José Mourinho has softened a little towards Claudio Ranieri since the autumn.
Ranieri aims to get better of successor
José Mourinho has softened a little towards Claudio Ranieri since the autumn. When the Inter Milan head coach first came to Italy, amid a crash of symbols and drum-rolls to hail the arrival of the self-styled best coach in the world in Serie A, he chose to cultivate certain enmities. Ranieri was an easy target for the sort of sly barbs that are a feature of Mourinho's public utterances. Ranieri was easy because of what he and Mourinho shared: spells in charge of Chelsea, where Mourinho achieved more than Ranieri.
Cue a series of unflattering asides from the younger man: Ranieri was "a guy in his 70s who has not won much". Ranieri was a "manager before me at club who spent four years there and could hardly say 'Good morning' in English". Ranieri took it all in good grace. When he celebrated his 57th birthday last October, he giggled with reporters that it must be his 71st. "You know what Mourinho's like," he told me, "it's just his way of adding spice to football."
Saturday's confrontation between first and second place teams at the summit of Italian football could probably use some extra pepper, even if it comes from one of Mourinho's tiresome tirades against his old - but not that old - rival. Juventus versus Inter should be a genuinely decisive fixture in the title race. With seven matches left in the league, it hardly looks it. Even if Juve beat the champions, the gap between will them still be seven points.
Inter have been sloppy again lately, just as they were during the major test of Mourinho's first season, in the Champions League against Manchester United. They let a two-goal lead against Palermo turn into a draw at San Siro at the weekend. As has tended to happen at crux periods through the campaign, Juve failed to take advantage. They also scored twice at Genoa, but lost 3-2. In Europe, they went out at the same stage of the principal competition as Inter.
Fairly soon, Serie A will contemplate who should be considered its coach of the year. The man who collects the scudetto, almost certainly Mourinho, has, naturally, a strong claim. But should, say, Genoa finish in the Champions League positions, that will rank as an admirable piece of work for their head coach, Gian Piero Gasperini. Genoa were only promoted to the top-flight in the summer of 2007. Fourth place is a handsome feather in Gasperini's cap.
Ranieri is entitled to similar praise. Juventus came up from Serie B with Genoa 21 months ago. Ranieri took over when, a year after their enforced demotion thanks to the calciopoli refereeing scandal, they resumed in Serie A. Immediately, he got them back in the Champions League. Bravo. His ambition, he told me at the beginning of the season, was to finish a place higher in 2008-09. If Juve end up second, he will have achieved that. If runners-up sounded a modest target, it acknowledged that, with relegation and the consequent loss of income, Juve are still short of the sort of resources that made them champions in 2005 and finish top of the table in 2006, that Inter, title-holders, have a superior momentum.
But Inter's problems resurface, notably how to manage the wayward Adriano, and the new Inter coach's solutions are no more effective than his predecessor's. Mourinho can claim this Inter were not built by him, but the decorations he brought in - wingers Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma - have both failed. Alex Del Piero is no happier about being substituted by this coach than he was by Fabio Capello. Juve have also been sloppy at the back. Fans have begun to grumble that Ranieri should perhaps have shown more ambition.