A 16th-placed finish in Serie A, a run of one win in the last four months of the season and the departure of captain and league top scorer Rolando Bianchi; the 2012-13 campaign proved to be a tough awakening for Torino after their return to the top flight following three years in Serie B.
Furthermore, the club was still licking its wounds from its involvement in the Scommessopoli match-fixing scandal in 2012. After receiving a one-point deduction and a fine as a result of an investigation in March of that year, Il Toro desperately needed a dramatic turn of fortunes going into the next season.
But for all the club’s troubles, Giampiero Ventura’s side could draw on a few positives from their eventful first season back in the top tier. Jean-François Gillet provided years of league and international experience in goal and Polish centre-back Kamel Glik formed a solid defensive partnership with Angelo Ogbonna, who was soon to depart for city rivals Juventus at the summit of Italian football.
In fact, despite being threatened with the possibility of relegation for much of the season, Torino conceded fewer goals than Roma and Inter Milan, and a massive 29 less than bottom-placed Pescara. If the club was to avoid the danger of the drop into the second tier the following campaign, Ventura needed to find more goals from somewhere.
It did not seem that relinquishing Genoa, who finished a place below Torino and scored even fewer goals across the season, of their striker would have solved the Granata’s issues in front of goal. Ciro Immobile had scored just five goals in 33 league games for Genoa and did not score at all after the turn of the year during 2012-13. The deal to sign him did not come without its difficulties; the striker was part-owned by Juventus and the Rossoblu in a complex contractual agreement. To sign for Torino, Juve had to pay Genoa their share of Immobile’s contract before striking a similar deal with Torino on the same day for €2.75 million.
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But one striker to improve the club’s fortunes ahead of the 2013-14 campaign was not going to be enough – Rolando Bianchi, who left in the summer of 2013, was the only player a season previous to score over 10 goals in Serie A. Alessio Cerci, a well-travelled, unfashionable right-winger who played for five clubs in nine years before arriving at the Stadio Olimpicio de Torino – having managed to finish a season without a goal three times between 2005 and 2009 – was tasked with a different role in Ventura’s new-look Torino attack.
Having played and managed in Italy for the entirety of his football career, dating back to his breakthrough as a player at Sampdoria in 1968, Ventura was accustomed to playing in defensive formations as a deep-lying central midfielder in his homeland’s lower leagues. This was shown by his Torino side’s style of play after the club’s rightful return to Serie A, but during 2013-14 he changed his usual method for success.
His Torino side utilised a cavalier 3-5-2 system with Omar El Kaddouri, Immobile and Cerci leading the attack. The former contributed a useful five goals and seven assists from wide midfield in 29 league games, but Immobile and Cerci were at times unstoppable and in doing so became Torino’s star players, forming one of the most feared attacking partnerships in Serie A.
Il Toro – The Bull – began to reflect its animal namesake as Ventura employed a bolder, more attacking approach. The days of setting up in a defensive formation that relied on a lone forward player seemed a distant memory – Torino’s two unlikely heroes, Immobile and Cerci seemed to single-handedly pull the Granata towards the top of the table. In a dramatic change in style for Ventura, Torino went from one of the most negative sides in the division to one of the most forward-thinking and exciting. Compared to the defensive displays a season earlier that saw the club narrowly avoid relegation, Immobile and Cerci helped Torino become one of the most feared sides in the country.
They had their weaknesses, though. After Ogbonna left for Juventus, his replacement, Emiliano Moretti, failed to perform as effectively as his younger, more athletic compatriot. Using three central defenders meant there was a lot of space out wide for opponents to exploit, but Ventura’s side were much more potent in attack.
Immobile finished the season with 22 goals, enough to win him the coveted Capocannoniere award as Serie A’s top goalscorer. His form was a far cry from his poor fortunes only a season before in which he failed to score for almost six months.
It was a record-breaking year for the young Italian. Torino President Urbano Cairo’s shrewd investment had proven successful. He embarked on a blistering run of 12 goals in 15 matches in the first half of the 2013-14 season, and after the turn of the year scored in an impressive six league fixtures in a row. In doing so, he eclipsed Francesco Graziani and Paolo Pulici’s joint goalscoring record total of 21 goals in one season in the top flight for Torino.
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But Ventura’s side were far from one-dimensional. In Cerci, Torino had a diminutive and fast shadow striker behind Immobile who enjoyed his best season since his breakthrough at Roma a decade previous. He finished the campaign with 13 goals; only Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez at Juventus could match Immobile and Cerci’s total of 35 league goals as a partnership. Cerci also finished the season with the most assists in Serie A with 11 and helped his club to score in an impressive 30 of their league games.
It was Immobile who provided the turning point for Torino after Ventura’s side started the 2013-14 season poorly, with only two wins from August through to November. When relegation-threatened Catania visited the Stadio Olimpico at the end of November, Il Toro had to win. It was Immobile who calmly scored the first goal after just 10 minutes to settle the home crowd’s nerves with a controlled finish into the bottom corner from just inside the area to set up a convincing 4-1 victory; from that day on, Torino never looked back as they charged up the table and lost only two of their next 10 games.
The season did not come without its difficult patches, though. A narrow derby loss against Juventus started a four-game losing streak, but once again, Immobile answered his fans’ prayers. He scored a much-needed hat-trick against Livorno in a 3-1 victory to begin an impressive run that took Torino from the bottom half to European contention. The run included a dramatic 2-1 home victory against Genoa.
When Alberto Gilardino scored with only five minutes remaining to put the visitors ahead, even the most optimistic of Torino’s fans would be forgiven for thinking that their dream of a return to Europe was all but over. However, Cerci and Immobile appeared hell-bent on pulling their team over the line. In the 92nd minute, Immobile found space on the edge of the area and stroked the ball home into the far corner to pull Torino level, sending the home crowd into raptures. While they were still celebrating their team’s equaliser, Cerci immediately won the ball back from Genoa’s kick-off and scored a tremendous 25-yard effort to complete a dramatic turnaround inside a minute of injury time.
Torino were well on their way to reaching European football for the first time since their appearance in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994, and it would be the club’s first venture into Europe after its bankruptcy and subsequent reformation in 2005. But with this being Torino, it was never going to be quite so simple to achieve the sixth place required to enter the Europa League.
On the last day of the season, il Toro needed a victory against Fiorentina to overtake Parma and take the last European spot. Torino were 2-1 down until the 84th minute, before Jasmin Kurtić scored an equaliser. When Cerci was awarded a last-gasp penalty, which he was to take himself, it seemed that once again, Ventura’s side were to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – but the usually dependable Italian saw his penalty saved by Antonio Rosati, leaving Torino in seventh place after a 2-2 draw.
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The Granata’s fans did not despair for long, however. Owing to financial difficulties, Parma were unable to obtain a UEFA license and as a result were not permitted to participate in the 2014-15 Europa League. Torino were handed a reprieve, and given the chance to compete in Europe on the back of the club’s best Serie A finish since 1992. But it was to be without their star players.
Torino were understandably reluctant to let their prized assets depart for pastures new. Owing to his complex agreement with Juventus, any move away from the Olimpico was always going to be tricky for Immobile and any club willing to pay what turned out to be Juve’s asking price. Torino were forced to take full ownership of Immobile for the first time by paying their city rivals €8 million in order to immediately sell him to Borussia Dortmund, who were looking to replace Bayern Munich-bound Robert Lewandowski, for €18 million.
When Atlético Madrid offered €16 million for Cerci, as they looked to strengthen in all areas after surprisingly winning the 2013-14 La Liga title, it felt like the end of an era at Torino. The 2014-15 season was nowhere near as inspiring as the campaign before; still under Ventura’s management, the club finished ninth in Serie A and were underwhelming in the Europa League, crashing out in the round of 16 to Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Interestingly, Immobile and Cerci have also suffered since leaving Italy. Cerci suffered a poor first campaign at Atlético and appeared in only seven league games, before being shipped out on loan to Genoa and AC Milan. His former partner Immobile also took a long route back to the Serie A. After only three goals in 24 Bundesliga games for Dortmund, he was loaned to Sevilla with a deal that left the Spanish side obliged to pay for his permanent service after five league starts. After this clause was activated, he never played at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán again and was loaned back to Torino, playing 14 league games, before joining Lazio in 2015.
During the 2015-16 season, Immobile scored an impressive 23 league goals, surpassing the total that won him the Capocannoniere at Torino. However, this came after two seasons of moving from club to club and enduring an unsuccessful period abroad, like Cerci. The manager who brought them together, Giampiero Ventura, stayed on at the Olimpico after his former stars left the club and has since undertaken the role as the Italian national team manager.
Perhaps with hindsight, it would be fair to argue that Cerci and Immobile would also have benefitted from a few more years at Torino, like their former manager. But for the club’s fans, it is a case of what might have been having now returned to the normality of mid-table
By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998