At first sight, Brazilian coach Leonardo and his Italian counterpart Massimiliano Allegri seem to have little in common. After all, the 41-year-old Leonardo is a former FIFA World Cup™ winner with a celebrated career behind him, while the 44-year-old Allegri toured the backwaters of Italian football during his playing days.
Having since moved into coaching, however, their paths have finally crossed. The versatile ex-Brazil international has just taken on the Inter Milan job, his first since vacating the AC Milan hotseat in May 2010, and that post was then filled by the journeyman player Allegri, voted Serie A Coach of the Year during his stint with Cagliari two years ago.
For the time being at least, it is Allegri who is in the limelight. His Rossoneri side head the Serie A standings, with Napoli and a resurgent Inter giving chase. Only seven points separate the two Lombardy giants with 13 games of the season remaining, heralding a run-in that promises to provide a searching examination of the abilities of two men with contrasting backgrounds but very similar objectives.
FIFA.com looks at their credentials ahead of a busy few weeks that could prove career-defining for both of them.
No fanfare for astute Allegri
Allegri’s pre-season appointment as AC Milan coach was greeted with a good deal of scepticism by the club’s fans, concerned at the lack of team honours on his coaching CV.
“I’ve never paid any attention to what people think of me,” he said after being unveiled last summer. “When you take on a job you start from the bottom, and it would be arrogant of me to come in and break up a team that was still in the running for the title with six games remaining.”
It was not long before the industrious Allegri began imposing himself and getting his message across. “I want a team that works hard, that doesn’t take a break, because there are no breaks in modern-day football.” That message, based on key values of respect and education, struck a chord with Rossoneri President Silvio Berlusconi.
Anxious to see the good times return at the club, Berlusconi provided his new man with generous transfer funds, the money being invested in the experienced and multi-talented quartet of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Antonio Cassano and Mark van Bommel. With extra resources comes added pressure, however, not that Allegri seems overly concerned about that, declaring: “Berlusconi has been very specific about Milan’s future, but there’s no pressure whatsoever.”
Forced to shuffle his pack due to an early rash of injuries, Allegri has since seen Ibrahimovic stamp his personality on the team. The Swede has scored 13 goals and served up eight assists in 22 appearances so far, his performances as the side’s leading light earning him the highest of praise from his coach, who has even likened him to Lionel Messi.
With Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Mathieu Flamini, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Rodney Strasser all unavailable due to a variety of ailments, the former Cagliari boss has been unable to field the same side in Milan’s last ten games, a set of circumstances that have tested Allegri’s mettle.
Having stumbled in recent weeks, Milan’s 4-0 home defeat of Parma at the weekend steadied his side’s nerves ahead of the resumption of UEFA Champions League hostilities and Tuesday’s Round of 16 first leg against Tottenham Hotspur.
“The players understand the importance of giving their all for the team,” said Allegri after Saturday’s handsome win. “They boys played really well. They applied themselves like champions and killed the game off. I can honestly say we’re not scared of anyone.”
Leonardo looking ahead
One man hoping to strike fear into Milan hearts is former Rossoneri pin-up Leonardo, who spent several productive seasons in red and black but had no qualms about stepping into the breach at Inter following Rafael Benitez’s departure and reports of dressing-room unrest. “I don’t want to look back to the past,” he declared on his arrival. “All I’m thinking about is the future.”
Having finally parted ways with Milan last year, the Brazilian has made it clear where his loyalties now lie: “I have a lot of things in common with AC Milan and I’ll never forget the club. But in my dealings with them I always wanted to have my freedom. I didn’t even know if I wanted to carry on coaching, but when Massimo Moratti, a man whom I admire, asked me to take over at Inter I rediscovered my enthusiasm for the job.”
With the assistance of his friend and team captain Javier Zanetti, a partner of his in a charity venture, Leonardo immediately struck up a dialogue with his new charges, urging them to focus not on past achievements but on future goals. “I don’t have to create anything here,” he said. “This team already has an identity of its own. The players know how they have to play and how they want to play. My job is just to get them in the best possible shape.”
Yet Leonardo has quietly made his own mark, bringing the 23-year-old Andrea Ranocchia into the centre of defence and rotating Lucio, Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi alongside him, while also restoring Esteban Cambiasso to the starting line-up. He has bolstered the Nerrazzurri attack by singing Giampaolo Pazzini, a player Benitez had wanted to buy, only to be prevented from doing so.
Pazzini’s goals have helped rekindle Inter’s hopes of retaining the title. Thirteen points adrift only a few short weeks ago, Leonardo’s men now have Milan in their sights.