Catania's appointment of Argentine hard man Diego Simeone was swift but not entirely surprising, according to James Horncastle
A cry of "Vamos Ragazzi" echoed loudly around Catania's training ground in Mascalucia late on Thursday afternoon. The heavily accented Spani-talian being spoken left no one under any illusion whatsoever that with time the Rossazzurri have become ever more Albiceleste. Perhaps the only element missing to render Mascalucia home from home was the sizzle and smell of asado on the barbecue somewhere in the background.
When Catania's directors prematurely and unexpectedly pulled the curtain down on Marco Giampaolo's tenure at the club earlier in the week, making the highly regarded Italian tactician the sixth managerial casualty of the season in Serie A, it was not entirely surprising but rather quite logical that an Argentine would be considered as his replacement.
Diego Simeone's third stint on the peninsula, and his first as a Coach, is perhaps his most intriguing yet. He returns to Italy eight years after having waved goodbye to Lazio, his four goals in the last four weeks of the Scudetto-winning season in 2000 leaving the supporters with memories of a talismanic player with undeniable leadership qualities. "It's as if I never left," Simeone told reporters. "I have kept in contact with this country and with Serie A."
The distinction as to where Argentina ends and Italy begins is a little blurry to say the least at Catania right now. Simeone finds no fewer than 12 compatriots in Mascalucia, including three players he has trained before back in South America, namely goalkeeper Mariano Andujar, defender Pablo Alvarez and midfielder Alejandro Gomez.
With this in mind Simeone's appointment makes a great deal of sense. Although the 40-year-old was at pains to state during his official unveiling that merely the virtue of being Argentine in this situation doesn't necessarily equate to guaranteed success, he does already know Serie A well and a number of Catania's players too, which certainly should count in his favour.
Take Gomez for example. "When we were at San Lorenzo together, El Papu thought of himself as a trequartista. I forced him to play on the right wing," Simeone said. "We almost argued. But I explained to him that if he were to go to Italy, that's where he would play and he does. After Gomez joined Catania, he called me to thank me again."
That level of understanding about what it takes to make the transition from Argentina to Italy is perhaps what made Simeone better suited to Catania than either Franco Colomba or Claudio Gentile, the two other names briefly linked with the post. After all, the club's sixth Coach in four years now has a entirely different remit than his predecessors, Giampaolo excepted.
"We didn't change Giampaolo because we judged 22 points to be too few," said Catania's chief executive Pietro Lo Monaco. "All told we are in line with our predictions before the season started. But in our opinion, this is the strongest Catania side under our management. And to only talk about survival is no longer enough. Therefore we hope that Simeone knows how to infuse his character and desire into the team."
Leadership is certainly his forte and this uncompromising sergeant major style of management has worked a treat in Catania before. Simeone doesn't suffer fools gladly. He joined Inter as a replacement for Paul Ince in 1997, but it soon emerged that he was much more than a Guv'nor. Simeone had no time for the preferential treatment meted out to Ronaldo and his response to the Inter striker's demands for clear-the-air talks was particularly blunt. "Perhaps he's referring to the heating not working in the dressing room."
In this respect his approach to football bears a similarity to that of Sinisa Mihajlovic who worked nothing short of a miracle at Catania this time last season. On replacing Gianluca Atzori, he found the club in the relegation zone looking every bit like they were headed for Serie B, but still somehow managed to ensure that Catania survived at a canter with a backs-against-the-wall-like attitude.They took 36 points from their final 23 games largely thanks to the goals of January signing Maxi Lopez. "I will talk to Sinisa with whom I am tied to by beautiful memories from our time together at Lazio," Simeone said. "Many players from that group are coaches today because we were players who knew how to use our heads. And I hope to open a long cycle with Catania."
Whether he can actually take the club to the next level - for instance into Europe - remains to be seen. Simeone did win both the Apertura and Clausura championships in Argentina with Estudiantes and River Plate respectively, but his defensive-minded approach might clash with Lo Monaco's desire "to take off the handbrake."
Having said that, Simeone has already expressed a desire to change the system from a 4-1-4-1 to either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-1-2 handing the keys to the midfield to Adrian Ricchiuti, the playmaker who had been abandoned by Giampaolo. He should provide Maxi Lopez with better service and give Catania a better chance to win games. "I expect the side to press up the field as high as possible, keeping tight and with grit. I don't want to fossilize myself with a rigid tactic," Simeone concluded
This afternoon's match against Parma comes too early to tell if any major changes have been made. "You can't work miracles in two days," said Parma striker and Simeone's former teammate Hernan Crespo. "However, he could give the team a psychological boost." Simeone famously played Al Pacino's goose pimple inducing speech from Any Given Sunday to his players in Argentina and, who knows, Catania's players could well be subjected to that as we speak.