Ranieri out to conquer with Roma

Inter Milan visit the Italian capital to face Serie A's in-form side, who are unbeaten in 20 games.

At 6pm Italian time this evening, Claudio Ranieri's "48 hours of hell" will come to an abrupt end. The Roma head coach described the build-up to the collision between his side, who are joint-second in Serie A, and the leaders Inter Milan as infernal because of the state of anxiety existing around Italy's capital.

Being a Roman, Ranieri has a special sensitivity to the mood, tense, and always volatile. The Stadio Olimpico should be full, and will be raucous, for the visit of Inter, the sense of anticipation not unlike that preceding political upheaval. Tens of thousands of Romans sincerely believe the champions can be toppled tonight, which would cut Inter's lead to just a point with seven games left. Ranieri has been on the brink like this before, though never in his native city. If Ranieri has achieved a turnaround in fortunes like no other manager in the major leagues of Europe this season, he still has a keener sense than most about how making the final step in a long campaign is the hardest one.

Put bluntly, Ranieri does revivals better than he does trophies. His last three jobs in Italy have been masterly projects in breathing life into troubled institutions. He saved Parma from certain relegation; he restored Juventus to nobility - they sacked him a year ago, and look how they have slumped since - and when he took over Roma last September, they were without a point in Serie A. They are now Inter's most convincing challengers, unbeaten in 20 league outings. Now let's add the adventures abroad. Ranieri, 58, brought Valencia their first major trophy in 20 years when he won them the Copa del Rey. He is good at cups.

Ranieri guided Atletico Madrid to a Copa del Rey final, too, and when he won the FA Cup with Chelsea in England that club reached a watershed moment, a springboard for their bold development over the last decade. Indeed, he has won domestic cups in all of European football's major languages: Ranieri has a Coppa Italia title, won with Fiorentina, to add to his Copa del Rey and his FA Cup. But Ranieri has never won a top division title anywhere.

Runner-up with Juventus in Serie A in his first campaign there, and the club's first season back in the top-flight after their punitive 2006 relegation, was a feather in his cap. But it was not the scudetto. Second place in the English Premier League in the first year of Roman Abramovich's bounty was good, not least because Chelsea had to pursue an unbeatable Arsenal in the table, though it was not enough to keep Ranieri in his job. In Spain, he was always in the slipstream of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

So Ranieri has learnt to be cautious when it comes to forecasting the destination of league titles. Roma are not yet candidates for the scudetto, he insisted, despite a run of form that has seen them drop only eight points in 13 games this year. Inter have dropped 14 in the same period and won just six. "Inter must be the favourites," Ranieri said of today's encounter. "Yes, there is a wave of euphoria around the city, and we need to take all the positives from that.

"But Inter are still the team in front, and Milan are in with a chance too." Yet AC Milan's challenge is not fortified with the same energy as Roma's. While Roma were winning away at Bologna last Wednesday, Milan were losing at Parma. While Roma drew 1-1 with the champions at San Siro earlier in the season, Milan have allowed six goals and scored none in their meetings with Inter. And Ranieri's team have goals in them: 27 in their 13 matches since the turn of the year, to be precise.

Tonight will show if the manager better known as a rescuer really has a matador's cloak concealed beneath his conservative suit. sports@thenational.ae Roma v Inter, 9pm, Aljazeera Sport +1