August 23 2016, this was an ignominious day for those who follow the Giallorossi. Humiliating, dishonourable and miserably wretched, just a few words used in the sports papers the next day.
Roma were favourites to qualify for the Champions League group stages after a 1-1 draw in Portugal. Now in front of 45,000 Romanisti, they imploded. Daniele De Rossi and Emerson Palmieri were shown red cards either side of half time, making them the third team to lose in the play-off round in as many years, six in seven seasons.
“We have been waiting for this for eight months,” these were the words of Luciano Spalletti before Roma’s critical second leg against Porto. His rhetoric was passionate but angry, it was hard to work out whether this was a General ready for battle or simply the ravings of a lunatic. He persisted that his team must not be afraid of the big occasions and must not be scared of success, culminating in the demand his players boss the game at the Stadio Olimpico and make their presence felt.
All this blood and thunder was perhaps an attempt to paper over the cracks. They had been poor in the Estadio do Drago and let a 1-0 lead slip. Thomas Vermaelen had been sent off for a foul on Andrea Silva, who subsequently scored the resulting penalty, but the signs were there.
The Giallorossi did beat Udinese 4-0 in the build up to the game, but they lacked intensity and aggression, at least until the second half. The defensive reshuffle due to Vermaelen’s red card did see De Rossi moved to central defence over Juan Jesus, a move that would come back to haunt them.
The build up to the game did have a strange feel to it, perhaps because the Ultras were going to keep up with their boycott and perhaps because of the team not being able to keep up consistent performances, but they had remained unbeaten in their previous 11 matches before this game, so there was reason to be positive too.
The Stadio Olimpico turned toxic early on as Felipe scored on seven minutes, he connected with a good free kick and was left in too much space. The ‘De Rossi at centre-back project’ was taking a turn for the worse.
The captain on the night then ludicrously went in two-footed on Maxi Pereira and received a straight red card on 38 minutes. Just after half time Emerson also unleashed a horror tackle on Jesus Corona and was shown his marching orders accordingly.
Roma has still been in the game to this point but Miguel Layun and then the aggrieved Corona each scored to end all hopes. It was a crushing defeat for Roma and one that leaves bad memories of facing Porto.
After the game there were a few positives. Radja Nainggolan had been exactly the type of player that Inter thought they had bought this season. He was fighting all the way to the end, but this didn’t hide the fact if Roma had kept XI on the field they arguably would have gone through. The Coach’s rhetoric had perhaps wound them up too much and whilst he had set his team up in the right manner, the substitution that saw Edin Dzeko come off when they were needing goals and replace him with Juan Iturbe, was an odd one.
Italian Eurosport described the defeat as “a mixture of masochism and shameful attitudes, it was an elimination that burned and was full of regrets and controversy” It went on to say that Spalletti was crippled by nervousness and unable to react, then criticised De Rossi’s inherent inability to handle tension. It was a dark day for a team that was so promising and potentially could have done well in the Group Stages.
Why is this defeat so damning for Roma and why does Italian Football look on it with such disdain, you may ask? This is simply because Serie A was desperate to see itself as one of Europe’s elite leagues and that means competing at the highest level of Europe’s major tournament. At the time, only three places were allocated for the Champions League for Serie A, so the play-offs became much more important.
In 2009, Fiorentina qualified, then the failures followed for Sampdoria in 2010, Udinese in both 2011 and 2012. Milan bucked the trend in 2013, but then Napoli in 2014 and Lazio in 2015 continued the fall until that Roma capitulation. So much was expected of Roma, they didn’t just let Rome down, they let Serie A down too.