The last time 64-year-old coach Emiliano Mondonico had tasted victory in Milan was on the 20th November, 1988. On that foggy day, the then-youthful coach led Atalanta to a 2-1 win at the San Siro against a mighty AC Milan side managed by Arrigo Sacchi, a team which would go on to win the next two European Cups. That day, as autumn turned into winter, a strike from midfielder Valter Bonacina in the dying minutes of the match was enough for the Bergamaschi to claim victory.
On 12th February however, 24 years later, Mondonico repeated the trick. This time though Inter were on the end of the wily manager’s winning plan, as Mondonico watched his newly promoted Novara team secure a slender 1-0 result – enough to send the Nerazzurri back into crisis.
Mondonico arrived at Novara at the end of January, replacing Attilio Tesser, the man who had guided the Piemontesi on a long upward march from Serie C to Serie A in just two years. The former Cremonese, Torino and Atalanta manager had been at the helm of Albinoleffe (a small side from Bergamo) until last year, but was forced to take leave as he fought against cancer. Now Mondonico has practically won his battle for health and the De Salvo family (Novara’s owners) sent out an SOS to the 64-year-old to rescue a team stuck at the bottom of Serie A.
The coach’s predecessor Tesser had worked wonders with Novara, but came in for criticism from the club’s faithful this season, with expectations high despite the fact that the side were in Serie C in 2010.
In Mondonico’s first game Novara were beaten by Chievo Verona and then drew at home against Cagliari (0-0) – the goalless draw was the first time the Biancoazzurri had kept a clean sheet this season. These two matches did not point to victory away against Inter, but the miracle arrived nonetheless.
Inter came into the clash an angry bunch, having been comprehensively outclassed by Roma the previous week (4-0) and coach Claudio Ranieri was confident his men would bounce back with an easy home win against the relegation battlers.
The Nerazzurri threw everything at Novara from the first whistle, but Mondonico’s men resisted stoically and then, at the start of the second half, centre forward Andrea Caracciolo scored a fantastic goal with a rasping shot from outside the penalty area – the Piemontesi were ahead.
Inter were stunned, but tried to recover. However, despite many attempts on goal and Wesley Sneijder striking the bar, Albanian goalkeeper Samir Ujkani and Novara’s defence resisted until the end – even with ten men, as full back Ivan Radovanovic was sent off with ten minutes left. The victory was an incredible feat for Mondonico, while for Novara, it was the completion of an unlikely double over the Nerazzurri, who had lost 3-1 in their earlier fixture between the teams, a result which heralded the end of Gian Piero Gasperini’s Inter spell. Novara had been given hope in their battle against the drop.
Mondonico employed a typical catenaccio style at the San Siro with a 3-5-1-1 formation, firmly rooted in Serie A’s history, but defended his approach. “We won with a style of football from the past”, admitted the Novara manager, “the football usually played in the sixties and seventies, but there is no embarrassment, this is part of our history, Italian football is famous in the world for this type of defensive football.”
Indeed, the veteran coach has taken a pragmatic view in his quest to keep Novara up. “When I am on the sofa watching TV, I like to watch Barcelona and their style of play. But we are Novara and we were in the San Siro against one of the best teams in the world, so, where is the embarrassment? These types of victories can happen only in this sport – only in football.”
Novara are still in the fight of their lives to survive in Serie A this season, but the Inter victory instilled real confidence that their status can be preserved, something only boosted by a valuable 0-0 draw at home to Atalanta the following weekend.
And Mondonico is proud of his men – and his football. “A lot of managers like to say they don’t play catenaccio but counter attack. They like to affirm that they don’t close all the spaces against other teams but instead they create ‘density’ in some parts of the pitch. I have no problem in saying we like to play catenaccio against teams like AC Milan, Internazionale, Juventus, Napoli and Lazio. With this spirit we can have a chance of avoiding relegation, despite the fact that we’re still bottom for now.”
Mondonico’s pragmatism may yet save the Biancoazzurri and the club’s famous victory against Inter in Milan might not be the only feat Novara’s fans remember from their troubled Serie A campaign.