“There are no more excuses.” Claudio Ranieri’s stern words in his presentation Press conference were of a father figure – direct and honest with his sons, telling them what they needed to hear.
It’s the Roman born tactician’s first press conference since his last tenure in the Capital, almost a decade ago. Since then he’s traveled the world of club football, and of course, achieved the Leicester Miracle. A passionate lifelong supporter of the club itself and one who could just as well be singing in the Curva Sud, the first thing that comes to mind for many Romans when hearing his name is the unfortunate memory of losing the Scudetto on the last match day in the 2009-10 season.
While time may not heal all wounds, the return of the Tinkerman can now become a shining light in an otherwise dark season. Sporting director Monchi’s departure followed Coach Eusebio Di Francesco’s dismissal. After Porto knocked them out of the Champions League Round of 16, they underperformed within Serie A, and were dismantled 7-1 by Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia, a big change was in order. Ranieri’s initial comments calmed nerves throughout Rome, quelling the fire that burned as if strung by Nero’s lyre.
Ranieri implored that the combined effort between the fans, the players, and the Coach himself will be an essential element towards success. The players have often been criticised for not committing themselves in their fitness and lifestyle choices, and Di Francesco often faced backlash for not holding the players accountable, and making excuses for poor play.
The first test was hosting Empoli on Monday evening. There was a certain tension in the air of the Stadio Olimpico, even if there had been the aforementioned relief of Ranieri’s hiring just 48 hours before. As the rain poured down onto the pitch, there was an underlying fear that the Azzurri would be the ideal team to ruin Roma’s patrimonial reunion - compact, counter-attacking, and fighting for survival.
Ranieri meanwhile, would be without star striker Edin Dzeko, Aleksandar Kolarov, Cengiz Under, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Javier Pastore, Federico Fazio and captain Daniele De Rossi. The most notable absence though was Kostas Manolas, who had been the only sign of consistency in a defence that leaked 37 goals - the second most of any club the top 10 of Serie A.
As initial nerves relaxed, Roma eased into holding possession. After working the ball down the flanks of Giuseppe Iachini’s defensive half, the Lupi deservedly earned a corner. With the ball coming loose at the top of the box, Stephan El Shaarawy took a touch around the defender, and the shot flew into the upper right corner of the net to collective gasps. All the pressure had seemingly been lifted, albeit just for a moment.
But Rome is a city unlike any other - a city of extremes - and the apocalypse can turn into Heaven on earth (or vice versa) in an instant. Just three minutes later, Juan Jesus scored an own goal - and Roma were once again back in Hell.
But with newly instilled confidence, and the calm but assertive Ranieri on the sidelines, the Wolves kept pushing forward and restored their lead. After Justin Kluivert worked hard and drew a foul on Empoli’s left defensive flank, Alessandro Florenzi’s free kick met Patrik Schick, who headed the ball home.
If there were any three players who could use the boost in confidence this season, it was the Dutch teenager, the Roman-born utility player, and Czech striker. Of course, Florenzi’s mood took another battering later that evening with a red card on his birthday, capping off a nightmare week for a lad who, just like Ranieri, bleeds red and yellow.
While last minute scares were eliminated after VAR disallowed Empoli from drawing level, the threat came as a reminder for Roma to stay grounded. It was a scenario that proved the issues of this past season would not be resolved with a magic wand, and there would be no substitute for hard work and commitment to one another.
Although the caretaker’s contract lasts just for the season’s remaining matches, Ranieri’s return is a beacon of stability and hope for Roma. It’s time for him to help his sons in their rebirth towards Champions League qualification, instilling a sense of belief and direction within the squad.
“I left a larger pay packet behind than the one I’m getting now – the money doesn’t matter. What matters is the shirt.” - Claudio Ranieri