Turn off the lights. Close the ticket-stands. The age of gold is over, and there will be no Champions League for Roma next year. There could have been no more rueful way of closing the present Roma cycle than this weekend’s collapse against Lazio in the derby. And it truly is the end of a cycle – without the financial income of the Champions League, how Roma is going to keep up the high standards of the past few years is difficult to fathom. Much will depend on how much patch-and-sew work Rosella Sensi can do with the mercato. The rest will be a question of passion and talent, historically the two pillars upon which Roma’s football monuments have been built.
Among all the hearts this derby broke was the heart of Daniele De Rossi. The best midfielder in Serie A had spoken out his frustration in several occasions, most notably after the game against Inter: “Nothing would make me happier than winning a Scudetto with Roma,” he declared wryly, “but I know that this is never going to happen.” The statement concerned the refereeing issues around that match, in which an inexistent penalty had been awarded to Inter’s Mario Balotelli, a fact which was ultimately conductive to the draw (not the first time this happens in the present cycle). If these were his feelings in February, one can only imagine what they must be like now, after a chunk of his future and that of his team has been erased by a derby highly influenced by inept refereeing decisions. Morganti was throwing around red cards with such earnestness you would have thought them to be birthday invitations, and by the time both Christian Panucci and Philippe Mexes had been sent off it would have been understandable if the Roma fans had started leaving the stadium. For a football team to play (play, not win) without defence would take the Napoleon of all Tacticians. Roma did not even have its own – Spalletti himself had been sent off, alongside the utterly un-influential presence of Lazio executive Igli Tare. Then there was the penalty on Julio Baptista which was not conceded. Shall we make a list?
To be fair, by the way the match started off, Roma seemed set to digging their own grave without help from the referee. We mentioned in the last Club Focus that Roma would need to worry primarily about their defensive hold, but two goals in four-and-a-half minutes is a tally more reminiscent of Ping Pong than team sports. Yes, the one by Mauro Zarate was a thing of utter beauty and scarcely anyone can be blamed for it, but still. If Roma’s first goal had not come within the first ten minutes too, it might have turned into a goleada for the Biancocelesti, even without the loss of Roma’s defenders.
We were discussing Daniele De Rossi. Spalletti had indicated him as a possible man of the match before the game, and in this writer’s opinion, De Rossi earned that title and more. The number of times that his solitary figure was seen running back to aid what was left of the Giallorossi backline cannot be counted, an effort all the more admirable if we consider that he did the exact same thing in attack. Roma’s second goal came from him, and the primal roar he produced after scoring signifies everything that is special about this sport. One might as well have been watching Marco Tardelli or Fabio Grosso after their goals against Germany.
As for the match itself, there is little to discuss or learn from it. Roma dominated the game for the most part, but they suffered the absence of a true poacher of the kind that Spalletti has been rigorously discarding from the team and the two-goal disadvantage proved too much to recuperate. That being said, the anomalous numbers on the field and the absence of the Coach meant that tactics were thrown out of the window and players left to improvise with what they had. Jeremy Menez still failed to give his best, Baptista made good work of his physicality but added little else (mainly due to his deficient passing skills), Francesco Totti is allergic to derbies and has been since 2005, Mexes still cannot control his nerves and the midfield was very lacking in balance and chemistry. Then there’s Alexander Doni.
The Roma goalkeeper deserves a meditation of his own. The Giallorossi circles have been quite divided on the Brazilian keeper for a while now. His set of skills appears to be very unbalanced, showcasing terrific speed and reflexes next to a weak sense of positioning and a distinct vulnerability to dead-ball situations. As a consequence, Doni will often either salvage or sink an entire match on his own. The question of whether to keep him or not changes colour depending on which of the above feats he has achieved in his last match.
For what it is worth, this writer has been in the pro-Doni group for a while. Yes, some of his performances have lost the team some points, but how many keepers go through an entire season without a few bloopers? More importantly, how many of these keepers can Roma realistically afford? Doni’s performances two years ago were sensational and few seem to remember how cardinal he was to several of their most important victories (for instance the Champions League tie against Lyon, in which he saved everything that could be saved). The call-up with the Brazilian national team and the subsequent conquest of the America’s Cup did not come as a coincidence, nor did the interest in the player by Milan. The talent is worth a few bloopers.
That has been my opinion for the past two years. Today, I am beginning to reconsider. Doni appears to be undergoing what we may call the Verdeoro half-life, a ‘malady’ which strikes keepers from the Brazilian country when they come to play in Serie A. It happened to Milan’s Dida, who was battling with Gianluigi Buffon for the title of best keeper in the world four years ago only to gradually decay until even the geriatric-friendly management of the Rossoneri had to lay him off. It might be happening to Doni as well (let us see where Julio Cesar stands two years from now, and we’ll see if it really is an epidemic). Should Roma change keeper? The hasty answer would be yes, but there are several incognitos which make the matter shadier than it looks. For one thing, who would take his place? Young and home-grown talent Gianluca Curci was lent to Siena this year, but he is meant to stay there next year as well. Calling him back early will not necessarily be good for him, especially if he fails to win a starter’s shirt. Furthermore his performances with Siena, while promising, have been no more than promising. Handing him the responsibility of the Giallorossi net now is a big risk – for the team even more so than it would be for the player, given the latter’s tendency last year to concede four goals a match whenever he was played.
Speculation has linked Roma with Cagliari’s Federico Marchetti as a new keeper. I cannot think of a more dangerous scenario. The lad has had a good year, but that does not make him a good goalie, much less a dependable one when the pressure is raised. What happens if Roma throw 10m Euros on him and he turns out to flake at high levels? Where does that leave the rest of the team? Unless he really turns out to be the next Buffon, he is not worth such an expense – not when Roma cannot boast a single worthy winger on its roster. And what message would that send to Curci himself? Marchetti is a risk, and Roma cannot afford to take risks at the moment. Leave the gambling to the teams with money to splash out.
For the moment, Doni will have to do. It should be kept in mind that the man suffered numerous injuries this year, and some healthy playing time may be enough for him to recover at least a part of his old lustre. After that, thoughts may turn to Curci. We shall have space in the next article to deal more closely with Roma’s strategies in the sine Champions scenario, but for the moment suffice it to say that the Giallorossi will have to fix only what’s irreparably broken and squeeze all the steam out of that which is only limping. Doni is limping. Therefore Doni stays.
One final word. It is true that the fourth place is still mathematically attainable. However, what this derby signified to us is that this team lacks steam. With the squad in the current conditions, it will take a miracle to bring this team into the Champions League next year. This site does not deal with miracles. We speak as though the scenario were certain for next year not because we think this is how the team itself should face the games from here on out, but because this is the reality of the situation at the moment. If the situation should change, then our analyses also will. For now, we speak in such sombre tones not in the name of defeatism, but simply in that of informative journalism.