Archive for the ‘Roma’ Category

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Losing the Coppa Italia final to Lazio this past May might have been the best thing that could happen to Roma. It probably did not feel that way to the club’s fans, as they suffered through a summer of intense baiting from their city rivals who organised everything from a fake funeral right through to planes trailing messages over the capital. But already the boot is on the other foot; six months later, Roma are top of the league, while Lazio struggle down in seventh.

That is no accident. The impact of Rudi Garcia has been phenomenal, the new Roma manager getting the best from key individuals while also helping the Giallorossi to achieve the sort of tactical cohesion that we had not seen from them in many years. But he has also been aided by the fact that his team are not involved in continental competition – as they would have been if they had beaten Lazio in May.

More importantly, he has been able to count on the presence of Daniele De Rossi. The midfielder was close to leaving the club this summer, telling Sky Italia that this was the first time in his career that he had given serious thought to the idea of playing for another team and in another city. “I told the club that I wanted to hear any offers we received,” said De Rossi. “I felt like this might be the right year to make a change, to try something different.”

It was not a decision he had come to lightly. De Rossi’s form for Roma had been in decline, the player falling out of favour almost immediately with the newly appointed Zdenek Zeman last summer. Accused of slacking during in training, he was dropped for a game against Atalanta in October and thereafter frequently deployed out of position on the right of midfield. Zeman was sacked in February, but De Rossi continued to struggle through the rest of the campaign.

He had not become a bad player overnight. To the contrary, his performances for Italy were as good as they had ever been. But both the media and many supporters in Rome had turned against him. Some even chastised him for turning down a transfer to Manchester City in the summer of 2012 on the grounds that his sale might have brought in valuable funds for the club to reinvest elsewhere.

For De Rossi, it was almost too much to bear. He was not some jaded mercenary but a supporter himself, one who had dreamed of playing for this club as he grew up chasing a ball around the beach in Ostia where his aunt and grandmother worked. “To be a Roma player but not make the fans happy, not make Rome happy…that was a pretty overwhelming weight for me,” he reflected last month.

Nor could he shrug these things off like some others might have done. Francesco Totti, too, has endured periods of criticism in Rome, but he has always been a more cocksure individual. The forward understood from a young age that he was a special talent, and has never doubted his own ability. De Rossi has never been quite so assured.

“There are kids who appear at 10 or 11 years old juggling oranges on YouTube; I was not one of those,” said De Rossi in a 2011 interview. “I was a kid who loved football from the day I was born, but I did not have that conviction. I was not sure that I was good enough to reach certain levels.”

He claims not to have even believed that he was going to make a lasting career as a professional until after he turned 19 – despite making his senior debut for Roma a year earlier. Even after excelling during his first prolonged run in the team, towards the end of 2003, he was the first to bat down journalists’ talk of a call-up to the national team.

Often considered alongside Totti as one of the two great homegrown symbols of this team, the truth is that De Rossi is cut from a very different cloth. The midfielder has described his team-mate as the “classic Roman”–outgoing and outspoken. De Rossi himself is much more of an introvert, someone who chooses his words carefully and would prefer to stay silent than express a half-formed opinion.

He is certainly the deeper thinker of the two. Totti used to say that if he had not been a footballer he would have liked to work as an attendant at a gas station because he liked the smell of the fumes. De Rossi, by contrast, wanted to grow up to be a judge.

But perhaps it is also easier for Totti to roll with any punches that get thrown in his direction because he has already achieved the thing that matters most: winning a Serie A title with Roma. De Rossi only made his senior debut in October 2001, five months after the Giallorossi had won their last Scudetto.

For a long time, De Rossi’s desire to emulate that achievement was enough to stop him from considering a move away. Plenty of Europe’s biggest and richest teams had expressed an interest down the years, including City last summer. The Premier League club were prepared to pay him even more than the €6m per year that he eventually accepted to sign a new deal in Rome.

Last year’s experience with Zeman, however, had prompted De Rossi to reassess his situation. Was it even realistic any more to believe that Roma could challenge for a title after finishing sixth, seventh, and sixth again over the last three years? And was it worth fighting through for a losing cause when so many people who followed the club seemed to want him gone?

And so De Rossi stepped away for a while and reflected. This was not a decision to be rushed, and nor was he a man to rush it. As well as thinking about his own career ambitions, he also needed to consider the impact a move might have on his ability to see his daughter, Gaia–De Rossi and Gaia’s mother separated in 2009.

He gave ambiguous answers to journalists’ questions about his future over the summer for the simple reason that he had not yet made up his mind. He knew that there was interest in him from Manchester United, and maybe one or two others. Some days, he would wake up thinking that those options did not sound so bad.

But now he found himself pulled back from the brink by a new consideration. No longer was he thinking about the trophies he wanted to win with Roma, but instead the one that had got away, the one that Lazio took from him at that Coppa Italia final in May.

“It was the thought that I just could not get rid of,” said De Rossi. “I could imagine myself in any team in the world, lifting any trophy, but the thought that I had played my last match in a Roma shirt in a derby, and a final, that we lost – the thought that this could be the closing act of one of the greatest love stories between a player and a team that I know of – it was just all wrong.”

And so, instead, he decided to stay. It helped that Garcia was not Zeman, and instead had phoned De Rossi to make clear from day one how much he was looking forward to their working together. The new manager was not fooled by last season’s lacklustre displays. “It’s not normal that a player should play this well for his country,” mooted Garcia, “but not be able to do it for his club.”

With De Rossi turning 30 in July, Roma’s directors knew that this might be one of their last opportunities to sell him for a worthwhile fee. But they also recognised the vision that Garcia was developing. De Rossi, playing alongside Miralem Pjanic and the newly-acquired Kevin Strootman could become the strongest midfield trio in the division.

So it has proved. Restored to his preferred central role, De Rossi has been an ever-present for Roma, repaying his manager’s faith with performances of the highest order. He might not have the statistics to show for it with fewer assists and goals than either of his starting midfield team-mates, but those were never his speciality in the first place.

Instead what De Rossi brings is something more intangible, a reading of the game that few others could replicate. In possession he rarely makes a mistake, completing almost 90% of his passes this season and very often the ones that might launch an attack in the first place – the assist to the assist, if you will. When defending he shows up in the right places at the right times with startling regularity. It was his clearance off the line from Goran Pandev that kept Roma from falling a goal behind in the first-half of their eventual 2-0 win over Napoli.

Some have speculated that he might eventually be adapted into a centre-back, emulating the career path of Franz Beckenbauer. He has been asked to fill that role on occasion for both Italy and Roma in recent years, and his performances when doing so have certainly suggested that he could be up to the task.

For now, though, De Rossi will continue just where he is. For many years he has been referred to in Rome as “Er Capitan Futuro” – the Future Captain – a reference to the assumption that he would one day take over from Totti. But with the forward missing games due to a hamstring injury, it has fallen to De Rossi to lead the team forward in his absence. He is making a perfectly impressive job of it so far.

AS Roma's Castan reacts during his Italian Serie A soccer match against Chievo Verona in Rome

A rather curious story has been going around the Eternal City in recent days.

Lazio’s owner Claudio Lotito had apparently told his counterpart at Napoli, Aurelio De Laurentiis, that there was trickery behind Roma’s success this season. He supposedly claimed that their owner James Pallotta had brought in five wizards to work at the club’s Trigoria training ground and at the stadium on match-days.

“You know why you lost [to Roma a fortnight ago]?” it’s claimed Lotito said. “Because Pallotta’s magicians got Diego Maradona [a guest at the match and Napoli talisman] to rise from his seat before the end of the first half and remove his negative energy…”  Within seconds of him doing so, Miralem Pjanic gave Roma the lead with a free-kick.

Just like magic.

Do you believe in it? A more pertinent question might be whether you believe Lotito ever suggested as much. If he did – something which Lazio deny – it was probably a joke. But Roma supporters weren’t about to let facts stop them from having a bit of a laugh.

A local radio station Te la do io Tokyo called Lotito. Amusingly its presenters pretended to be a couple of wizards. Lotito hung up. They phoned back and, to be fair to the Lazio president, he was good value making the sort of wisecrack that left the listener with the impression this was radio gold.

More fun was to be had at his expense on Thursday. This time it was organised by Roma. Shortly after referee Sebastiano Peruzzo blew for full-time at the end of their 1-0 win against Chievo on Halloween night, the crowd at the Stadio Olimpico were given a special treat. Out came five wizards. They walked under the Curva Sud in full costume looking like they’d come straight from Hogwarts, disembarking from platform 9 and three-quarters at Termini rather than Kings’ Cross. It’s a night that will live long in the memory.

Marco Borriello’s glancing header made it 10 wins from 10 for Roma this season, the best start ever made by a team in Serie A. “… We have 27 wizards in the dressing room,” said coach Rudi Garcia afterwards, alluding to the number of players in his squad. “We believe in work, not witchcraft,” added Roma’s general manager Mauro Baldissoni.

Peerless in Serie A history, benchmarks for this team’s achievements are now being sought abroad. Thursday’s victory meant Roma matched the start made by Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United to the 1985-86 season. Beat Torino away on Sunday and they will equal that of Bill Nicholson’s double winning Tottenham side in 1960-61.

But 11 in a row has a resonance of its own at Roma. They managed just that under Luciano Spalletti between December 2005 and February 2006, playing arguably the best football in Europe. Remember how it came about? Bereft of strikers, Spalletti had to get creative. So he fielded a team comprising six midfield players with Francesco Totti asked to perform a role as a false nine. On paper it looked like a 4-6-0. So successful was it that soon enough Europe’s elite were trying it. For instance, Manchester United adopted it after their encounters with Roma the following season and it’d be the system that exalted the characteristics of the side that won the Champions League in 2008.

Caught by surprise and unable to get to grips with it, defenders had no reference points and therefore no idea who to pick up. Roma’s run that season was a club record winning streak and a Serie A one too for a time until of course Inter strung together 17 under Roberto Mancini between October 2006 and February 2007.

After last season no one would have anticipated this, just as no one expected Spalletti’s Roma to do what they did. That team deserved a Scudetto. They led the league for an hour on the final day of the 2007-08 season. The hope among Roma supporters is that maybe this will be their year. For now at least whether it be through wizardry or hard work, their team really is living up to the nickname La Maggica.

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Roma were not put off by Adem Ljajic’s hazelnut spread habit. Nearly three years have passed since Sinisa Mihajlovic launched his famous criticism of the player, saying that he should “cut his hair, eat less Nutella and not live his life attached to a computer”. Ljajic has trimmed his locks in the interim, but there is no word yet of him giving up on either of his preferred snack or pastime.

Walter Sabatini seems not to mind. Roma’s director of sport was handed an unenviable task this month when the club’s owners concluded that further sales were required in order to balance their books. Sabatini had little trouble lining up Tottenham as potential suitors for Erik Lamela, but needed to find a lower-priced replacement before he could allow the Argentinian to leave.

On paper, Ljajic certainly fit the bill. Like Lamela, he is a 21-year-old forward who is comfortable operating out wide or just behind the attack. Both men are expert dribblers who relish the opportunity to run at an opponent. They each had a respectable strike rate last season; Lamela scored 15 goals in 33 games for Roma, while his would-be successor hit 11 in 28 for Fiorentina.

Most importantly, Ljajic was available at the right price. With just one year left on his existing contract, Sabatini knew that Fiorentina could not afford to turn down a reasonable offer.

They had rejected an €8m bid from Milan earlier in the summer, describing it in an official club statement as “inadmissible … late, and certainly inopportune”, but their anger on that occasion had a context. Fiorentina believed Milan were trying to turn the player’s head just as he was about to sign a contract renewal. The Rossoneri had been accused of doing much the same thing to Riccardo Montolivo twelve months previously.

If anything, Milan’s bid made Fiorentina more willing to do business with Roma. It soon became clear that the Viola could not meet Ljajic’s wage demands, but by that stage they were prepared to sell to just about anyone other than Milan. They accepted Sabatini’s offer of €11m up front, plus a further €4m in potential bonuses. Ljajic signed a four-year contract with Roma, worth approximately €1.9m per year – more than three times his previous earnings.

A year ago today, the prospect of Ljajic landing such a contract would have seemed inconceivable. He was perceived back then as a pariah, an insolent and undeserving shirker who might sooner have been sent back to his former club, Partizan Belgrade, than be sought after by Fiorentina’s rivals.

His reputation had been coloured by the events of 2 May, 2012. That was the day on which he got punched by his own manager. Substituted during Fiorentina’s eventual 2-2 draw with Novara, Ljajic turned to sarcastically applaud Delio Rossi. Seconds later, the coach flung himself into the dugout, swinging fists in the player’s direction.

Words had been exchanged between the two in the seconds leading up to the assault, and though the exact context has never been revealed, many fans chose to believe the darkest of rumours. It was presumed that Ljajic must have said something truly awful to provoke such a reaction from his manager.

Mihajlovic’s two-year-old comments were dredged up as evidence that the player was a bad egg, as were complaints made by a neighbour of Ljajic’s about his late-night partying antics. Vanessa Favio claimed that the player’s get-togethers were keeping his entire apartment block awake at night. “It happens at least two times a week,” she told La Repubblica. “They go from midnight through to four in the morning.”

Further negative headlines soon followed. After the incident with Rossi, Ljajic was suspended by Fiorentina for the remainder of the season, but still got called up to play for Serbia at the end of the campaign. He was immediately sent home again, however, after failing to sing the national anthem prior to a friendly against Spain. His actions were perceived by Mihajlovic, now in charge of the national team, as an act of gross disrespect.

In reality, though, there were two sides to this story. Ljajic was raised as a Muslim and felt uncomfortable singing the anthem on religious grounds. He had apparently phoned his father before the game asking for advice. “I told him to keep his head down as much as possible so nobody saw,” said Sahmir Ljajic. “But you all know what happened.”

Many of the stories about Ljajic can likewise be viewed from another angle. We might never know exactly what was said between him and Rossi on the night of their scuffle, but we do know that portrayals of Rossi as a man who never ordinarily loses his cool are probably wide of the mark. Last season, as manager of Sampdoria, he flipped the bird at Roma’s Nicolas Burdisso in the middle of a game, earning a two-game suspension. (The defender had reportedly told him to “sit down, dickhead”.)

And while Nutella might not be the most nutritious of snacks, the truth is that Ljajic spent a significant chunk of his youth being encouraged by adults to increase his caloric intake. Dusan Trbojević, the former Partizan Belgrade youth coach (he now works for them as a scout) recalls that the player was an exceptionally skinny little boy when first spotted at age nine.

“After one game I saw [Ljajic] sitting in a car and eating an apple,” Trbojević told Serbia’s Press Online back in 2010. “As I passed, I said ‘why not get him to eat more?’ His dad immediately replied: ‘That’s what I’m talking about. He knows a thing or two with the ball, but what use is it? The opponents are larger, and they just knock him over’.”

As for the rest – the late nights and excessive video game-playing – these might be undesirable traits, but are they that unexpected for someone who was launched at age 18 into a new country with significant income and lots of free-time at his disposal? Over the last year, Ljajic is said to have reined in his partying significantly.

In the end the greatest concern for Roma fans will be whether he can live up to expectations on the pitch. Lamela has left some pretty big shoes to fill. Francesco Totti had previously gone so far as to suggest that the Argentinian could one day become his heir.

Ljajic performed at a level towards the end of last season that suggested he could be capable of reaching such heights. His form from January onwards was blistering, with 10 of the player’s 11 goals arriving after the turn of the year. By the end of the campaign he had also chipped in eight assists.

On the other hand, sceptics will point to his far less impressive showings over the previous three years. Great things had been expected of Ljajic when he signed back in January 2010. He had arrived in Florence only after a move to Manchester United collapsed – apparently because the English club could not get a work permit for the player. Sir Alex Ferguson had likened him to a young Cristiano Ronaldo.

And yet, before this season his performances had been fitful. Ljajic was in and out of the team under Cesare Prandelli, Mihajlovic, then Rossi – scoring just four goals in 50 league appearances. He drifted in and out of games, only occasionally showing off the footwork and finishing that were supposed to be the hallmark of his game.

Was his recent improvement just a purple patch, then, or the beginning of a trend? Only time will tell, though Roma do have reasons to hope it could be the latter. Ljajic displayed a notably improved attitude last season, with reporters in Florence noting that he was consistently among the first to arrive at training and among the last to leave. He worked tirelessly on his free-kicks, and went on to score from them five times over the course of the season.

So effective was, he, indeed, that some analysts have already begun asking who will take free-kicks between Ljajic, Miralem Pjanic and Totti. In reality, of course, the new arrival will need to earn a place in Rudi Garcia’s starting XI before that even becomes an issue. No one would begrudge Ljajic a little celebratory Nutella if he succeeds in that goal.

Ugliness at the San Siro

And I’m not talking about Milan’s third kit which is an affront to common decency. Sulley Muntari was shown a red card in the 41st minute for antics that can only be described as foolish. Muntari was trying to prevent the referee from giving Mario Balotelli a card. Holding the ref’s arm, losing his mind etc. obviously didn’t help things. Balotelli has been the target of racist taunts from Roma fans, chants so glaring the public address announcer has told them to stop or risk having the game suspended. It’s 0-0 at halftime.

Update

The game ended in a draw, but the stench of stupidity remains.


Video via James Dart

If you didn’t think sports is just a live TV show, watch this (HT Devang Desai of Devang Desai Industries).

Number 225. With this goal against Genoa, Francesco Totti joins Gunnar Nordahl as the second all time goal scorer in the history of Serie A. Totti has broken double figures 13 times in 20 seasons, a testament to his consistency. The play that set up the penalty was dubious but that’s how it goes sometimes. Take a bow Francesco.

Totti the best

Clocked at 98 Km/h, this goal is freaking ridiculous. In Totti we trust.