Antonio Cassano passed over the Olimpico like a summer rain. No blare and no scandals, only a light-footed step that moves like a wind. He dribbled past Nicolas Burdisso once, twice past the others, and he finished by brushing the ball onto the head of Giampaolo Pazzini. No Cassanate this time, Antonio. Just football.
It was left to Roma to pick up the pieces. While the derby had finished in glory after a stilted opening, the game against Sampdoria ended tragically – but it started with a blaze. Roma did not come out of the stands as much as they erupted out of them. The trident fielded this time included Jérémy Menez instead of Luca Toni, after the experiments to meld the latter with Francesco Totti and Mirko Vucinic had failed to ignite the team. It was a happy intuition. Menez kept the team wide on the right, and Totti continuously dropped to the flanks (often on the left, in the first half), so the team was allowed to cover spaces homogeneously. Twenty-five minutes into the game, 1-0 for Roma seemed, almost miserly, a certain result.
The fact that Sampdoria succeeded in equalising and eventually winning can be traced to two factors. Firstly, the strength of Sampdoria’s wingers and the relative weakness of Roma when defending against them. We mentioned in our preview that Marco Cassetti would be in for a wild night with Cassano and Stefano Guberti knocking on his doors. This proved to be true on the occasion of the first goal, when Burdisso was left alone to confront Cassano, and he discovered why they called him El Pibe de Bari. Burdisso collapsed like a straw wall, the ball flew, and the dream evaporated. The second goal took place with Cassano and Cassetti both off the field, but the dynamics were the same. Sampdoria countered on the left (Roma’s right), Burdisso was left alone, and, valorous but unlucky as he was on that night, he could not stop the assist for the winning tap-in. Lead reversed at the 75 minute mark, and for Sampdoria, the game was in the bag. It did not help that Cassetti had been subbed for Rodrigo Taddei either, since the latter is a winger rather than a fullback and provides even less coverage. But then, the Brazilian had been so decisive in the previous few games, and the difference between draw and loss was so ephemeral, that it’s hard to castigate Coach Claudio Ranieri for it.
The second factor that contributed to the night of tears, from Philippe Mexes onwards, was the sheer determination and lucidity of Roma’s adversaries on the occasion. Tactics aside, Sampdoria were ruthless. One understands how they succeeded in silencing Milan (team and city) the week before. It takes a strategist to see the rival’s weaknesses, but it takes athletes to convert that vision into a result, and on Sunday il Doria gave us the best type of players out there – those who are sportsmen before they are footballers. Saying ‘well done’ is the very least they deserve.
Kind words for the men of Roma risk sounding like elegies. When they walked off the pitch, they looked nothing short of inconsolable. Where are the days of the West, where is the red fire glowing, and all the other things they used to write music about? But we are not going to sing that yet, not today, firstly because there are nine points to the finishing line and nowhere is it written that Inter must take them all, and secondly because being beaten is not at all the same to being defeated. Claudio Ranieri, the ‘normal one,’ commented the game in which he was denied two penalties by saying that the referee’s decisions must be accepted and that Sampdoria deserved the victory. It is a comment from another age, from the days when he played for the Giallorossi under men like Helenio Herrera and their derbies never ended with a trunk of axes sequestered by the police. It served to remind us, on the night when a match that decided everything came with neither violence nor venom, that no trophy is ever as polished as a clean game, and that some things are still worth more than three points. We shall not mourn defeat because, regardless of which side scored the most, Sunday night was a victory for football, a game which started with two players like Cassano and Totti exchanging hugs and which ended with both teams walking home to ovations. Like in the old days, though so few seem to have noticed this. The greatest victories are not measured by trophies. Now more than ever, grazie, thank you, Roma. A million times, thank you.