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May 1, 2014

Who's better: this year's Roma or Spalletti's '08 squad?

Rudi Garcia's Roma have proven points-wise that they are the greatest Roma side of all time, at least by that yardstick. But how does 2013-2014 Roma compare to the teams of yore? This post examines a look at one such version of i lupi, which remains fondly in the hearts of recent fans: Luciano Spalletti's 2007-08 side.

- Report: Roma chief has jibe at Conte

There were a few great seasons of free-flowing football under the once-Udinese coach, but 2007-08 remains a special one. Much like this season, the side finished second in the league, but also went on to win the Coppa Italia against Inter to end the season with a trophy and made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, with home and away 2-1 victories over Real Madrid along the way. The following season, the side slumped to a sixth-place finish and went out of the Champions League in heartbreaking style to Arsenal on penalties; the season before was the first after calciopoli and featured the infamous 7-1 Manchester United thrashing, so 2007-08 may have been the calmest and most triumphant of Spalletti's reign.

By Points

The final day of the 2007-08 season ended in heartbreak; a Roma side that battled to whittle Inter's 11 point lead down to a single point before the final match went on to tie that very game against Catania, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice to fire Inter to the title. The side finished the season on 82 points, with 24 wins, 10 draws, and four defeats; good enough to enter into the Champions League group stage directly, but agonizingly three points short of the title.

The 2013-14 Roma have already surpassed that side's point total with three games left to play. On 86 points after 35 games, Garcia's men are two wins higher, three draws fewer, and stand with half as many losses. Unless the side lose all three remaining matches, they will certainly have bettered Spalletti's point tally, needed just one more goal scored to equal the tally from six years ago and already having conceded sixteen goals fewer.

By Team

On paper, the current side may be the better team, and are almost certainly playing in a league that is stronger now than it was just a year or two following the scandal. If the two sides were to meet, however, which would win? Current Roma. Player by player, however, is a totally different story.

Goalkeeper

One of the easiest matchups between the two: Alexander Doni was a great servant for his time, capable of some fantastic saves but also of harrowing mistakes (like letting in a last minute equalizer from a Sebastian Giovinco free-kick that November against Empoli). Morgan De Sanctis is older and also capable of the odd howler, but has been surprisingly solid for Roma this season and had a string of marvelous saves against Udinese this season to keep the side from losing.

Winner: De Sanctis, who laces up with gloves not slimed with butter.

Defense

For a team that was never really known for defensive prowess, the 2007-08 Roma had some of the league's finest defenders six years ago. Juan and Phillippe Mexes formed a very solid partnership in the heart of Roma's backline; the former almost always cool and composed, the latter full of passion that defines Romanisti but also prone to bookings. The fullbacks were more diverse, with Christian Panucci, Max Tonetto and Marco Cassetti all featuring in over 30 appearances over the course of the season. The latter duo were stalwarts under Spalletti despite advancing in age, and the former very much a loyal utility man until a falling-out with the coach over playing in the Arsenal tie the following season.

Current-day Roma hardly needs an introduction; the ever-underrated Leandro Castan, who may rush into tackles too quickly but matured into a leader this season; the revived Douglas Maicon, back from England and close to his attacking best; the revolving fullback door of Federico Balzaretti/Dodo/Vasilis Torosidis, all filling in as required; and finally, candidate for player of the season, Mehdi Benatia. As a unit, they seem equally cohesive as the side was six years ago, with far fewer lapses and having conceded slightly more than half of the old Roma's goals.

Winners: Benatia is a shoe-in, but after here it gets tricky. Juan gets in slightly over Castan due to his maturity, Maicon over Cassetti because of his offensive output, and Tonetto over the other left-backs just due to his ability to nail down a starting spot consistently. Overall, a draw on a player-by-player basis, though on depth, cohesion, and mentality, modern day Roma wins in a landslide.

Midfield

This is truly where the match-up gets difficult, for both sides can argue that they had one of the greatest midfields in the league in the time that they played. Each side played differently, though, with the wingers in Spalletti's team arguably more like midfielders than the wide forward of Garcia’s side, but this may just be splitting hairs.

David Pizarro, Rodrigo Taddei, Daniele De Rossi, Simone Perrotta, and Amantino Mancini each managed 25 or more league appearances, and the result was often breathtaking. Spalletti's style of football emphasized quick touches and deft exchanges, nearly all of which began with one of the finest anchoring duos in Roma's history: De Rossi and Pizarro.

The yin and the yang, the style and the substance; the former one of the greatest defensive midfielders of his time, drawing eyes from the Premier League as his withdrawn role shielded the defense and set up attacks. The latter was a truly fantastic regista who rarely, if ever, seemed to lose the ball and was capable of quickly releasing passes to push the side forward. Together, they formed the base of a 4-2-3-1. Taddei and Mancini added width and pace, both of whom were effective in their day, though the number 30 was an exceptional dribbler who often required large doses of motivation. Perrotta's finishing was his worst asset of his game, but his willingness to hound opposition his best, and his free-flowing movement would often allow the strikers -- Francesco Totti or Mirko Vucinic -- to drop deeper and give opposition center-backs no real reference points.

This season's Roma operates differently; De Rossi is still there, with Miralem Pjanic as a regista of sorts, but the width is supplied by wingers who often push further forward. In Garcia’s midfield, the balance of De Rossi's defensive nature and Pjanic's passing is supplied by either Radja Nainggolan or Kevin Strootman, both of whom are hard runners with the gift of finishing and supplying deadly assists. Taddei, much like De Rossi is still around, and though both are having very good seasons, perhaps neither are quite at the level they were during the Spalletti years.

Spalletti's side was split into a midfield of a band of two and then a band of three, with De Rossi dropping deep and the wide players supporting the attack as needed. Garcia's midfield is almost always a three-man one, though on occasion he has shifted to a diamond due to injuries and suspensions.

Winners: For a three-man midfield, Spalletti De Rossi, Garcia Strootman, and a tie between Pizarro and Pjanic -- the two creative hubs both fantastic depending on the system of play, with perhaps neither being as good if placed in the other's team and time. For a Spalletti-esque 4-2-3-1, current-day Roma with may fare even better.

The Attack

Garcia's Roma is deeper in the front as Spalletti's was. Spalletti relied nearly entirely on Totti and Mirko Vucinic as forwards, with the former notching 14 goals in 24 appearances in the league and the latter nine in the same amount. The former has a wealth of options up front, though many of these are analogues for Spalletti's wide midfielders; Alessandro Florenzi and Gervinho stretch fullbacks and defenses, and Mattia Destro is more of a prima-punta than Vucinic was, though more consistent in fewer matches. Adem Ljajic adds to the depth, even if he's only found his sea-legs as the season is drawing to a close. And of course, there is the ever-present captain, whose 10 assists and seven goals this season in just 23 appearances may demonstrate that the aging veteran is just as productive six years after he turned 31.

The attack works entirely differently in both systems, however; for Spalletti, nearly every attack was truly a team effort since the wide players were further back and the forward would drop deep. Garcia's men help out in defense but arguably work vertically more quickly, with Gervinho often kept at the offside line to lead the charge in counter-attacks. The stepovers and flair may not be as abundant in this modern age of Roma, but the preciseness and beautiful football often remains, albeit in a different form.

Winners: Modern Roma. Big Game Mirko, as he was fondly known, had a habit of missing goals against the smaller sides -- a knack that does not seem to plague Destro or Gervinho. Past Totti was a step quicker than current Totti but the captain truly seemed like a man reborn after Zdenek Zeman: either incarnation is a fantastic, yet slightly different version of a man who brought Roma much joy.