Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The path to Roman ruin
Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello should really be proud of themselves. Before anyone with a short memory wonders what's wrong with the opening sentence, let's get this right: as the only managers to lead a side from Rome to a Scudetto in modern times, they achieved an almost impossible goal.
Capello may have gone on to manage a Juventus side that won domestically under highly suspicious circumstances, as the subsequent Calciopoli scandal proved, then taken on a Truly Impossible Job, but perhaps even trying to restore England to the glories of 1966 could not compare with trying to win in Rome, a unique city of wonderfully humbling sights. It is also a pressure-cooker extraordinaire.
It's a place where love for football seems to overflow from terraces and patios into the streets below, forming an invisible but powerful stream of passion that sweeps across town and materialises into a variety of phenomena. The most popular ones are the local radio stations, truly a peculiar tradition of recent years. You can get one show devoted to Roma and even Lazio will be on at any hour of the day or night, if you're swift with your dial. There are call-in shows whose hosts have in some cases achieved celebrity status.
While this may sound like heaven for football fans, you must also consider the effects such around-the-clock attention causes, which can turn passion into something less enjoyable and less healthy.
Pressure, for example. Not just the kind you feel when you're trying to win matches or championships. That can be hard to take, but it comes with the territory, perhaps. The Roman territory brings you another level of pressure, the one associated with carrying the hopes of an entire region and having your every move constantly scrutinised.
This may not be unique to Rome, but boy does it hit outsiders hard when first confronted with it. You're swept along with the passion and, when you do not possess an allegiance to either of the local sides, you may find yourself shuttling between temporary empathy towards one side or the other depending on whom you're you talking to, or more likely the taxi driver's tirade you're being subjected to if you ever - and unwisely - ask which of the two he supports. (Not that in most cases you will need to: badges, car stickers, key rings or hats in the front seat will usually give it away.)
Unless your name is Francesco Totti, then, you're never granted more than a short honeymoon period as a player or coach joining Lazio or Roma, but it's Roma we're talking about this week, after their 2-0 derby win, a fifth in a row for the Giallorossi, who are now sixth in the Serie A, trailing their local rivals by two points.
An ugly match, with little worth remembering from a football purist's perspective and a disappointingly low crowd - for a rivalry like this - of less than 50,000, which made for some cringe-inducing TV shots of large swathes of empty seats in the Tevere Stand. It did have, though, the compulsory and perhaps compulsive flashes of bad sportsmanship, especially when Lazio players - having gone behind to a powerful free kick from Totti to which Fernando Muslera, perhaps blinded by a laser pointer, reacted late - started losing their temper. In fact, incident-wise you could have watched the last 20 minutes of the match and not missed much, such was the dreariness of play until that time.
Not even those considerations, though, must take anything away Roma's third win in four Serie A matches under Vincenzo Montella, the 36-year-old former striker and current stand-in coach who has taken on his first major job with a level-headed approach that has already won him many admirers. One could not take his eyes off the TV as Montella was shown reacting to Totti's opening goal on Sunday by displaying, er, no emotion at all, just as he'd done in his previous matches in charge every time his side would score or concede.
A contrasting sight if ever there was one, when you consider Montella the player would not only celebrate his many goals wildly, with that spread-arm, tilting motion that earned him the 'Little Airplane' monicker, but would also react with visible emotion whenever he was involved in anything. One of the most famous images is perhaps that of Montella angrily shrugging Capello off while being taken off the pitch in Napoli in the penultimate game of the 2000-01 Scudetto season.
Yet another example of a (goal-)poacher turned gamekeeper, you may think, but it goes deeper than that. Montella's only experience as a coach had been at the helm of Roma's Giovanissimi - the 'very young', 12 to 14 years old - who had won all 21 matches during the 2010-11 season under him. After being suddenly elevated to replace Claudio Ranieri on February 21, he knew he had to adopt an approach that would be different to the one he'd shown in that youth team role and as a striker, not to mention one who played alongside some of the current crop.
He immediately made a tough decision, dropping goalkeeper Julio Sergio - the one former manager Luciano Spalletti had once dubbed "the world's best third-string keeper" - and replacing him with Doni, who had fallen out of favour with both the coaching staff and the fans despite playing well in the 1-0 win at Milan in late December.
He then paid another unintentional tribute to the past by bringing back some of Spalletti's staff and the 4-2-3-1, or 4-2-1-3, that had been the former coach's best gift to Roma during his reign there. Ranieri had been blamed for - surprise, surprise - tinkering too much with his line-up, but there had been a method to the sacked manager's madness, as he'd had to deal with injuries, suspensions and loss of form by some players.
In his last five matches in charge, Ranieri had gone with 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-4-2 in that order, although in some cases it was difficult to clearly isolate a specific formation - for example in the home clash against Napoli when Mirko Vucinic and Rodrigo Taddei were played wide to form a 4-5-1. Totti's availability influenced some of these formations: he'd apparently shown his displeasure at being employed less and less frequently as a central striker, a position he'd grown to love in the 4-2-3-1, but Roma's acquisition of a powerful centre-forward in the shape of Borriello had meant the newcomer had to be accommodated somehow, and that was by veering away from the 4-2-3-1, which Ranieri still used at times, and going for a different line-up.
Montella did not immediately win over the fans, though. Too deep were the scars from the last few weeks under Ranieri: as a local boy and passionate Roma supporter, he was above suspicion in the effort and dedication department, but his handling of some situations, albeit mostly rational, had grown more and more uncomfortable for many. A man of real dignity, he was chastised by some for resigning only a couple of days after saying he would not abandon ship. However, it appears the realisation nothing more could motivate his players, minutes after Roma had surrendered a 3-0 away lead by losing 4-3 at Genoa, then led him to hand in his resignation note, a commendable move in a country where, historically, even the worst offenders only leave their jobs when they're carried out feet first.
Montella's first match in charge was a 1-0 win at Bologna, which he did not get carried away too much with, considering he'd only had the players at his disposal for a couple of days. In the second game, his first in charge at the Stadio Olimpico, Roma surrendered a two-goal lead to a Parma side that had been very poor away from home until then. Next came a last-gasp win in Lecce, but that was followed by the 3-0 defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk that sent Roma out of the Champions League, a performance the new manager defended by noting - as real managers would - that until Philippe Mexes was sent off late in the first half, Roma had actually played quite well despite letting in a goal.
In between, an interview Ranieri gave to weekly magazine Espresso shed some light - which the Roma management would not comment on - on the situation the manager had presided over. "Things happened that should have been taken care of," he said, clearly pointing the finger at someone higher up on the club's food chain. "It wasn't done and that was a free pass towards anarchy. I am not a personal trainer - I coach 25 men. Totti is Roma's icon, but he's lonelier in the dressing room than it seems." He also basically accused Borriello of not realising he should be rested from time to time, and all of this added pressure on Montella to perform both on the training pitch and in balancing the egos Ranieri hinted at.
There is no sign yet he has not managed to do so. Soon after taking the helm, he took many of his players aside and spoke to them individually, pointing out the things he expected of them and lifting the spirit of those - John Arne Riise a prime example - whose form and confidence had nosedived.
Having used Borriello as the anchor, he reintroduced Totti - who had been suspended for the Lecce game - for the derby, and was rewarded with the captain's first goal in the contest since October 2005. The jury on Montella is still out.
The remaining nine Serie A contests may still yield a Champions League place, but considering how fourth-placed Udinese have been playing - they were cheered off the pitch by home fans after winning at Cagliari on Sunday, an event so rare Cagliari chairman Massimo Cellino will reward those who had tickets for the Udinese match with free entrance to the Brescia game - Roma should count on a Europa League place at most. There's then a couple of Coppa Italia semi-finals against Inter, and we all know how the meaningless domestic cup competition heats up once this stage arrives.
Ultimately, a decision on Montella may not be made for some time, and the final word on him as a manager is obviously many years away. The job he's done so far has been good, but the results may have more to do with the shock effect of his arrival than the many tactics and coaching methods he's introduced, and it's too early to know anyway.
There is, after all, the not-so-small question of the future of Roma at stake right now. A right of first option to purchase the club for American businessman Thomas DiBenedetto, a partner in Liverpool owner John W. Henry's Boston Red Sox, has now been extended to March 30, and there is widespread hope DiBenedetto, who was quoted as saying he enjoyed the derby at home, will complete the acquisition, plug the many financial holes that have led Roma to be run by Unicredit, the Italian giant bank, and establish them as a force in Italy and Europe.
Domination within the city of Rome, after all, has already been confirmed.