This time 12 months ago, Claudio Ranieri's credentials were being closely assessed for a shot at the Serie A title. His team had won four of their first five matches after the 2008/09 winter break and two notable victories against Real Madrid in the Champions League heralded a feeling they were back in the elite after two years of ignominy. That team, of course, were Juventus. In the months that followed, they slumped alarmingly and Ranieri lost his job.
Ranieri is a cautious man when it comes to predictions, a let's-take-each-game-as-it-comes sort of a manager, so now that he finds himself in charge of the form side of Italy's top division, one jostling in second place with AC Milan and putting together the most impressive recent pursuit of Inter Milan, he is certainly not uttering any bold statements about scudetto possibilities. Ranieri has also been around for long enough not to tempt fate or provide ammunition for critics when and if things do go wrong.
Roma's revival under him has nevertheless been something to enthuse about. They go to Fiorentina tonight on a run of four successive wins in the league and a midweek victory over Udinese in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia. Title contenders? It is not a role Ranieri invites or wants Roma to carry into the coming months. "As far as I am concerned Inter are on another level from us," said the former Napoli, Cagliari, Fiorentina, Atletico Madrid, Val-encia and Chelsea coach. "Inter have spent a lot of money, and we have not. Massimo Moratti, the Inter president, has invested a great deal and he is now in a period where he gets to enjoy the success of that. We haven't got that level of resources, so we have to be cleverer to compete."
Twenty games ago, two defeats to start the season led to the depart-ure of Luciano Spalletti as coach. Under Ranieri, the rebuilding began in defence. His record in charge is almost a match for the league-leaders in terms of goals conceded. Ranieri's Roma have let in only 11 goals in their last 18 matches in all competitions, and individuals who had apparently lost their way are thriving. John Arne Riise, the former Liverpool left-back, has played with confidence as has Philippe Mexes, the French centre-half, who is again looking the footballer who in his youth was described, variously, as a new Marcel Desailly or Laurent Blanc, with admiring nods towards the World Cup winners who graced the defences of Milan and Inter when Italian football was the home of the game's finest defenders.
Roma's last defeat was back in October. Momentum was providing its own boost to what had been damaged morale, added Ranieri. "The team had a very traumatic beginning to the season. I saw a bit of difficulty for them in generating enthusiasm. Because there was a change in head coach, we had to start from scratch in many ways. I think there's a real fighting spirit in us now. The league table doesn't lie. The players needed to start believing in themselves."
Nor would he apologise for a certain doughtiness. "When I got here, I said to the players: 'Forget attractive football, I want to see you battling until the very end.'" A heavier calendar will soon be upon Roma, with the resumption of the Europa League, in theory a lighter load than the Champions League assignments that await Milan, Inter and today's sliding opponents, Fiorentina. By the end of the month, Ranieri also hopes Luca Toni, signed from Bayern Munich on loan, will be fit again. "Toni has already given us a glimpse of what he is capable of. He has come very motivated. I hope to see him building a partnership with Francesco Totti soon. But two big, tough months are coming up for us. I'll be interested to see what we can achieve."
firstname.lastname@example.org Fiorentina v Roma, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 3