A couple months ago, Palermo looked lifeless and resigned to another season in Serie C. Fast forward to today and they are one of four teams remaining for the fourth and final promotion spot to Serie B. How did we get here? Well, it started with the final month of the season with the influence of Silvio Baldini having an impact on the team and culminated with an emphatic win away to group C winners Bari.
Nevertheless, the Serie C Playoffs are an unruly, ridiculous beast. By finishing in third place (and as the top 3 seed across all of Serie C), Palermo were fortunate to bypass the first two rounds of the tournament. After the first two rounds were complete, the Rosanero were paired up with 5-seed Triestina in the third round. Playing the first leg away, Baldini’s men looked to get a positive result while being able to play the second leg in front of the Renzo Barbera faithful.
In the first leg, Palermo got just about the best result they could’ve wanted. Nicola Valente was a constant thorn in the side of the Triestina defense with his pace and dribbling continually causing fits. It was no surprise, then, that the Rosanero went ahead right before halftime thanks to the winger’s hard work. Sitting back and waiting for counter attacking opportunities, Palermo found the opening goal when Valente tore down the right side of the field and delivered a perfect, low cross in front of goal for Roberto Floriano to tap in. Just a couple minutes later, in stoppage time, Valente did it again. Another counter and the speedy winger burned past his defender, crossed it into the box, and Matteo Brunori got just enough of a touch on the ball to roll it into the path of Floriano again to tap in. By the time Triestina had blinked, they were down two goals at halftime.
Things tightened up in the second half with Triestina realizing they needed to get something from the first leg or else they’d be doomed heading into Palermo. A couple of close calls and some fine saves from Samuele Massolo kept the Rosanero in front. The Giuliani were able to find a lifeline with just minutes before stoppage time thanks to a goal from a set piece. The first leg ended with Palermo beating Triestina 2-1 and having one foot into the next round of the Serie C Playoffs due to their better seeding.
The enthusiasm in the city of Palermo was already bubbling thanks to the good result in the first leg. But news off the pitch sent fans into a frenzy as it was reported by Ultra Palermo’s very own Benny Giardina that a City Football Group director would be in attendance for the match at the Renzo Barbera. The possible sale of Palermo to City Football Group was more than just a rumor. As for the actual match, Palermo could advance with a win, draw or even a loss by one goal. Triestina had a tall task ahead of them in front of the 30,000 Rosanero fans in attendance.
Credit to the visitors, Triestina did not go down without a fight. They had two incredible chances in the first half, including a penalty that Massolo saved, shortly followed by a header off the post. The Rosanero were lucky to go into the break at 0-0. In the second half, Triestina continued to press and finally got a goal in the 77th. All they needed was one more goal and they would advance against all odds. After 18 painful minutes, Edoardo Soleri went on a one-man counter attack, drawing four defenders in the Triestina box before the ball was knocked away from him and to the feet of Gregorio Luperini who buried it into the back of the net. The fans went nuts and the goal in the 95th minute not only ended the match, but sent Palermo through to the quarterfinals! Afterward, Baldini gave one of the best post-match interviews you will ever see.
Since Palermo were the top 3-seed in all of Serie C, they earned a crucial top seed in the quarterfinals. This meant they’d play the second leg at home and would automatically advance if the aggregate were tied. Palermo were matched up with 4-seed Virtus Entella, which earned their spot by knocking out Foggia in the third round.
In the first leg in Chiavari, the Rosanero once again sought a good result they could take into the return leg. After a goalless first half that saw a point-blank save by Massolo and a Floriano penalty shout denied, Baldini’s men came out firing. Not even a minute into the second half, Brunori won a corner and Valente delivered another gorgeous cross into the box where Luperini headed it home! Five minutes later, Brunori would win a penalty – and this time, there were no doubts as the ref pointed to the spot straightaway. Brunori, who uncharacteristically was held goalless over his previous two matches, stepped up and buried it in the right corner. Just like that, Palermo were up 2-0. But in the 68th minute, Entella grabbed a goal of their own via a corner that wasn’t properly cleared. Rosanero defender Alessio Buttaro made a crucial save on a dangerous ball across the face of the goal where two Entella players were waiting to tap it in. Palermo held on again to earn a 2-1 win away in the first leg.
Back at the Barbera, Palermo broke the season’s Serie C attendance record with over 33,000 tickets sold. Once again, the Rosanero knew they would advance as long as they didn’t lose by two goals. It was a very open first half, but neither side could break the deadlock. But with Palermo, nothing is ever easy and the second half saw it all. First, Soleri nearly put the tie to bed when he should have scored in front of goal, but somehow, some way, Entella captain Marco Chiosa incredibly kicked it off the line and onto the post where it bounced out! That seemed to have rallied and reawakened Entella as a couple minutes later, they would win a dubious penalty. With Massolo coming off his line, it appeared as though he got to the ball first to push it away from the feet of Silvio Merkaj, but the latter went to ground when his trailing leg clipped the sliding Massolo. Merkaj stepped up and scored the penalty even though Massolo got a hand to it, but there was too much power to keep it out. Suddenly, the match and tie was wide open with over 30 minutes still left to play. Entella nearly scored minutes later but Palermo captain Francesco De Rose did an incredible job to track all the way back and poke the ball off the foot of Merkaj and out of danger.
In the 71st minute, a nightmare occurred. Merkaj beat an offside trap and Massolo came way off his line to challenge him. Merkaj rounded the keeper and slotted the ball across the box to Nermin Karic whose shot deflected off of Edoardo Lancini and slowly rolled into the net as a helpless Massolo could not get back to it in time. All of a sudden, Palermo were on the verge of elimination with just 19 minutes left to play in front a stunned, silent crowd of 33,000.
The Rosanero response only took seven minutes, but it felt like 70. Edoardo Soleri, as he has done so many times this season, proved to be the super sub. The lanky forward unleashed a gorgeous right-footed daisy-cutter that beat Entella’s keeper at the back post. The Renzo Barbera erupted with joy. Palermo, despite losing the match, were now back to winning the aggregate. But they would not lose at home – not tonight! It had been a disappointing season up until this point for Palermo’s Beppe Fella. All was forgiven, though, when he delivered an exquisite scissors kick off of a deflection to tie the match and put Palermo into the semifinals of the Serie C playoffs! Despite having 10 minutes to go, Entella knew it was over. The final whistle blew and the Palermo players and fans went into delirium. The stadium was shaking and the Rosanero now found themselves in the final four.
There are not many words to describe the full range of emotions every Palermo supporter went through in that second half, especially after going down 2-0. And yet, Baldini’s men responded to the task. They believed they were not out and not only found a goal, they found two in the span of five minutes once more. The Rosanero, like much of its history, know how to suffer. And lately, they’ve also known how to respond.
Palermo will face a very good Feralpisalò side in the semifinals in a two-legged affair. The Rosanero will once again play the first leg away before playing the second leg at home. This time, there are no ties on aggregate which means that, if needed, the return leg will go into extra time and penalties. Is it time to believe?