Throughout the extended crisis that has shaped most of his first season as a head coach, Ciro Ferrara has shown considerable dignity. The Juventus boss is fighting an increasingly harder battle against the sack and having overseen the elimination of his club from the Champions League and a slide from second to sixth place in Serie A in the space of barely two months, tonight is his last chance of silverware this season.
Even success in the Coppa Italia may not save Ferrara. Standing in his way are Inter Milan. Ferrara is up against the ropes. At least that would be his preferred figure of speech. "I'm a bit like Rocky, from the movie," Ferrara said a fortnight ago, shortly before Juve's 3-0 league defeat against AC Milan. "I know how to take punches. I might be covered with blood but I'll keep saying to the other boxer: 'Hit me harder! That last one didn't hurt'."
But for the Rocky Balboa in Ferrara's imagination, he must now be wondering if it might not be a relief to hear the sound of the final bell. Juve have lost five of their last six matches, the latest at home to a Roma side who scored their winner in injury time. Ferrara certainly looks rugged with his strong, chiselled jaw line and big frame, and there was a little of Rocky about him as a player, a teak-hard centre-half for Napoli, Juve and Italy. As a coach, he dons glasses, giving a studious aura in contrast to the tough-guy player. What he has not looked is decisive. Given an arduous task of having to quickly accommodate expensive new signings such as the Brazilian pair Diego and Felipe Melo, Ferrara has often appeared the novice he is.
Diego's bright start has turned into inconsistent displays while Melo's confidence has visibly dropped. Lacking the experience of senior players such as the retired Pavel Nedved and the injured Mauro Camoranesi, the bianconeri have turned brittle under pressure of late. Another senior man, their captain Alessandro Del Piero, has been in and out of the side and struggled with fitness problems, but, buoyed by his excellent goal against Roma last Saturday, he yesterday issued a rallying cry.
"The game against Inter is the perfect opportunity to turn things around," Del Piero said, steering clear of commenting on Ferrara's vulnerable position. Indeed, Ferrara's finest hour so far was probably that achieved against Inter, the Italian champions, whom Juve beat 2-1 in Serie A at the beginning of December. It was a one-off. Not long after that the vultures began to circle around Ferrara. First, Juve made a barely disguised attempt to lure Guus Hiddink, the former Chelsea, PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid head coach, from his position in charge of Russia's national team. What the Juve treasury offered Hiddink in terms of salary did not satisfy the Dutchman.
Liverpool's beleaguered Rafa Benitez has since let it be known he has appeared on a shortlist of candidates to replace Ferrara. Benitez is never shy of hinting to his current employers that he is admired elsewhere, so that line of inquiry has been heavily amplified by the media. More discreetly, the former Juventus and Inter head coach Giovanni Trappatoni, currently in charge of Republic of Ireland, has been sounded out about taking over for the rest of the season, with the target a top-four Serie A finish. Alberto Zaccheroni, once of Milan and Inter, is, as usual, happy to put himself in the frame.
Juve is still an attractive job, though there remains some modernising to do in a squad that includes Fabio Cannavaro, Del Piero and David Trezeguet, men old enough and at Juve for long enough to have once counted Ferrara as a teammate. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Inter v Juventus, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1