In London, Liverpool had beaten Chelsea on penalties to win the Carabao Cup. In Brighton, Graham Potter’s team were stuck in a rut of six successive defeats. In Kyiv, Roberto De Zerbi received a phone call.
It was almost midnight on Sunday, February 27 — three days after Russia’s invasion — and De Zerbi and eight Italian members of his coaching staff at Shakhtar Donetsk were sheltering in the underground bunker of the Opera Hotel, unable to sleep amid artillery fire, when they were told they had 10 minutes to leave.
They had helped their terrified Brazilian players flee from the war with their young families the previous day and now it was their turn to step out and make their escape from a city under attack.
Brighton have confirmed the appointment of Italian manager Roberto De Zerbi (pictured)
‘The streets were deserted but there was the risk of running into Russian saboteurs,’ De Zerbi told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.
‘We waited for an hour before getting on the train. After nine hours we reached Lviv where a bus was waiting for us.
‘We got on the bus with an escort, but it was a nightmare. After a short journey, we took another coach that took us towards Hungary. For the last few kilometres we were moving at walking pace. It was snowing.’
Twenty hours after the dash from the Opera they reached the Hungarian border to find Ukrainian police waiting to give them hot food as they spent an hour going through checks, before continuing for another three hours by bus through the snow to Budapest.
The Italian was previously in charge of Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk but was forced to flee the country after the Russian invasion in February
‘Ukraine was behind me and I turned around to get my last glimpse of the country where we had arrived last summer, for an important stage of our careers,’ said De Zerbi. ‘It was an extraordinary human adventure.
‘I thought about the players. The Brazilians were safe but the Ukrainians were in their houses, ready to fight.
‘The Ukrainians surprised everyone with their resistance. The Russians underestimated the spirit of these people.’
Brighton’s new manager, who agreed a four-year deal to replace Potter on Sunday, earned his stripes in the Italian game.
Across three seasons at Sassuolo, a small club who have punched above their weight in Serie A for much of the last decade, he developed an exciting, dynamic team who earned some notable results and achieved consecutive eighth-placed finishes in the top flight.
After a modest playing career as an attacking midfielder, De Zerbi worked his way up from the bottom. He started at Darfo Boario in Italy’s equivalent of the National League, then had spells at Foggia, Palermo and Benevento.
He has an impressive record of improving players, including Italy’s Euro 2020 heroes Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi.
De Zerbi and his staff were forced to flee the Ukrainian capital days after Russia invaded
There are similarities between De Zerbi and Mauricio Pochettino. He works his players ferociously hard in training, demands courage on the ball and knows how to bring the best from the younger members of his squad.
Two months after the dramatic escape from Kyiv, the 43-year-old Italian and his staff were reunited with Shakhtar and led them through five friendlies in the Global Tour for Peace in Greece, Turkey, Poland and Croatia. De Zerbi (left) quit the post in July and took an intensive 30-day course of English lessons in preparation for a future move to the Premier League.
Earlier this month, however, he was approached by Bologna as they prepared to sack Sinisa Mihajlovic. He refused on a point of principle, saying he would not be comfortable replacing Mihajlovic, who is fighting leukaemia.
Then, just two days later, Chelsea sacked Thomas Tuchel and lured Potter from Brighton and his next move began to take shape.
De Zerbi flew to England on Friday for talks, which developed new urgency as gossip started to swirl about possible interest from Juventus, struggling this season under Max Allegri.
De Zerbi replaces Graham Potter, who recently left Brighton to become manager of Chelsea
The deal was agreed on Sunday and, on the face of it, he and Brighton appear an ideal fit.
De Zerbi will inherit a squad full of confidence and operating to an effective plan, and could not wish for a better opportunity to show what he can do.
The manager and his loyal staff are expected at Brighton today.