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Soccer - SPAL in exalted company after winning opening two games

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MILAN (Reuters) – Relegation strugglers last season, modest SPAL suddenly find themselves unexpectedly in the company of Juventus and Napoli at the top of Serie A with all three teams on six points after winning their first two games.

Successive 1-0 wins over Bologna and Parma have given the unglamourously-named team a dream start to the new campaign — and put them five points ahead of Inter Milan — although coach Leonardo Semplici says the aim remains survival.

“Of course, we are satisfied at being at the top, even if it’s only for a few Sundays,” said Semplici, who took over as coach in December 2014 when the team were still in the third tier Lega Pro. “It’s great for us and our supporters.”

“We have ambitions, and we want to improve,” he added. “The target is still survival but the lads have shown they believe in the ideas of myself and my staff.”

SPAL, the only team ever to have played in Serie A using an acronym for their name, were the only one of the three promoted sides last season to avoid going straight back into the second division, avoiding the drop by three points.

They spent a modest 22 million euros ($25.16 million) in the summer transfer window and around half of that was to make permanent the moves of Alberto Paloschi, Jasmin Kurtic and Federico Viviani who they played on loan last season.

They have also invested in upgrading their Paolo Mazza stadium, increasing the capacity from 13,000 to a still modest 16,000. The work is due to finish in mid-September and until then, SPAL are hosting matches at Bologna’s Dall’Ara stadium.

Based in Ferrara, a historical walled city of around 130,000 people situated between Bologna and Venice, the club was founded by Salesian priests in 1907 and is one of the oldest in the country.

SPAL were a regular fixture in Serie A during the 1950s and 1960s but hit on hard times after being relegated in 1968.

The club has been wound up and refounded twice, mostly recently in 2013, to wipe out debts, a mechanism often used in Italian football by financially troubled clubs.

While the Juventus attack is led by five-times World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, SPAL’s frontline is spearheaded by 33-year-old journeyman Mirco Antenucci.

Signed by Catania in 2007, who were in Serie A at the time, Antenucci was then loaned out to lower tier sides Venezia, Pisa and Ascoli.

He then helped Torino win promotion to Serie A, returned to Catania, was loaned to Spezia, spent a season with Serie B side Ternana and also two seasons in the English second tier with Leeds United.

Yet, while Ronaldo is still waiting for his first Serie A goal, Antenucci got off the mark in spectacular style on Sunday with an acrobatic volley which the Portuguese would have been proud of.

Keeping his feet firmly the ground, he said: “It’s my duty to score and the whole team deserves the credit. This is an important win because Parma are our rivals in the battle for safety, so in that sense it’s worth double.”

(Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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