after the loan ends in June but United would likely request a transfer fee of 15-20 million euros ($16.5-22 million).

DE LIGT’S DILEMMA

Matthijs de Ligt is having an up and down time after becoming the most expensive defender in Serie A history when Juventus signed him from Ajax for 75 million euros ($85 million).

The Netherlands international conceded penalties to Inter and Lecce with handballs this season and appeared to get away with another handball in the first half of Saturday’s derby with Torino before scoring the winner in the second half.

“He had his hand in the wrong place at the wrong time and his foot in the right place at the right time,” Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri said with a touch of irony.