It is rare to claim that ending an eight-game Serie A winning streak and losing your Sporting Director in one night is good news.
Yet for Roma, last night’s 1-1 draw with Inter could well end up being a step in the right direction, and for reasons which go beyond Walter Sabatini’s departure.
For a start, there is no shame in drawing with an Inter team whose manager, Roberto Mancini, has outsmarted Coach Luciano Spalletti before (and vice versa). Despite murdering Inter 6-2 in the 2007 Coppa Italia Final, Lucianone’s Giallorossi never won a home league game against Mancini’s men (even losing 4-1 in September 2007), and generally struggled to right the ship if things went wrong against the Nerazzurri.
Yesterday broke that trend. Mancini came up with a brilliant gameplan… and Spalletti answered, arguably deserving the win by the time the 93 minutes were up. For the first hour, Il Mancio’s defence generally robbed Roma of goal-scoring opportunities, even during a breath-taking opening 10 minutes, when the Lupi pinged it about with such abandon that even Inter fans could do nothing but clap.
Spalletti’s reaction, however, turned the game on its head, the entrance of Edin Dzeko suddenly bringing an aerial presence into Roma’s attack, forcing two tough saves from a colossal Samir Handanovic, and provoking a blatant Joao Miranda handball - which the goalmouth referee somehow didn’t spot.
If Spalletti had a competent striker to throw on, he may well have won that game for Roma. Instead, he had Dzeko, who is remarkably talented at blending the sublime with the ridiculous, sometimes in the same performance. Yesterday, he made Giallorossi fans squirm when he fired over from inside the box, an effort that had Luther Blissett written all over it.
There is something distinctly Forrest Gump-ish about the 27-year-old. He just happens to be at the right place at the right time… but for the wrong reasons. His ‘assist’ to Radja Nainggolan was a horribly miscued shot, and it came just before Dzeko got in the way of what would have been a very dangerous Mohamed Salah effort.
Gump “met” some of the most famous names of his generation by accident. Dzeko will probably give Roma anthem writer Antonello Venditti a concussion with a wayward finish.
Returning to tactics, remember when Rudi Garcia’s late teams failed to ramp up the pressure in the final third, especially if the game was in the balance? Spalletti’s team not only didn’t stop trying, it had a fair few chances to win it, including a fierce Salah effort 10 minutes from time.
This all made the Stephan El Shaarawy - Daniele De Rossi substitution - with one minute to go in time added on - so puzzling. It was Inter who were holding on for dear life, not Roma!
This is also where parallels with the situation 10 years ago fall short once again. Back then, the incoming Udinese Coach had inherited a cash-strapped Lupi, one that had to make do with the likes of Max Tonetto, Marco Cassetti, Matteo Brighi and Cicinho on the bench.
Now, Spalletti can get the club to invest big in more players he likes (El Shaarawy and Diego Perotti have been brilliant so far), and actually build on what good Sabatini has done… only without the bad.
After the game, Roma’s former Sporting Director announced that he would resign at the end of the season, presumably so that he can get back into Daenerys Targaryen’s good books (his similarity to Game of Thrones actor Iain Glen is remarkable). He may have brought in Miralem Pjanic, Salah, Nainggolan and Kostas Manolas (to name a few), but so many other buys have turned sour.
Though a remarkable amount (Kevin Strootman, Leandro Castan, Federico Balzaretti) are clearly the result of shockingly bad luck, many other player acquisitions (Juan Iturbe, Ashley Cole, Simon Kjaer, Dani Osvaldo, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, Mapou Yanga Mbiwa, Iago Falqué) and managerial appointments (Luis Enrique, Zdenek Zeman, even Garcia) were.
What's so galling is that Sabatini’s squads were constantly chopped and changed, rarely giving the impression of a gradual build-up - the only exception being Garcia's second season in charge. Remember when they embarrassed Inter 3-1 under Zdenek Zeman? That was three seasons ago, and as many players from the starting XI are left, two of them being Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, who barely contribute anymore.
Imagine what Spalletti will be able to do with a more discerning DS, with a motivated goalkeeper (Wojciech Szczesny has hardly made his wish to leave a secret) a solid defence (Antonio Rudiger is improving) and a squad that actually has attacking alternatives on the bench (remember when that man was… Marco Borriello last year? What was that about?).
Moreover, the Certaldo-born manager will also have a summer to work his magic on his players. Right now Perotti, the False Nine, is the only player who always switches positions in attack. Imagine what it will be like when Salah and El Shaarawy do the same, and when Spalletti’s charges are playing from memory and bringing midfielders more quickly into the box?
Next year, Dzeko’s fortuitous assist could well be an intended flick, Salah’s effort from left-of-centre will come from a more favourable position, Lucianone will be turning draws like these into wins, and - who knows - turning second-place finishes into Scudetti. For Roma fans, it wouldn’t come a minute too soon.