Thursday, February 23, 2012 Plus ša change for the Tinkerman
Didier Deschamps' Friday night scouting trip to the San Siro was, in the words of Wednesday's L'Equipe, "a letdown." Marseille's Champions League opponents Inter had given no indication of how they might play in Southern France - because they had not played at all in a home humbling by lowly Bologna.
Of course, following Ranieri's tactical schemes can be tricky at the best of times. Against Bologna, he changed the system three times during the course of the game - less to keep the visiting Deschamps guessing, one must assume, and more in a futile attempt to find the right blend, especially as regards accommodating Wesley Sneijder.
Ranieri's Inter honeymoon was well and truly over. The second-round tie with Marseille already held huge implications for his future, but some initially doubted whether he would even make it that far, with Luis Figo being lined up as a short-term replacement. The Bologna result meant that Ranieri was right back to where he normally is. He seems to have spent half of his top-level coaching career playing for his future in the Champions League.
The Roman himself acknowledged as much before the visit to Provence. If Inter fans had their own recollections of 2004's unsuccessful UEFA Cup quarter-final against Marseille, Ranieri's mind was on a match in the same season that significantly shaped his status in the coaching world. "This will be a great match between Inter and Marseille, and between me and Deschamps," he said. "He already put me out in 2004; now I want revenge."
It was something the former France skipper refused to get involved with, but for everyone else, the parallels with the Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Monaco were hard to avoid. Ranieri's Blues had a place in the Gelsenkirchen final in the palms of their hands, leading the second leg 2-0 and the tie on away goals as half-time approached, but they blew it. Roman Abramovich's brazen search for a successor while Ranieri was still in situ may have garnered a healthy swell of public sympathy, but slips like this meant he was remembered fondly rather than genuinely lamented when he went.
If his post-Chelsea return to Valencia burst with promise, it had become a bitter struggle by the time Los Che faced a do-or-die final Champions League group match at home to Werder Bremen in December 2004. Those who believe that Ranieri has been a victim of circumstance rather than anything missing in his own professional make-up had succour here.
He already had a tough act to follow after Rafael Benitez's Liga and UEFA Cup double, with expectations having soared since the Copa del Rey win in Ranieri's first tenure. The club was also heading for institutional crisis, with Benitez's exit for Liverpool precipitated by a dispute with the board, and president Jaime Orti Ruiz forced out soon after, in October 2004. Things got much worse for Valencia post-Ranieri under the ruinous reign of Orti's successor, Juan Soler.
Still, Ranieri was not entirely blameless, upsetting the squad's balance with five Italians among six new signings. It soon became clear that the schism he created would make it difficult to keep control. In the week approaching the Werder game, Ranieri had stormed off the training pitch, complaining that the players weren't listening to his instructions.
To try to the win he needed to reach the knockout phase, he returned to what was left of Benitez's tried and tested, putting his hopes in Pablo Aimar and Mista, and leaving a quartet of his Serie A signings on the bench. Despite plenty of huff and puff, it didn't happen for him, and as Valencia exited amid a hail of boos and flying litter from the stands, it was clear there was no turning back.
That disastrous, eight-month-long second spell at the Mestalla seemed to finish Ranieri's pretensions of greatness, confining him to the ranks of the good. His return to Serie A, with firstly Parma and then Juventus, saw him recast as a specialist troubleshooter.
So entrenched is this view of Ranieri now that his September arrival at Inter was tantamount to daubing 'we are in trouble' on the outside walls of the Centro Sportivo Angelo Moratti. He is a coach to save a season, rather than make one. It briefly looked as though he might do just that, before four defeats - all without a goal - and a draw in five Serie A games.
At least Ranieri is back in salvage mode, you could say. Glued to the edge of the Stade Velodrome touchline, his hands behind his back like an expectant schoolmaster, his attention to every nuance of his latest plan was on display. As he did seven years ago with Valencia, he had returned to an old recipe, with a surprise front duo of Diego Forlan and Mauro Zarate, with Wesley Sneijder in his preferred position just behind.
As Marseille started strongly, Inter - of course - morphed. Sneijder went left, dropped deep, and even seemed to slot in next to Forlan as a second striker for a spell. Whereas Jose Mourinho built a team around the Dutchman, Ranieri just mixes and matches to try to accommodate him. Sneijder looks lost, his tense and clumsy first touch as alien as his life as a positional nomad.
Sneijder is a prisoner of Ranieri's caution. "Now, our system is too fragile (to play Sniejder in the centre)," he said pre-match. "I think he can be a solution for us, but only at the right moment. If we lose the battles in the middle of the pitch, we'll lose the match."
That was Inter's fate anyway, despite a highly conservative second half display. "We played a good match and we didn't deserve to lose," Ranieri told the press conference in the recesses of the Velodrome after the game, in staccato responses. "We still have a chance of going through. I believe."
Yet actions speak louder than words, as was clear when Sneijder, Forlan and Dejan Stankovic sped past the waiting press pack without stopping. Ranieri's circumspection is weighing his team down, much as it has his own career. The Champions League continues to torment him.