How Catania keep punching beyond their weight
Rolando Maran prefers TV to film. "It's a more comfortable way to stay in touch with what's going on in the world," he says. But if his time as coach of Catania were a movie, "I'd have to say it would be Nuovo Cinema Paradiso."
Giuseppe Tornatore's heartwarming and sentimental major motion picture told the story of a now famous film director returning to his small Sicilian hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, the local cinema's humble former projectionist with whom his passion for film developed. It of course won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1989.
Suffice to say Nuovo Cinema Paradiso was a critical success and a box office hit. A bit like the football Maran has got Catania playing, because many also consider that to be worthy of an award.
Catania continue to be a revelation. I say 'continue' because they've been getting better season after season for a while now and it really shouldn't come as a surprise anymore. But it still does.
Why is that, you ask? Well, one assumes it's because in each of the last four seasons, they've managed to improve upon their points total and final position in Serie A despite more often than not losing their rising star of a coach after every one of these mini-triumphs: Walter Zenga, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Diego Simeone and Vincenzo Montella.
Everyone expected the Catania bubble to burst following their exits. Instead it has kept rising higher and higher. From 43 points in 2009 to 45 in 2010 and 46 in 2011 to 48 in 2012.
On reflection, turning to Maran after Montella left to join Fiorentina as Mihajlovic had done two years earlier, was natural for a club on the up. Here is a man who, as you can well imagine after growing up in Trento just south of the Dolomite mountains, spent his formative years with a pair of cramp-ons on, scaling one peak after another. "Climbing was my hobby," Maran told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
He has taken Catania to new heights, the next level even. Last weekend's 2-1 win at Parma was their fifth in seven games. And with 12 still to play, they're seventh in the table and can already count 42 points along side their name. It now seems highly likely that Catania will not only break last season's club record points total in Serie A, but also the 50-point barrier for the first time in their history.
This promises to be a landmark year, one that the Elefanti will never forget. Not since the '60s have Catania been in Serie A so long - they're now in their seventh straight season in the top flight. Not since the '60s has the club finished higher than eighth either.
Catania are threatening to do more than simply emulate that feat again. Maran has got his harness on, his climbing ropes and his axe out. He wants to take Catania higher than they've ever been before and plant the blue and red flag, not on the Serie A podium - you'd think that's beyond them - but in fifth place where the Europa League awaits, a frontier hitherto unknown to the club.
Should they defeat Internazionale at the Massimino on Sunday, something they achieved last year and have a history of doing, most famously 52 years ago when a 'clamoroso' 2-0 win at Cibali meant Helenio Herrera's side missed out on the Scudetto, then Catania will quite remarkably leapfrog them and could find themselves in a European spot depending of course on what Fiorentina do in the meantime.
The question is: can they push on? Because Catania have been known to take their foot off the gas once their first objective - surviving relegation - has been achieved. That's what happened last year. Catania were eighth at this stage of the campaign and while the teams in front of them were maybe less vulnerable than they are now, they still had a shot at qualifying for the Europa League. As it turned out, they fell away, slipping to 11th.
Maran and his players insist it won't happen again. "Whoever believes that we have a full stomach [and that we aren't hungry for more] are mistaken," he said.
Qualification for the Europa League would be a great reward for a club that has been acclaimed for the way in which it is run. "Catania are the southern version of the much celebrated Udinese project," wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport. "A solid club, great monitoring of foreign transfer markets [they don't miss a good signing in Argentina], repeatedly recouping more than they spend and a team that grows year on year playing a different kind of football."
Credit for this is due to President Antonino Pulvirenti, who among other things has built one of the best training grounds in Italy, and, it must be said, his former chief executive and head of recruitment, Pietro Lo Monaco. They've made some sound decisions over the years.
Catania knew in which direction they wanted to head. The club has a clear sense of identity based around no fewer than 10 Argentine players. Alejandro Gomez, Gonzalo Bergessio, Lucas Castro and Pablo Barrientos are the pick of the bunch. Playmaker and free-kick specialist Francesco Lodi is also the Pirlo of the Provinces.
The level of understanding they have is in part down to shared heritage, the things they have in common, but if they know each other's game inside out it's because Catania have a relatively well-established way of playing.
A bit like Swansea with the transition from Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa to Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, each successive coach appears to pick up from where the other left off and add something to it, tweaking the system here and there.
Thought of as a "little Barcelona" last season, Catania have become a bit more workmanlike in this campaign, tightening their defence to the extent that it has kept 10 clean sheets and is the fifth best in Serie A. Having said that, they're are no less entertaining to watch and were it not for a series of refereeing mistakes at their expense, they'd be even higher up the table.
It all contrasts starkly with the farcical goings-on at rivals Palermo. Bottom of the table and adrift of safety by six points, president Massimo Zamperini made his fourth coaching change of the season on Sunday, sacking Alberto Malesani after 19 days and bringing back Gian Piero Gasperini.
They have their way of doing things. Catania have theirs. "To each his own," it's a Sicilian tale if ever there was one.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.