With lofty expectations comes intense pressure and scrutiny. The demand for improvement and Champions League football has meant that Roma and Milan only ever seem to be a poor performance or a defeat away from heavy criticism, something they have experienced regularly this campaign despite mounting a challenge to qualify for Europe’s elite football competition. The current condition of both sides only serves to highlight how quickly the mood surrounding the clubs can change.
For Eusebio Di Francesco, an exciting first season perhaps set the bar too high and surpassing – even equalling - those achievements this time around was always going to be unlikely. The task was made all the more difficult following another summer of upheaval in the squad. For Roma and their fans, Champions League qualification is the minimum requirement, and while that goal is still attainable, they would have expected it come via a more comfortable route.
A dreadful start to the season has been accompanied by a steady flow of inconsistent form and bad results. A string of recent wins gave the impression that the Giallorossi had turned the corner. This new squad was settling, Di Francesco had restored parity and talented summer signing Nicolò Zaniolo had begun to flourish in his new surroundings, but the cracks quickly re-appeared. Chucking a 2-0 lead away against Torino before snatching victory was followed by relinquishing a three-goal cushion in the draw against Atalanta. Those displays were supplanted by the 7-1 Coppa Italia capitulation at the hands of Fiorentina in midweek.
The Coach’s job is in the balance, it has been for some time, but is all the criticism warranted? For the most part the simple answer is yes. Chopping and changing the starting XI on a weekly basis screams of inconsistency and although player availability has been an issue at times, Di Francesco’s uncertainties are spreading to his team. Leaving the side open to exposure, the 49-year-old’s refusal to permanently move away from his favoured 4-2-3-1 is only compounding issues.
The high-profile departures have been well documented, stripping a team of experience and quality allowing the likes of Alisson Becker, Mohamed Salah, Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan to leave in recent years undoubtedly had an effect. Clinching a place in the top four will ultimately come as a relief, but it will do little to stop calcio’s interrogation of the Roman outfit.
Meanwhile, Milan and their staff have found a way to negate the persistent disapproval that the club has received over the last year or so. The Rossoneri have had their fair share of criticism for a number of reasons on and off the pitch, but are beginning to emerge out the other side. It was only a few weeks ago that a bad spell of results combined with injuries, an embarrassing Europa League exit and an out of form Gonzalo Higuain had the Rossoneri’s campaign looking worse for wear.
However, fast forward into the New Year and Il Diavolo are sitting fourth and in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia after an impressive win over Napoli.
Inject the positive impact of new signings Lucas Paquetá and gunman Krzysztof Piatek and all of a sudden, Milan have fresh impetus.
Part of the credit belongs to the likes of Paolo Maldini and Leonardo, both now back at the club behind the scenes and helping to steady the ship. There is one man that deserves special acknowledgement and that is Rino Gattuso. Dismissed in many quarters as a limited tactician and surrounded by what has been at times a circus, he has never shied away from the responsibility. A limited squad, constant uncertainty around the future of the club and his job would have seen many chuck in the towel, but that isn’t the Gattuso we’ve come to know.
The fact that Milan and Roma go head-to-head for fourth place with only a point between them, all while handling constant criticism and declarations of doom, suggests either these teams are under-rated or – and this is more likely – those around them have stumbled so badly that mediocrity is now enough to fight for a Champions League spot.
A quick glance at the standings prior to Week 22 saw as little as five points separating fourth from 10th. When the margin for error is so small, the slightest blip can turn into an earthquake.