Behold Roma, ye mortals. Inter scored four goals against them in the first half of their campaign, and Juventus did the same in the second half. This wreck of a Roman season has come full circle. Most supporters will be glad to see the back of it, but Luciano Spalletti (and the rest of his team) know that the truly important battle takes place in the here and the now. The fourth place is not impossible to reach, and so much depends on it that any thought on how to model the future must necessarily pass through its straits.
The game against Juventus leaves many wounds, particularly as far as self-esteem goes. But a casual glance at the line-ups was enough for anyone to see the result coming, and supporters who were genuinely expecting a victory must be steeped in their Calcio faith up to their brain. With eleven major players out injured, the bench for this game was a collection of obscure names from the Primavera youth team. The midfield was the department which took the greatest damage. Without the towering figure of Daniele De Rossi to break the opposition’s flow or the creativity of David Pizarro (or Alberto Aquilani) to feed the offence, the disparate formation of players which faced the Bianconeri had no other reason for being than that of damage limitation. One of them, Felipe, had been fished out of the Primavera and offered a starter’s shirt in despair. Some sources have praised his performance after the match, a fact which seems rather awkward – from what this writer saw of the match, the kid was invisible and hardly appears to have touched the ball.
The absence of De Rossi was compounded by that of Francesco Totti, leaving this team with neither engine nor soul. The slogan for this year (and the last two) could well be summed up in four words – no Totti, no party. The Roman captain enjoyed much more playing time last season and the team reaped the benefits, ending a breath’s distance from the Scudetto and suffering only three defeats in the entire campaign. One may even speculate that the quarter-finals against Manchester United could have witnessed a different ending, had the golden boy been on the greens. This year, Totti fought more against his knee-injury than he did against rival defenders. Since the team has consistently demonstrated its inability to perform without him, his absence on Saturday meant that defeat at the hands of Juventus was the logical outcome. It did not help that his replacements were putting up an abysmal act. The team’s form on Saturday has been less that of a football team and more that of eleven sacks of potatoes thrown onto the field and expected to grow legs and operate. If this is comprehensible for the midfield, where all responsibility was stacked on the shoulders of a man, Matteo Brighi, who until last year still had to light two-hundred and fifty candles to whichever saint protects him in order to see a starter’s shirt, the same is not true of the offence. The men who composed that department were regular or potential starters – Julio Baptista, Mirko Vucinic and Jérémy Menez. Let us take a look at them more closely.
Vucinic can not be found guilty. The man is still on the team’s most popular list, that is to say, the registers of the national hospital, and one cannot expect the world from him when he is still recovering from injury. Baptista, on the other hand, is a puzzling case. When the man is having his day, he can win games on his own (or at least save them – see last week’s draw against Sampdoria). When he is not – as on Saturday – he becomes so evanescent that you could mistake him for Eurydice right after Orpheus has condemned her to dwell amid the shades (distinct lack of feminine traits aside). The real problem is that there seem to be no criteria to figure out when he is going to have a good game and when he will not. Amantino Mancini, the player he was practically brought in to compensate for, had a similar problem, but at least his runs of form were cogently distributed – he would be unstoppable for two months, then flaccid for another two. Baptista alternates performances every week.
Then there is Menez. One of the worse games he has had so far, constantly outplayed by Zdenek Grygera, ineffective in the offence and insubstantial in the defence. The Juve side was not at its top, so this should have been an ideal opportunity for the young Frenchman to showcase some of his skills. Instead the Atomic Kitten paled in his performance before the Atomic Ant, the young Sebastian Giovinco who tore to shreds the anaemic Roman midfield and kick-started the inevitable (and precipitous) talk of an Azzurri call-up. In fairness to the French kid, the Roman supporters have no reason to be jealous of Giovinco – Menez holds just as much promise as the Bianconero and in fact exploded even earlier, with a string of excellent games in the middle of the season embracing both Serie A and Champions League before being benched by Spalletti in favour of an out-of-form Mirko Vucinic. Giovinco, who suffered a similar fate under Claudio Ranieri, has only come into his own in the last few weeks. A true comparison between them will have to wait until they both enjoy the trust of their Coaches.
Which brings us to the main point in the Menez affair – if the kid is so good, why was he so bad? All answers are speculation (especially from the outside, which is where sports journalism takes place), but in this writer’s opinion the blame lies not with Menez but with how Spalletti managed him. The Tuscan Coach denied him trust when he needed and deserved it and threw him to the lions when no other option was available – no wonder that the kid could not build on his confidence and game. This behaviour is probably what led the Frenchman to grumble with the press that he is “in a club where Totti comes first, and all the rest is secondary.” A comment understandable in light of the kid’s frustration, but also one of the most unwise statements he could have made to the public – it is hard to see what will come of them but rupture with the tifosi, the Coach and of course the captain himself. Nonetheless these comments echo some similar complaints made by Baptista a week ago, and they reflect a certain state of tension in the changing room – something which Roma can not afford to bring into the next season. The signs that some major change is needed for the next campaign are all there.
The nature of such a change is still to be seen, but one of the obvious possibilities is a change of Coach. The Menez case is not the first time that Spalletti proves inefficient at nurturing the potential of young guns. Aquilani comes to mind, but also Stefano Okaka Chuka, Vitorino Antunes, and less recently Ricardo Faty and Aleandro Rosi – all figures of great promise, all denied the chance to express themselves or the possibility of blooming. Considering that, all fingers crossed against this, the club may not qualify for the Champions League and may therefore lack the financial assets for a powerful mercato campaign, this raises some serious questions as to the future of the Coach at the club. Roma will need to make the best, the absolute best of it’s youth in order to renew it’s ambitions. For all of the man’s undoubted qualities, Spalletti is not the man to do this. Time to change? Early to say. For now, let him do his best to bring this team into next year’s Champions League, which is the real crux around which everything spins. The verdict is postponed.