There were many paths this match could have taken, and it went for the brightest of them all. Such a beautiful Roma, especially in the first half, had not been seen since April of 2007, when they defeated Manchester United 2-1. But this time there is no return leg to bring them a tragedy, no undoing of the result. The people, the press and even some of their rivals have showered them with compliments. And Claudio Ranieri, who is the antithesis of José Mourinho in just about every way that matters, has been the recipient of the warmest effusions.
They are very much deserved. Roma’s first half was utterly remarkable, and the principal reason for this was the tactical set-up. The televisions presented it as the same 4-3-1-2 that defeated Udinese and Bologna, with Jérémy Menez as the free trequartista behind Mirko Vucinic and Luca Toni, and a dam of mediani – Simone Perrotta, David Pizarro, Daniele De Rossi – holding things together in the deeper midfield. In reality Menez clung to the right, playing something halfway between a winger and a forward. When Roma held the ball, the formation was best described as a 4-3-3. When possession went to Inter, on the other hand, Menez and Vucinic fell back deep while Perrotta came up to put pressure, and Roma morphed to a 4-2-3-1. But the shape-shifting had even further faces, for whenever Inter managed to penetrate beyond the midfield line and into Roma’s own mediana, Menez and Perrotta fell in line with Pizarro and De Rossi to form a belt in front of the defence, while Vucinic went back up with Toni to set himself for a counter-attack. In other words, Roma played with three context-sensitive formations: a 4-3-3 (in possession), a 4-2-3-1 (in high defence) and a classic 4-4-2 (in low defence).
This is an extraordinarily flexible formula and Ranieri’s brilliance at devising it is testified by Roma’s dominance over the first 30 minutes. Vucinic and Menez closed the corridors for Inter fullbacks Douglas Maicon and Javier Zanetti, and Inter, in order to attack, was forced to try and break through the central wall of De Rossi, Juan and Nicolas Burdisso. Poor Wesley Sneijder was damning himself to try and make something of his incredible talent in a situation in which his comrades were all choked out. The downside of this tactic was, of course, the high expense of energy, particularly on the wings. Menez, Vucinic and John Arne Riise were all burning breath like there was no tomorrow (which in a sense there wasn’t), and it was inevitable that the second half was going to make for a different show as one or more of these men began to give out. Vucinic was the first to go, and as early as the half-hour mark he was failing to give the right defensive coverage to his wing, unshackling Maicon with the result of a distinct growth by Inter in the final 10 minutes of the first half. In reality his whole game was rather underwhelming, constantly nervous and imprecise despite the impressive (and tactically rewarding) movement that he provided in his space. He was the only Roman player whose performance this writer thought to be disappointing.
Predictably enough, the second half of the game looked very different. Mourinho had inserted another forward (Goran Pandev for Dejan Stankovic) and the race-horse pace held by the Roman midfield over the first half was taking its toll. Marco Cassetti had saved some energy, so he held tight (this is the second game in a row that he impresses us, and it appears that he has finally gone back to being a reliable player). Everybody else but De Rossi and Pizarro was flaking, and the draw, albeit on offside, came before Ranieri could send Rodrigo Taddei in to freshen the midfield. No doubt Ranieri was gritting his teeth at that, because once Taddei came in, he gave the team exactly what was needed. He ran like his teammates had done in the first half, if not more, marking like a hyena and attacking like a jaguar, and it was his own messy shot which (fortuitously, yes) led to Toni’s decisive goal. It was a wonderful performance, and in our opinion Taddei is second only to Pizarro, who did the same things but did them twice as long, for the title of man-of-the-match.
Mourinho caved in to desperation and sent in a fourth striker, Ricardo Quaresma. It was his first real mistake. The Inter team tilted forwards so heavily that it lost its balance, leaving tremendous gaps in the midfield. Ranieri responded to this by inserting Francesco Totti – a brilliant move. Paradoxically, the choice was defensive: Ranieri knew that sending in another man to mark the Inter players would not keep them from having a very high offensive line (therefore remaining dangerous, especially with Sneijder lobbing crosses like candy), so he decided to take their possession away. Since Inter no longer had any midfielders for man-marking, Totti could hold the ball for as long as he pleased. While he did that, Roma’s players were allowed to advance (Taddei), and the Captain then distributed play to great effect. This process eroded minutes like a termite, and even when Inter managed to reclaim the ball, they had to start the entire forward progression again. Mourinho’s expression was bitter with reason (and the Olimpico perceived this, singing ‘Sit down, Mourinho, sit down, sit down’ in one of the most priceless moments of the season). There was time enough for a post which felt like the climax of an Hitchcock movie, then relief. Or, more aptly, euphoria.
Easily Roma’s most beautiful victory in three years, and the result of a collective effort as much as successful tactics. Most of the players, including the totality of the midfield, were brilliant. Totti had only 10 minutes, but it was time enough to prove that he has a terrific touch, and it seems plausible that we will finally see him next to Toni (and Vucinic) in the next game. Aside from Pizarro and Taddei, it is also worth mentioning De Rossi. A goal and a performance to remember, above all because it was like seeing the midfielder of old. Little big Daniele has gone back to being the best Italian player, he has kept the show up for several games now, and with a World Cup coming up (and looking ugly), these news are everyone’s victory.