As Roma lost another five-goal thriller in midweek, Alex Mott explains why Serie A needs Coach Zdenek Zeman.
If the world of football is a deeply cynical one, then Italy is its arc-protagonist. Over the past 20 years in calcio, we've had allegations of doping, countless betting scandals and a match-fixing case so widespread it almost ended the game on the peninsula.
Off the field, fans have become enormously disillusioned, but on it, supporters across Europe still see Serie A as a boring, ultra-defensive throw-back to a time when players sported moustaches and had proper jobs. The 2003 Champions League Final between Milan and Juventus is the sort of game that people can't forget – permanently seared on their unconscious, awakening you at night to remind you that football can be awful.
A group of Coaches though are fighting back, ignoring the traditions of Catenaccio and throwing off the shackles. Walter Mazzarri's Napoli almost upset the eventual European champions last season with a free-flowing, open game.
Francesco Guidolin has proved that with an experimental scouting network and faith in his convictions, Udinese can challenge with the very best, year-in, year-out.
Lazio, a team moulded around the mercurial brilliance of Hernanes, have become genuine contenders this term, scoring three or more goals in five games.
Andrea Stramaccioni's Inter has shown the sort of tactical bravery his Primavera side showed last season with their NextGen Series win. An attacking triumvirate of Antonio Cassano, Diego Milito and Rodrigo Palacio have rocketed the Nerazzurri up the table. And I haven't even mentioned Wesley Sneijder.
There's one man, however, more gung-ho, more attacking, more reckless, more steadfast in his beliefs. Roma Coach Zdenek Zeman is the person doing single-handedly more to save Italian football than any other.
When the Luis Enrique Experiment went up the wall for the Giallorossi over the summer, only one man would do to fix the under-whelming mess the Stadio Olimpico side had become. The Czech tactician had just guided Pescara up from Serie B by playing some of the best football Italy's Second Division had ever seen and the American hierarchy in charge in the capital wanted a bit of that action.
He was quickly appointed, and put to work his updated version of Holland's Total Football model. Fluid, fast and ultimately fallible, this team would banish the sterile domination their Spanish Coach had previously instilled and return to the game that fans wanted to see.
“This sport is hugely popular not because of big business,” he once told reporters. “But because in every corner of the world there is a child having fun with a football.”
Fun on the ball is what Zeman's Roma are all about – piling men forward and not caring about the consequences. The club's last three games have seen 16 goals. Two of them were losses, but really, who cares?
No one has scored more than Roma this season – 22, the same as Juventus – and no one has conceded more than Roma this season. For a neutral, that's about the greatest stat you'll see, but for fans of the team, it doesn't make for pretty reading.
And the Prague-born boss has now received the dreaded 'vote of confidence' from sporting director Walter Sabatini. “We know what we have to do and we’ll support the Coach. We’ll look to understand the motives for these black-outs which are affecting us, but I ask the fans to have faith.”
Whatever becomes of Zeman, no one can deny his brilliant stubbornness to bring joy to the tifosi. As he once said: “Whenever we attack, all three forwards have to be in the penalty area while two of the three midfielders come forward as well.
“That way the opponent is pinned back. Then you put the ball in the box, and because you have more men, you have more chances of scoring. It’s not rocket science. It’s simple maths.”
It might fail. In fact, it probably will. But while it lasts, Zdenek Zeman's Roma side need to cherished for what they are – the brilliant losers bringing the fun back to calcio.
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