Are Roma heading for a season of ruin?

Following last season’s near miss, Roma were again expected to push favorites Inter to the death in a thrilling battle for the Serie A crown in 2008/09. However, things have not quite gone according to plan.

Week eight of the domestic season sees Luciano Spalletti’s men in 16th place on seven points and seemingly out of the title race, all before the hectic winter schedule has truly begun. On the continental front, a dismal start to the Champions League group stage means progressing to the first knockout round, let alone repeating the past two seasons’ feats of reaching the quarter-final stage is a big ask.

So just where has it all gone so wrong this year for the Giallorossi?

At their best, Spalletti’s Roma play an attacking brand of football that resembles that of English Premier League side Arsenal – slick, swift and easy on the eye – but this season appears to be fast fading as the year when Spalletti’s men add more silverware, in particular a fourth Scudetto title, to their somewhat short list of honors.

Panucci

Pointing to the early absence of injured captain Francesco Totti is too obvious. Er Pupone is a vital piece of the Roma machine – his vision, craft and goals have, perhaps for too long, been the basis of which many a Roma side were dependant. Surely for the likes of the future captain Daniele De Rossi and midfield schemer Alberto Aquilani, this was the time to step up to the fore. Of the Serie A heavyweights, Roma’s squad is least blessed with strength in depth so following the sales of Amantino Mancini to title rivals Inter and the loss of Ludovic Giuly after just one season at the Stadio Olimpico, Spalletti needed to inject quality.

Securing a goalscoring centre forward was vital. Not since Fabio Capello’s Scudetto-winning 2001 squad that featured Gabriel Batistuta, Vicenzo Montella and a young Antonio Cassano have the Giallorossi brimmed with attacking riches. Although Spalletti’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation utilised the Roma personnel and saw Totti emerge as Golden Boot winner in 2007, the number ten has always been best at floating between his attackers and midfielders linking the play between midfield and attack, creating and scoring from the space allowed to him. The industrious Serbian Mirko Vucinic doesn’t boast the record of a natural goalscorer, and Stefano Okaka Chuka is too young and technically raw to lead the line. Spalletti attempted to address this issue by bringing in Julio Baptista, the Brazilian who shone in La Liga with Seville before unsuccessful spells at Real Madrid and Arsenal, to provide the side with a powerful focal point at the top of the pitch. However, ‘the Beast’ has failed to feature regularly considering his 9m Euros price tag. The decision to resign the aged Montella to the bench has looked reckless rather than shrewd and another attacking addition, Jeremy Menez is neither a typical number nine like Batistuta nor a natural wide player in the same mould as Giuly or Mancini. Because of this, Spalletti has struggled to create the width his 4-2-3-1 formation requires using the likes of Menez, Vucinic, Simone Perrotta and Rodrigo Taddei.

As a result, goals have been scarce. Vucinic and Baptista have hit just one league goal each and it speaks volumes that the club’s current top scorers are Aquilani and defender Christian Panucci, both with two.

At the back Roma have looked equally suspect – Goalkeeper Alexander Doni has collected the ball from his net a staggering 15 times in just eight league games so far with only bottom placed Reggina having conceded more times. The acquisition of Norwegian John Arne Riise wasn’t the worst signing, but the hammer-footed left back is considerably better attacking the opposition penalty area than defending his own and whilst Panucci remains reliable, the centre-back pairing of Juan and the fiery Phillipe Mexes appears to have crumbled with both players suffering drastic dips in form.

Doni

Considered one of the finest central defenders in Serie A, a series of erratic displays for both club and country from Mexes have affected the Frenchman’s confidence and his dismissal in the 1-0 away defeat to Siena was born out of sheer frustration – which would have no doubt increased after watching his side beaten 4-0 at home by Inter as he sat in the stands suspended. Individual error’s fail to hide the team’s lack of cohesion and their bad form has transpired across into Europe, where as second seed in a group made up of Chelsea, Bordeaux and Romanian Champions League debutants CFR Cluj-Napoca, qualification was there for the taking. A shock matchday one home defeat to the tournament minnows has again found Roma wanting. The win in Bordeaux and loss in London, has lest Roma needing seven points from their final three group games to be in with a chance of progression.

Off the pitch, the untimely death of club owner Franco Sensi, rumours of financial hardship, the failed summer signing of Adrian Mutu and the flirtatious nature of which coach Luciano Spalletti’s name was mentioned as a candidate to take over the Chelsea managerial post have all affected the club.

The 49-year-old Tuscan remained in the Eternal City but it would appear that his baldhead might have been at least turned by the talk. Spalletti is highly regarded as a fine coach, widely expected to emulate Fabio Capello and be the man to return the Scudetto to the Curva Sud. Since taking over the reigns following the calamitous 2004/05 period that saw five different coaches appointed, the former Udinese tactician drastically changed the clubs fortunes leading them once more to the top of Serie A, forming a squad that post-Calciopoli, were considered the only real challengers to Inter’s firm grip on the title. However this year as genuine contenders, too many points dropped far too early means not only must Roma avoid anymore defeats, but hope that the frontrunners slip up to allow them to make up the deficit.

No doubt boosted by the return of Totti, they need to forget the long term target of the Scudetto and start picking up points fast – starting this weekend with a visit to Juventus. With the week nine visit of fellow strugglers Sampdoria rained off, Spalletti – despite last week’s 3-1 drubbing at former club Udinese – has been publicly backed by club President Rosella Sensi. With a tactical rethink, Spalletti urgently needs Roma playing the kind of football that brought the record-breaking 11 game winning streak of 2006, otherwise week nine could well claim another managerial casualty.

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