x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Zaccheroni on the verge of Asian Cup glory with Japan

Seen as little more than a steadying hand in Italy, the coach is now just one game away from a continental crown.

Alberto Zaccheroni, centre, says he loves working with Japan's players for their postivie approach.
Alberto Zaccheroni, centre, says he loves working with Japan's players for their postivie approach.

A year ago this weekend, Alberto Zaccheroni was preparing for his first match in charge of Juventus.

He had been told he was no more than the caretaker, a seasoned warrior whose brief was to give some stability to a vessel that had lost its bearings under a younger navigator, Ciro Ferrera, and to guide the ship into something like an acceptable harbour by the end of the season.

He took Juve to a place in the Europa League for 2010/11, which was a little short of what optimistic directors of the club had hoped for, and certainly insufficient to gain him a longer stay at Serie A's most decorated club.

He had turned 57 in his four-month stint at Juve, and it looked as if his likeliest next step would be return to the media analyses he had been doing with distinction in other periods when he was without a club.

Other Italian teams would probably have been in touch with him to play fireman, to guide them out of a crisis, but the fact that Zac, as he is usually known in Italy, has now served at the helm of each of Italy's Big Three - he has coached AC Milan and Inter Milan as well as Juve - meant that his horizons would be set more at the level of Lazio, Torino or Udinese, all of whom he coached before.

Zaccheroni has been around the block in his native country. When the Juve opportunity came his way, he said something about not wanting to go abroad because of the esteem in which he held Italian football.

Evidently he had softened his opinion when, last August, the Japanese Football Association invited him to take over a national team for the first time in his long, distinguished career.

What they got was a man with a scudetto gleaming out of his CV - the 1999 Italian title, won with Milan - and a reputation for tactical rigour. As a younger coach, Zaccheroni was identified with three-at-the-back, typically in a 3-4-3 formation. When successful, as he was with Udinese and on arrival at Milan, he would be praised for the strategy; when it failed, he would be deemed too dogmatic. These ups and downs are part of the vocation.

But he seemed in some ways an unlikely candidate for a long voyage overseas, even if many of his contemporaries from Serie A's coaching circle have in recent years chosen to work abroad: at his first major tournament as an international manager, Zaccheroni has already gone two stages better - by reaching the Asian Cup final - than Sven-Goran Eriksson, late of Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Roma and Lazio, or Fabio Capello, the former Milan and Juventus coach, managed with the England team.

Should Japan beat Australia in the Asian Cup final today, he will match Carlo Ancelotti, who won the first major trophy available, the Premier League, with Chelsea, and Luciano Spalletti, who won the Russian league with Zenit St Petersburg 11 months after taking charge.

Zaccheroni has told compatriots how refreshed he feels by the positive environment he has come to. "I love working with Japanese players," he remarked to Italian reporters.

"They are polite, well-behaved and respectful. When I explain a move to them they practice it without making a fuss, which is very different from the objections you always hear with Italian footballers. At the moment I am a very happy coach."

And just in case any of that sounded like an embittered dig against the last set of players with whom Zaccheroni worked in Italy, it should be reported that his success in Qatar has been warmly appreciated by the senior footballers of Juventus.

"I have had lots of text messages from back home," he revealed. Among the senders: the Juventus captain, Alessandro Del Piero, and the goalkeeper at Juve, Gigi Buffon.

The more Juventus' form continues to frustrate a year after Zaccheroni was called in to mount a rescue, and seven months after he left, the less he can be called to account for failing to play the perfect fireman while he was there.