The season drips to a close, and hope refuses to die in the Stadio Olimpico as Inter risked more than anyone expected on Sunday. The same team that managed to hold Barcelona down to only one goal while playing with ten men, conceded three against Chievo and were brushed by the edge of disaster. In fairness, it hardly seemed to matter at that stage – while Chievo were playing their hearts out, Roma happened to be losing against an equally modest Cagliari side. Francesco Totti’s combination saved everyone’s predictions, but the game was not half as clear a business as it may have appeared.
The defining characteristic of this match was that of the most unfortunate team in the world pitted against the least combative. On one hand, Roma looked like their players could have committed suicide when walking back into the changing rooms, considering how they had hit the frame of the goal three times and lost a goal to the offside trap. On the other, Cagliari were putting all the effort of a fossilised cadaver into the act of winning the game. Despite several laudable initiatives and an undoubted domination in ball-possession, Roma were not playing all that well. They did not deserve to go under, but once they did, their counter-attack was so lacking in organisation that any well-drilled team could have scored another goal or two with ease. If this had been Massimiliano Allegri’s Cagliari, as we knew it in January, it would have ended very differently.
Still, Cagliari failed to take advantage of their opportunities (some of them monumental, such as the missed shot by Jeda) and things ended as they did. Totti redeemed a match which, on his part and until then, had been very poor, particularly because of his dreadful chipped ball which missed the goal from a couple of yards out (not even Simone Perrotta is capable of missing chances like that). The first goal was a thing of beauty – typical Totti, and the man goes up to 192 goals in Serie A, sixth best striker in the history of the league, just behind Roberto Baggio. The second was a penalty earned by John Arne Riise, and it seemed almost metonymic for Cagliari’s entire game. It was simply so generous, even in its termination. Totti’s shot was far from irresistible, for it was accurate but also weak, yet the goalkeeper, despite diving in exactly the same direction as the ball, failed to extend his arms quite far enough to block it. The rest of the game was, in hindsight, routine, although it certainly felt nerve-wracking to any Romanista watching.
It is not clear if any more games will be needed for whichever sceptics remain to be convinced that Totti and Luca Toni cannot play together. The good game that Roma produced in the first half is misleading, as it was milled against a very yielding Cagliari team. It is also to be noted that everything happened after Toni was subbed, from the blow conceded to those inflicted. Jérémy Menez, on the other hand, was very lively, and he seems to operate at his best when Mirko Vucinic is not on the field. He has no trouble working with either Totti or Toni, but the latter two are incompatible even when they are not covering each other’s spaces. The offence simply suffers from insufficient mobility, and the incongruous relationship between them will have to be accounted for over the summer’s mercato activity. On one hand, Toni is not very useful when Totti is available. On the other hand, Totti is not available all that often anymore, so it may be wise to buy him anyway. Or, Roma may acquire the services of a different, younger forward altogether, a promising but more expensive option.
Given that most of Roma’s problems, starting from the incompatibility of Roma’s forwards, appear to be relatively simple. Claudio Ranieri should do a good job of smoothing them out before the next season begins – especially if he is given a say in the mercato. It will be interesting to see what Ranieri does on his second run. He has a ‘loser’ reputation to shake off, but he has demonstrated not only the resilience and the acumen to organise a team, but a dose of personal class which only few others can boast. For that alone, he deserves to stay at the helm of Roma for a good deal longer.
In our closing words, a welcome back to Marco Motta and Alessio Cerci. They are both wonderful players in many ways – young, dynamic and Italian, but they had been kept out of the team for tactical and technical reasons. Motta has terrific potential and many hope to see him as Roma’s starting right-back next season, though of course Ranieri will have the last say on that. He needs to marshal his positional skills at times, but he has a remarkable thrust coming forward, and even the match against Cagliari showed some of it. He certainly showed more presence on the wing than Marco Cassetti. As for Cerci, he lives in the shadow of Menez, and he needs some good psychological management, but he can do very well if he is properly exploited. Given that Rodrigo Taddei is waning, his contribution as a winger on the right should be neither underestimated nor discarded. But then, this depends on the formation that Ranieri chooses to play. On this too, the Tinkerman will have the final word.