Bye-bye Europe, and farewell to one of the prettiest dreams this team has had in a while. Winning the Champions League at the Olimpico was going to be an epic conquest. It was also never going to happen. From the very start of the season it was only too clear that this iteration of Roma was not fit to win the Champions League, and only the mindset of the tifoso still kept some people hoping for the miracle. Losing to Arsenal in the last 16 felt bitter, yes, all the more so because the match was very close, but it should not be seen as a greater misfortune than it was. This team was not going to win the Champions League. Even if Arsenal had been defeated, the disappointment would only have been delayed.
Arsenal versus Roma, this year, was a duel between broken teams. The return leg reflected this, as the match was balanced but tactically quite dull. Even as several chances were had on each side, their build-up was mostly physical and the collective play showed neither virtuosity nor originality. Robin Van Persie was – again – strangely absent from the game, leaving Samir Nasri to fend for himself in attack. On the other side of the pitch, Francesco Totti was in a better condition than anyone (including myself) could have expected him to be, and while his game was still the distant shadow of the dazzling performances that have sculpted his name in the firmament of Italian football stars, he proved reliable and mostly dynamic. Nonetheless the real eye-grabber of the night among the Romans was Mirko Vucinic, who confirms his reputation as an incredible Champions League performer. For all his poor state of form, the man kept the Arsenal defence in a constant state of red alert, engaging and often piercing them, coming only too close to the goal which could have closed the match. As the antinomy of, say, big-game choker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Vucinic is one of the greatest assets that the Roma team possesses, and the management should guard him very closely.
The early goal against the Gunners was a manna for the Giallorossi, but it left both teams utterly paranoid about conceding a second goal. Arsenal had more control, but Roma had more drive. Lacking a real domination on either side, both teams pushed for a lucky goal, and when that did not come, the end of the regular ninety minutes on an effective draw felt like a fair but exasperating result (or, more plastically, a result which was exasperatingly fair, given how incredibly similar these two teams appear to be in everything but their nationality). When extra-time kicked off, we finally witnessed something more akin to what we would have experienced had this game taken place last year – determined to close the match in their favour, the teams came out of the stands at vertiginous speeds, playing a breathless game of back-and-forth which proved more exciting and entertaining than anything the rest of the contest had offered.
Arsenal channelled almost all of it’s offensives through the left, where Nasri was – the young Frenchman was the only man still on his feet in the English team, and his constant, untiring runs up and down his wing were nothing short of heroic in the context of a game where he had already given his all. Efforts in sport like this should not be taken for granted, and for that alone he deserves my award as man of the match. The Giallorossi, in the meantime, had greatly benefited from the insertion of Alberto Aquilani. In a midfield worn down and exhausted by chasing the London team’s possession, Aquilani provided the freshness required to up the speed and gain domination without sacrificing defensive space. His partnership with David Pizarro seemed to work very well, generating a combination which was ductile and creative enough to feed the offence on every side. While Arsenal was prevalently restricted to their left, Roma had alternatives in every part of the pitch. Considering how proletarian, muscular and at times sterile Roma’s midfield has been this year, it would be good if Luciano Spalletti kept in mind how much more effective the team became when Aquilani and Pizarro were allowed to play together and bounce their creativity off each other.
The match could have gone both ways. Roma may have deserved slightly more, seen how an important chance was at one stage missed by Julio Baptista (unusually stultified, that Wednesday), but offset against the enormous opportunities thrown to the wind by Arsenal in the first game, it is nothing to lose one’s sleep about. Penalties it was, then. And penalties saw the English team through. There are several regrets, of course, most notably the economic benefits that would have derived from a place among the last eight, not to mention the possibility of facing – for once – a comparatively modest adversary in the quarter-finals. But that was all one could hope for, and supporters should be thankful that their exit was at least less traumatic than that of Lyon, for instance, who were slaughtered 5-2 at the hands of Barcelona.
Roma was never going to win this year’s Champions League. The team was simply not strong enough, and the Sunday draw against Sampdoria all but drives the point home. In fairness, the team by that stage was so decimated by injuries that taking home a victory seemed like an impossible mission from the outset. But even had Roma been in better shape, taking away three points from the Stadio Marassi would still have been an arduous objective. Sampdoria are flying high at the moment, with new acquisition Giampaolo Pazzini fulfilling every last drop of promise that he had at Fiorentina and Antonio Cassano providing offensive game worthy of any top-table team. Their recent 3-0 victory against Inter also gave them an edge in terms of morale. Roma, by contrast, showed every bit of their poor psychological condition – after a promising start and the subsequent goal, the team slumped completely and left the reins of the game to the Blucerchiati, who were quick to take the lead. Roma was tired and players were nervous – the sending-off of Marco Motta was, if anything, belated. The goal of the 2-2 draw, which had the taste of a divine pardon, came from the inexperience of the Sampdoria defence more than it did from the Roman offence – a generous penalty on Max Tonetto, converted by Baptista. Even then it seemed that Roma was determined to lose this, and it was only a couple of late-time miracles by goalkeeper Alexandre Doni which save-guarded the point and kept Sampdoria from their day of glory.
All of which leaves us where we are now, that is to say, with Juventus at the gates. Unlike Roma, who merely kept the boat afloat by hiding the cracks with patches, the Bianconeri have truly picked themselves up after their crisis at the beginning of the season. Their team is currently quite powerful, and where Roma seem to be losing pieces, Juventus are gaining them – the latest addition being Sebastian Giovinco, whose excellent recent performances may even gain him a starter’s shirt this Saturday. How should Roma face Juventus? The alternatives are, unfortunately, quite limited. Juventus boast a frightful array of offensive players, and facing them with Roma’s current defensive line-up (raked by injuries) seems suicidal at best. The Giallorossi defence at the moment has all the integrity of a wafer biscuit dunked in milk and a similar power to intimidate.
This is not to say that the match is impossible to win. But in order for Roma to take away a decent result, a number of things will be necessary. The first will be the presence of Totti, if he has recovered enough. We all know how little this team can accomplish when the golden boy is not on the field, and it is almost inconceivable that (this) Roma could beat (this) Juventus without him. This is especially true if we consider that Roma’s midfield is also a shambles, be it as a result of injury or suspensions (even Marco Motta, the right-back who has been one of the few to provide some real offensive weight on his flank, will have to skip the match). It will also be necessary for Juventus to come into the game with the wrong psychological mindset. The Bianconeri have their own ghosts and anxieties to confront, over and beyond the loss to Chelsea, and it is neither unrealistic nor defeatist to expect them to walk into the den of wolves with different prey on their minds. The rest will be left to the Roma supporters – the Olimpico is a notoriously affecting stadium to play in, and if there is even the slightest psychological crack in the Bianconeri armour, it will be magnified by the battlefield.
All things considered, it is a comparatively bleak scenario. Hoping that Juventus will have a bad day is not really the most encouraging route towards defeating them, but on this occasion the variable is indispensable. How John Arne Riise (who is being played, believe it or not, as the central defender) is otherwise supposed to contain Amauri, Alessandro Del Piero or David Trezeguet if they are firing on all cylinders is beyond me. Even Vincenzo Iaquinta or Giovinco could probably cut through the current line-up should they be given playing time.
That being said, it has been a pretty bleak season all round. Eyes are already projected forward towards next year’s reconstruction, and a defeat against Juventus, if it comes to pass, cannot hurt more than the defeat against Arsenal. The Champions League will be played again and even if this team does not qualify for next year’s edition, there will be other chances. It is the opportunity of winning it at the Olimpico that will never return. It may be a lesson that we should treasure – that the epic does not come from the route most travelled. I for one believe that Roma deserve to win a Champions League, deserve their epic, and for the spirit they have shown, they can still hope someday to conquer it. But not this Roma, and not this Champions League. Roma as we have come to know them, Roma as the team that stormed Serie A last year, was a team of winners. They won because they fought not for what they could get but in the name of what they could give, which is the difference between a game and a sport. And sport is not about happy endings, remuneration or justice. It’s about fate. Fate leads us if we accept and drags us if we resist. Let us be led into the aftermath of this defeat with the countenance of mature lovers of our team rather than childish whiners for silverware – let us be led there, in brief, like sportsmen.