Miracle-worker Nicola inspires Torino to memorable comeback | Nicky Bandini

The Torino manager, who is a Serie A escape artist, is changing things at the club he played for with such distinction

Torino knew they were hiring a miracle worker. Davide Nicola showed this club who he was as a player, scoring the goal that brought them back to Serie A in 2006, just a year after they had gone bankrupt and three days after they lost the opening leg of their playoff final against Mantova by a daunting 4-2 margin.

Urbano Cairo, the Torino president, remembered him as “a captain without an armband, a player who brought the whole group together”, but that alone could hardly justify appointing Nicola as manager last month. The Granata were 18th in the table with 18 games played, a catastrophic position for a club that had begun the season aspiring to a European place.

For five months under Marco Giampaolo they flattered to deceive, playing sparkling football at times but rarely getting the points their performances deserved. Torino needed a coach who could rescue them from a relegation dogfight.

Nicola did precisely that for Genoa last season, taking over a side who were bottom at the end of December and finishing four points clear of the drop. More memorable still was his escape act at Crotone three years before.

Playing top-flight football for the first time in their club history, the Calabrians took 14 points from their first 29 games. And then Nicola, who had been in charge throughout, made a preposterous promise. After winning the next match, away to Chievo, he told reporters that if he could save his team from relegation, he would celebrate with an 800-mile bike ride back to Turin.

“I already have it planned out,” he insisted, “the legs, the rest days, the route.” Crotone took 20 points from their last nine games – a run that included wins over Lazio and Inter – snatching 17th on the final day.

Nicola followed through, completing a personal Giro d’Italia that he dedicated to his son – knocked off his bike and killed by a bus aged 14. The journey ended in Vigone, the Turin suburb where they lived, and where the accident occurred.

His penultimate stop had been outside the gates of Torino’s former home, the Stadio Filadelfia. The enduring affection between Nicola and this city was evident as he was greeted by hundreds of supporters, at a time when neither party knew that he would be back to manage their team.

His appointment in January was met with cautious enthusiasm. Nicola remained popular, but optimism was a scarce commodity for a fanbase let down once too often. Torino had scored the opening goal in 10 out of 18 league matches, yet only won two of them. They had conceded 12 inside the final 15 minutes of matches, more than any team in Serie A.

From 3-0 down, Torino are level! 😱

An incredible comeback against Atalanta as Bonazzoli heads in 🔥 pic.twitter.com/aShAaTviwj

— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) February 6, 2021

Nicola flipped the script, if not the results. Torino went 2-0 down in his first match, away to Benevento, before scrambling a draw. They trailed again in the next one, at home to Fiorentina, before Andrea Belotti jabbed home an 88th-minute equaliser.

At least Torino were remembering how to fight. That trait would be needed even more urgently on Saturday, after they fell 3-0 behind against a rampant Atalanta.

The easiest thing would have been to buckle. Torino bore the scars of a 7-0 mauling by the same opponents barely 12 months before. Their goalkeeper, Salvatore Sirigu, looked like a man trapped in a repeating nightmare as he floundered here, paralysed by indecision for Josip Ilicic’s opener and then blocking the ball into his own net as Robin Gosens fired across goal for the second.

He was at fault again on the third, pushing Luis Muriel’s effort back out into the same player’s path for a simple rebound. It was only the 21st minute, but the match already looked done. Atalanta had blown a three-goal lead against Lazio last season, but that was a clash of heavyweights fighting for a Champions League berth. Who could believe that relegation candidates would pick themselves off the canvas after such a punishing series of blows?

Yet that is what Torino did. Rolando Mandragora, making his debut on loan from Juventus, started to take control of the midfield, distributing decisively with the help of a rugged Tomás Rincón. Suddenly Atalanta were the ones backing onto the ropes.

It was Belotti, predictably, who landed the first counterpunch. The Italy striker had shown great sportsmanship as he talked the referee, Francesco Fourneau, into rescinding a free-kick, as well as a yellow card to Cristian Romero, in the 33rd minute, after he lost his footing while attempting to accelerate past the defender. But his insistent runs drew a real foul from José Luis Palomino soon afterward, the defender manhandling him to concede a spot-kick.

Belotti’s penalty was saved, but he volleyed home the rebound with expert technique. Torino brought themselves back to 3-2 before the game had even reached half-time, Bremer forcing the ball home after Mandragora’s shot had ricocheted off bar and post.

The visitors never relinquished control. Although Atalanta did hit the woodwork once through Aleksey Miranchuk, they did not put another shot on target from the 21st minute onwards. And Torino’s Wilfried Singo had already struck the bar with a glorious outside-of-the-boot effort of his own.

Andrea Belotti
Torino’s Andrea Belotti (second from left) scores his team’s first goal in the comeback against Atalanta. Photograph: Paolo Magni/EPA

At last, in the 84th minute, the visitors found the equaliser that their efforts deserved, Federico Bonazzoli heading home from a Simone Verdi free-kick. Substitutions made all the difference, both of those two havingcome off the bench, while Atalanta withdrew Ilicic and Muriel with an eye on Wednesday’s Coppa Italia semi-final second leg.

Nicola did not hide from his team’s failings after the final whistle. “It would be nice to go ahead one time and see what we can do directing a game for ourselves,” he acknowledged, but his greater emphasis was on the positives. “The signals I got are much more important than the result. To find yourself 3-0 down could kill anyone. Instead, what we got from this game was the self-awareness to know that we have taken a particular path … we have the quality to play with anyone.”

On paper, Torino’s squad looks like one that belongs much higher up the table. So far, Nicola has made subtle tactical tweaks, maintaining the 3-5-2 that Giampaolo eventually came to, after beginning the season with a diamond midfield. Mandragora, though, was signed at the new manager’s request, and his use as a regista allowed Rincón to switch back into the box-to-box role in which he has often thrived.

Dropping Verdi, a major signing for Torino at €21m, was another eye-catching move, rewarded by assists off the bench in each of the last two games. It is too early to say whether the forward’s future lies as a super-sub, or if Nicola may come to look at this as a successful motivational gambit.

For now, any progress remains precarious. Torino are unbeaten under Nicola in three games, but have not won with him yet either. Saturday’s point lifted them to 17th, but next up are a resurgent Genoa.

Fiorentina 0-2 Inter, Genoa 2-1 Napoli, Juventus 2-0 Roma, Sassuolo 1-2 Spezia, Atalanta 3-3 Torino, Lazio 1-0 Cagliari, Parma 0-3 Bologna, Udinese 2-0 Verona, Milan 4-0 Crotone, Benevento 1-1 Sampdoria.

To rescue a result from 3-0 down against Atalanta shows Nicola still knows how to work miracles. What Torino really need, though, is to remember how to win, and make it mundane.


Nicky Bandini

The GuardianTramp

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