A man of destiny
'Friendly' does not even begin to describe the atmosphere at Parma. It is the epitome of a football club where players nod to anyone crossing their path at the training ground, or go to the behavioural extreme, for footballers, of actually saying hello to strangers before lowering their sunglasses - which had been resting on their foreheads, as everybody does in this country in order to increase his/her 'wow' factor - and settling into their sports cars.
While leaving the complex, some of the Parma players may have spotted a couple of less-than friendly sentiments spray-painted across a wall directly opposite exit gate.
No exact quotes here, let's just say some of the words mentioned the fact the players needed to show more fight, and that they may well have not been running hard enough on the pitch - soon they may have to run hard off the pitch it if the ultras who wrote those words go after them. How outdated those threats appear now, although no-one ever bothered to spread a white coat of paint over them.
Following their goalless draw at Lazio on Sunday, Parma need just one point from their final match, at home to Empoli - a team already guaranteed of a UEFA Cup place - in order to keep their place in the Serie A, an astonishing result when one considers only Ascoli, and at times Messina, looked like a worse team at the midseason point.
Then coached by Stefano Pioli, Parma did not seem to be able to do anything away from home and gained only five point out of a possible 30 from early November to mid-January.
The arrival of Giuseppe Rossi on loan to his former club from Manchester United provided some spark, but after Parma went down 3-0 away to Roma on February 11 the stage was set for new owner Tommaso Ghirardi, 32, to sack Pioli and bring in his own man of destiny, Claudio Ranieri.
The 56-year old former Chelsea manager had been inactive since being let go by Valencia 24 matches into the 2004-05 and was generally believed to be waiting for the right opportunity at a big club in Europe because, word was, he was too expensive to settle for anything less and wanted a huge challenge.
Enter Parma, who obviously fit at least half of that bill (guess which one?), and since taking over Ranieri has led the Crociati to six wins - twice as many as before his arrival - and 23 points in 15 matches, an average of 1.53 which compares favourably with Parma's 0.72 average under Pioli (16 points in 22 matches).
Earlier in the season Parma heads would drop too easily at the first mistake, until one, Pioli's, rolled, but the fans, among them those who wrote those two sentences outside the training complex, knew what was wrong.
With Ranieri, it was mind over matter from the start. 'Yes - he tells ESPNsoccernet, as courteous and classy as ever - I didn't think Parma were worse than those above them. Pioli had played under me at Fiorentina and I could tell they were organized, but as soon as they let in a goal they'd give up. The first thing I did was light a fire under them. We can go down, I said, but we're not worse than those above us. Only, we're not fighting as much'.
'I told them those who will not give their all for the cause... well, I said I was going to kill them, which caused me some criticism from people who did not understand that I was just trying to dramatize the situation and took my words out of context. I added, our boat is in the middle of a storm, those who are with me better do their bit, the others are going to be thrown overboard.
'We lost our first three matches, two of them against Sporting Braga in the UEFA Cup, but I could tell the boys were with me, they were reacting to adversities, and soon everybody was pulling in the same direction and results started to arrive'.
Having raised the performances of Fernando Couto and Domenico Morfeo, Parma's most talented player who had lost his starting place and been under fire from the fans, Ranieri tweaked the playing system by pairing Rossi and Croatian centre-forward Igor Budan up front with Bosnian Zlatan Muslimovic behind them or pint-sized winger Andrea Gasbarroni cutting in from the left.
The defence still had its awkward moments but managed to let in fewer goals than it had before, not least because the newly structured midfield would keep possession a little bit more. Ranieri opted for a three-man midfield system anchored by the hard-running of Luca Cigarini, at 20 one of the many promising youngsters in the squad, and augmented by he January addition of Francesco Parravicini.
'Everyone knows I like to change even during the match (readers may remember the 'Tinkerer' moniker he'd earned at Chelsea) because I do not believe there's a winning system, only one that suits the players best. The players were there, it was only a matter for me of injecting my views and opinions, and I must say they responded well and soaked up everything'.
On a wider plane, Ranieri has become a sort of ambassador for English football in Italy. Not a television appearance goes by without him saying nice things about the Premiership and the generally warm feeling of working in an environment that heightens the football experience instead of demeaning it.
He still keeps a home in London and has never severed the ties to England. 'What I knew before signing for Chelsea was what I could tell from television, and it wasn't close to 5 per cent of what I found out later'.
He has fond memories of some grounds ('Anfield, Highbury, Old Trafford, obviously Stamford Bridge, the new Emirates Stadium, too, but there are so many of them, ') and of some players, among them Frank Lampard and John Terry ('A great leader, I had the Leboeuf-Desailly World-Cup winning central partnership but I liked Terry better') and obviously when the mention of rumours linking him to the Manchester City job comes up, he retreats a little and politely declines to comment.
It is well known he'd like to coach in England again, and anyway the current transitional phase in the ownership of Manchester City means any discussions over the managerial position may not be the first priority at Eastlands.
Which brings us to a match linking both Italy and his beloved England, Wednesday's Champions League Final between Liverpool and Milan in Athens.
'A great, great match. A real revenge match, as it's the same competition as 2005, at the same stage. Milan will have to unlock Liverpool's system, which will be made up of eleven soldiers driven by Rafa Benitez. It will be up to the skill players Milan have, Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaka', to break down Liverpool, and they have a good chance to do it'.