Coppa Italia: Semi-finals / Team rating: 9 / Top scorer: Destro (13)
Rudi Garcia’s Roma may have ended their record-breaking campaign without silverware, but Jeremy Lim thinks they still deserve top marks for an epic turnaround.
The season and neck-and-neck title fight that enthralled fans probably deserved a better finish. But the 4-1 collapse of contenders Roma in Catania on May 4 despite a spectacular, ground-breaking season allowed Juventus to run away with their 30th official Scudetto. It meant the direct showdown between the duo the following week had no further bearing on the season’s outcome.
What a clash of arms that might have been to play for otherwise. The Italian champions edged the still-titanic encounter at the Olimpico anyway. A final hurrah for Roma in front of the home crowd was missing, though irony wasn’t, as ex-villain Dani Osvaldo scored the winner to rub further salt into defeat. As the dust settled, the match appeared to confirm the status quo and gap separating Serie A’s top dogs.
Roma boss Rudi Garcia had labelled the ranking ‘clear’. But is the disparity really as exaggerated as the League table, and 17-point gulf it reads, pronounces? For most of the season, it hardly seemed so. Pound for pound Roma defied expectations by almost matching Juve’s extra-terrestrial levels of consistency, until the details made the difference in the end.
Garcia nevertheless defines finishing second best as anything but a failure. The capital club produced a historic points haul that would have seen them clinch the title on any other day: “I said that next season we might put together fewer points and win the Scudetto anyway. We had a record-breaking campaign, but in front of us Juventus broke even more records.”
To have participated in this improbable race was success enough. It was improbable because of where they had started from. The Coppa Italia Final defeat of the previous season to arch-rivals Lazio had been a new low. Improbable because history dictated they could never have produced a challenge like this. But the club flatly refused to pack it in, resisting the popular Roma urge to implode.
From start to finish it was a valiant effort. “I wouldn’t change anything,” Garcia reflected back. Throughout the campaign, the Coach was the driving force of the squad that took on others better equipped. Yet he had never been first choice. Walter Mazzarri, Massimiliano Allegri and Laurent Blanc were all considered for the dugout before the 50-year-old was. He arrived at Trigoria last June as a virtual unknown despite being a Ligue 1 winner with Lille before.
“I had some doubts. It seemed that we had chosen him because we had failed to sign Mazzarri or Allegri,” Daniele De Rossi confessed. “Now I thank God every day that we signed ‘Porompompero’. He can be a turning point in the history of Roma.”
“Garcia? I was hoping he was a great Coach and he has proved such - I think we’ve found the Coach of the future,” captain Francesco Totti provided his seal of approval. The support of the dressing room’s senators, missing from the reigns of the Nemours native’s predecessors Luis Enrique and Zdenek Zeman, was crucial to uniting a fractured dressing room.
But the trainer needed to count on more than just the assured contributions of his old-timers to plug the gaps left by the summer’s departed wonderkids. Marquinhos and Erik Lamela moved abroad for a combined sum of €60m which was then reinvested. At a stroke Roma had sold two players and bought a team. Mehdi Benatia, Gervinho and Douglas Maicon combined with Kevin Strootman to form the basis of the charge.
This collective would ultimately prevail, but when a ball was kicked in anger for the first time in August Roma still remained an unknown quantity. The element of surprise worked in their favour, however. By the time people began taking note towards the end of October - particularly after a spectacular 3-0 thrashing of Inter at San Siro - Garcia’s men had already soared five points clear at the top of the League.
Small partnerships, from which great teams are formed, started to blossom. Totti and Gervinho immediately hit it off, the Ivory Coast flyer transformed back to his former Lille self. Leandro Castan and Benatia became rocks at the back. A previously frail side thought to lack fight altogether embarked on a winning sequence of 10 opening games, conceding just once. It was the best start Serie A had seen since 2005. No other in Europe could boast such a watertight defence, not even Bayern Munich.
Such exploits were magnificent, though sadly unsustainable. A run of draws set in immediately after - the third, 0-0 to Cagliari, ceding their initiative in the table. Juve never once gave it back.
Of course, the Giallorossi were still in it. Garcia was finally forced to admit Roma were contenders, after weeks of hearing whispers proclaim them as being worthy of breaking the Turin club’s domestic dominance. They had chugged on despite a prolonged spell with Totti out injured. Coping without their talisman was viewed as one of the many promising omens so far. Now the best way to cement their credentials would be in the direct encounter on January 5.
But the ensuing 3-0 collapse was as abrupt as their resurgence had been, leaving them trailing by eight points. Still Roma refused to let the idea of surrender infiltrate their heads - not after the bore draws against Lazio and Inter, nor losing to Napoli in the Coppa Italia then League. Not even when midfield revelation Strootman was confirmed to miss the rest of the season and subsequent World Cup with an ACL tear.
Unlikely heroes kept turning up. Mattia Destro roared up the scoring charts with 13 goals in 20 appearances after a fairytale comeback from injury. Winter arrival Radja Nainggolan deputised brilliantly for the stricken Strootman meanwhile. And determined to wrest some of the spotlight back to Roma’s academy amidst the impressive imports were Alessandro Florenzi and Alessio Romagnoli, who performed like veterans whenever called upon.
Unfortunately, front-runners Juventus were built to count contributions of such magnitude week in and week out, so the distance at the top widened inexorably. By the eve of the clash with Catania, the dream was realistically over. Garcia threw in the towel. The next day, Roma fell tamely to the ultimately relegated side, thus crowning the Bianconeri champions.
As Garcia confirmed, it remains a season without regrets. Hopefully the foundations had been laid for many belated successes to come. “I want this to be one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It’s important that everyone, from the President to the janitor believes that,” he said.
“When I got here I understood that the fans were disappointed, and I wanted to give them an identity to cling to.” The Curva Sud is already brimming for their return to Champions League football next term. And in 2016 they’ll move into their own state-of-the-art grounds, modelled after the Colosseum.
There, they’ll see stars like Miralem Pjanic showcase their stuff, the coveted playmaker having just signed a new contract. Other squad members are expected to follow suit - the clearest sign they’ve gotten back to believing in the Roma cause again. Of course, the greatest challenge lies in replicating their progress, when competition is only bound to get fiercer. But high stakes often equates to high reward. Plucked from the depths and ready to move on to many milestones now, look beyond the Giallorossi to your peril.
The first French boss in Roma’s history, Garcia was the catalyst behind the club’s surge up the standings. He would quickly instil a sense of the common goal. Bolstered by an influx of effective signings, Roma played a quick-passing and expansive style - similar to his previous Ligue 1-winning Lille outfit.
He was the difference from the comic collapses of the previous season throughout. Benatia became a role model of consistency, growing into the defensive titan many envisaged when he moved to Serie A with Udinese in 2010. His five goals from set-pieces marked a most prolific campaign, although it was the Moroccan’s awareness and leadership at the back that helped Roma achieve their highest points tally in history.
- They have set new club records for most points with 85, wins with 26 and clean sheets with 21 in a season.
- Roma leaked only seven goals before half-time this term, less than any other side.
- The last time the Giallorossi lost a streak of three games, as they did between Week 35 to Week 38, was in February 2013.
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