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Sunday night was a long one for Italian coach Franco Ballerini and his Worlds team, although not for the reasons they would have been hoping for. Not only did they fail to come up with the world title as had been widely expected, but they turned in their worst result since 1983, with Paolo Bettini their top finisher in 13th place. After all the pre-Worlds hype about Alessandro Petacchi, the race's post-mortem is focusing on the probable replacements for Ballerini.
The names of Massimo Ghirotto, Moreno Argentin and Davide Cassani are being touted as the pick of the choices to succeed Ballerini. The Italian federation is saying nothing yet, but, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, is expected to release Ballerini in October and announce his replacement immediately.
Having watched the race again, Ballerini felt that his tactics worked perfectly, up to the point when Petacchi failed to get into the group of 30 that contained Tom Boonen on the last drag. "All that we spoke about in the team meeting was done: we let a break go early on, then when Valverde moved Bettini was with him, and if the Petacchi that we saw at the Vuelta had made it into the group of 30 then the world title would have been up for grabs," Ballerini told Gazzetta.
"But men are not machines and Ale was not on a good day. I'm sorry not to have been able to take advantage of a Bettini who was in splendid condition. If there was an error it was that we had just a single man in the escape of 11 riders, and we needed at least two. That was why I told Bettini to hold back. If he'd had a mechanical problem the whole race would have been lost because we had no alternatives."
More importantly, for the chances of Bettini - and by default of Ballerini - was the fact that Petacchi only let the coach know very late on in the race that he was not feeling good, by which time Bettini had very little scope for manoeuvre. Now it seems that the underfire Ballerini has run out of room as well.
Italian federation president Rentato Di Rocco has refused to be drawn on Ballerini's future, saying only that it would be decided at the next council meeting in mid-October. He did tell Gazzetta, however, that the only team that he was pleased with at the Worlds was the women's, even though they too missed out on a medal.
If Di Rocco does decide that it is time to replace Ballerini, whoever succeeds the former Paris-Roubaix winner will have a tough act to follow. In five years as Italian men's selector, Ballerini has seen his riders take gold, silver and bronze at the Worlds, as well as Bettini securing the Olympic title. In that respect, Ballerini's only failing seems to be that his Spanish colleague Paco Antequera has outshone him.
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