Claudio Ranieri has a bit of a reputation in Italy. No, not the one about changing the team each week – that is considered a quality, not a flaw in Serie A. In his homeland he is seen as a manager who can build a teambut cannot win – someone who sows the harvest that another coach ends up reaping. This season that might be about to change.
The man who laid the foundations at Valencia that Rafael Benitez then built on to win two leagues, and who then started the Chelsea revolution only for Jose Mourinho to arrive and finish the job, has the chance to be a league winner himself. All he has to do is hold off the challenge of the "Special One" for five more games.
Roma's incredible charge to the top has seen them go 23 games unbeaten and last weekend they moved one point ahead of Mourinho's Internazionale after beating Atalanta 2-1 while Inter could only draw 2-2 with Fiorentina.
It had been two years and seven months since they were last on the top of the pile, and back in November they were 18 points adrift. But for once the man who gave a young Gianfranco Zola his debut at Napoli and gave a 19-year-old John Terry his first-team start for Chelsea might actually be finishing a job instead of starting one.
Roma parted company with Luciano Spalleti just two weeks into the start of the season and Ranieri, who had been sacked by Juventus with just two weeks left of the previous campaign, came in to work miracles with the same group of players, plus Luca Toni who arrived on loan in January from Bayern Munich.
The question now is can he keep his head and steer his side over the finish line. That reputation for not having what it takes to win when the pressure is on will be meat and drink to Mourinho between now and the end of the season on 16 May as the psychological warfare kicks in. Think Kevin Keegan throwing down his headset as Sir Alex Ferguson began to wear him and Newcastle side's 12-point lead in the Premier League down to nothing in 1996.
Much will depend on this weekend's fixtures. Roma face city rivals Lazio on Sunday with Inter at home to Juventus tomorrow night. Lazio are five games unbeaten in Serie A and will be out to become the first team since October to take three points from the new league leaders.
"I would not rule out third-placed Milan either," said Inter owner Massimo Moratti at the weekend, adding to the strain on the top side. Leonardo's team are four points adrift and waiting for the pressure to tell on Roma and for the strain of those two games against Barcelona in the Champions League to derail Inter's final month of matches.
A Milan league title would be a major surprise as their old squad continues to creak under the weight of too many injuries. This week they asked 42-year-old Paolo Maldini if he wouldn't mind lacing up his boots again for the last five matches of the season. He declined any participation in what should be a vain struggle for Milan.
Which just leaves the top two. Inter's last game of the season is away to Siena while Roma travel to Chievo. You wouldn't back against Mourinho – Fergie-style – getting to his opponent in the run-in but Ranieri has the experience not to crumble. And of course as a life-long Roma fan who played six times for the club before making a career with more modest teams... "he would just love it".
Serie A: Top of the table
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