When Zdenek Zeman was announced as the new Coach of Roma in the summer, many, myself included, whooped and hollered for days. His two year spell at the Giallorossi saw some of the capital’s most spell-binding football – 5-0 wins over Empoli and Milan, 6-2 and 4-1 victories against Napoli and Fiorentina. It was swash-buckling, reckless and completely brilliant – for the neutral.
The Czech tactician was sacked under a cloud in 1999 after speaking out against what he saw as the ills of the Italian game. The Stadio Olimpico side went from strength-to-strength under successor Fabio Capello, Zeman meanwhile spent the next 13 years hob-nobbing around Europe.
Twelve month spells at Fenerbahce, Red Star Belgrade, Foggia and Pescara followed, but it wasn’t until last pre-season that the 65-year-old returned to his rightful home looking to finish what he had started pre-millennium.
He immediately introduced the sort of high-intensity game that the Lupi tifosi had been expecting – vertical, counter-attacking and wonderfully wild. Three successive games in mid-October just about summed up the Zeman-way – a 4-2 win over Genoa and 3-2 losses to Udinese and Parma. With just two games to go until the winter break however, no team has scored more. Unfortunately for the Giallorossi, only three teams have conceded more.
It was all very much as-read, but what supporters in the Curva Sud weren’t expecting was the way in which the elder statesman in the dugout has got the best out of the elder statesman on the pitch. Of all the things to happen in the first five months of his return, no one thought Zeman could get these sorts of performances out of Francesco Totti.
It goes against all reasoning, all logical thought. The Total Football ideal of the Coach just shouldn’t be conducive to a world-weary 36-year-old, but as the attacker said himself, despite initial hesitation, the squad are finally taking aboard the boss’ remarks. “It’s only normal that people criticise when the results don’t come,” he told reporters after their 4-2 win over Fiorentina. “But now we are doing what the Coach asks and you can see the difference.
“When we win like this, it is Roma’s essence that gets the victory. Now more than ever we are a happy group glad to be playing an always attacking style of football. We’re all pushing in the same direction now.”
That togetherness and complete belief in each other has seen Totti reach heights not realised in years. And the stats back it up – six goals in 15 League games, and perhaps most tellingly of all, seven assists have seen strikers Pablo Osvaldo and Mattia Destro profit greatly from Il Re di Roma. Not since the Luciano Spalletti days have the capital side been this free-flowing, this exciting, this unpredictable up front.
Despite their mixed start to the campaign, the Magica have now gone five games without defeat in all competitions, climbing up to fifth in the Serie A table thanks, largely, to the performances of the former Italy international.
As Zeman once said: “Who are the five best Italian players? Totti, Totti, Totti, Totti and Totti. I’m more convinced now than I ever was that Francesco is one of the best players of all time.”
That complete belief in his captain has reaped rewards on the pitch. If injuries steer clear, who knows how far Roma can go under the Zeman-Totti partnership this season…