Continental capers from Scandinavia to the Med
Claudio Ranieri knows what the inferno looks like. He doesn’t need to read Dante. He doesn’t need Virgil to be his guide.
Interviewed after resigning from his position in charge of Roma, the club of his home and his heart, an emotional Ranieri, embittered by his recent experiences, expressed a desire to get out of Serie A and work elsewhere, perhaps in the Premier League again.
Asked to explain why, he laughed: “Because in football there is heaven or hell and you get to choose where to coach. Here there is hell.”
Six months later, Ranieri has been led back into temptation, leaving his cushy new job as an opinionista for Rai covering both the national team and the Champions League to return to coaching with Inter where he replaces the ill-fated Gian Piero Gasperini.
A glutton for punishment, this time he might have bitten off more than he can chew. No one lasts long under Inter owner Massimo Moratti. Ever since he bought the club on February 25, 1995, the bench has doubled as a carousel.
Sixteen coaches have come and gone, and a reported €70 million has been spent on paying them off. It’s hardly a thankless task. But for many in the coaching profession it’s a Mission Impossible all the same. Why? Because their contract often self-destructs five seconds after they’ve chosen to accept it.
Without a win from their opening three matches in Serie A, Inter have made their poorest start to a season since 1983, and Ranieri has his work cut out for reasons that aren’t necessarily within his control.
Working at Inter has been likened to Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca about Maxim de Winter’s dead first wife, who continues to haunt him, his newlywed Joan Fontaine and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers.
Unable to escape the lingering memory of the title character, the country manor Manderley is burned to the ground, ending any hope of recovering the happiness that once existed within its walls.
For 45 years, Helenio Herrera felt like Inter’s Rebecca, as no matter how hard they tried, the club couldn’t bring back the good old days of when they won the European Cup back-to-back in 1964 and 1965. José Mourinho of course then broke that spell, but on leaving appears to have cast another one.
Just as Chelsea have been through five managers in the four years since the Special One’s departure from Stamford Bridge, Inter have now had three in the time that has elapsed since their victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final at the Santiago Bernabeu on May 22, 2010 and their defeat to Novara at the Stadio Pioli on September 20, 2011.
The hold he has over his former clubs and the state he leaves them in with exhausted and aging squads fiercely loyal to his personality cult, not to mention the heightened expectations of fans, is a hangover that clearly gives his successors a headache.
Each has had to confront Mourinho’s legacy in their own way.
Rafa Benítez reportedly asked that a picture of him be taken down at Inter’s training ground. Leonardo called him for advice and admitted that “Mourinho has left something here – you can feel it in the atmosphere, he is everywhere.” Gasperini, meanwhile, who had been earmarked by the Portuguese as the best coach he had faced during his time in Serie A for the chess match-like qualities of their encounters, instead chose to respectfully ignore his blessing and said it was time to move on and live in the present rather than in the past.
When set in this context Ranieri’s appointment is the most intriguing of all, for he, like no one else in recent years, represents the anti-Mourinho.
Rarely did a day go by without the pair clashing. They couldn’t resist having a pop at each other.
Ranieri would say, for instance, that, unlike Mourinho, he didn’t have to win things to be sure of what he was doing. He questioned his rival’s habit of not appearing in post-match interviews, claiming that it was disrespectful, and brought up how easy it was for someone to lift trophies when working under owners like Abramovich and Moratti whose purse strings could always be prised open.
Mourinho never ceased to take the bait. He would tell journalists that at the age of 70, Ranieri [who was 56 at the time] had won relatively little, “an Italian Super Cup and another little Cup”; He reveled in bringing up how after five years in England, Ranieri could only say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon’, and then ridiculed his decision to sit his players down at Roma and make them watch Gladiator before a match because if anyone had tried that at Inter everyone would have fallen about laughing.
How strange it must be then for Mourinho to see Ranieri assume control of the team he still calls “my Inter,” train his players and sit on his bench. But that’s life. “I was an opponent,” the Tinkerman told the Inter Channel. “These kind of things are normal for a professional. When I marry myself to a cause I always give the maximum.”
Moratti announced Ranieri as the “best choice” for the job. “I think he has the common sense needed to revitalise the team, both as individuals and as a unit,” he said. It’s certainly hard to dispute that sentiment when presented with Ranieri’s CV. Described as a ‘normaliser’, a contrast to Gasperini the revolutionary, he is at his best when it comes to getting back to basics and keeping things simple. De-cluttering is Ranieri’s forte.
When he stepped in at Roma for Luciano Spalletti two games into the 2009/10 season, he spoke to the players about learning the “ABC of Calcio” again. He didn’t ask too much of them too soon, and proposed that Roma play 4-4-2, a system that everyone was comfortable with. It was a masterstroke. Bottom of the league when he arrived, Roma led the way for 37 minutes on the final day of the season. Sadly they weren’t masters of their own destiny, and when Diego Milito found a winner for Inter at Siena, the impossible dream of the Scudetto vanished.
What Ranieri accomplished was nothing short of a miracle. Only when expectations rose and with them the egos of certain players did his bench begin to creak at Roma, leading to a school of thought that he is a man for seeing out a crisis, not one for securing a championship title.
Who else but Mourinho would recognise this in one of his more cutting barbs. “It’s not my fault if in 2004, after arriving at Chelsea and asking why they were changing Ranieri, the club replied that they wanted to win things,” he bristled.
That stung Ranieri. It hit close to home and wounded his pride.
Winning the Scudetto with Inter would be a fine response even if right now the odds are stacked against him. “I will try to get the team back to playing the way it knows how to with the strength that it has,” Ranieri told Domenica Sportiva on Wednesday night.
He also aired his view that “Sneijder must play in his role, that of a trequartista” which would appear to indicate a return to either the 4-2-3-1 used under Mourinho or the 4-3-1-2 preferred by Leonardo.
Incidents like Tuesday’s in Novara when Esteban Cambiasso grew so frustrated at the confusion caused by Gasperini’s three-man defence that he effectively mutinied and told his teammate Andrea Ranocchia “we’re playing a back four” should be a thing of the past.
“This team has the DNA to come back fighting and win,” Ranieri opined. Others feel it’s missing a chromosome or two. For now, it seems the so-called Pazza or Crazy Inter is back. The question is: can Ranieri bring method to the madness?
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