Lippi keeping a close eye on Ranieri's Roma
If AS Roma coach Claudio Ranieri has had a quiet laugh to himself over the festive season, you could hardly blame him.
As we head into this World Cup year, Ranieri can ruefully reflect that instead of finding himself in the ranks of the unemployed, he will be leading one of the clubs that Italian national team coach Marcello Lippi will be following closely as he assembles his squad for South Africa.
Let go by Juventus
Last May, 58-year-old Ranieri hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when his then club, Juventus, sacked him. The "Old Lady" was actually third in Serie A at the time but she had just completed a miserable run which saw her draw six and lose one in seven straight games. Contrary to the Juventus style, the Turin club gave Ranieri the old heave-ho with just two Serie A games remaining, replacing him with ex-Juve defender Ciro Ferrara.
The sacking prompted a deal of surprised comment. For a start, you have to go back 40 years to when Juventus sacked Argentine Luis Carniglia to find the last time that the Old Lady had offloaded a coach in mid-season. Second, many of us felt that in his two seasons in Turin, Ranieri had done a pretty good job guiding Juventus to a third place finish and Champions League qualification in the first post-Calciopoli season back in Serie A.
Given the "swings and roundabouts" which form part of the modern top-level soccer coach's lot, however, Ranieri was not left parked on the sidelines for long. After Roma had made a poor start to the new season, losing its first two Serie A games to Genoa and Juventus, coach Luciano Spalletti caught everyone wrong footed by resigning.
Needing to find an experienced coach in a hurry, Roma turned to Ranieri who just happens to also be a "romano e romanista" - Roman born and a supporter of AS Roma.
The rest of this story, at least so far, is that of the consistently rising curve of Roma progress on the seasonal chart. With a 2-0 win over Parma in the final game of 2009, Roma completed a rise and rise that has seen them move from last place to the Champions League, fourth on 28 points. On top of that, along the way Ranieri won the Rome derby - always a crucial moment for fans from the Eternal City - beating Lazio 1-0 in early December thanks to a late goal from defender Marco Cassetti.
Little surprise then that there are those who believe that Roma might even still mount a serious league challenge on Inter, notwithstanding the fact that they currently trail the reigning champions by 11 points. Even if that seems like wishful thinking, Roma could still have a successful 2010 if they qualify for the Champions League. Furthermore, the Rome club would expect to continue their good run in the UEFA Europa League where they are drawn against Greek side Panathinaikos in next month's Round Of 32.
Ironically, at the very moment that Roma's head has surfaced above the Champions League waters, the man who replaced Ranieri at Juventus finds himself under fierce pressure. After a run of five defeats in six games including elimination from the Champions League, Ferrara goes into the New Year and into tough opening games away to Parma and at home to AC Milan knowing that defeat in either or both of those ties could cost him his job.
In contrast, Ranieri starts off 2010 on a positive note following the acquisition of Bayern Munich striker, Luca Toni. Brought from the German club on loan to the end of the season and on a free transfer, 32-year-old Toni might prove to be precisely the big "target-man" centre forward that Roma have missed for much of the last three seasons.
And here is where Marcello Lippi and the World Cup enter the picture. Out of favour and out of the team, Toni has spent most of the autumn either arguing with Dutch coach Luis van Gaal or sitting on the Bayern bench. In such circumstances, six-foot-four-inch Toni has faded from Lippi's South Africa plans.
Yet, the Roma striker was a key figure in the team that won the 2006 World Cup and were he, with the help of Ranieri, to find his best form, then he would clearly be knocking on Lippi's door. Given, too, that with Roma, Toni will find himself playing alongside three 2006 World Cup teammates in Francesco Totti, Simone Perrotta and Daniele De Rossi, a return to his best from cannot be excluded.
CBCSports.ca has already pointed out in recent days just how closely coach Lippi will be watching Roma, given that "talisman" Totti has made no secret of his desire to make a return to the national team.
If 33-year-old Totti is fit and well next May, then Lippi will be strongly tempted to recall him for his first game for Italy since the Berlin final in 2006. It could be, too, that Lippi might well have to consider another of the men who won that final, namely Toni.
Dad's Army may be about to reconstitute itself.
About the Author
Paddy Agnew has lived and worked as a journalist in Rome since 1986. Since 1992, he has been Rome correspondent for the Irish Times, and for 15 years he worked as a soccer commentator for Italian state broadcaster RAI. He is a regular contributor to the BBC World Service radio, Irish broadcaster RTE, London-based TalkSport and many other radio stations, and he is the Italian correspondent for the monthly magazine, World Soccer. Agnew is also the author of "Forza Italia, A Journey In Search Of Italy and Its Football" (Ebury Press, 2006).