Roma getting an education in expectations, injuries and Europe
"The next time someone asks me that question, I'll tell them where to go," smiled Rudi Garcia on Sunday. He's been getting this particular one a lot of late. Not for the first time had the charismatic Frenchman been reminded of a comment he had made after Roma's 3-2 defeat to Juventus back in October. "I am sure we will win the Scudetto," the Frenchman had insisted in defiance.
It seemed entirely justified at the time. His team had played scintillatingly well in Turin only for the outcome of the game to be conditioned by refereeing mistakes. Emerging from the Juventus Stadium, Roma were embittered but also enlightened by the same "you ain't so bad" conviction Rocky had arrived at while fighting Clubber Lang. Juventus weren't so tough. They could beat them.
And yet how those words have returned to haunt Garcia. It has come to be considered a moment of hubris, culminating in a fall so hard against Bayern Munich a fortnight later that, regardless of the physical casualties they had already and would subsequently incur, made it a real struggle even for all the pope's horses and all the pope's men to put Roma mentally back together again.
Like a wolf howling at the moon, Garcia has wondered if he incurred the wrath of some higher power that day. "Maybe a mysterious god wanted to punish me for that sin, if, that is, I did commit the sin of being arrogant," he laughed. Writing in his column in La Repubblica on Monday morning, Maurizio Crosetti wise-cracked: "Garcia will have learned that almost all the football gods in Italy are Juventus fans."
If centimeters are all that separated Roma from the holders five months ago -- a Maicon handball adjudged in or out of the area here, a Miralem Pjanic challenge called in or out of the box there -- then kilometers, as Max Nerozzi put it in La Stampa, were now between them going into Monday night's game at the Stadio Olimpico.
Daniele De Rossi, frank as ever, accepted in a chat with Sky Italia that Roma could no longer claim, as Garcia had throughout the autumn, that the only reason they found themselves separated from Juventus was the defeat the coach refused to acknowledge on Oct. 5. "It's not what we imagined," De Rossi admitted. "We were hoping for a different scenario, a game that would allow us to either overtake or go level with them. Until a month and a half ago, the gap was only a point or three, so the minimum. Then we dozed a little."
As Roma appeared to sleepwalk through games, Juventus marched to a nine-point lead. Regrets, it's clear De Rossi and his teammates have a few. "Even though Juventus are the strongest team, an incredible team, they have been made to suffer in some games," he opined. "They've won a few thanks to the class of their individuals and drawn a few too. So while they're going at a great pace and are doing great things in the Champions League, the sensation remains they're a little more human than the team that dominated the league in the last two or three years."
Ahead of Monday's clash, Juventus were six points worse off than they were at this stage a year ago. Had Roma matched what they themselves achieved then, they would have approached this encounter on level terms. "Injuries inevitably damaged us," De Rossi explained. Roma could also have done without the African Cup of Nations depriving them of Gervinho and Seydou Keita through January and into February.
The depth the team added both in the summer and winter has proven quite shallow. Ashley Cole hasn't made the impact they'd hoped for. Urby Emanuelson is gone. Juan Manuel Iturbe, the most expensive buy of the summer in Serie A, disappointed and then got hurt just as he began to deliver.
Roma have found themselves unexpectedly stretched. Leandro Castan has missed all but one game after undergoing brain surgery. Mehdi Benatia is in Germany. Maicon has made little more than the odd cameo. Kevin Strootman suffered a relapse of his knee injury, which has meant Radja Nainggolan has had to run a marathon every week while Pjanic has been playing through the pain barrier with tendonitis in his knee. Garcia has been caught so short at times, he has had no option but to blood players from the youth team, handing a debut to teenager Daniele Verde.
There have been problems of their own making too, like the Mattia Destro affair. So disillusioned did he become with a lack of playing time at the expense of captain Francesco Totti, now 38 and featuring more than a year ago, the striker left for Milan on loan. The handling of him could have been better while his replacement, the undoubtedly talented Seydou Doumbia, didn't return from the African Cup of Nations until mid-February and is now nursing a back injury. Victor Ibarbo, another reinforcement who hadn't played for Cagliari in six weeks when he joined, is also sidelined again.
And so the much-needed mid-season booster Roma were so in need of has yet to arrive. With no petrol in the tank, they've been running on vapor, sputtering along. If the season started in 2015, Roma would be seventh. Mind can't always prevail over matter, not when serious knocks to their confidence have been taken. Totti compared Vasili Berezutski's injury-time equaliser for CSKA Moscow in November to being punched by Mike Tyson. Samir Nasri's bolt from the blue, the goal that precipitated Roma's defeat and elimination from the Champions League when playing in front of their own supporters with their destiny in their own hands, also left them feeling that colour.
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Since then, they have gone out of the Coppa Italia and drawn seven of 10 league games. They haven't won at the Olimpico since Nov. 30.
"From the point of view of our play, we've gone backward a little ..." De Rossi conceded. "To reopen the title race or for a miracle to happen we have to win on Monday evening." Not least because, as Tuttosport declared on their front page, it was now match point to Juventus.
Win and the Old Lady would go 12 in front -- a bigger margin than any leader in Europe's top five leagues. Draw and she'd maintain the status quo but accrue an advantage in the event things were to come down to head-to-head. As it turned out, Max Allegri got his tactics spot on. Like he did against Dortmund, he let the opponents have the ball and the initiative but none of the space to break into on the counter-attack, their lethal weapon.
The hosts were too slow and predictable. With no zip in their passing, nor guile in their movement, they couldn't open up the champions. Even though Juve were forced into a system change -- albeit a familiar one -- because injuries meant they'd be without their playmaker in chief, Andrea Pirlo, and their best player this season, Paul Pogba, who Allegri elected not to risk like he did Thiago Silva in Milan's failed title defence in 2011-12, losing him for the run-in and ceding the Scudetto.
Roma, meanwhile, were a frustrating contradiction. It was only when they were reduced to 10 men, went a goal behind after Carlos Tevez curled in an identical free kick to the one Michel Platini scored here against Roma in March 1983, and replaced Totti and De Rossi in the second half that they seriously began to threaten Juventus.
"You can't have your first shot at goal after 71 minutes when you have to win," tweeted the iconic Roma commentator Carlo Zampa. An equaliser came shortly afterwards when Keita nodded back across goal and Claudio Marchisio couldn't clear. But as the headline of the Rome edition of Tuesday's Il Corriere dello Sport proclaimed, it was "too late."
There are still 13 games to go and 39 points up for grabs but the title race is run and the Scudetto's residence in Turin is set to extend to a fourth straight year. Roma must instead defend second place and automatic Champions League qualification not only from Napoli, but in-form Lazio and Fiorentina too. Through to the last 16 of the Europa League, glory in that competition would still make the season a success.
Garcia and his team aren't about to fade away. This club is too ambitious and has too much potential for that to happen. As a campaign, this one has presented Roma with a steep learning curve. It has been an education in the pressure of expectation and the rigours of competing on three fronts. Heeding the lessons from it will be paramount. Roma have to come back stronger next season.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.