MILAN (AP) — If his team wins at home on Sunday, Salernitana coach Davide Nicola might need to start preparing for a long journey on the road.
When he was in charge at Crotone, Nicola vowed to ride from the city to Turin on a bicycle if the team avoided relegation from Italy's top tier. Achieving that on the last day of the 2016-17 season, Nicola duly made the 1,300-kilometer (807-mile) journey, arriving only nine days after he set off, having cycled nearly the entire length of boot-shaped Italy.
This time Nicola has promised to walk from the city of Salerno to Rome — to see the Pope — if he secures Serie A soccer for Salernitana for another season. That's a hike of almost 300 kilometers (186 miles).
And he might have to keep this promise too.
Bottom of the league for nearly the entire campaign, Salernitana is on the verge of pulling off the great escape.
It beat last-place Venezia 2-1 on Thursday to move out of the drop zone for the first time since the opening weekend of the season. Now Salernitana faces another relegation six-pointer on Sunday against Cagliari, the team that replaced it in the bottom three.
A win would send Salernitana four points clear of danger with two matches remaining against Empoli and Udinese.
“I haven’t even looked at the table,” Nicola said after the win over Venezia. “We have never made calculations ... Sunday we need to have another great match. We know that in order to do something epic we have to go beyond our limits.”
Nicola, known as a coach who can rescue teams from desperate situations, was appointed Salernitana coach — the team’s third of the season — on Feb. 15 with the situation looking bleak.
Back in the top flight after an absence of more than 20 years, Salernitana appeared set for much of the season to return straight back to Serie B.
But Nicola steered the team to an impressive draw against leader AC Milan in his first match in charge and also drew his second, against Bologna.
Mixed results followed before Nicola managed to record his first win on April 16 at Sampdoria, which was Salernitana’s first victory since January.
Salernitana has now won four of its last five matches.
“Nicola has unblocked us mentally, giving us more calm,” said Salernitana forward Simone Verdi, who scored the winning goal against Venezia. “Before we didn’t believe in ourselves, now we do and we have to continue like this.
“On Sunday we’ll be facing a team which will play the game of their lives, but we will be ready.”
Nicola himself explained how he has managed to get his players feeling more relaxed.
“Obviously we all have an obsessive thought, that of survival, because it's 2 1/2 months that we're working for that and we are showing that we can do it but you have to know that you can also not do it," he said. "That way you can play the matches more free and not be closed up.”
Nicola also put a post on social media to reinforce his message that “the path is still long.”
Just like his summer walk could be.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Daniella Matar, The Associated Press