Master Chiefs, ringleaders, Kingfishers, call them what you like, they’re the ones who call the shots now. Roma are on top of the mountain, and it’s been a long climb. ‘It’s chilly up here,’ says Francesco Totti. A lie, no doubt – it must be warm like the Tropic of Cancer, and sweet like the stuff of dreams. If not a lie, then that dramaturgic convention that is so prevalent in Rome – irony. Everyone falls to irony, some have said. Inter fell, not with a bang, but with a whimper. José Mourinho fell, marble-heavy, the Prometheus figure who flew too close to the sun, grounded by his own ego. Everyone is falling this season, from Milan to Juventus – everyone but Roma. The ringleaders, or the kite-runners, or the alpha wolves, call them what you like. You’ll still be calling from below.
How long the high may last is something no-one dares predict, not even Claudio Ranieri, who declared after the match, ‘Let’s keep calm. We must not listen to the sirens.’ The dream may be short-lived, and there’s a derby next Sunday which says it may all come crashing down, but it’s a beautiful dream, and regardless of how it ends, it’s enough of a reason for Rome to say: “thank you, Claudio”. The match against Atalanta showed how far the team has come. A win was expected, and a win it was. In fairness, the second half saw the team shaking a little bit, and the last fifteen minutes of the game must have had the entire Olimpico holding their hearts in their hands. It should also be noted that Cristiano Doni, the Nerazzurri’s best player, did not start. But the performance, overall, was commanding, and Atalanta’s goal owed a lot to chance – John Arne Riise’s sliding clearance turning into an involuntary assist for Simone Tiribocchi.
In fact, the first half of the game was handled with a confidence and a panache which go to show how Roma, when their heads are clear, have the quality required to win the Scudetto. Obviously the condition of ‘keeping their heads clear’ is hardly a constant, and their skulls are going to be glasses full of storm come the derby. It is only a sign, but it’s an excellent sign, as is the depth of the bench. Juan went missing at the last minute, and Philippe Mexes was brought on, showing why a team playing at these levels needs more than two great centrebacks and why the blonde angel will not and should not be sold this summer. Luca Toni was rested, and Jérémy Menez was brought on, officially to ‘widen Atalanta’s defence, which is normally hermetic’ (Ranieri), likely out of a desire to experiment. Menez had been doing very well in training, and he is almost unplayable when in form.
Unfortunately, Sunday was not one of his best days. While he had his uses from a tactical point of view, he never proved decisive, and more often than not he seemed impatient with the style adopted by the rest of his team. Towards the end, Totti’s counseling of Ranieri (‘take the Frenchman off, not me, he’s going to get himself thrown out’), was probably sensible, albeit not very diplomatic. There does not appear to be a great sense of empathy between the two players, as demonstrated by Menez’s complaint last season (‘I have come to a team where Totti comes first, and all the rest is secondary’). It will hardly get any better now that the younger man was literally booted out by his elder, overriding even the authority of the Coach. What can be done about it? It was the right decision, and if it had gone the other way, it may have cost the Scudetto. Hopefully, if that title is indeed won, it will be enough to convince Menez to swallow the bitter pill and stay. He certainly adds great value to Roma’s squad.
With the Atalanta practice archived, we can turn to the 34th giornata, the last truly great turn on the roundabouts left in this waning (yet ever more abrasive) season of Serie A. Inter face Juventus, Roma meet Lazio. Teams with everything to lose against teams with nothing to lose, snakes and wolves against underdogs who can think of nothing sweeter than taking away the title from their rivals. Milan face Sampdoria, another important game for many reasons, but it seems remarkably more distant. After all, Milan in third position is a long way to look when you are riding as high as Roma are right now. The kings of the dance floor, the Cullens, the empire that struck back, you can call them what you will. They call the shots and they’re enjoying it.