New coaches seize their chance
If a club is struggling, then there is an age-old solution that is always offered up as a panacea: firing the coach. 2008 proved to be no different, with a number of supremos around the world having to relinquish the reins of their clubs and indeed countries - often finding other employment soon after on the managerial merry-go-round.
No less a team than current FIFA World Cup™-holders Italy changed coaches in 2008. Marcello Lippi stepped down immediately after the team had triumphed at Germany 2006, only to return after his successor Roberto Donadoni could not take the Squadra Azzurra beyond the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2008. This "back to the future" choice has already reaped dividends, with Italy clear at the top of European Qualifying Group 1 for the 2010 FIFA Wold Cup South Africa with ten points from four matches.
Vicente del Bosque was another coach with a hard act to follow, the 58-year-old having taken over the reins in Spain just after the team had won EURO 2008. His predecessor Luis Aragones decided to look for a fresh challenge in Istanbul with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce, whom he has steered to fourth place in the league shortly before the half-way point in the season. City rivals Galatasaray also have a new man at the helm, with German Michael Skibbe taking over last summer and winning his first trophy in the form of the pre-season Turkish Supercup.
Luiz Felipe Scolari also swapped international duties for domestic ones, leaving the Portuguese Selecçao to take on Chelsea, whom he has taken to second in the Premier League and into the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. Continuity has been the order of the day among England's other top clubs, however, with the Blues being the only one of the top seven to have changed managers.
The Bundesliga is another matter altogether. There were seven new coaches when the season began, with Jurgen Klinsmann's move to Bayern Munich being the most high-profile appointment - his first domestic coaching job after two year's at the helm of the German national team. Other big clubs such as Hamburg (Martin Jol), Bayer Leverkusen (Bruno Labbadia) and Schalke 04 (Fred Rutten) began the season with a new coach, and in most cases it has paid off with five of the top seven clubs at the break operating under new management.
"We've got top players and, pardon me if I'm arrogant, but we also have a top coach." Question: which coach said that? No prizes for guessing that it was Jose "The Special One" Mourinho, newly in charge of Italian league champions Inter Milan. The Portuguese strategist does indeed have a formidable record - he won the Champions League in 2004 with Porto, the Premier League in 2005 and 2006 with Chelsea and is now looking to work his magic in Serie A. The signs are already promising. Inter Milan are top of the league and six points clear, and he has even managed to create an individual record with a 105-game unbeaten home record (38 for Porto, 60 for Chelsea and 7 for Inter Milan), meaning that the 45-year-old has not lost a home game for some six-and-a-half years now.
While some coaches have come, others have gone, Alain Perrin being among the latter. One season in charge of serial French champions Lyon was enough for the 52-year-old, who nevertheless steered them to their seventh consecutive title. Claude Puel took over last May and has taken up where his various predecessors left off, taking Lyon to the top of the league with a three-point cushion.
Bernd Schuster is another tactician to have moved on, though in this case, the choice was made for him after Real Madrid dispensed with his services in mid-December. Fourteen games into the season, the Galacticos were a lowly fifth in the league, nine points behind leaders and arch-rivals Barcelona. This was too much for club officials, who decided that it was time for the "blond angel" to move on.
Josep Guardiola is under no such pressure at the moment. His initial hiring as Barcelona coach at the end of last season was greeted with a great deal of scepticism, but the club has won 12 of 15 league matches so far this term (scoring 46 goals and conceding nine) to carve out an eight-point cushion at the top - enough to silence even Guardiola's fiercest critics.
New brooms sweep clean, so the saying goes, and this has certainly been the case so far this season with most new coaches providing their teams with fresh impetus and steering them towards the upper reaches of their respective leagues. Time will tell how long these honeymoon periods last, however, particularly with a new coaching merry-go-round bound to start in 2009...