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Mar 13, 2012

Ranieri hanging on to defy sack culture

According to a survey mentioned in Italian magazine Panorama last month, 46% of Italian parents believe their kids are always right. This becomes especially true, in their warped perspective, when figures of authority, who are not part of an inner circle, attempt to exercise their right to address a child's need to be reprimanded or praised in accordance with how he or she behaves.

This leads to parents suing school districts over their kids' bad reports or assaulting those teachers daring to give out poor marks to their beloved offspring, who are obviously misunderstood geniuses whose growth is stunted by unsympathetic educators. This "teacher hates me" attitude, which creates excuses and shifts the blame to those who are in charge instead of the real perpetrators, gets amplified on a nationwide basis and turns into a stream of different, yet common, patterns of behaviour.

No matter how poorly employees or students perform, then, the boss - usually the highest paid, so one may say that it comes with the territory - is always the one who takes the blame. However, things are getting out of hand in Italian football.

When Cagliari sacked Davide Ballardini on Sunday, it meant Serie A clubs have now made a total of 15 managerial changes since the start of the season. Cagliari - who asked Massimo Ficcadenti to come back from the Italian equivalent of the gardening leave they'd asked him to take in early November - Palermo and Novara have all made three changes, the latter also ending up with the same coach they'd started the season with before sacking.

"That's football" is what sacked managers say whenever the axe falls on them, fate accepted as inevitable, as if our sport has a life of its own - its unwritten rules seeping through common sense and flooding the thought patterns of usually reasonable people, as indeed most club owners and chairmen would be expected to be if you did not know them.

According to this school of thought, then, Claudio Ranieri is the main culprit in Inter's disappointing, and at times comical, season. Ranieri, and no-one else. Not the many players who have looked past their prime; not a centre-forward like Giampaolo Pazzini, who can go from the ridiculous to the sublime in ten seconds; not trequartista Wesley Sneijder, who has spent several weeks on the shelf; not Gian Piero Gasperini, who was asked last summer to coach a side that was ill-suited to his managerial approach. No, actually take that back - as Inter's manager when the season began, Gasperini fit the profile of the scapegoat boss and was seen as the main reason for the ills that have, unsurprisingly, surfaced again as soon as the initial Ranieri novelty wore off.

Before winning at Chievo last Friday, Inter had lost seven of nine and had conceded at least a goal in 11 consecutive matches, including a 4-0 wipeout at the hands of Roma. Their last proper away win - not counting the January 15 derby that they nominally played as visitors - had come at Cesena on December 18, and the general feeling that it was the last days of an empire at that time followed Inter fans around, casting a cloud over their thoughts and hopes but not dampening an ever-increasing feeling, at last, that the problem may lie somewhere other than on the sidelines or on the pitch. Try the club's hierarchy, or the owner.

But it's still been Ranieri facing the press before and after matches, dragging his wrinkled expression onto a podium as he did on Monday, staring impassively from inside the hood of his parka at yet another indifferent performance, or failing to suppress a tear or two as Inter managed to overcome a missed first-half penalty by Diego Milito last Friday at Chievo. Those tears, gently streaming down Ranieri's face, raised some eyebrows as they were seen as an outlet of the tremendous amount of stress the Inter manager has been subjected to.

Massimo Moratti, the owner who speaks a lot but mostly because he always has a word for reporters who spend days camped outside his central Milan office, has repeatedly given Ranieri his backing, with the unspoken caveat that he stop tinkering - have we heard this before? - with tactics and stick to a single system. Having gone 4-4-2, 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, Ranieri now seems to have accepted 4-3-1-2 is the one that suits his personnel best.

"If the front three players track back and cover like they did in Marseille, 4-3-1-2 is the way to go," the manager said last month. He also remarked that Thiago Motta, as he'd predicted, has been missed a lot for his ability to run slow and play fast, and that the side has appeared to play better when players of lesser talent but bigger lungs are out there. "Sneijder and [Diego] Forlan must accept being part of the texture of the side, otherwise I will not think twice to use those who run and fight. I can't forget it was them who gave us seven wins in a row," he said in early February, when both Sneijder and Forlan were ready to come back after some time on the sidelines.

He has since accommodated both, Sneijder as the trequartista and Forlan as a part-time striker, paired with Milito or Pazzini - the former seems to be in much better form at the moment - in a set-up that has looked more mobile and energetic in the past couple of matches.

There is a feeling Inter's comeback at home to Catania after going 2-0 down may be the turning point of the season, with the additional, almost legendary, element of a rousing half-time speech from goalkeeper Julio Cesar after Ranieri had done his bit of talking. But Inter have had too many ups and downs this year for fans to truly trust that glimpse of light.

Ranieri might have saved his job with that win at Chievo on Friday, but all eyes will be on him on Tuesday as Inter try to overcome a 1-0 first-leg deficit to Olympique Marseille in the Champions League. Progress to the quarter-finals will guarantee him additional time to right the ship; elimination will see the pressure weigh heavy again, perhaps leading Moratti to entertain thoughts about making another change.

As the story of most of those 15 aforementioned Serie A managerial moves shows, long-term improvement after a brief honeymoon period is hard to obtain, and this may prevent Moratti from pulling the trigger too quickly.

Or perhaps Moratti is just not willing to 'eat his own testicle in regret', as Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini said (hopefully metaphorically) on Sunday, addressing the fact that Stefano Pioli, whom he sacked before the Serie A campaign even started, has now led Bologna to a brilliant ninth place in the table after replacing Pierpaolo Bisoli in early October.

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