Separated by just one place and a single point in the Serie A standings, 14th-placed Empoli take on Spezia – who sit 15th – at Stadio Carlo Castellani on Saturday afternoon.
While the home side continued a long winless run with derby defeat last week, their visitors have improved markedly since the turn of the year to pull themselves clear of danger.
Even after a fortnight out of the firing line provided hopes of a fresh start for April, Empoli’s agonising winless run in Serie A was extended to a 14th game last Sunday, as they went down 1-0 to Fiorentina in the Derby dell’Arno.
Their Tuscan rivals took full advantage after Sebastiano Luperto was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 57th minute, as Nicolas Gonzalez turned in a cross from the resulting free kick to score what proved to be the decisive goal.
As a result, Aurelio Andreazzoli’s side are on the longest streak without victory of any club throughout the top five European leagues – drawing and losing seven times each since their last success: a 1-0 win away to Napoli just before Christmas.
The Azzurri last went 15 consecutive games without a win back in 1999, and their current crisis is a far cry from a golden period during the past year, when they won promotion to the top flight as Serie B champions and then sat just four points off the European places in December.
Such a change of fortunes in 2022 has seen Empoli gradually slide down the standings, and hopes of a top-half finish are all but over with seven games to play. Still 11 points clear of the bottom three, though, there are no fears of an immediate return to the second tier.
So with little left to play for, they now attempt to go one better than in their only previous Serie A meeting with Saturday’s opponents, which ended 1-1 earlier this season, with both teams conceding an own goal.
Spezia’s Kevin Agudelo celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates on January 17, 2022© Reuters
In contrast with their hosts, Spezia have rallied during recent months after a tough start to life under coach Thiago Motta and posted their ninth league win last Saturday – edging out struggling Venezia at Stadio Alberto Picco.
After Emmanuel Gyasi’s last-gasp winner, the Aquilotti have now scored five times from the 90th minute onwards in Serie A this season – only Roma have netted more – so the Ligurian outfit certainly do not know when they are beaten.
As a result of such fightbacks, Spezia have now collected the same number of points (32) after 31 games this term as they managed at the same point last year, during their debut campaign in the Italian elite.
Despite stumbling through February into March, when five losses from six Serie A matches cast doubt over their revival, there remains every chance that they will therefore extend their first-ever spell in the top tier to a third successive season.
Having recently seen off two potential relegation rivals in Venezia and Cagliari, now Motta’s men can breathe easily and enjoy the run-in without fear of falling through the trapdoor: they sit 10 points clear of the bottom three coming into the final stretch.