“If you do exactly what I’m asking for, we’re going to win the title.” Those were Fabio Capello’s words towards Marco Delvecchio in the summer of 2000, as the tactician was preparing for his second season at the helm of a very talented, but inconsistent Roma side.
That was not a surprise by any means, as Capello inherited the team from the ultra-attacking Zdenek Zeman in 1998, who had Roma leading in goals scored in both of his seasons at the helm of the club. However, the lack of balance and consistency in Zeman’s gameplay lead to many defensive gaps that prevented the team of reaching its full potential.
Luckily for the Giallorossi faithful, club president Franco Sensi realised that and was well aware that his side’s incredibly talented squad needed to be managed by a calmer and a more collected head in order to peak.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened, as Capello, who was sacked after finishing 10th in 1998 during his second spell at Milan, had the tactical awareness and the winning mentality, that Roma so sorely missed under Zeman.
However, it was only logical that Don Fabio needed time to implement his ideas and find the right balance in order to better the foundations built by his Czech predecessor. Actually, the then 53-year-old Italian was almost sacked after his first season at Roma, as he finished sixth in 1999-00 and city rivals Lazio won the title.
Despite banging in 18 goals that season, Vincenzo Montella wasn’t able to fully convince Capello in his ability, as the tactician felt his side lacked a world-class centre forward. President Franco Sensi was not ready to invest much in a striker, as the purchases of Walter Samuel, Emerson and Jonathan Zebina had already cost him well above €50m.
However, Roma’s sporting director Franco Baldini knew about Fiorentina’s increasing financial issues and that La Viola were ready to part with Gabriel Batistuta for the right price. The hard part was convincing Sensi to pay a hefty transfer fee for a 31-year-old, so what both Capello and Baldini did was nothing short of remarkable.
They knew that Sensi was furious about Lazio winning the Scudetto in the previous year, so they invited a journalist form Corriere dello Sport to dinner and told him that Batistuta was very close to Roma. The tifosi went jubilant and in order not to disappoint them, Sensi eventually surrendered and spent €36.2m for Batigol, which made the Argentinian the club’s record signing at the time.
Batistuta proved to be the missing piece in Capello’s puzzle, as Don Fabio’s 3-4-1-2 formation worked to perfection in Serie A, allowing Francesco Totti to prove all of his quality in the trequartista role behind the duo of Batistuta and either Delvecchio or Montella.
The role of Delvecchio was crucial for Roma’s gameplay, as despite scoring just three Serie A goals all season, his smart off the ball runs and selfless approach, created spaces for Totti and Batistuta who were both lethal and scored 39 goals in all competitions.
"The defence of this team starts with Delvecchio". That’s what Capello said during the course of the season, as Delvecchio had cemented his spot in the starting XI in the expense of the increasingly frustrated, but equally efficient Montella.
The Aeroplanino scored 18 goals in all competitions during the season, most of which coming off the bench, as Capello figured that Delvecchio was contributing more to Roma’s build up play and allowed Totti and Batistuta to express themselves better.
However, Montella’s goals made him too important, as his contribution to the eventual triumph in 2001 was crucial. His highlights include a late winner for the 2-1 win against Reggina in Week 6, two late braces for the 3-2 and 3-1 victories against Inter and Brescia in the second half of the season, but most notably a stoppage-time equaliser for the 2-2 draw against Juventus with five games to go.
The game against the Bianconeri was the one that silenced many doubters and made Romanisti really believe in the Scudetto, as it came right after another 2-2 draw against rivals Lazio, who ,alongside the Old Lady, were the closest teams to Roma.
The Giallorossi relied heavily on their world class attack, but Capello managed to gel the other pieces of the team extremely well. In the middle of the pitch he was initially forced to start Cristiano Zanetti alongside Damiano Tommasi, due to Emerson’s injury at the start of the season. This added solidity in front of the Giallorossi’s defensive trio, in which mainly featured Samuel, Brazilian veteran Aldair and Zebina.
The trio complimented each other perfectly, as the left footer and superb man-marker Samuel featured on the left, the very aggressive Zebina was on the right, while the cool head and the supreme technical ability of Aldair allowed him to cover for his teammates and quickly distribute the ball from the back.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that arguably the most important part of Capello’s tactics were his fullbacks, as Vincent Candella and Cafu were world-beaters at the time and often had to cover the whole flank alone, due to the narrowness of Don Fabio’s formation. Over the years Cafu proved to be one of the best right backs the world has ever seen and this was fully evident during his spell at Roma. It is also no surprise that Roma’s starting goalkeeper at the time Francesco Antonioli said that Candela had “the feet of a No. 10 “ and that technically he was “a phenomenon”.
After Emerson’s return in the team in the second half of the season, the beauty of Capello’s Roma was fully evident, as the Brazilian had the ability to carry the ball out of midfield and was more mobile and attacking-minded than Cristiano Zanetti, who did his defensive duties superbly, but was not efficient offensively. This allowed Capello to give more minutes to Montella, who alongside Totti and Batistuta formed one of the most formidable attacks in Serie A in the last two decades.
However, the winning mentality that Don Fabo inserted into the team, was arguably the most important part of his machine and the reason why Roma won the Scudetto at the end. In the final stages of the season, the Lupi managed to hold both of their title rivals to a draw and after losing points against Milan and Napoli with just one game to go, they finally managed to secure their third Serie A title by demolishing an extremely talented Parma side by 3-1.
All three of Montella, Totti and Batistuta scored on the day in a perfect epilogue to a fairytale, which showcased the winning formula that Capello managed to implement back then.
Sadly for the tifosi of the Giallorossil, Roma has failed to find both the character and the quality simultaneously ever since, and despite showing glimpses of brilliance during the years, the remarkable Scudetto triumph from 2001 remains an isolated occasion, followed by many “what ifs”.