x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ranieri takes the bragging rights

The tinkering Roma manager wins the tactical battle with Inter's new coach Rafael Benitez.

A wide-ranging and similar body of experience links Rafael Benitez, the Spanish coach of Inter Milan, the Italian champions, and Claudio Ranieri, the very Roman coach in charge of Roma. Both have taken their expertise across the leading trio of leagues in Europe, survived, albeit rather more briefly in Ranieri's case, at the top of English and Spanish football. For the first time, they now coincide in Ranieri's native Italy, where a direct confrontation produced a surprising result on Saturday: a win for bottom club Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, over joint league-leaders Inter.

Roma, who had won none of their first four Serie A matches, had left Ranieri under mounting pressure that it was to be assumed his instincts would be containment. Inter, averaging two goals per game going into the weekend and with Benitez continuing to broadcast that his Inter will be a more attacking side than the one designed by Jose Mourinho, his predecessor, arrived at the Stadio Olimpico flexing their muscles.

When Dejan Stankovic tested Bogdan Lobont, Roma's reserve goalkeeper, from long-range within the opening minutes, they looked eager to bully the vulnerable. But over the course of the remaining 90 minutes, Ranieri's men gave glimpses of the gumption Ranieri himself had called for amid suggestions of fall-outs between himself and senior players, of a boardroom busy sounding out his successor. Benitez later pointed out Inter "had 15 shots at goal", an alibi against criticisms that his instincts had been conservative.

Benitez not only felt the discomfort of his defensive players as the 60-minute mark approached in Rome, he heard them. Christian Chivu, the left-back had an exchange of words with his coach, blunt and urgent, Chivu exhorting: "Give me some cover here, boss!" As Roma made incisions down their right flank, Chivu felt exposed by a lack of midfield cover in front of him. Poor Benitez. He has made it his slogan that he, unlike Mourinho, would get the best out of Samuel Eto'o, his best striker. Eto'o began against Roma in what Benitez seems to have designated a more fruitful role, high up the field at outside left; in other words, in front of Chivu.

At Liverpool, the club Benitez left after six years in the summer, the Spanish manager was sometimes known as "Rafa The Rotator", because of his constant changes to the starting XI. In Rome, he made a decision to alter his line-up after 66 minutes. Sensing problems with the game goalless, Benitez responded by moving Eto'o to centre-forward, withdrawing Diego Milito and bringing Sulley Muntari off the bench, a left-sided midfielder to plug the perceived gap in front of Chivu.

Ranieri, who in his Chelsea days was nicknamed the "The Tinkerman" for substitutions that sometimes bewildered fans, then made what looked a far more risky change, at least politically. He took off Francesco Totti, his captain, some nine minutes after Benitez had taken off a striker for a midfielder. This is the same Totti who had expressed his displeasure at being substituted earlier in the month against Cagliari; the same Totti who had criticised Ranieri's tactics after the Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich. Totti had nothing to say on Saturday, not as he marched with a face of stone from the field. At that point Ranieri's obituarists got busy.

Then, two minutes into injury time, Roma scored the winner, a goal from Mirko Vucinic, the player who had replaced Totti. It was a diving header, sprung off the fresh legs of a substitute and brave, as he propelled himself at a thicket of bodies, though not quite as courageous as the decision by Ranieri to bring Vucinic on at the expense of Roma's favourite son. Tinkerman 1, The Rotator 0.