Claudio Ranieri has a strong record in Italian derbiesFor a man who has coached some of the world's greatest teams, Claudio Ranieri does not always garner a great deal of respect. Unceremoniously sacked by both Chelsea and Valencia (in his second stint at the Mestalla), he became only the second Juventus coach to be relieved of his duties before the end of a season in May 2009 and lasted only 17 months at Roma despite leading the club to within a whisker of the Serie A title (and the Coppa Italia) in 2009-10.
Derided as 'The Tinkerman' during his Stamford Bridge tenure, his perceived shortcomings were once summarised in a cutting remark by Jose Mourinho, who painted a picture of the amiable Italian as a happy loser who "has never won a major trophy" and was "too old" to change his ways.
His honours list may contain only a handful of domestic cup competitions and the 2004 UEFA Super Cup, but Ranieri has nonetheless developed a unique reputation for turning around the fortunes of ailing clubs. Having restored the fortunes of Parma, Juventus and then Roma in Serie A, he is currently engaged in a similar salvage operation with Internazionale.
Ranieri inherited a team that had gone three games without a victory at the start of the season but he has now overseen a run of seven wins in nine matches that has thrust Inter back into title contention. Sunday's 1-0 defeat of champions Milan in the 276th Derby della Madonnina was the club's six successive win — a spell in which they have conceded just one goal — and took them to within six points of leaders Juventus.
"Ranieri has developed a reputation in Italy as a fireman," says James Horncastle, a European football writer specialising in Serie A. "Whenever there's an emergency, he's the coach that clubs call."
When the 60-year-old arrived at Inter last September, he found a squad that had been unsettled by previous coach Gian Piero Gasperini's unsuccessful attempts to introduce a new 3-4-3 formation. Under Ranieri, Inter have reverted to a more traditional 4-3-1-2 system, with two central strikers — latterly Giampaolo Pazzini and Diego Milito — supported by Argentine playmaker Ricardo Alvarez cutting infield from a nominal starting position on the left. Furthermore, after an injury-plagued start to the campaign, Inter have only recently been able to begin aligning their first-choice back four of Maicon, Lucio, Walter Samuel and Yuto Nagatomo on a consistent basis.
If Ranieri has come to be seen as Italy's Mr Fix-It, rather than a Mourinho-style trophy magnet, it is not a label that seems to cause him too much distress. "Perhaps it's because I either arrive a moment too soon or a moment too late," he told Corriere della Sera last week. "When I went to Valencia, no-one knew exactly where they were and after me, without signing any new players, they played two Champions League finals. At Chelsea, I arrived when the money had run out, but we managed to qualify for the Champions League and this convinced Roman Abramovich to buy the club."
Sunday's derby defeat moved Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri to declare that Inter were "back in the title race". Ranieri — who has never lost a derby game in Italy — says he refuses to mention the t-word "out of modesty and superstition", but it has become impossible to ignore his side's revival.
"Inter can now build on this momentum because they have four home games in their next six league games," says Horncastle. "However, they have to go to Roma, Napoli, Juventus, Udinese and Lazio before the season's out, so the road to recovery will still be hard and long."
Buoying the Inter fans' optimism are memories of the run of 17 wins in 23 matches under Leonardo at the end of last season that hoisted the Nerazzurri from seventh at the turn of the year to second in the final standings. Ranieri, meanwhile, oversaw a similarly stunning run-in at Roma in the final months of the 2009-10 campaign. Repeat the trick with Inter, and he may finally get a chance to establish a lasting legacy at one of Italy's grandest clubs.
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