This week saw the culmination of Gian Piero Gasperini’s short spell in charge of Inter, a dismal 3-1 loss at newly-promoted Novara being the final nudge into the abyss for a man already teetering on the precipice. In stark contrast, the Genoa side he left behind have had a fine start to the new campaign- one of their best ever, in fact. The season is still young, but i Rossoblu have yet to lose and have been impressive in attack, displaying some swift and incisive forward play.
A key cog in their offensive unit is Argentine striker/wide-man Rodrigo Palacio. With an electric turn of pace and ability to run endlessly, he has been a mainstay of a Genoa side that has changed personnel at an alarming rate since his arrival for a fee of around €5m two years ago. Usually deployed as a supporting striker, either as one of a pair or wide in a three-pronged attack, Palacio’s goalscoring record is unremarkable, but his assists and work rate have proved essential at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.
He was courted by Inter during the transfer window, but did not link up with his former boss despite the interest; an ideal fit for Gasperini’s much derided 3-4-3 system, could Rodrigo have protected, or at least prolonged, his old manager’s tenure?
Palacio was born in Bahia Blanca, a port city in the south-west of the Buenos Aires province, some 600km from the capital city itself. He worked his way through the ranks of the Argentine football system and, after only a short spell of top-flight football with Banfield, his talents secured a move to the grand stage of Boca Juniors in 2005.
What player do you admire most that plays your position?
“My favorite player is Thierry Henry. For me, he’s the most complete forward in the game. So fast, one of the best in the world.”
Success was swift in coming to him: under the immediate stewardship of future Argentina manager Alfio Basile, and boasting talents such as Roberto Abbondanzieri and the youthful Fernando Gago, the season was one to remember. They captured the Recopa Sudamerican in August and in December Boca retained the Copa Sudamericana, just days after clinching the Argentine Apertura. The good times continued for Boca – a blistering Clausura campaign saw the team crowned champions at a canter, finishing 8 points ahead of their closest rivals.
A stellar season with Boca saw Palacio rewarded with a place in the Argentina squad for the 2006 World Cup, despite having collected only 2 caps prior to the tournament; a third was added with an appearance against the Ivory Coast in the group stage. On his return, Palacio picked up in a Boca shirt where he had left off, scoring 3 goals as the team successfully defended their Recopa title against Sao Paulo – Palacio enjoyed a fine 06/07 season, scoring a personal best of 20 league goals. The club was also on the verge of continental glory; inspired by the attacking trio of Palacio, Juan Roman Riquelme and Martin Palermo, Boca crushed Gremio to be crowned Copa Libertadores champions.
It was around this time that Palacio was heavily linked with a move across the Atlantic to one of the giants of European football; Barcelona and Arsenal were among those mentioned, with rumours abound that bids in the region of €20m were being prepared. Palacio himself played down the prospects of a transfer; “I’ve not really thought about the possibility of playing in Europe. For me it’s a dream to be playing for a big club like Boca”.
The “big move” never did materialise for Palacio. He stayed with Boca for two more seasons, collecting another Recopa and league title, before finally arriving in Europe to little fanfare in July 2009, joining Genoa at a fairly modest price. The player nicknamed La Joya – the jewel – turned down the number 22 shirt, his explanation was out of respect because inheriting it from Diego Milito would weigh too heavily on him.
The Ligurians had just finished a season to savour, finishing 5th in Serie A and only just missing out on a Champions League place. However, success came at a price – top scorer Diego Milito had drawn the gaze of several admirers and left for Inter. Compatriot Hernan Crespo was also signed to ease the goalscoring burden, but scepticism remained of Palacio’s ability to make the transcontinental leap at the age of 27 and cope with the rigours of football in Italy.
“I don’t know how many goals I will score, but that doesn’t interest me at the moment. What is important is to do well with the team and to entertain the fans”
Rodrigo Palacio during his first press conference
He started slowly. The first goal did not arrive until November, in a Europa League tie against Lille; he broke his Serie A duck in a 2-2 draw with Parma a month later. Palacio’s personal season, after a sluggish start, was on the whole more triumphant than that of his club; Genoa struggled to replicate their efforts and finished in a comparatively disappointing 9th position after the accomplishments 12 months prior.
Palacio finished with a grand total of 7 goals from 31 league appearances; hardly troubling the top of the league charts, but enough to lead the club statistics and indeed he only completed the full 90 minutes on 7 occasions. Genoa also only lost once in a match where he scored. More impressive was a tally of 11 assists; Palacio’s productivity had seen him established as a key member of the squad.
An underwhelming opening to the 2010-11 saw the dismissal of Gasperini in November; the board had patiently tolerated mid-table mediocrity for a season, but now demanded a European place. Davide Ballardini took over, but the changes did not yield glory as Genoa finished 10th.
The team utilised an entire legion of strikers (most notably Luca Toni and Antonio Floro Flores), but Palacio remained integral to the Genoa attack. He was the top goalscorer again with 9 goals, which included a brace as he inspired a quite remarkable 4-3 victory over Roma (Genoa had fallen 0-3 down shortly after half-time). He assisted 10 more, thus being involved in over a third of the team’s Serie A goals.
The current season has seen Palacio in splendid form. Scoring or assisting 7 of the team’s 8 goals and with another 2 in the cup, he’s put himself on an early course for his best season with Genoa yet. A surprising victory away at Lazio was followed up with a ruthless 3-0 dismantling of Catania, with Palacio twice punishing defensive lapses to get on the score sheet. His productivity has not gone by unnoticed: for the first time since 2008, Palacio has been recalled to the Argentina squad for their upcoming qualifiers (ahead of the omitted Ezequiel Lavezzi and Diego Milito).
Whilst it’s a bit of stretch to claim he could have saved Gasperini’s job, this sort of form might have brought the departed Inter manager a couple more points and a perhaps a couple more games in charge. Genoa’s start to the season has been pleasantly surprising for the fans; a board demanding success and another raft of new personnel did not seem a recipe for on-pitch success. If he continues in the same vein, Palacio could well keep Alberto Malesani in his job longer than expected.
Follow Matthew Campbell on twitter (@mattc236).