Spal _ Capello's 1st club _ is the surprise of Serie A

FILE - This Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018 file photo Spal's Jasmin Kurtic celebrates his side's 1-0 win at the end of the Serie A soccer match between Bologna and Spal, at the Dall'ara Stadium in Bologna, Italy. Through four rounds, the Ferrara-based team sits second in the standings, behind only seven-time defending champion Juventus and ahead of Napoli, last year's runner-up, on goal difference. (Giorgio Benvenuti/ANSA via AP, )
FILE - This Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018 file photo shows Spal's Jasmin Kurtic, 2nd left, celebrating with teammates after scoring during the Serie A soccer match between Bologna and Spal, at the Dall'ara Stadium in Bologna, Italy. Through four rounds, the Ferrara-based team sits second in the standings, behind only seven-time defending champion Juventus and ahead of Napoli, last year's runner-up, on goal difference. (Giorgio Benvenuti/ANSA via AP, )

ROME — The little club where Fabio Capello got his start as a player is the early surprise in Serie A.

Ferrara-based Spal is second in the standings, behind only seven-time defending champion Juventus and ahead of Napoli, last year's runner-up, on goal difference.

"If you had told me that after four rounds we would be in second place behind Juve I would have started laughing and dancing," Spal coach Leonardo Semplici said following a 2-0 win over Atalanta on Monday.

Playing only its second season in the top division in a half-century, Spal was expecting a fight to avoid relegation — like last season when it finished one spot above the drop zone in its return to the top flight.

Yet somehow Spal is occupying a spot in the Champions League places.

"It's better to think of the eight-point margin from the relegation zone," Semplici said. "It would be a huge mistake to raise expectations right now."

Spal features the best defense in the league with only one goal conceded in four matches and Alfred Gomis is the only goalkeeper in Europe's top five leagues who has kept three clean sheets in four matches.

Gomis wasn't even expected to be the starter after Vanja Milinkovic-Savic was signed on loan from Torino. But an injury to Milinkovic-Savic thrust Gomis, who is from Senegal, into the spotlight.

Midfielder Manuel Lazzari was recently called up to Italy's squad for the UEFA Nations League, making him the first Spal player on the Azzurri since 1952.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Spal was a mainstay in Serie A, launching many players on to successful careers at Italy's biggest clubs. Capello began his professional career with Spal before moving on to Roma, Juventus and AC Milan — and then a highly successful coaching career.

The late Francesco Petagna, the coach of Spal during Capello's stay in the 1960s, was the grandfather of striker Andrea Petagna, who is developing into the star of this season's Spal side.

After scoring both goals in the victory over Atalanta, Andrea Petagna dedicated his performance to his grandfather.

"I remember when he used to take me out in the garden to play," Andrea Petagna said. "I always wanted a big ball that adults used but he would tell me, 'Andrea, use the smaller ball to improve your skills.'"

Andrea Petagna was recently signed on loan from Atalanta.

"This Spal reminds of the Atalanta team that finished fourth two years ago," Petagna added in an interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport. "Of course I'm not saying we'll achieve the same result but there are some things in common."

Like Atalanta, Spal has shown a preference for young Italian players like Lazzari and Petagna. And it has continuity in Semplici, who joined the club in December 2014, when Spal was in the third division.

In Semplici's first full season, Spal won promotion to Serie B. Then it was bumped up to Serie A a year later.

Like Atalanta counterpart Gian Piero Gasperini, Semplici has shown a preference for attacking and entertaining soccer.

"The word 'catenaccio' isn't part of Semplici's vocabulary," Petagna said.

The victory over Atalanta marked the reopening of Spal's Stadio Paolo Mazza. Spal had been playing its home matches in nearby Bologna while the capacity of its 90-year-old ground was boosted above 16,000 — the minimum required to host Serie A matches.

The new Mazza has 16,134 seats, all of which are covered.

Up next for Spal, an acronym that stands for "Societa Polisportiva Ars et Labor," is a visit to Fiorentina on Saturday.

"Nobody is getting carried away with fantasy. Juventus is the favorite for the title and the other big clubs will regain their standing eventually," Petagna said. "We're just happy to have this special moment — and we'll try to make it last as long as possible."

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf

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