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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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The gentleman of Naples

One of the staples of Italian football, and indeed of football all over the world, is the perceived positive shock ("scossa" in local football jargon) that a side receives after a managerial change.

As cliches go, it ranks alongside the dreaded vote of confidence ("fiducia") and the Wengerian "I did not see the incident from the bench" ("dalla panchina non ho visto niente", write down those words and, UEFA qualifications allowing, you'll qualify for a coaching job in the Happy Peninsula) among the most used and perhaps inaccurate ones.

Some teams do win their first game after being handed over to a new "Mister" - as all Italian footballers call the manager - but the shock effect is usually gone within a few weeks, and the shortcomings that brought a new man in charge soon appear in their irreversible and sad clarity.

Troubled as they are, brought upon themselves by believing the Maradona years would never end, Napoli failed to even adhere to one of the cliches, and got their rear ends spanked in their first game under Luigi Simoni, losing 4-0 at second place Palermo.

We're talking Serie B, of course, where the two Southern Italian "giants" are desperately trying to find an identity. In Palermo's case it means getting back to Serie A, an event that would bring regular crowds in excess of 30,000 to the Sicilian capital's Stadio La Favorita.

Napoli, meanwhile, are again struggling to save their skin after the troubles of the past and last summer's inability to meet the Lega's financial criteria.

Near the bottom of the Serie B, Napoli should perhaps be thankful to the Football Federation for the punishment meted out after their fans rioted during the local derby match at Avellino in September.

One supporter fell to his death from the stands and a pitch invasion was staged by others who were upset (that's the excuse, of course) that it had taken too long for paramedics to reach the injured youngster.

The horrific scenes that followed caused the postponement of the game and Napoli were forced to play their next five home matches behind closed doors at neutral venues. Supporters were therefore spared increasingly deteriorating performances.

Coach Andrea Agostinelli was sacked after the desperately dull (and a world-record zero attempts at goal) "home" derby against Salernitana. Enter Gigi Simoni to universal acclaim.

His story is one of the most intriguing in the last years of Italian football. One could sum it up by saying "nice guys never win" but it would be yet another cliche. More accurately, Simoni's plight shows nice guys DO win, but they do not last long in their jobs if a 'sexier' candidate comes up.

You may remember Simoni's name from the list of Inter's managerial changes under Massimo Moratti's ownership. That was perhaps the peak of the 64-year old's career, and it ended in a puff of smoke as soon as Moratti become bored with his side's inability to challenge for the Scudetto during the 1998/99 season.

No matter that Inter had won the UEFA Cup, beating Lazio in the final played in Paris, or that the Serie A title had arguably been stolen from them by a controversial refereeing decision in a match at (who else?) Juventus.

A few games into the new season, Moratti got tired of average results and indifferent performances and sacked Simoni in late November, replacing him with Mircea Lucescu - who was doomed to failure the moment it transpired he would eventually give way to Marcello Lippi.

Diego Maradona: Part of the glory years
Diego Maradona: Part of the glory years

Simoni's sacking had come after a 3-1 home win against Real Madrid and an admittedly ugly 2-1 result over Salernitana. Moratti had unwillingly compounded Simoni's disappointment by saying: 'I am sacking him, but he goes out a winner.'

Lucescu was eventually sacked and replaced first by Luciano Castellini and then by Roy Hogdson before Lippi donned the Nerazzurri training bib for his short-lived and - typically for Inter - chaotic spell in Milan.

Many thought Simoni had been treated unfairly, and the gentlemanly appearance of the Bologna-born (actually, Crevalcore, near Bologna) coach has always given him the benefit of the doubt even in the face of poor results.

After leaving Inter, the former Napoli, Torino, Juventus, Brescia and Genoa striker went on to unsuccessful spells in charge of Piacenza - where he was ostracized by fans for his ties with regional rivals Cremonese - Torino and, bizarrely, CSKA Sofia.

He failed to lead them to the Bulgarian double, finishing third in the league and losing the Cup final to Levski. His next job brought back the memories and the results of the "real" Simoni.

Hired by Ancora chairman Ermanno Pieroni in the summer of 2002 to steer his club in an upward direction, Simoni immediately led the Adriatic Coast side to Serie A, the seventh time in his career he'd achieved promotion to the top division.

Typically, Simoni ran into trouble while the smell of the Ancona fans' celebratory flares was still hanging in the air. He claimed he'd be happy to stay - he had a two-year contract after all - but Pieroni took umbrage at rumours that Simoni had been approached by former clubs Genoa and Napoli.

An undignified phase of verbal sparring filled the whole of June, culminating in Simoni being sacked. Baffled by this turn of events, although he admitted he'd had talks with Genoa boss Enrico Preziosi but had turned them down, Simoni vowed he'd take a sabbatical.

But Napoli were never too far from his heart and at the end of June he'd told Gazzetta dello Sport that "Napoli, despite all their problems, still have a unique charm and any player would just be enthusiastic to be there, chasing the nicest of dreams".

Simoni had already coached Napoli - besides playing for them forty years ago - during the 1996/97 season, but had been sacked before the end of the campaign, and an upcoming Italian Cup final against Vicenza, when his request for a two-year deal was turned down amid rumours that Moratti had become keen on Simoni after his side had defeated Inter in the semi-finals.

Bridges were apparently burned there and then between Simoni and the Naples club, but all has been forgotten - not to mention that Napoli has another owner - and one of the gentlemen of the coaching profession is back in the saddle, looking for an improbable eighth promotion to the Serie A.

He must first drag the Azzurri out of the relegation zone where the 0-4 reversal at Palermo has left them. Upcoming matches against Ternana and Atalanta mean that Napoli will have met the top three teams in the Serie B in Simoni's first eight days in charge.

Things can only get better after that, and many, including a good number of Inter fans, secretly wish Simoni would get his due at last.

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