It is not often that the front page of a Monday morning Gazzetta Dello Sport is dominated by a match report from a league other than Serie A. Yet, it was the English Premiership which towered over everything else on Monday of this week and for a reason that needs little explanation.
The entire Italian football movement is currently taking huge pride in the achievements of “Tinker Man” Claudio Ranieri, manager of Premiership fairytale leaders, Leicester City. As we get to the final countdown, half of Italy is holding its breath, hoping that Ranieri’s Leicester, seven points clear with five games to play, can hold on and write their very own bit of history.
Given that no Italian clubs made it to the quarter finals of either the Champions League or the Europa League this season, and given also recent international debacles such as Italy’s first round elimination at the Brazil World Cup two years ago, the international street credibility of Italian football, once so dominant in European competition, continues to take a hammering. In that context, the Ranieri fairytale is doubly welcome:
“There is something titanic about all of this”, former Juventus and Italy coach Marcello Lippi told Gazzetta Dello Sport, adding: “Last year, this club narrowly avoided the drop…but Ranieri has been able to impose a terrific organisation on their game. As the results came in, and as they continued high up in the league table, obviously the confidence grew. Right now we are looking at one of the greatest football fairytales of the last 30 years.
Playing host to former England coach Fabio Capello in his Fox TV programme, “House of Football”, former West Ham player and ex-manager of both Swindon Town and Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio, on Sunday made no attempt to hide his sense of pride in Ranieri’s contribution to the Leicester success story. Referring to their own different experiences of English football, both men concurred on how difficult it is for an Italian to succeed at the top level of the Premiership.
Capello paid tribute to the work done by Roberto Mancini with his title winning Manchester City side but he suggested that Ranieri’s season with provincial Leicester City was clearly something else. Both Di Canio and Capello made it very clear that they would be shouting for Ranieri from here to the end of what they hope will be an historic, winning season for Leicester.
Implicit in the enthusiasm of men like Lippi, Capello and Di Canio is another very obvious consideration. At a time when Italian football appears short on the sort of world class player talent once marked by the likes of Maldini, Baresi, Del Piero, Baggio, Pirlo etc, almost the only ongoing area of consistent world class Italian prowess concerns its coaching ranks – Ancelotti, Lippi, Mancini, Capello, Spalletti, De Biase (coached Albania to the Euro 2016 finals) and even old Trapattoni have long flown the flag for Italy. Now it would appear that Ranieri’s name will definitively be added to the list.
Ranieri’s colleague, Vincenzo Montella, former Roma striker and current coach to Sampdoria, put it simply this weekend:
“When I decided to retire, he was the first person I told (Ranieri was his coach at Roma)…What he is doing now is a fantastic advertisment for Italian football”.
On the home front, there is little doubt that one club, namely Old Lady Juventus, continues to represents an “advertisment” for Italian football. With just six games to play, Juventus remain six points clear of second placed Napoli. Last Saturday night, they saw off one of the few remaining, realistic threats to their fifth consecutive scudetto when they beat Milan, 2-1, at the San Siro in a game in which they came back from 1-0 down after just 18 minutes.
In many senses, Milan gave one of their best peformances of the season, opening up very aggressively against Juventus and not allowing the Old Lady any time to settle into her awesome rhythm. “Bad Boy” Mario Balotelli, playing in front of Italian national team coach Antonio Conte, also gave arguably his best performance of the season too.
Yet, in the end, as they have done throughout this remarkable “recovery” season, Juventus kept their cool, much bouyed by the spectacular goalkeeping of team captain, Gigi Buffon, to win the game with a 65th minute goal from Frenchman Paul Pogba. This was Juve’s 22nd win in 23 consecutive games. Just think, after ten matches, Juventus were in 12th place with just 12 points.
To their credit, Napoli bounced back this weekend, after their nightmare 3-1 defeat by Udinese last week, to beat Verona 3-0, thus keeping their title challenge theoretically alive. Napoli might hope that forthcoming games against Lazio (at home) and Fiorentina (away) could put a spanner in the Juventus works.
Under new coach Simone Inzaghi, Lazio did beat Palermo 3-0 on Sunday, however Palermo look relegation bound. As for Fiorentina, beaten 2-0 by Empoli in their Tuscan derby, they have now picked up just three points in their last five games.
It is very hard to see either of these teams take points from Juventus, who must also face Palermo, Carpi, Verona and Sampdoria between now and the end of the season. As we wrote last week, the Serie A title contest is now all over bar the shouting. In the meantime, we suspect that there are more Italian eyes concentrated on Leicester City than on Juventus.