Bloom, beautiful flower. You can end the season on a low note, on a high note, or you can end it with fireworks. Sunday’s match against Milan gave us the latter. It does not redeem one of the most dreadful campaigns in the last decade, it does not mend what’s broken nor answer all questions. But it shows that the team is not dead, and that beneath all the robes of mourning and the veils of scorn and noise, the core still has a beating heart. Take that beating heart into the next season, Rosella. It is all you really need to protect.
Before anything else is said about the match, a minute is due to take off our hats and pay our honours to that monument of Calcio that is Paolo Maldini, most likely seen in his last match against the Giallorossi (or anyone else) last Sunday. His retirement breaks off the last link to an epoch of Italian football which was, let it be said frankly, better than our own. As one of the greatest defenders in the history of a nation which has become the emblem of great defence, Maldini leaves a hole which will require a strenuous effort to fill up. Young defenders of today have a great model to live up to. Above all else, then, and simply by the power of the example which he sets for present and future generations, someone like Maldini prevents us from lowering our standards. Beyond all silverware, and regardless of all games won, that is the greatest gift that anyone can make to the sport. Grazie Paolo, today and forever.
Moving on to less epic subject matters, the Sunday game left much to discuss. How did Roma, a team on the edge of the well of souls, manage to overpower the group which holds second place in the league? In part it was the weaknesses inherent in the Milan team themselves – as we claimed last week, the Rossoneri are less powerful than they appear. Their Coach Carlo Ancelotti has been hurting them for a while with his insistence in fielding Clarence Seedorf at the expense of Ronaldinho, and nowhere did this hold more true than in the weekend’s game. Roma’s great preoccupation was the defence, which was in tatters, and how it would hold against the ranks of mythological beasts roaming in Milan’s files. To some extents, the Roma backline did better than anyone could expect – Juan was back for the first time in what seems like eons, meaning that two real central defenders could be fielded at the same time (as opposed to one central defender next to whichever ambling buffoon was picked from the subs list), and Philippe Mexes was doing a superlative job of containing Kaka. Roma’s second goalkeeper Artur also produced himself in some terrific saves (and that’s the one thing which no-one in the world could have predicted). Alexandre Pato seemed a bit short of breath for the Rossoneri, which made everything a lot easier. Even so, the home team could probably have won this if Ronaldinho had been there from the start, regardless of whether he had been taking the place of Seedorf or that of Pato. Dinho’s work on the left, once he was fielded, was a constant source of danger, and for his absence alone Ancelotti holds more responsibility for the defeat than anyone else on the black and red side.
Beyond the incompetence of the Milan Coach, which was no hard item to call out, other factors were at work in favour of the Giallorossi. We mentioned in the last Club Focus that Roma could rest its hopes on two such influences – a final swell of pride to propel their psychological condition, and the state of their offence. It would be easy to claim that we have been vindicated, given the result, but in all fairness only the second of these factors proved influential. As far as morale goes, Roma were doing exactly what they have done all season – they started off great, took the advantage and then surrendered. Once John Arne Riise had bagged the lead with that eye-candy of a free-kick (finally, one may add – it was about time that one of those left-footed meteors found the back of the net), it was as though Milan had become the only team on the pitch. Their failure to finalise, more so than Roma’s defensive hold, was responsible for the apparent superiority of the Giallorossi (that, and Artur’s great day).
The effectiveness of the Roman offence, on the other hand, was indeed apparent. Two of the three goals came from Roman forwards, that of Jérémy Menez welcome in light of how few he has scored (yet), that of Francesco Totti in light of how many (one more and he will reach Giampiero Boniperti, who stands ninth in the list of all-time most prolific poachers in Serie A. The Roman kid is climbing fast). In addition to this, Mirko Vucinic showed all sorts of good things for a player in the process of recovering from injury – the Montenegrin has shown tremendous progress in the last three years and when in form he really is one of the best strikers in Serie A. We may look forward to what he will produce next year.
More so than the individual names in the attack, though, what kept Roma from melting like a micro-waved meringue and saw them fighting like a team instead was a question of tactics. This time we will claim some vindication and quote ourselves from the Club Focus just before the Roma-Bologna game at the beginning of March: “Today, Roma need to go back to the basics from a tactical point of view and make the best of the youth they have. Turn to a simple 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 if Baptista starts). Against Milan, Roma played with a 4-4-2. Yes, on paper it was a 4-3-1-2 with David Pizarro as the trequartista, but even the most casual glance at how the team was deployed on the pitch will reveal that Rodrigo Taddei and Marco Cassetti were acting as wingers rather than as defensive midfielders. Simultaneously, Matteo Brighi was alternating chores with Pizarro rather than being asked to deal with the multifarious tasks that a central defensive midfielder is normally required to accomplish in that formation. In other words, Brighi was playing in a very traditional role, not trying to compensate for the absence of Daniele De Rossi by walking in his far more multi-talented boots.
The outcome of Roma going back to a more conventional formation was a delight to behold. Taddei and Riise were causing all sorts of damage on the left as they were allowed to bounce off each other’s runs and coverage like all wingers learn how to do from age 11 (as opposed to the wingback covering for the idiosyncrasies of the atypical winger-forward hybrid fielded in the 4-2-3-1). The central part of the midfield ran so smoothly that you could hardly believe Daniele De Rossi was not there – proof that as long as you don’t ask your midfielders to take up superhuman roles (that is to say, as long as you don’t ask all of them to be De Rossi), then Roma have all the talent they need to play good football. Even without some of their key men.
Although the mentality of the team still showed some holes, when Roma wanted to play football they did so quite well. It was a much better game than the 3-3 draw against Inter, for instance, where the Roma forwards barely even grazed the ball and all the goals in favour seemed to come by coincidence. Ironically, while on that occasion Roma were given an inexistent penalty against, this time they seem to have been graced by the referee in their own box. The first supposed penalty was a contact between Juan and Filippo Inzaghi, but it was utterly involuntary, and the referee’s decision to let the game run is debatable but ultimately acceptable. The second occasion was a foul by Marco Motta on Gianluca Zambrotta and that time around, the referee got it wrong. It should have been a penalty. Perhaps Milan (Milan, not Ancelotti) did deserve a little more from the game. Even so, it is difficult to feel sympathy for Milan’s complaints – considering how often they have been awarded doubtful in-box fouls this year, and seen how they are the Serie A team with the highest number of penalties in favour this season, it is surprising to witness their reaction when they are handed a spoon of their own medicine. Perhaps this is part of the reason why this victory, which would have left one with a slightly unpleasant back-taste if achieved against Atalanta or Chievo, feels instead so satisfying when taken in the house of il Diavolo.