Italian Serie A: Inter Milan Tries To Close-Out Fifth Straight Title

In 2006-07, Chelsea won England's FA Cup for the fourth time in the 92-year history of the club. They also won the League Cup, finished second in the Premiership and made it to the Champions League semifinals before losing on kicks. The team allowed a Premier League-low 24 goals while losing only three matches, also a league-low mark.

The 2006-07 can also be seen as José Mourinho's bad year - his least successful full season as a manager. Mourinho started his career in Portugal with Benfica, resigning from his job after a change in club president, landing at União de Leiria after less than three months on the job in Lisbon. Before he had completed a full season Leiria, FC Porto signed him. It was at the Dragão, in the first year it was open, that Mourinho completed his first full season as a manager: 2002-03. That year, Mourinho won the UEFA Cup, Portuguese Cup, Portuguese SuperCup and ended Porto's three year drought without a league title.

Portugal's was the first of four straight league titles for Mourinho, a streak split evenly between his home country and England, where in 2004-05 Mourinho led the Blues to the club's second title ever - their first in 50 years. In his first year at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea won the league by twelve points and set a record for fewest goals allowed in a Premier League season: 15 (in 38 matches). The preceding year the Blues had allowed twice as many, finishing 11 points behind Arsenal.


José Mourinho and the Coppa Italia. Content © 2010 ZumaPress All rights reserved.

It's through accomplishments like those that soccer fans have become accustomed to José Mourinho winning titles, something Italian Serie A fans got their first taste of last year when Internazionale won the league by ten points. That scudetto was Inter's fourth in a row, easily winning a league that the Nerazzurri had needed 38 rounds to secure in the preceding season. In his sixth full season as a manager, Mourinho had his his fifth title, with the Cup-double winning campaign the only season where he "failed."

Italy has only one domestic cup competition, the Coppa Italia, which Mourinho and Inter won last week, defeating Roma 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico. It was the first piece of silverware in what the Nerazzurri hope will be an historic treble - winning the domestic cup, Serie A, and UEFA Champions League. Should Inter win all three competitions, they will be the first team ever to do so within the same season.

On Sunday, Inter goes for the second jewel in that triple crown, traveling to nineteenth place Siena, where a victory will given Milano their fifth straight scudetto. Kicking-off at the same time, second place Roma will be at thirteenth place Chievo, their two point deficit giving them a chance to claim their first title in nine years. Holding the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over Inter, Roma need only a draw by Siena to have a chance at the title.

The odds of that happening, however, are long. One online odds-maker has the odds of Roma winning the title at around 9-to-1, making it likely that Mourinho will have another accomplishment to hang over the head of Roma's Claudio Ranieri.

Ranieri was the coach who immediately preceded Mourinho at Chelsea. Mourinho's immediate success in London and brash demeanor created an implicit rivalry between he and the man he replaced, with Ranieri's four successful seasons in London subsequently remembered less for the club's upward trajectory, more for a lack of trophies. Ranieri left Stamford Bridge without silverware, and when Mourinho finished ahead of Rainieri's Juventus in last year's Serie A, the rivalry shifted from implicit to explicit.

"Zeru titoli," is how Mourinho, in broken Italian, taunted his rivals last year. Zero titles, he tried to say, referencing the records of the other big Italian clubs. Of Internazionale, Juventus, Milan and Roma, only Internazionale would take silverware from 2008-09. While that was also a reflection on Milan's Carlo Ancelotti and Roma's Luciano Spalletti, it created an even larger chasm between Mourinho and Ranieri. Last week's Coppa Italia final was Ranieri's best chance to transcend that gap, but a loss there ten days after a losing to Sampdoria cost them their Serie A lead meant Roma had, in losing two crucial matches at home, reaffirmed "zeru titoli."

Despite the potential for no titles, the year has still beed successful for Roma, and in that way, a revelation for Ranieri. His replacing the popular Luciano Spalletti at the beginning of the season represented a homecoming, finally returning to Rome to coach at the club where he was trained as a player. He led the Giallorossi on a six month unbeaten run that has the club back in Champions League, still competing for the scudetto on the season's last day. Subtly tinkering with Spalletti's distinct approach, Ranieri salvaged what was about to become a lost season, incorporating more traditional forward play with the movement and dynamism of Spalletti's midfield.

Should Roma not get their scudetto, Ranieri's season should still be fondly remembered. No, he may not win silverware, and he will, for the second season in a row, finish directly behind José Mourinho. Regardless, the jobs done by each manager have been special. Mourinho may end up with all the silverware, but Ranieri will not be overshadowed.


Delio Rossi and José Mourinho (r) (Content © 2010 ZumaPress All rights reserved.)

Sampdoria, Palermo, and the Race For Fourth

Sampdoria's Luigi del Neri and Palermo's Delio Rossi have joined Mourinho and Ranieri in making this a remarkable year for managers in Italy. This weekend, the two battle for the final Champions League spot, last week's 1-1 draw between the clubs leaving Sampdoria two points up on Palermo ahead of Samp's match with Napoli.

With their inferior goal difference (the relevant tiebreaker) and Palermo's match at eighteenth place Atalanta, Sampdoria must assume they'll need three points at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. It's a result they have not gotten from Napoli in their teams' last three meetings, Napoli having defeated Sampdoria earlier this year, 1-0. That day's goal came from German Denis - a substitute for Ezequiel Lavezzi - who may need to replicate his October performance, with Lavezzi is suspended for this match.

First choice defender Hugo Campagnaro is also expected to miss the match for Napoli, with Sampdoria having their own list of injury concerns: defender Marco Rossi as well as attacking tandem Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano.

While all three Sampdoria players are expected to play, the potential absence of Cassano would be the easiest to manage, Luigi del Neri having already dropped his star from the team once this year. That change came in the middle of the season, after Sampdoria descended to mid-table after their season's strong start. The new coach made the controversial move of taking the club's talisman out of the lineup, but eventually, Samp righted the ship and are now favored to take the league's last Champions League spot.

Delio Rossi has not been without his own merits, crafting the third-best attack in Serie A during his first year in the Sicilian capital. Palermo has a number of talented attackers and are only slightly improved on their goal rate from last year; however, Rossi has done a fine job of incorporating the youth of Abel Hernández and Javier Pastoré, determining where best to use them amongst his attacking three, while improving on last season's eighth place finish, thanks to help from an improved defensive record.

Like Ranieri with Roma, Rossi may be disappointed if he does not finish one place higher, knowing a better result at home, against his main competition, in the season's final weeks could have won them the bigger prize. Despite these small trips at the finish, Ranieri and Rossi should maintain perspective on the strides they've made, just as supporters will maintain perspective on the great seasons they've managed.

Should their teams hold their places in the table, Mourinho and del Neri will receive their earned plaudits, but they are only two stories in what has been a great year for managers in the Serie A.

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