'The Little Aeroplane' is really taking off at Roma

Past experiences annoyed Montella, but doubtless they nourished the not-so-tall footballer's portfolio of ideas as he is relishing in his role as caretaker coach.

Vincenzo Montella, the 36-year-old caretaker head coach of Roma, must look back and wonder why, during his playing days, the job of management so often seemed so puzzling, so frustrating.
Montella was yesterday still receiving congratulations for having overseen victory in his first Rome derby as head tactician, extending his record as a Serie A coach to four matches unbeaten, with just two points dropped.
Montella used to be known as "The Little Aeroplane" when he was a centre-forward. Not for leaping high into the air to convert his goals - he scored 187 in the Italian league in 373 outings - because he is not tall, at 5ft 6ins (1.67m). Indeed, during his peak years, he often felt stymied because coaches preferred a bigger target man in their sides.
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As a Roma player, he suffered a little for the scudetto-winning coach Fabio Capello's preference for a loftier No 9 and would later be confined to the role of impact replacement when Luciano Spalletti, an experimental manager, chose to go for width and a deeper central striker in his Roma teams.
These experiences annoyed Montella the footballer, but doubtless they nourished his portfolio of ideas as he turned his thoughts to coaching.
In that role, the Little Aeroplane is soaring. Montella was given the job of interim Roma coach just over three weeks ago, with the departure of Claudio Ranieri.
He had enjoyed success in charge of the club's youth team, but it was nevertheless a startling choice at a delicate time for a notoriously unstable club.
The long saga of a projected takeover was nearing its endgame and with Roma struggling to present themselves as an entity that would continue to enjoy the status of regular Champions League football, his mission was a demanding one: to hoist Roma into the top four by the end of the season.
Sunday's 2-0 victory over Lazio looked like a big stride in the right direction, partly because Lazio are one of the principle obstacles between Roma and an elevated position. The gap between Roma, in sixth, and Lazio, in fifth, is now two points.
"That was an important victory towards Champions League status," Montella told reporters after the win.
It was also an important comeback, because Roma had relinquished their 2010/11 Champions League status five days earlier, beaten 3-0 at Shaktar Donetsk in a last-16 tie that had begun with a 3-2 home defeat under Ranieri.
But a win over Lazio is never just about the points. Montella knows that very well. His popularity among Roma fans - which is high, because he spent nine seasons as a Roma player - was secured forever one day in 2002 when he scored four goals in a 5-1 win over the arch enemy.
His esteem as a coach is now being measured in details. A derby win stands him in good stead, as does his knack of correcting faults that had begun to be ascribed, hastily in some cases, to Ranieri.
One concerns David Pizarro. The Chilean midfielder had fallen out with Ranieri. He was prominent against Lazio, firing a fierce shot off the crossbar.
Then there is Francesco Totti, the captain and resident club icon.
Totti had been left on the bench regularly by Ranieri; on Sunday, Montella started with Totti in a formation reminiscent of some of Spalletti's radical designs, with Totti encouraged to attack through the centre from advanced midfield.
Roma needed some patience, but once Totti struck, with a powerful drive, from a rehearsed manoeuvre following a free kick, Lazio lost composure.
By the final whistle, they had had two men sent off and conceded the penalty which a delighted Totti rocketed home for his second. Of course the captain dominated the headlines, but Montella had gathered a share of the credit.