When the whistle blew at the end of Roma 0-2 Real Madrid, anyone looking around in the Stadio Olimpico would have thought the club's situation was crystal-clear. The enraged expressions, the mumbled insults to players and staff, the drooping flags: everything bore the traits of irredeemable failure.
One would certainly not have guessed that this was the evening in which Roma, a team famous for flaking on the grand European stage, had secured qualification to the Last 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare.
This is far from the only oddity about this year's most inconsistent, most baffling team in Serie A. The very loss to Real Madrid showed us a string of performances by the players which no scout last summer would have had the faintest chance of predicting.
It seemed reasonable to expect, for example, that Nicolò Zaniolo - the 19-year-old imported from Inter as part of the controversial Radja Nainggolan deal - would still be warming the bench at this point. Perhaps he might have enjoyed a handful of endgame minutes against the likes of Parma or Cagliari.
Zaniolo was surprising yesterday not just because he started a Champions League game against Real Madrid (it is in fact the second time this happened), but because he was by far Roma's best man on the pitch. For the 69 minutes that his teenage muscles held, he bossed the midfield, held on to the ball, distributed play, and shelled out assists like it was still Black Friday. On the evening that Francesco Totti was inducted into the club's Hall of Fame, it felt at times like his younger self was back on the pitch.
No less mystifying was the performance of another of the Giallorossi's many prospects, 21-year-old winger Cengiz Under. After lording Serie A on his debut season, most of us expected the young Turk to truly explode this year. Not only did this not happen, he has dramatically regressed. Last night he was so bad that he arguably cost his team the game, missing a spectacular sitter (courtesy of a brilliant Zaniolo play), fluffing crosses and dribbles alike, and repeatedly giving away possession.
Under was not the only disappointment. He was rivalled by Patrik Schick, who seemed keen to remind us who the club's greatest waste of money was, first by shooting a golden ball square into the body of a defender, then by showing us his best impression of a tree at the very instant when he should have been pouncing on a Justin Kluivert assist. The most I can say is that he was not as wildly unpredictable as his teammates - many have long been doubtful that the Czech striker would live up to his price-tag, and now all of us are certain that he won't.
Had I more space, I'd happily extend this argument to touch on Bryan Cristante, Stephan El Shaarawy, Justin Kluivert, and maybe even Alessandro Florenzi, who somehow dribbles like a god and then crosses like a dog, but we must gloss, and turn our attention to the Romanisti's favourite pinata model for November, Coach Eusebio Di Francesco.
Given the erratic tendencies of his players, to say nothing of their injuries, I'm not sure how much of the blame for Roma's inconsistency can be laid on his shoulders. The man rectified his old 4-3-3 very effectively by reframing Lorenzo Pellegrini as trequartista in a 4-2-3-1, but his team still has a lot of trouble when it comes to producing goals. Some of his players are blooming (Zaniolo, Pellegrini) while others are withering (Under, Schick). His record this season is solid in Europe, and embarrassing in Serie A.
Early in the season I said that more time was needed to evaluate DiFra as a Coach. Three months have gone by, and I still have no idea how to rank him or what his real strengths and weaknesses are. Fans are clamouring for his head, but I expect neither they, nor we, nor EDF himself, could unravel the whirlwind of contradictions that is Roma.
Perhaps what the capital needs more than anything, at this point, is perspective. Roma's primary objectives for this season were, and remain, a dignified Champions League campaign (meaning knock-out stages), and a top four finish in Serie A. The former has been secured, and with 25 games still to play in the championship, there is ample room to cancel that moderate four-point gap with fourth-placed Lazio.
Roma are not in a bad place, or if they are, it's not one they cannot get out of. But they absolutely need to address their inconsistencies, and for the second half of this season, their domestic efficiency must improve, vastly. Does all of this require sacking Di Francesco? Remember what football fans too easily dismiss: "I don't know" is also a valid answer.
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