Italian Serie A News, Results, Analysis and Features on Football Soccer

Giancarlo Rinaldi On December - 20 - 2011

Boss Luciano Spalletti Stars In Saint Petersburg

While the economy in Italy lurches from one crisis to another, there is an export market which shows no signs of a slump. Across Europe, it seems, there is a prized product of the peninsula which never sees demand dry up. An unerring rule of the football market appears to have been established: if you seek success and tactical acumen - go out and hire a Italian coach.

The founding fathers of this global trade were the likes of Fabio Capello, Giovanni Trapattoni and Nevio Scala. Between them they won titles in Spain, Germany, Portugal, Austria and Ukraine. Then along came Carlo Ancelotti to triumph in the English Premier League. If you also consider the Swiss success of Albertino Bigon and Walter Zenga’s victories in Serbia, you get a pretty complete coverage of the continent.

Now you can add one of the most famous shiny foreheads in the Italian game to that list. Luciano Spalletti, take a bow.

His work over the first two years of a three-year contract at Zenit St Petersburg has been pretty impressive. He delivered a Russian title and has followed it with progress to the last 16 of the Champions League after a tense draw with Porto. It means a quarter of the managers at that stage of the competition will be Italian.

It is all light years from his humble playing career and modest beginnings in management. They were largely confined to his native Tuscany until his efforts in winning Empoli a couple of promotions caught the eye. By 2005 he was guiding Udinese into Champions League qualification and then moved to Roma where he produced one of the most swashbuckling sides Serie A had seen. It was with the Giallorossi that he, out of necessity, hatched his 4-6-0 formation which looked ultra-defensive on paper but produced some glorious attacking football.

It would be fair to say, however, that some of the gloss was coming off his time in Rome by 2009. He delivered a couple of Coppa Italia wins and some unforgettable nights in the Champions League but the hour for new challenges was clearly near at hand. They parted company in September 2009 and within a few months he had his new post in Russia.

There was a time, perhaps, when the job would have come with limited expectations but Zenit had already proved they were a club with huge ambition. Under Dick Advocaat they were crowned Russian champions, won the UEFA Cup and the European Super Cup. Success was clearly the only option for Spalletti.

Luckily enough for Luciano, he delivered quickly. Another Russian title came their way and now this season’s Champions League progress. With a multinational squad at his disposal - including countrymen Domenico Criscito and Alessandro Rosina - he has made the best of the resources available. Generally favouring a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder, they sit top of the Russian league again this year. A success their coach reckons is well deserved.

“From my point of view it’s not a miracle,” he said after they made it to the last 16 of UEFA’s elite competition. “I believe that finishing the year at the top of the league and qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase was the maximum we could have achieved. The players fully deserve this, they have been doing their best for the whole year.”

But he used the opportunity to have a little dig at his troops too. In the most mundane traditions of “keeping their feet on the ground” he underlined that there was “room to improve” and the need to “work even better”. It could have come straight from the mouth of Trapattoni, Capello or Ancelotti.

It is an attitude which the players seem to accept and respect. Mimmo Criscito, a recent recruit to the Russian experience, is revelling under the relative freedom afforded by playing football away from the intense scrutiny of Serie A. “He is a great coach and a special man,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport recently. “There is less pressure here than in Italy. We have more free time and Spalletti treats us like grown-ups, letting us take care of our own private lives. Although anyone breaking that trust would be in trouble.”

Spalletti has also been trying to keep a lid on expectations. It is the first time in the knockout stages of the competition for the club and his stated aim is no more than the quarter-finals. The fans, however, are entitled to dream of making it a little further - especially since the draw turned out to be relatively kind and paired them with Benfica.

Their coach of course, has been here before when he was in charge at Roma. He described it as an “equally good feeling” to achieve such success with his Russian side. But he also did not miss an opportunity to make the point that he believed there was a need to strengthen the squad with two or three key players. The message to the men behind the club - chairman Aleksandr Dyukov and gas giant Gazprom supremo Alexey Miller - could not have been clearer.

Indeed, that could be the one fly in the ointment for the Italian experience even after a favourable Champions League last 16 draw. There are constant rumours of a return to Serie A for the coach and the man himself sometimes seems drained by his experience in Russia. No sooner had his club made it through to the knockout stages than he made no secret of his desire for a good glass of wine and a slice of fettunta - the olive-oil soaked, garlic-rubbed bread of Tuscany. A definite sign of those Mediterranean homesick blues.

Every so often, Spalletti looks uncomfortable with his surroundings. It is an experiment which has been an undoubted success but one which it is hard to believe will last in the long term. On the one hand, he has made encouraging noises about taking the club - which has ambitious plans for a new stadium - onto an even higher level. But on the other, he seems to hint that he would happily step aside if there was a chance for change.

In the meantime, however, he has the break in Russian league activity to plan his assault on a quarter-final place in the Champions League. A few key acquisitions might just give him the fire-power to achieve that goal. And then, who knows, the last eight coaches left in Europe’s premier event might be 50% Italian.

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