Connect in the back of the net

Back at the start of December, Francesco Acerbi volleyed in a cross from Matteo Politano to send Sassuolo on their way to a convincing 1-3 win at Sampdoria. A fortnight later and Sassuolo took a point from bottom club Verona with a 1-1 draw, sending the Neroverdi into the winter break sitting eighth in Serie A, five points behind Roma, who occupy the fifth and final European qualification spot, and only one point behind AC Milan with a game in hand on both teams.

Their current standing has a lot to owe to their tight defence shipping just 15 goals, giving them the best defensive record outside the top four and only Juventus, Inter Milan and Napoli have conceded less than Sassuolo. That will give great satisfaction to Paolo Cannavaro and his central-defensive partner Acerbi who have each missed just two games so far, while Acerbi would be excused for aking great pleasure in reading the table and seeing his club’s proximity to the fallen giants of Milan.

Acerbi was at Milan just as the Rossoneri were standing on the precipice of their downfall, joining a year after they last won the Scudetto and in the same summer they sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris St Germain while Alessandro Nesta moved to wind down his illustrious career in Montreal.

Acerbi had just half a season of experience in the Italian top-flight with Chievo prior to moving to San Siro and signing him to fill the gaping defensive void left behind by the summer departures seemed odd. It was no surprise to learn that half of the defender’s registration rights were held by Genoa, given Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani’s favourable rapport with the Grifone.

 

Early struggles a thing of the past

Unable to adapt to the pressure following a period of drastic upheaval, Acerbi lasted just six months and moved to Genoa for €4 million as part of the deal that took Kevin Constant to Milan. Having found chances at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris hard to come by, he was on the move again at the end of the season, newly-promoted Sassuolo buying half of his contract rights for €1.8 million.

At the age of 27 Acerbi has now developed into a fine centre-half, impressing in Serie A with a series of cultured displays that have earned him an average match rating of 7.43, making him the 6th highest ranked player in the division. Only four players have made more clearances than Acerbi’s 93 and his total of 50 interceptions, at a rate of 3.6 per game the highest in the Sassuolo squad, makes for impressive reading.

Along with Cannavaro he has only been called upon to block 12 shots while he has only been beaten three times, winning 18 of his 21 tackles, as a result of both defenders not having to get involved with the dirty work too much, owing to the solid shield formed by Francesco Magnenelli, Alfred Duncan and Simone Missiroli in Eusebio Di Francesco’s three-man midfield.

 

Recognized at International level

Sassuolo like to sit deep in their own half when without the ball, giving Acerbi and Cannavaro added protection and permitting them to build from the back. Acerbi’s pass completion rate of 85.4% from an average of 48.4 passes per game is a pleasing return and will give the defender, who still only has the one cap despite receiving calls to Antonio Conte’s recent squads, a firm footing in the hope of gaining a place in the Italy squad for next summer’s European Championships in France.

Competing with the likes of Juventus trio Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci and Fiorentina’s Davide Astori, Acerbi of Sassuolo may be unfancied in the race to be in Conte’s plans but that will not stop the defender from chasing that goal, knowing better than most about never giving up after fighting back from cancer treatment on two occasions.

 

Battling back from cancer with renewed vigour and desire

After being diagnosed with testicular cancer for a second time after a return of a cancer tumour caused an increase in hormone hCG, which can boost testosterone, Acerbi kept training with Sassuolo and returned more resilient than ever.

“Now comes the good moment, when I can win back everything I left behind. I am doing it for me and my family. From today, I change gear he said after coming back to action in March of 2014 and from then on, in a Sassuolo side that takes no respect for reputations and is expertly drilled by Di Francesco, he has gone from strength to strength.

The discovery of his returning cancer sparked a difficult period of battle and recovery in which the defender endured four rounds of chemotherapy and waking up to find clumps of hair had fallen out overnight.

“Nausea, tiredness, insomnia, loss of appetite … at least it never made me vomit” he told Sportweek magazine last August, an experience that made him shift focus. “Now I concentrate on the important stuff”, said the defender, “I developed a furious desire to come back and play again.”

 

Reaping the rewards

Sassuolo are now reaping that desire and the 29 year old finally starting to realise the potential many knew he had before his move to Milan spelled the start of his career stagnation has helped the club begin to target a place in Europe.

Few would begrudge Acerbi that fairytale twist as the footballer who never gave up.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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