When Didier Deschamps and Claudio Ranieri last came head-to-head (nearly eight years ago), the latter may have been at the helm of the fashionable, well-heeled west London club, but the former had the pedigree.
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As they exchanged a handshake of congratulation and commiseration on the Stamford Bridge touchline, the contrast was clear. Deschamps cut a dash in his leather jacket, while Ranieri stood flat-footed in his standard issue club anorak. One was a swaggering star, the other an admirable but unglamorous frump.
Chelsea and Monaco have both moved on since 2004’s Champions League semifinal (for better and for worse). So have their two coaches. Deschamps has always retained the self-assured air of a man who’s doing this because he wants to, rather than one who has to. No coach is bulletproof, but he is confident enough to shun supporters’ calls for more a more expansive side, and to openly defy sporting director José Anigo. Deschamps retains his aura.
Ranieri has also kept a consistent image over the years. He is always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Some of his post-Chelsea achievements have been remarkable: keeping Parma in Serie A in 2007; taking Roma to the brink of snatching the Scudetto from Inter in 2010. Yet his stoicism from back then means he is now recruited for a reason, for salvage operations rather than adventures to the top.
The history conjured by Wednesday’s tie was more than just a tale of the two bosses. Inter’s last visit to La Canebière was in April 2004 for a UEFA Cup quarterfinal. Didier Drogba’s second half goal clinched a home win as OM made its way to the final under then-coach Anigo.
It’s a heady memory in this part of the world, recalling Drogba’s single season of wonder here, for which he is still worshipped on the Vieux Port. The city’s cathedral, high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, carries a framed ‘Drogba 11’ match shirt in its corner dedicated to tributes from notables of Marseille’s history. It hangs next to the military tunic of General de Goislard de Monsabert, the man who led French forces which liberated the city from occupation in 1944.
Deschamps’ own individual achievements here were mapped with less of a visceral thrill, but they are unavoidable on a European night at the Stade Vélodrome. The incomparably decorated midfielder’s stature is inextricably linked to the Champions League, with his captaincy of Marseille’s stellar 1993 side that won the final against AC Milan.
As the only French champion of Europe, that apex informs the identity of a club whose essence seeps out of this wild city at every turn. When the Valenciennes bribery scandal broke in 1993 and the mighty OM was brought to its knees, it was allowed to retain the Champions League, a significant crumb of comfort to supporters in their darkest hour.
As the teams emerged onto the pitch on Wednesday to the familiar synth jabs of ‘Jump’ by Van Halen, the fans in the Virage Sud, behind the goal, raised a mix of shiny gold and blue snatches of wrapping paper between them, forming a picture of the Champions League trophy. Inter is in the last 16 for the eighth consecutive season, but OM has not been past this stage since 1993. The fans, flocking to the Vélodrome from all over France, are desperate for that to change.
It is an enticing challenge for Deschamps. OM competed well against eventual finalist Manchester United at this stage last season, but was arguably undone by a slight lack of ambition, failing to take full advantage of a wan display by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in a dire goalless first leg at the Vélodrome. This tie is the type that begins to classify a legacy.
The same could be said of Ranieri. With the outrage that followed Friday’s pasting by struggling Bologna (such that some suggested he wouldn’t even make it to France), he needed a positive response on the European stage to re-assert some credibility. A regular Champions League tilt by Inter would be welcome, with 2010’s victory overshadowing some real disappointments in recent years, even while Inter dominated domestically.
Roberto Mancini made little impression on the competition while sweeping the board at home, a perpetual failure that eventually proved fatal to his tenure. Even José Mourinho was humbled in his own debut Champions League campaign with Inter, the dismissive air with which Manchester United swatted a torpid Inter aside prompting many to speculate that the Portuguese was little more than an in-vogue charlatan.
The idea of Ranieri finding salvation in the Champions League is perhaps not so fanciful. The scrappy, determined wins over the more aesthetically pleasing Lille (twice) and CSKA Moscow in the group stage suggests that, despite sometimes resembling a scatter of disparate parts, Ranieri’s Inter could have that dogged quality which ultimately led to victory under Mourinho at the Bernabéu two years ago.
For the Vélodrome, Inter reverted to type, with Dejan Stankovic and Walter Samuel back into the spine and Wesley Sneijder retained behind what was ostensibly a front two of Diego Forlán and Mauro Zárate – the fluey Diego Milito on the bench. It looked like the contain and counter approach might work as OM pressed early on without troubling Julio César while the Brazilian’s opposite number forced to tip over from Forlán after one break.
Yet pragmatism gave way to sheer focus on survival after the break, as the home side huffed and puffed and Inter’s defenders hammered the ball as far away from its goal as possible at every opportunity. Deschamps might have been accused once again of failing to seize the moment if André Ayew had not sent the hordes wild with his late, late winner. Still, a seemingly vanilla change worked wonders in the closing stages, as right-back Rod Fanni pressed Christian Chivu relentlessly after replacing César Azpilicueta. In instigating a supplementary late wave of pressure, he arguably helped shape the climax.
The feeling in the locker room is that something – perhaps small, barely definable – has changed. “We’re getting experience at this level,” midfielder Alou Diarra told FOXSoccer.com post-match, “and we know a bit more about what we have to do to succeed (in the Champions League) now.”
Goal-scorer Ayew the elder concurred, while adding that the broad approach remains unchanged. ““We didn’t play for the draw,” he said. “We looked for the win, but the coach told us that it was important to keep our defensive shape. We dug in, were determined, kept our spirits up and it paid off.”
Maybe Deschamps’ exhaustive experience of Europe means caution is subconscious. “Against players like Forlan and Sneijder,” pointed out Diarra, “if you make the smallest error, you end up paying heavily for it, so we had to stay alert the whole time. “
When OM’s players spoke after the game, they were channeling their coach. Meanwhile, the silence of a disaffected Inter spoke volumes. Even if the road to the quarterfinals is not quite blocked off yet, it just felt like there was nothing much to say.
As with the dramatic late qualification from the group stage in December’s comeback at Dortmund, Deschamps’ side is still capable of pulling the unexpected out of the hat – however unremarkable what preceded it might be. Can Ranieri’s Inter say the same?