Claudio Ranieri ought to be used to seeing Jose Mourinho in his rear-view mirror. He started seeing his face looming there some time ago. It would exaggerate the circumstances of April and May 2004 to say that was when the self-styled "Special One" began stalking Ranieri, but it must at times have felt like something that sinister to the older of the two coaches.
Ranieri at that stage was chasing the English Premier League title with Chelsea, and it would be a vain pursuit of the prize. Ranieri's final months in London were spent juggling that challenge, overseeing a surprise defeat in the semi-final of the Champions League, and at the same time knowing his players knew he was shortly to be sacked. Mourinho duly followed Ranieri into the palace of Roman Abramovich's wealth, anointed for the role long before Ranieri officially departed.
Mourinho's attitude to Ranieri since has been graceless, at least publicly. Amid the endless vaunting of his own achievements in delivering Chelsea their first league for almost 50 years would be sly references to how much better he had done at Stamford Bridge than his immediate predecessor. The rest is history. English fans still remembered Ranieri as a likeable sort, but much of English football became transfixed by the darker plotlines given to it almost each week by Mourinho.
Last season, with Mourinho's touchdown on the runway of Italian football, Ranieri was obliged to take a position in Mourinho's rear-view mirror. Ranieri was by then in charge of the promoted Juventus, his third job since departing London; Mourinho had been handed the task of guiding the champions, Inter Milan. The Portuguese coach would often send messages to Ranieri through the media. They were drawn from a schoolyard book of insults. Ranieri, he reminded anybody who cared to listen, had struggled to speak English as fluently after four years at Chelsea as Mourinho managed within a few months. Ranieri, Mourinho also pointed out, had won no league titles even though "he is nearly 70", whereas Mourinho had triumphed in Portugal, with Porto, and in the Premier League. The wheels fell off in the spring and Ranieri was sacked. Mourinho won the title while picking arguments with other enemies.
So when Ranieri answered the question, late on Sunday, 'How are you feeling?', he reached back to some of that history. "Well," he smiled, "I'm feeling better than a year ago." This morning, with five matches left of the 2009/10 season, his Roma team are top of the table, with Mourinho's Inter in their rear-view mirror. It has been a magnificent pursuit. Roma approached their 2-1 win over Atalanta on Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico desperate to exploit Inter's 2-2 draw at Fiorentina the evening before. They scored both their goals within the first half-hour and held on to their lead through some tense later moments after Simone Tiribocchi pulled a goal back for Atalanta for their fifth successive victory and their 23rd game without defeat in the Italian top-flight.
Rewind to the back of that unbeaten run and you get to the end of October 2009, when Roma had gathered a mere 11 points from their first 10 matches. Ranieri had taken over after two defeats in Roma's first pair of games of the campaign - and trailed Inter by a full 14 points. At that stage, Mourinho could barely glimpse his old sparring partner in his rear-view mirror. Now Mourinho chokes on Roma's exhaust fumes.
"There are tough games to come, but the scudetto is in our hands now," beamed Ranieri. firstname.lastname@example.org