Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho exchanged handshakes and civil compliments at the end of Saturday's titanic clash at the summit of Serie A. Ranieri afterwards confirmed as much, that the head coaches of Roma and Inter had observed post-match etiquette without any of the snide comments which Mourinho has tended in the past two years to aim at Ranieri, the manager who once upon a time preceded him at Chelsea.
Ranieri resisted crowing, too, after Roma's 2-1 win over the champions at the Stadio Olimpico energised the title race. It was a compelling encounter, requiring none of the Punch-and-Judy enmity between the two head coaches to spice it up. Shared and intertwined histories of several players provided quite enough dramatic, personal subtext and Ranieri, who is always more subtle and dignified talking about Mourinho than vice-versa, did rub in one quiet point after the final whistle by heaping praise on the performance of David Pizarro, the Chilean midfielder whose poise and passing had been features of some of Roma's best football. "He creates time and space for the whole team," beamed Ranieri. "And for us he is irreplaceable. He's had a fantastic career."
Read between the lines, and there's a reference there to Inter's tradition of carelessness in recruitment. Pizarro did not have a fantastic career when he was an Inter footballer, signed amid some fanfare from Udinese and then marginalised, considered too slight in build, too lightweight under the management of Roberto Mancini. Pizarro left Inter for Roma three summers ago, after just 12 months, and in common with many of the current Roma team, has found his way back to vintage form since Ranieri took over last September.
Pizarro's arching free-kick set up Roma's opening goal, nodded down by Nicolas Burdisso at such an angle that, as it bounced, Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar found it hard to grasp, Daniele de Rossi stabbing in the loose ball. Burdisso, too, would have appreciated the subtext of his contribution. He was allowed to leave Inter, on loan, for the capital last summer by Mourinho, who may have cause to feel doubly haunted by the Argentine centre-half's absence when he prepares for Bologna on Saturday. Lucio, whom Mourinho hired at the time he released Burdisso, will be suspended for that match, along with two more defenders, Maicon and Javier Zanetti. And Christian Chivu, who has just returned from injury, is fortunate he will not be serving a similar ban. Chivu's stamp on Luca Toni late in the game appeared to have escaped official attention, and did nothing to raise his estimation among a Roma crowd who once cheered and appreciated him. Chivu left Roma for ?13million (Dh64.4m) in 2007 in search of more profitable trophy-hunts with Inter.
Last month, Mourinho said of Roma: "They are a crafty club in the transfer market. They ask for players then say they have no money to spend on them. You ask them to buy players, and they say: 'Not for sale'." Roma, who moved to within one point of Inter at the weekend, certainly looked crafty. It might one day, privately, occur to Mourinho that Ranieri should be congratulated for reviving the form of several footballers, brought in cheaply. John Arne Riise has become a zestful, goalscoring full-back. Luca Toni is making his spell in Bayern Munich's reserves look like ancient history. And Saturday's win was achieved with Francesco Totti only a late entry from the bench.
With Totti back for the run-in, Ranieri has greater cause for optimism. "There's a long way to go," said the Roma coach, "but now we can at least talk about the scudetto." @Email:email@example.com