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Sevilla coach Vincenzo Montella’s long road to the Champions League quarterfinals

Bayern Munich will face a wily adversary who has a reputation for winning stunning results with underrated squads.

Manchester United v Sevilla FC  - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg
Wissam Ben Yedder scores Sevilla first goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford, March 13, 2018.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

The curious case of Vincenzo Montella’s coaching career

Vincenzo Montella

Bayern Munich have been drawn against Sevilla in the quarterfinals of this year’s UEFA Champions League. This is definitely not the most difficult opponent Heynckes’ men could have gotten, but still is a team that boasts several talented players, a European pedigree (with 5 Europa League titles) and a bright manager with an interesting career thus far, full of ups and downs, entertaining play and a few boardroom disagreements.

Vincenzo Montella was a prolific striker during Italy’s golden generation of attacking prowess, including Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Pippo Inzaghi, Roberto Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, Bayern’s Luca Toni and many others. How the Italian National team could use a forward of Montella’s ability now! He was overshadowed by many of these greats as a player, yet he still managed 141 Serie A goals for Roma and Sampdoria.

Rising with Roma and Catania

L’aeroplanino moved into football management straight away after retirement, taking over Roma’s U15 squad, but he found himself as caretaker manager of the first team in February of 2011, replacing Claudio Ranieri. He managed to steady a sinking ship and finished sixth, but suffered a disappointing Champions League exit to Shaktar Donetsk 6-2 on aggregate. That summer, Roma was taken over by American businessman, Thomas Di Benedetto, who preferred Luis Enrique over Montella.

Catania Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A
Montella coaching Roma in 2011.
Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

The 2011/2012 season turned out to be Montella’s breakthrough season with Catania. Typically a club fighting relegation, Montella introduced an attacking style of play based on quick passing exchanges in midfield and talented wingers like Papu Gomez. They finished the campaign in 11th place and even flirted with Europa League qualification for much of the season. Nevertheless, Montella was now a highly coveted manager on the peninsula for his proactive philosophy.

Three times fourth at Fiorentina

A Fiorentina team in crisis won his signature. The club signed an incredible 17 players, including stylish midfielders Borja Valero, Alberto Aquilani, and David Pizarro. Montella trusted three playmakers in his 4-3-3 formation during his first season, and the results were impressive. The Tuscan club finished the campaign in fourth, missing Champions League qualification by just two points. Fiorentina notably scored 72 goals that season, one more than champions Juventus.

In the summer of 2013, Montella received more firepower as Fiorentina signed Giuseppe Rossi and Bayern’s own Mario Gomez. Everything started great with four wins from four including a 5-2 win away (rare to score five goals away in Italy). Unfortunately, Gomez suffered an ACL injury ending his season.

ACF Fiorentina v Atalanta BC - TIM Cup
Vincenzo Montella greets Mario Gomez, 2015.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Fiorentina maintained their momentum, beating Juventus 4-2 in October, but another ACL injury—this time to Rossi—made things difficult for the young manager. Montella switched formations from a 3-5-2 back to 4-3-3 due to his lack of strikers and the team continued to do well, again finishing 4th and losing the Coppa Italia final to Napoli, 3-1. In Montella’s third season in charge, difficulties began to emerge.

Although the club did not bring in high-profile replacements for the still injured Gomez and Rossi, Montella still guided the team to a third 4th place finish in three season, as well as the semifinals of the Europa League. Montella was controversially sacked, however, following a reported bust-up with the owners over disunity in terms of his and the club’s ambitions.

Disappointment with A.C. Milan

After a short and unspectacular six months in charge of Sampdoria, Montella was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing dormant giant A.C. Milan back to the heights of European football in 2016. Under Montella, Milan defeated Juventus to win the Italian Supercoppa, Montella’s first major silverware as a manager and Milan’s first since 2011.

Montella was praised for getting the most out of his workman-like squad, which managed yet another victory over Juventus. A 6th-place finish guaranteed Milan its first taste of European competition in three seasons. Montella was credited with dramatically improving the standard of play along with the massive developments of players like Giacomo Bonaventura, Suso, Alessio Romagnoli and Gianluigi Donnarumma.

SSC Napoli v AC Milan - Serie A
Montella with a sign reading “vacanze” (“holiday”) in the background. The “holiday” would soon prove to be his own when Milan fired him.
Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

The summer of 2017 saw A.C. Milan spend over 200 million Euros on 11 new players, but this came with an incredible amount of scrutiny and pressure for the team to perform from pundits, former players, and of course an eager board room (that had just replaced Silvio Berlusconi). After a few promising results in the league and Europa League, Milan’s fortunes turned sour fast. Heavy losses to Sampdoria, Lazio and Napoli revealed the weaknesses of the team.

Montella sacked his fitness coach, but soon it would be his turn. After a drab 0-0 draw at home to Torino and only 6 victories out of 14 league games, Montella was fired. Milan have since seen a resurgence with Gennaro Gattuso in charge, whereas Montella could not find the best starting line-up or formation and has since been criticized for a lack of work on the training field compared to Gattuso’s methods.

Onward to Sevilla—and the Champions League

The Neapolitan quickly found his next adventure, this time abroad, with Sevilla. Montella took over from Eduardo Berizzo, who was fired a week after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer. This Sevilla team had endured an inconsistent season, including a 5-1 loss to Spartak Moscow and a 5-0 loss to Real Madrid.

Montella’s three months at the helm has been indicative of his entire managerial career thus far. Sevilla have reached the final of the Copa Del Rey, while slipping to sixth in the league (with a few losses coincidentally conceding 5 goals), yet they now have famously reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time since 1958. They dominated Manchester United in both the home and away legs.

Manchester United v Sevilla FC  - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg
Vincenzo Montella celebrates knocking out Manchester United at Old Trafford, March 13, 2018.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Montella’s current Sevilla team bears several resemblances to his Fiorentina. Sevilla is a team that enjoys quick passing combinations in midfield and builds from the back, relying on clever midfielders like Éver Banega, Joaquín Correa, Franco Vázquez and Steven N’Zonzi. Montella has preferred playing Carlos Bacca as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but the tie was won against United when he brought on Wissam Ben Yedder for the Colombian, who scored two goals in less than ten minutes. Center-back Clément Lenglet controlled Romelu Lukaku’s threats and was always in the right spot to clear from crosses. To be fair, United played into Sevilla’s hands. Not pressing them high up the pitch allowed Sevilla’s playmakers to maintain possession and boss the game.

Sevilla in the image of its master

This Sevilla team is a mirror image of their boss. There is definitely quality throughout, but their single greatest problem is inconsistency. No one is ever sure what to expect from either Sevilla or Montella. Bayern no doubt are favorites and will advance if they play to their potential, but they must be aggressive in their pressing and tough in the center of the pitch to gain the upper hand. Sevilla also have a fantastic record at home in the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan in European competition. Should Bayern win the first leg away, then they will be very confident of advancing, but again: expect the unexpected from this Sevilla team and their fearless manager.

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