MILAN // A fortnight ago, Claudio Ranieri celebrated a year in charge of Roma's first team. His record in those 12 months makes excellent reading. Ranieri's first 38 matches as Roma's head coach showed a mere five defeats, and nine draws. Calculate that as if it were a full Serie A campaign and those 81 points would not quite have been enough to win a scudetto in the last five or six years, but it would have been close in several of them.
Last May, indeed, Roma finished just two points shy of clinching the championship. Without the deficit left to Ranieri by the two losses suffered early in the 2009/10 season under the management of Luciano Spalletti, Roma would have beaten Inter Milan to the title. The memory of Ranieri overseeing a 23-match unbeaten run and guiding Roma to the top of the table last April is fresh enough, which is why the current scenario, a frenzied talk of crises and sackings, seems so peculiar.
Except when you recall this is Roma, where there are few shades of grey, and seismic fault-lines running all through the club. Ranieri's hair certainly looks greyer after a problematic beginning to 2010/11 and the lead-up to this evening's meeting with Inter, the team against whom Roma jousted so thrillingly last spring, has been marked by confrontation, suspicion and misfortune. To start with the latter, Phillipe Mexes is suspended following his red card in the defeat to Brescia in midweek; goalkeeper Julio Sergio is injured, and out for another three weeks, adding to a sick-list that already included wide players John Arne Riise and Rodrigo Taddei. Inter, for their part, are not entirely unscathed, with Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel and Thiago Motta out, but the difference in depth of the two squads suggests the champions will cope better.
Roma felt outraged by the officiating against Brescia. Ranieri suggested the referee's assistant should "undergo eye tests in hospital". Rosella Sensi, the Roma president, typically went further, with her attack on "blind referees". Sympathy was generated by reviews of two possible penalties denied to Roma. Even the Italian referees commission head Marcello Nicchi allowed that Roma "had some reasons to feel upset".
Ranieri, meanwhile, is so sharp-eyed he is seeing ghosts. The spectre is Marcello Lippi, who stepped down as coach of the Italy national team in June, and whose name is being touted loudly as a possible successor to Ranieri, whose contract expires in 2012 and whose capacity to revive Roma, for a second time, is evidently under scrutiny with the club one off the bottom of the table with two points so far from four games.
Ranieri all but accused Lippi of briefing reporters against him, both in Rome now and in the period before Ranieri was sacked by Juventus at the end of the 2008/09 season. "When the journalists seem to know about the situation than the coach, you draw your own conclusions," Ranieri erupted on being questioned about Lippi's name being linked with his job. "I understood that much in Turin too. It was Lippi. Everybody knew that."
These excitable responses are suddenly becoming the norm for Ranieri, usually dignified and charming in his dialogue with the media. Before the Brescia match, he snapped sarcastically at reporters as they wondered out loud about the health of his relationship with captain Francesco Totti. Lose the faith of Totti - as Ranieri seemed to when the Roma skipper talked of excessively defensive tactics - and in Rome, you lose a large portion of your authority as coach there.
At Pinetina, Inter's training base, the authority of Rafa Benitez appears to grow and grow. Victories in their last three Serie A outings have put the title-holders top of the table, Samuel Eto'o is thriving in a more advanced role than he had under Benitez's predecessor, Jose Mourinho, and though the reception at the capital's Stadio Olimpico will be fiery, Benitez knows the home supporters can quickly turn on their own side, and head coach, under circumstances like these.
10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1
Serie A fixtures
AC Milan v Genoa 8pm
Roma v Inter Milan 10.45pm
Bari v Brescia 5pm
Catania v Bologna 5pm
Cesena v Napoli 2.30pm
Chievo v Lazio 5pm
Fiorentina v Parma 5pm
Juve v Cagliari 10.45pm
Palermo v Lecce 5pm
Sampdoria v Udinese 5pm