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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

It's nervous time for coaches in top European leagues

As disappointing results pile up and pressure is ratcheted up, AS Roma's Claudio Ranieri and Palermo's Delio Rossi have been fired, and several others, including Bayern Munich's Louis van Gaal, appear to be on thin ice.

March 05, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Bayern Munich Coach Louis van Gaal celebrates a goal against FSV Mainz during their Bundesliga match last month.
Bayern Munich Coach Louis van Gaal celebrates a goal against FSV Mainz during… (Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters )

In the chemistry laboratory that is high-level European soccer, the test tubes are bubbling away, each one threatening to explode at any minute.

The "test tubes" are the emotion-filled and nerve-wracked coaches, and the last week or so has seen some of the game's biggest names exhibit extraordinary signs of stress as results and decisions have gone against them. Just consider:

• Dutchman Louis van Gaal, who took Bayern Munich to the European Champions League final last May, is pinned against the ropes in Germany after three successive losses have left Bayern in tatters.

• Scotsman Alex Ferguson is facing a lengthy ban that could affect Manchester United's title chances in England after he angrily questioned — not for the first time — the integrity of Premier League referees.

• Frenchman Arsene Wenger, his Arsenal team inexplicably tripping over itself every time it comes within sight of winning something, also has lashed out at game officials after the Gunners' latest stumble.

• Italian Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea, the defending English league and cup champion, has also been consigned to also-ran status, and Ancelotti is cautiously eyeing the exit and a return to Italy while denying such intent.

• Portuguese baton-wielder Jose Mourinho continues to undermine opponents with criticism disguised as praise, all the while deflecting attention away from the fact that his high-priced Real Madrid team cannot catch "Pep" Guardiola's Barcelona.

• Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, formerly coach of Real Madrid, is fighting to save Malaga from relegation but at the same time is fielding teams he admits aren't capable of winning.

• Italian Claudio Ranieri has been bounced out as AS Roma coach, and Delio Rossi has similarly been shoved out the door at Palermo.

Only in France, it seems, has some semblance of sanity prevailed.

There, Jean Tigana, a French star in the 1980s, is being retained as coach of Bordeaux despite the team's struggles.

"I offered my resignation because I thought I was holding the club back," Tigana said. "I cannot be a hindrance."

But owner Nicolas de Tavernost rejected the offer. "We started a project and an adventure with him and we wish to complete it with him," De Tavernost said in an admirable show of support.

Rossi, who was Palermo's coach until a week ago, enjoyed no such backing from the Sicilian club's volatile owner, Maurizio Zamparini, who has gone through 14 coaches in nine seasons. Following a 7-0 loss to Udinese, Zamparini first threatened to fire Rossi and then did so.

"Rossi has a 1% chance of staying . . . if you want to try and bet," Zamparini told Gazzetta dello Sport. "Rossi has destroyed this team. I told the coach to fix the defense and he did not."

Within days, Rossi was history.

In Munich, meanwhile, Van Gaal finds himself walking the thinnest of tightropes as Bayern's coach. The team did exceptionally well in defeating Inter Milan in Champions League play two weeks ago and then suddenly hit a wall.

First, Bayern was beaten by runaway Bundesliga leader Borussia Dortmund, which earned its first victory at Bayern Munich in 20 years. Then, Van Gaal's side was surprisingly ousted from the German Cup, losing at home in the semifinals to Schalke '04.

On Saturday, with second place in the Bundesliga on the line, Bayern lost to Hannover '96. The Bavarians had not suffered three consecutive defeats in more than a decade, and only winning the Champions League can now save Van Gaal, assuming he survives that long.

"We have had a catastrophic eight days," said former German international Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern Munich's chairman. "No one will probably be able to sleep. . . . We have to analyze calmly what we can and have to do to stop the rot."

Van Gaal, recognizing that Dortmund could not be caught, had said recently that "second place is our aim," a comment that would have been met with derision by Real Madrid's Mourinho.

Last season, Pellegrini racked up a record point total while leading Real Madrid to second place in Spain before being fired. But before Pellegrini's Malaga played Real Madrid last week, Mourinho scoffed at the achievement.

"In my philosophy, finishing second just makes you the best loser," he said. "You're just the best of the rest when you finish second."

Real Madrid then went out and thrashed Malaga, 7-0, but afterward Pellegrini was strangely unperturbed.

"We didn't come to contest the points," he said, admitting that he had purposely fielded a weak team to save his better players for matches that can be won. "The game was just a formality. Against a team like Real Madrid, we couldn't have expected to take a positive result, so the truth is the match won't affect us at all."

Extraordinary.

Meanwhile, Bayern Munich's Van Gaal is the biggest head resting on the chopping block.

"This is up to those in charge," he said Saturday. "I continue with my work, but obviously after the third straight loss it becomes tricky."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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