Thursday, November 10, 2011
Mihajlovic carved up
The butcher did it. The butcher, as yet unnamed.
The friend we all have, the fellow whose uncanny instincts always lead him to the best holiday resort, the best car, the places where you will "eat splendidly and barely spend any money". The guy who tells you over your morning coffee what's wrong with the economy. The know-it-all with the fat wallet who sits in the stands during a soccer match and pretends to spot your side's strengths and weaknesses by glancing at pre-game warm-ups.
Sinisa Mihajlovic, who was sacked by Fiorentina on Monday night following a 1-0 defeat at Chievo at the weekend, knows all about the butcher's sinister, dark power. He mentioned him in mid-September, while reflecting on the perils of his job. "Sometimes, our future is decided by people who know very little about soccer," he said. "A club chairman's best friend may be a butcher who keeps telling him, 'Your manager does not know anything about the game'."
Having created and established one of the world's most successful quality shoe companies, Fiorentina owner Diego Della Valle and his brother Andrea have shown their ability to put a cow's skin to good use and - who knows? - perhaps the butcher who takes care of the edible parts has had their ear for some time about the poor showings and decreasing appeal of the side under Mihajlovic.
Joking aside, as someone who has absorbed and digested the Italian way of life, all the way to being married to an Italian woman he met while playing for Lazio, Mihajlovic knew, deep inside, he had little future at Fiorentina as soon as the first boos emanated from the crowd last season, the first sheets with crudely-written words were hung inside and outside the stadium and, most importantly, when results started diverging from the high expectations he had set while being introduced a coach in June 2010.
Replacing a legend, even the minor one that Cesare Prandelli had been with the Viola, proved too much for Mihajlovic, who never seemed to win over the hardcore fans spoiled by a top-four finish and a memorable Champions League run the previous season.
The final months of Prandelli's reign in Firenze had not been smooth, amid rumours he had held preliminary talks with Juventus with a view to a possible move - the Della Valles later revealed they had blocked him from moving - and the decline of a squad he later termed "spoiled". None of this seemed to change the opinion most fans had of him, and it was a significant breakthrough in the frosty relationship between Fiorentina fans and the Azzurri - whose training centre, ironically, is right outside town - when Italy, now coached by Prandelli, enjoyed a return to the Stadio Franchi in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Faroe Islands in September 2010.
Mihajlovic never had a Prandellian moment of brilliance that could elevate him from pretender to an established manager the Viola could build their future upon. Deprived of the brilliant skills of Stevan Jovetic a few days into the 2010 pre-season, after the Montenegro playmaker hurt his right knee in training, the best he produced in his inaugural season in Florence was a 5-2 home win over Udinese in early May, the only time all season the Viola beat one of the top four Serie A sides. The lack of ambition, beyond Mihajlovic predicting a place in Europe as a realistic target, resonated badly with fans who had been spoiled - that word again - under Prandelli, which is why a poll held by a local newspaper showed an overwhelming majority of residents supported Mihajlovic's proposed move to Inter in mid-June, when Leonardo left the Nerazzurri. The poll also showed Delio Rossi, who has now replaced the Serbian, as the fans' firm favourite to take over.
Gone, by that time, were the isolated instances of support Mihajlovic had received during his first season. Making the poacher-turned-gamekeeper cliché his mantra, he tried to be a disciplinarian, an attitude that with the presence of ebullient souls like Adrian Mutu, Juan Vargas, Alessio Cerci should perhaps have been part of the job description. The typical scene, especially early in the season when Fiorentina plunged to the bottom of the table after a mid-October defeat at Sampdoria, would be fans turning up at the training ground urging Mihajlovic to kick the laziest players in their behinds, and the manager puffing out his chest in delight for being recognised as the steady hand in the building.
The act - a genuine act, not just a kind of persona Mihajlovic wore in public - could not sustain itself for long, and the manager soon became part of the problem, in the eye of fans, instead of the solution.
Nothing could save Fiorentina from decline, not even the return of Jovetic and the brief revival of Cerci, who had a memorable streak of matches stretching from late April to early October as well as a summer in which he was both close to joining Manchester City and to being left out of the squad for insubordination.
Too many variables went the wrong way - the controversy over Riccardo Montolivo's refusal to sign a contract extension (he was also stripped of the captaincy despite being backed by his team-mates) and new signing Santiago Silva's failure to score as he replaced the injured Alberto Gilardino, for example. Then the off-the-field problems of Vargas, who was left out of the squad for the away game at Cesena so he could sort out his (night)life, and Houssine Kharja, who was fined and reprimanded by the club for making one train trip too many to and from the family home in Milan, something which does not really look so bad.
All of these compounded a situation that had been made worse by the simplest of reasons: a lack of results and a discernible pattern of play.
Rossi takes over then, his reputation as a good tactician and teacher as much of use at this time as the very fact he's not Mihajlovic and starts with a clean slate.
The butcher is waiting for him too, though.