Roma coach Claudio Ranieri has had to endure some tense times in his managerial career. His experiences in England and Spain are already well documented, but surely nothing can come close to the past 10 days when his world looked to be caving in around him. Firstly, there was the 5-1 mauling in Sardinia against Cagliari, followed by a debut Champions League defeat in Munich in which his captain Francesco Totti publicly criticized his tactics. More heartbreak followed as his team squandered a two goal lead at home to Bologna and an incompetent refereeing display then helped derail his team in Brescia. This whole sorry episode was also being played out amongst a backdrop of rumours leaked from the Italian press seemed to be linking former national team coach Marcello Lippi as a successor to Ranieri in the Roma hot seat.
77 minutes into Saturday evening’s heavyweight clash against Inter at the Stadio Olimpico, Ranieri gambled for a final time in the knowledge this could be his last act as coach of his beloved hometown club. Francesco Totti was not having one of his most inspirational performances for the giallorossi and his coach decided it should be his captain who should make way for substitute Mirko Vucinic. A disgusted Totti stormed off, heading straight for the dressing room in a show of petulance that summed up his current state of mind, 15 minutes later, his replacement scored one of the goals of the season to give Ranieri his first win of the current campaign, and send the tifosi in the curva sud into utter delirium. As Vucinic connected with a delicious cross from the right from Daniele De Rossi, ghosting in front of the big Brazilian defender Lucio, he somehow got both power and accuracy in a flying header that flew past a helpless Julio Cesar to score a goal that will be replayed for years and years.
Let’s not make any bones about it, these two adversaries despise each other, this fixture is always going to lack quality as the overall result becomes so vital to both teams. This latest instalment was seemingly heading for a goalless draw when on 68 minutes the game turned in the home sides favour. Inter striker Diego Milito picked up an injury and was replaced by Sulley Muntari. The pendulum had suddenly swung in Roma’s direction and the cautious approach in which they had played the match up until then, was discarded for a more attacking style with full-backs Marco Cassetti and John Arne Riise now having more licence to roam forward and less to worry about defensively. When De Rossi did what Jeremy Menez has failed to do all season, deliver quality into the penalty area, Vucinic became the hero of Rome and has he smashed his way through the advertising hoardings behind the goal and made his way towards the gathering throng in the stands, Ranieri’s bravery had given him his finest hour.
In the immediate aftermath of the contest, Ranieri explained his decision to an eagerly awaiting scrum of journalists by stating “the substitution? As the coach I take the gamble. Totti played like a lion tonight but I thought the pace of Vucinic could win us the game”. At the final whistle, his captain was nowhere to be seen as the rest of the squad felt a huge weight taken off their shoulders and celebrated like they had just clinched the scudetto. President Rosella Sensi described the team’s victory as “the true Roma”. Totti himself who is just one day short of his 34th birthday gave a brief response to journalists on Sunday claiming “I have never said anything against this Roma side and I will celebrate my birthday in the hope that I will wear this shirt for many more years”. Ranieri has done what no other manager has been able to do – stand toe to toe with the prodigal son and come out on top. There is a banner in the curva sud which reads, “No Totti, no party”, on Saturday night, there was one notable absentee as one half of the city danced the night away.