Before Genoa hosted AC Milan in Serie A last month, Andriy Shevchenko admitted that it was tough for him to contain his emotions ahead of a first meeting with his former club as a coach.
It will be even more difficult in Thursday’s Coppa Italia last-16 tie at San Siro.
The Ukrainian is, of course, a living legend as far as Milanisti are concerned, with the former striker having scored 175 goals for the Rossoneri in all competitions, as well as netting the decisive spot-kick in the 2003 Champions League final penalty shootout with Juventus.
So, if Shevchenko recovers from COVID-19 in time to travel to the Giuseppe Meazza, a rapturous reception awaits.
However, whether he is present or not, this could be his final game as Genoa boss, adding even greater significance to what was already an important fixture for the 45-year-old.
Unfortunately, just over two months since taking charge of the Ligurians, Shevchenko is facing the sack. In fact, his fate may have already been sealed by Sunday’s dismal 1-0 defeat at home to Spezia.
Both Shevchenko and opposite number Thiago Motta had gone into that relegation battle at the Luigi Ferraris knowing that their jobs were on the line. “This is the nature of our work,” Shevchenko acknowledged beforehand. “There’s always risk involved.”
He probably didn’t expect to be under quite so much pressure after just 10 games in charge, though.
The problem for Shevchenko is that Genoa remain winless in Serie A, with their only victory coming against Salernitana in the Coppa. The Grifone are now in a worse state than when he took over on November 7, slipping from 17th to 19th, after taking just three points from the 27 available.
The fixture list has not been kind. As well as second-placed Milan, Genoa have also faced Roma, Juventus, Lazio and Atalanta – all top-eight teams – since Shevchenko’s arrival.
However, a 3-1 derby defeat to struggling Sampdoria hit hard, and the Spezia loss could well prove the final straw, with club president Alberto Zangrillo admitting it was “probably one of the most difficult moments” of Genoa’s recent history – which is really saying something given their seemingly incessant problems over the past few years.
According to reports, the board has already met this week to discuss Shevchenko’s future, and there is mounting speculation that he could be removed from his position after the Milan match, with former Genoa boss Rolando Maran – who is still under contract at the club – and Rudi Garcia both said to be in the running.
On the plus side, Shevchenko has a deal that runs until 2024 and his net salary is €2 million (£1.7m/$2.9m) per annum, meaning firing the former Ukraine boss now is a most unappealing proposition from a financial perspective.
In addition, Zangrillo was at pains to point out after the Spezia debacle that everyone’s role at the club was under scrutiny, not just the coach’s. “I’ll give you an example,” the Genoa supremo told Sky Sport Italia. “When something’s not going right in a hospital ward, you don’t kick out the head physician. All of us are under review, myself first. Analysis of tough times involves everyone, the coach and the players. Everyone.
“Now we have to be active in the transfer market to correct a situation that is becoming very difficult.”
Shevchenko would certainly feel short-changed if he is removed before the close of the January window. He agreed to take over mid-season on the understanding that money would be invested in the squad in January by the club’s new owners, 777 partners, a US-based investment firm.
So for him to be removed now would be incredibly frustrating, particularly as he was hopeful that his employers would bring in players more suited to his preferred 4-3-3 formation.
His critics would argue, though, that Shevchenko has failed to prove himself worthy of significant financial backing. On his watch, Genoa have kept just two clean sheets in Serie A and, even more damningly, scored only three times in nine outings.
Shevchenko will point to the fact that they played with admirable spirit and solidity in their 0-0 draw with free-scoring Atalanta just before the Christmas break, while a 1-1 draw at Sassuolo also suggested that things were starting to come together.
However, he may not recover from the subsequent Spezia setback. A shock win at San Siro may not even be enough to save Shevchenko.
Plenty of people are still rooting for him, not least in Milan. Even Rossoneri boss Stefano Pioli was full of praise for Shevchenko on the eve of the Coppa clash. “He is intelligent, a very capable coach and I wish him the best for his career,” the Italian told Sport Mediaset on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, all coaches have moments like this, but he’s smart and will make the best out of this difficult situation.”
He may not be allowed to, though, with a decision on his future expected after the Milan game.
For now, the hope is that a negative COVID-19 test will at least allow Shevchenko to make his first visit to San Siro as Genoa coach on Thursday night, given it could well be his last.
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