Sometimes dreams do come true…
When the realization struck that Palermo’s only path for promotion this season was via the Serie C Playoff, it was only natural to hope for the best but expect the worst. After all, in order to win that final spot, the Rosanero would have to be the last team standing amongst the other 27 that made the tournament. And when was the last time Palermo beat those types of odds and surpassed everyone’s expectations?
Well, what we all found out over the past month is that this team became something truly special under Silvio Baldini. It started with final month of the regular season when the Rosanero strung together a series of excellent results. What followed that was a promising start to the Serie C Playoff when they debuted in the Third Round and dispatched Triestina, followed by an exhilarating performance that tested their mental fortitude against Entella in the Quarterfinals.
Once Palermo made it to the Final Four, the sense was that the Rosanero had a legitimate shot at this whole thing. After a thumping 3-0 win away from home in the first leg against Feralpisalo rendered the return leg in Palermo more of a celebration than a match, the realization started to sink in. Maybe, just maybe, this Palermo was destined for promotion to Serie B.
Palermo had the fortune to face Padova away in the first leg, meaning that they’d at least have the friendly confines of the Renzo Barbera to rely on in the return leg. The Biancoscudati were a powerhouse in Group A all season long, finishing on 85 points and missing out on direct promotion because of Sudtirol’s 90 point campaign. Their path to the final was relatively smooth as they joined at the Quarterfinals stage and knocked out Juventus U23 before beating Catanzaro over two legs in the Semifinals. Led by former Azzurri World Cup winner Massimo Oddo, the team played primarily in a 3-4-3 with a strong veteran presence and a balanced attack. In order to win promotion, the Rosanero were going to have to dig down deep for two more matches.
The action out the gate was quick as both sides had chances early on. Matteo Brunori couldn’t quite latch onto a ball that flashed across the Padova box while Samuele Massolo did well to parry a Ronaldo free kick minutes later. But it didn’t take too long before Palermo would find themselves ahead. Clearly, something the technical staff had seen while studying their opponents in the build up to this match ended up paying dividends. Padova had been known to be sluggish and unassuming during free kicks and the Rosanero wanted to take advantage of that lack of attention by taking theirs very quickly. After an unassuming foul near midfield, Francesco De Rose quickly chipped a ball over the top for Nicola Valente who had already started making his run behind the Padova defense. Valente gathered the ball in the box before his defender tried to poke it away but couldn’t quite clear it properly., where it first ricocheted off the Palermo winger before bouncing off another Biancoscudati defender and back into Valente’s path. He merely pushed the ball across the face of the goal where Roberto Floriano beat all three defenders around him to it and tapped it in past a helpless Antonio Donnarumma in goal. Only 10 minutes into the first leg of the Final and the Rosanero had the lead!
The Biancoscudati were not deterred, though, and the next 80 minutes were a battle of wills. Straightaway after the goal, Padova had a goalscoring opportunity but Ronaldo scuffed a shot wide. In the 25th minute, Maxime Giron went on a tear down the left side of the pitch and gave Brunori a nearly perfect ball that the striker in a fully outstretched slide pushed agonizingly wide of the far post. A minute after that chance, Padova believed they had equalized when Alfredo Bifulco got behind the Rosanero defense and beat Massolo but replays showed that he was offside and the goal was annulled! But the play of the match would occur in the 29th minute.
A Padova cross floated just inside the top of the Palermo box where Massolo came storming off his line to try to swat it clear. The only problem was that he mistimed his effort and completely missed the ball. Instead, it was Padova winger Cosimo Chiricò that headed it towards an empty net. The ball was destined for goal if not for the heroics of Ivan Marconi. Not giving up on the ball that was bouncing towards goal, Marconi sprinted to the line and acrobatically cleared the ball off the line by pushing it up off the crossbar where it deflected outward. It was an incredible and fortunate move by the Rosanero defender that kept Padova off the scoresheet. An official VAR review could not confirm that the ball completely crossed the line and Marconi’s magic was mere millimeters away from preventing an all-but-certain Padova equalizer. The teams would go into the break with the visitors up a goal.
In the second half, the urgency was seen and felt by Padova as they pressed for a goal. In the 54th minute, a nifty move by Chiricò allowed him to get a shot off from close range at a tight angle but he blasted over anyway. Palermo were not without chances themselves but the closest they came to goal was via a Gregorio Luperini overhead kick from a corner that glanced off the post. There were a couple more threatening chances for the home side but Massolo made no more mistakes and blocked every other opportunity. After the first 90 minutes were complete, Palermo gave themselves a great advantage thanks to a 1-0 win on the road. It was the sixth (!) straight win away from home.
As the Rosanero prepared for the last match of their season, the city was bubbling over with enthusiasm. And that enthusiasm extended beyond the geographical lines of the city as fans worldwide joined in the support of a team on the cusp of promotion. Coach Baldini – who kept making passing overtures of this team being destined for greatness – continued to reaffirm his belief that Palermo was going to be promoted, no question about it. As his players stepped onto the pitch, if they were nervous, nobody would have known; rather, they looked poised and prepared for the task ahead. The atmosphere at the Renzo Barbera was electric with 35,000 fans offering full-throated support for their team. How could this team even possibly lose?
The answer? They couldn’t. Buoyed by the 1-0 advantage and bolstered by their fans, Palermo took command of the match from its opening moments. The sense was that even the Padova players knew that this was a mountain to steep to climb. The visitors were hardly threatening and it was the Rosanero that had all of the goalscoring opportunities. In the 14th minute, Brunori made a great run starting at midfield and he brought the ball into the Padova box where he faked out his defender to put the ball on his left foot, unleashing a fierce shot at the near post that forced an incredible save from Donnarumma. Nearly ten minutes later, Palermo had their breakthrough. A De Rose cross into the box for Luperini was handled by a Padova defender and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. From there, Brunori stepped up and coolly blasted the ball into the back of the net, sending Donnarumma the wrong way. As Brunori sprinted and slid to the corner flag to celebrate, the fans and the players could sense that promotion was going to happen. At halftime, Palermo were effectively up two goals with just 45 minutes left to play.
In the second half, Baldini took no chances to even give Padova a semblance of a lifeline, subbing out both Jacopo Dall’Oglio and Edoardo Lancini who had picked up yellow cards in the first half for Moses Odjer and Marco Perrotta. Nearly from the restart, Palermo almost doubled their lead as a stinging shot from Brunori was deflected right in front of goal by a Padova defender. A couple minutes later, a nice set piece routine had Brunori flick a ball towards the back post where it just glanced wide. Shortly afterward, a Valente cross to the back post saw Floriano with a volleyed effort that Donnarumma did well to save at his near post. And it was from the resulting corner that things would take another turn in Palermo’s favor. During the build up to the corner kick, Perrotta took an elbow to the face. A VAR review would show that Ronaldo through the elbow and the Padova captain was sent off. The Biancoscudati were now down 10 men with a half hour left and in need of at least two goals.
In the 68th, a Luperini header was somehow kept out by the continuous heroics of Donnarumma, who was having a performance that his younger brother would be proud of. Brunori’s follow-up effort was also saved by the Padova keeper. In the 76th, Brunori almost had another goal but dragged his shot wide. The best chance at a second goal came in the 85th minute when the Rosanero high press forced a turnover deep in the Biancoscudati half. Luperini picked the ball off the foot of the defender, was through on goal and laid the ball at the feet of super sub Edoardo Soleri who had a near-certain goal. His shot was too central and once again Donnarumma saved it with his feet. In the 90th minute, Carlo Pelagatti had a reckless challenge and already booked, earned a second yellow and was sent off. Padova were down to 9 men in stoppages, but their fate was already sealed. The final whistle blew and Palermo and its fans went into delirium. Palermo won the Serie C Playoff and earned an emphatic promotion to Serie B!
The scenes in the Renzo Barbera were exuberant and emotional. As the players, staff and President Dario Mirri embraced each other, the crowd in the stands were jumping up and down in ecstasy. The raucous celebrations would continue in the locker room and the city into the early hours of the morning, with players and fans intermingling in the ensuing festivities. Palermo had made it all the way back to where they were when the dark times hit back in the 2018-19 season. Three years in purgatory – from building a team from scratch in the span of a month, to a shortened-but-triumphant Serie D season stopped by a global pandemic, to a playoff exit in their first season in Serie C to now. The growth that these players showed from the beginning of the season until the end was exponential. Under the steady and calming presence of Baldini when he took over in late December, the team found an identity, they showed character and built a mental toughness that shone throughout these eight playoff matches. Their contribution to the club will be remembered for many years to come.
The question on this site was posed prior to the final…”Is it all a dream? Is it destiny?” We finally have our answer – this club’s destiny was to turn that dream into a reality.