By Paddy Agnew
At first glance, Juventus FC coach Marcello Lippi could be mistaken for either a wealthy business tycoon or a glamorous Hollywood star in the later years of a successful career. Handsome, smartly dressed and eloquently articulate on every aspect of football, Lippi's natural good manners and 'bella figura' belie his burning ambition to win, and win again.
Yet, just minutes after he had led Juventus to the 27th title of their remarkable history last weekend, Lippi had no hesitation in admitting that he is nothing less than "a royal pain in the ass" when it comes to coaching his players. Not that this admission could much surprise anyone who has ever been privileged to watch Lippi at work. Both on the training ground and even more in the privacy of the dressing room, Lippi can be aggressively and angrily curt with players who fall short of his expectations.
"Sometimes I think that my only real merit is that I am a royal pain in the ass every day out on the training pitch," he said. "Sometimes, I go over the top, I admit that, but I still think that the bond between Lippi and his players is something that you simply won't find in other teams. No coach and squad know one another inside out like we do."
Nucleus of players
To some extent that point is born out by the fact that a tough nucleus of players - Ciro Ferrara, Uruguyan Paolo Montero, Dutchman Edgar Davids, Alessandro Del Piero, Antonio Conte, Gianluca Pessotto and Alessio Tacchinardi - have stuck with him and Juventus during both his periods as club coach, from 1994-99 and from the summer of 2001 until now.
Win or lose Wednesday's UEFA Champions League semi-final tie with Real Madrid CF at the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin, Lippi has already reaped much personal satisfaction this season. The roots of that satisfaction go right back to a Sunday evening in February 1999 when, in the wake of an unexpected 4-2 home loss to Parma AC, he angrily offered his resignation.
After a five-year period from 1994 with Juventus which had seen the 'Old Lady' win three league titles and one Champions League trophy, Lippi had expected that the Juventus management would reject his resignation. To his surprised disappointment, the resignation was instead accepted. When Lippi returned to Juventus for the 2001/02 season, he described his "second coming" as a "return home to the club where I feel best". With two league titles already won since that return, he has more than justified his tall reputation.
Taking no chances
Yet, Lippi knows only too well that Scudetto success is not enough at Juventus. The point was made last weekend when Lippi rested five key players for Juve's title-clinching 2-2 home draw with AC Perugia. Furthermore, having twice seen his side lose a Champions League final (to BV Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and to Madrid in 1998) just days after they had won the Serie A title, Lippi was taking no chances last weekend by overindulging in title celebrations.
Even before the Perugia game, his players had received strict orders to curtail their enthusiasm and to limit their celebratory champagne to one glass. After all, it would be training as per usual on Sunday morning in order to prepare for the second leg of their tie with Madrid, a game in which his side will play with brains as well as their heads. If you fail to do so, Lippi concluded, "you're just being naïve".
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