Straight from the dark heart of Italy
This time last year Vincenzo Montella was in the middle of his spell as caretaker period at AS Roma, attempting to keep the team on course for a European place in the dog-end days of the Sensi family ownership.
A sixth place finish and a ‘thanks but no thanks’ from the incoming owners from across the Atlantic brought an end to his eleven-year on-and-off association with the Giallorossi, with a loan period at Fulham at the tail-end of his playing days leading to his first steps in coaching with Roma’s under-15 side.
The Little Aeroplane’s career in the dug-out has really taken off since being offered the job at Catania soon after leaving the capital, where he has brought all that experience of a big-name club to the more homely surroundings of Sicily.
The good citizens of Catania have never known a season like it, and another sixth place finish is not beyond the realms of possibility for Montella, but this time it will be beyond expectations of his employers, a club whose annual wage bill would hardly cover the Roma reserves.
With the freedom to apply the ideas and methods he has gleaned from the likes of Luciano Spalletti, Fabio Capello, Sven Goran Eriksson and Walter Mazzarri down the years, Montella has turned the unheralded Elephanti into a fearsome beast.
At just 37, he is at the forefront of a new generation of tacticians – Antonio Conte, Massimiliano Allegri and Luis Enrique - who make sure the ball does the work, but that the players do not stand around and admire their craft.
Last week a 2-2 draw at Napoli extended Catania’s unbeaten run to seven games and just two points behind Roma who were in the final Europa League spot.
Leaders AC Milan were the most recent to feel the heat of the Massimino stadium when they arrived for the early kick-off on Saturday. The match had been sold-out a week in advance and almost full two hours beforehand as the fans awaited their fortnightly treat of seeing their local heroes take on the mainland.
In a first half in which the visitors showed no ill effects of their tussle with Barcelona, it seemed Catania had accepted their place in the pecking order as they fell behind to a Robinho goal. But half-time is when the coach has that precious opportunity to get his ideas across – quickly and no doubt simply.
Catania’s problem was failing to get the best out of their key men in midfield, with Sergio Almiron, Francesco Lodi and Mariano Izco unable to get forward to support the front-three which included Pablo Barrientos.
Dropping the latter further back on the right flank and pushing the fleet-footed Alejandro Gomez even further out to the left wing brought the midfield further up the pitch to support the hard-working central striker Gonzalo Bergessio.
With Milan once again hitting the long ball towards the imposing figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Montella could afford to play three at the back, thus pushing the full-backs up where they could deliver the ball quickly into advanced positions.
The equalizer may have come from a corner, but a sustained period of pressure had stretched Milan to the limit. It is this high-intensity style of play that is ensuring that Catania’s journeymen, many of them Argentine, are travelling in the right direction. In doing so, they are also causing Montella’s own stock to rise.
There have been reports that his next destination will could be either Inter or Napoli, with both clubs in need of a revamp in the summer.
The Nerazzurri would seem a perfect destination for Montella’s burgeoning talents, with Massimo Moratti stumbling around in the dark since Jose Mourinho’s departure in the summer of 2010.
He got rid of Claudio Ranieri at the start of last week, turning to youth team coach Andrea Stramaccioni, whose tenuous qualification for the post was having won the NextGen Series the day before.
Stramaccioni - a year younger than Montella and also a former coach in Roma’s junior sector - certainly brought some school-yard football to his first game in charge. Inter held on to beat Genoa 5-4, but if Moratti wants to see his team play in a grown-up fashion again, he should head south and land the leading candidate for the coach of the year.
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