From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.35 :: NO.10 :: Mar. 08, 2012
Milan 4 Arsenal 0. Arsenal humiliated, manager Arsene Wenger under pressure. Renewed when his team went down days later without a real fight in the FA Cup at Sunderland; whom they had beaten there in the League only the previous weekend. Endless criticism, speculation, evaluation about Arsene Wenger. But how much did we hear about the Milan manager, Massimiliano Allegri, whose well coached, well prepared team played Arsenal off the park at San Siro?
Allegri, you might say, came to Milan out of relative obscurity. He was a bold choice by the club when he arrived from modest Cagliari in the summer of 2010. At the Sardinian Club he had hardly set Serie A slight; two consecutive Serie A finishes in modest position. But at an unfashionable club such as Cagliari sheer survival is paramount and under the aegis of Allegri, even now, no older than 44.
I remember when, soon after being put in charge, he brought Milan to London to take part in the pre-season tournament at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, asking the visiting Italian journalists what chance he had in his demanding new role. Their reply was that it would depend on how he was received and treated by the senior players. Well, even though the arrival of the famous maverick centre forward, Swedish international Zlatan Ibrahimovic, coincided with Allegri's own, all evidently went well. Allegri was accepted, Allegri stayed and Milan duly won the Campionato.
As for Ibrahimovic, hugely gifted, endlessly unpredictable for club or country, he ripped the Arsenal team to pieces. For all his experience, his 16 years in charge at the Gunners, Wenger was outmanoeuvred, Arsenal were outplayed. By a team under the aegis of a manager with a CV which was hugely exceeded by Wenger's.
Allegri's rise through the managerial ranks of Italian football has been slow but sure. Born in Livorno, he has yet, if ever, to be put in charge of the local club. He began in the humble realms of the C1 division of the Italian League with little Aglianese.
Thence for four seasons in C1, the first of them at Ferrara with SPAL, many years ago, a Serie A club but long sunk in provincial obscurity. Next, Grosseto, in Tuscany, for two seasons of C1, then another with Sassuolo, till Cagliari, you might say, successfully plucked him out of the chorus.
Allegri has none of the aggressive flamboyance of such as Jose Mourinho, none of the playing prestige of Fabio Capello, none of the top level experience of Claudio Ranieri, whose Inter team the great Milanese rivals crashed embarrassingly in Serie A on either side of Milan's destruction of Arsenal.
Three days after which came Birmingham City's embarrassment of Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge; a 1-1 draw which could so easily have been a victory for the Championship alias second division side. Once again we have such a sharp contrast in managers. For Birmingham City the quiet self-effacing Chris Hughton. For Chelsea, the 34-year-old voluble and volatile Andre Villas Boas. And it was Hughton's team, though weakened ostensibly by injury, which has overall the better of the argument, actually taking the lead and thanks to a missed spot kick by Chelsea, holding it for much of the game.
I have known, liked and respected Hughton for many years; since indeed he was an able if unspectacular left-back at Tottenham Hotspur, due to play for Ireland and later to coach Spurs themselves. Losing his job ultimately at White Hart Lane, he was shrewdly in time appointed manager of Newcastle United.
The Geordie fans scarcely received him with acclaim. Had they not just lost, as manager, their former idol as centre-forward the locally-born Alan Shearer who, whatever his past feats as a goal-scoring striker and his popularity of Tyneside, failed to save the Magpies from relegation?
Quietly and competently, Hughton proceeded to bring them up again. His reward for which, under the unpopular rich owner Mike Ashley, was to be sacked when his team was in a perfectly decent Premiership position. So to Birmingham City, a club relegated to the Championship and seeming likely this season, when its controversial owner, Carson Cheung was detained in Hong Kong on charges of malfeasance, to struggle. Players had to be sold, pressures were stringent but Hughton quietly, but effectively soldiered on, taking his team within sight of promotion, back to the top league.
How typical of him that, even after the draw at Chelsea, he had generous words for the embattled Villas Boas, who had arrived from Porto to such a fanfare of trumpets, but whose team of seemingly disaffected players was lurching from one disappointment to another.
Hughton, like Allegri, who wasn't remotely as successful a player, shows that a certain element of humility is perfectly consistent with managerial success; even at the highest level.
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