By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - You can hear the optimism in midfielder Pedro Obiang's voice as he considers the task his team face on Sunday -- trying to end AC Milan’s 24-match unbeaten run in Serie A.
"At Sassuolo we love a challenge. If we beat them, we’ll show the world we’re growing up,” he told Reuters.
Not long ago, the suggestion of Sassuolo humbling one of Europe's most illustrious clubs would have been laughable.
Since promotion to Serie A in 2013, Sassuolo, representing a town of just 40,000 inhabitants in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, have enjoyed punching above their weight.
They qualified for the Europa League in 2016 and since the arrival of coach Roberto De Zerbi in 2018 have earned a reputation as one of the most attractive teams in Italy, if not Europe.
De Zerbi is widely considered the next big thing in Italian coaching and counts Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola among his admirers.
He led Sassuolo to eighth place last season and a strong start to 2020/21 has raised hopes of a return to European competition. Sassuolo are currently sixth, one point outside the Champions League spots and just five behind leaders Milan.
“We’ve played some important games, but from the perspective of a squad that is normally mid-table,” says Obiang.
“Now we’re looking face-to-face with Milan, because we’re in the same zone. Now we’re different.
“That’s the view De Zerbi is trying to give to us. Don’t think about the small teams, start to think big. When you play the big teams, you have to be like that.
“I don’t know if it’ll be the Champions League, but we want to get to Europe,” added the 28-year-old.
“Since De Zerbi started, every year we’re improving. If we get to Europe this year, we’ll show the world that football isn’t just about numbers.”
Spain-born Equatorial Guinea international Obiang left West Ham United for Sassuolo in 2019 after four years in England and initially expected to return to his former club Sampdoria.
But when the move fell through, a conversation with De Zerbi convinced him of the Sassuolo project.
“He explained to me what he wanted, and it’s the squad we’ve got now,” says Obiang.
“He had a clear idea. Of course, he told me it’s not easy, because at the end of the day we’re Sassuolo.
“Normally when you talk about Sassuolo, nobody cares about us, but we can change that.
"When he told me about that challenge, I thought it was true, so why not?”
De Zerbi has succeeded in making Sassuolo play with the swagger of a more established club.
His team have the fourth-highest average possession in Serie A this season, and aim to break opponents down through passing and pressing rather than route one methods.
Obiang believes Sassuolo’s approach under De Zerbi, as well as the coach’s previous work at Benevento, has changed perspectives in Italy of what smaller clubs can achieve.
“I used to study any player in my position to try and not let them play,” he explained. “Now, for the first time in my career, others have to study me and how I play.
"It’s making me feel like being at a top club despite being at Sassuolo. Every team we play has respect for us.
“For me, De Zerbi has changed the mentality in Italy. At Benevento, he played nice football, from the back, with the ball. He’s doing the same at Sassuolo. Now everyone thinks it’s possible.”
Obiang believes De Zerbi’s attention to detail is to thank for a run of form that has seen Sassuolo lose just five of 25 league games since returning from lockdown and a three-month suspension of football in June.
“Every day (during lockdown) he called us, sent videos,” Obiang said. “He told us before we started training again how we would play in the games to come.
"He started to talk to me about Lazio, a game in two months’ time. I was thinking ‘Why?’ and he told me: ‘Because we have to be ready. If we prepare today, it’ll be easy when we’re playing games every three days’. And he was right."
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris)