As the restart looms the Crazy Faithful looks back on six unforgettable days in February when Hellas rocked Serie A.
1 February 2020.
It was a cold foggy day in Verona. It seems a lifetime ago. Britain was waking up to life outside the European Union. The Trump impeachment trial was reaching its climax. Meanwhile in Hong Kong a passenger who had just disembarked from the Diamond Princess tested positive for a highly contagious new virus.
Of course in Verona all this was of little concern, as football fans in the city were bracing themselves for what promised to be the biggest week of football for over 30 years.
After a solid, if unspectacular, start to the 2019/20 season, Hellas were on a five game unbeaten run. They now faced three massive fixtures, against Milan (A), Lazio (A) and Juventus (H), that would make or break their season. While few outside the city gave Hellas much hope of taking anything from these games, in Verona itself there was a mood of growing optimism, as fans had witnessed a remarkable turnaround at the club since the arrival of Ivan Juric in the summer. Even the breaking news that influential midfielder Sofyan Amrabat had agreed terms with Fiorentina for a summer move wasn't enough to dampen the buoyant mood.
The big news going into the Milan match that Sunday afternoon was that Zlatan Ibrahimović was out with a bout of the flu. The big Swede had inspired a revitalised Milan since signing in December, so his absence was a massive blow for the home side. No such concerns for Verona, whose starting 11 had a reassuringly familiar look to it. After years of constant tinkering, first under Fabio Pecchia then Fabio Grosso, the settled look to Juric's team has been one of its most striking features.
After just 13 minutes, Verona took an early lead against the Milan giants. Faraoni's glancing header from a fiercely whipped in Zaccagni cross gave Hellas the advantage in front of 55,000 at the San Siro. Fifteen minutes later Calhanoglu equalised for Milan, but in the second half it was Verona who created the better opportunities, with both Zaccagni and Pessina hitting the upright in a twenty minute spell dominated by the gialloblù. Hellas might even have gone on to win the game were it not for Amrabat's red card on the 68th minute. His dismissal (after a VAR intervention to upgrade his yellow to a red), marked a turning point in the game, ensuring a nervy final 20 minutes for a ten man Verona. In the end, they held on for a rare and well-deserved point to bring back from Milan.
Just three days later, Hellas were once again on the road, this time to Rome to take on a formidable Lazio side. With the original fixture postponed to allow Lazio to play in the Italian Supercoppa, Hellas now faced their stiffest challenge of the season. The last time the sides met at the Stadio Olimpico, almost exactly two years ago, Lazio won 2-0, both goals coming from Ciro Immobile. In fact, Verona haven't won against Lazio at the Stadio Olympico since the championship winning 1984/85 season!
While Hellas were on a decent run of form (3 draws and 3 victories going into this game), Lazio had won their last 7 home games - they hadn't lost in Serie A since 25 September (1-0 against Inter) and Ciro Immobile was in scintillating form, with 24 goals in just 21 games.
As with Milan, it was another finely balanced match, with Lazio unable to break down a resolute Verona defence, while Hellas created a number of chances of their own to snatch an improbable victory. In the end, another impressive point on the road for Hellas.
With two points and, just as significantly, two highly impressive performances on the road, the sense of excitement and optimism was building ahead of Saturday night's prime time spectacle against Juventus. All week the Crazy Faithful was inundated with fans (and even the odd player) trying to get hold of tickets for the match. It was going to be a sell out at the Bentegodi!
Sure enough, when Saturday came there were long queues of fans waiting to enter the stadium and, as kickoff approached, very few empty seats to be found. Although Hellas have earned a handful of famous victories against Juve over the years, it was striking that we approached this game in expectation rather than just blind hope.
Notwithstanding our optimism, there was a strong sense of resignation when Kumbulla's opening goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. Juric didn't allow his players heads to drop though, and even when Ronaldo scored the opener after 65 minutes, the mood around the stadium, and on the pitch, remained defiant.
Borini's equaliser ten minutes later was no less than Verona deserved and the 86th minute penalty was just reward for a performance of quality, character and determination. Who else would you want but Giampaolo Pazzini to step up to convert the spot kick for a historic three points?
As you can imagine, there were joyful scenes in the bars and piazzas around the stadium that Saturday night, a few tears even! After an incredible week of football, Hellas Verona had emerged with 5 points and found themselves edging towards a Europa league place. There was little doubt amongst the delirious fans I spoke to that evening that this was the greatest Hellas Verona side since the 1984/85 season.
We partied long into the night. Perhaps if we had known what was to come, we would have partied even harder. Whatever happens now, that week in February will never be forgotten!