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Jul 26, 2014

Optimism high at reinforced Roma

Roma coach Rudi Garcia says pre-season friendlies are an excellent time to assess the potential of youngsters in the squad

Rudi Garcia remembers it as the day Roma lost three matches in a row. It was April 28, and Juventus were playing Sassuolo at the Mapei Stadium. After falling behind early in a rainstorm reminiscent of that in Perugia in 2000, they fought back, spurred on by coach Antonio Conte to win 3-1. The Juventus coach allowed himself a celebratory knee slide at the final whistle. At that moment Garcia knew the title race was over.

Mathematically it wasn't, of course. "But when you're eight points back with three games remaining, and the leaders play two of them at home [where they wouldn't drop a single point all season] then there was nothing left to play for," Garcia told L'Équipe.

While not an excuse, perhaps that realisation and the way it dawned on his players explains Roma's surprise 4-1 defeat to relegation battlers Catania a week later, a result that threw in both the towel and the Scudetto.

Make no mistake; Roma had been great competitors. As Conte conceded, they had pushed Juventus like no other title rival during his time on the bench. Make that in Serie A history, even. The 17-point gap between them is deceiving. It was so much closer than that makes out.

AS Roma have momentum heading into the new season but is it enough to unseat Juventus?
AS Roma have momentum heading into the new season but is it enough to unseat Juventus?

Roma opened the season with 10 straight wins, a Serie A record, until injuries to Francesco Totti and Gervinho in mid-October slowed their pace. A run of four draws coincided with Juventus responding to their first defeat in Florence since the winter of 1998 with a personal best 12 consecutive victories. The champions caught the upstarts in mid-November and then handed them their first loss of the season at the beginning of the New Year.

Think about that for a moment. Roma led the league until mid-November, going undefeated until January 5 and yet found themselves eight points behind. Remarkable isn't it? They immediately bounced back and also got a little bit of revenge, eliminating Juve from the Coppa Italia -- another indicator that perhaps there wasn't as much between them as the points suggested -- and edging them to the signature of Cagliari midfielder Radja Nainggolan. Both lost to Napoli in the meantime, and the gap stayed the same until Roma's ill-fated trip to Sicily on May 4.

Unable to catch Juventus and at no risk of being caught by Napoli, the season was over for them. They lost their final three games. Juventus, instead, won theirs because in addition to claiming the Scudetto for a third time in a row for the first time in 81 years, they wanted go perfect at home and become the first team in history to break the 100-point barrier. On doing it, Conte said it would be "impossible to improve upon."

So Roma finished up with 26 wins in Serie A, a new milestone for the club. Their points total of 85 was the highest in their history and -- get this -- would have been enough to win the title in five of the last six years. Statistically, Roma had experienced their best season ever and yet ended without a trophy. Was it bittersweet? "Not at all," Garcia told L'Équipe. "The danger would be dwelling on this impression of disappointment."

Rudi Garcia turned Roma around sharply and has the club on a positive track.
Rudi Garcia turned Roma around sharply and has the club on a positive track.

To be clear, Roma's owners and their fans know what disappointment feels like. That's doing almost everything right in the running of the club, investing millions in a number of really good players and then finishing seventh, sixth and losing the Coppa Italia final to your fiercest rivals as they did in the years preceding Garcia's hire. That's disappointment. This, by contrast, was an overwhelmingly positive, restorative season of redemption.

Garcia has claimed with modesty that it really wasn't so hard for him to look good. Roma had already hit rock bottom when he joined. The only way to go was up, although no one expected Roma to go so far so quickly or to post such extraordinary numbers. "We are a little like Cristiano Ronaldo and the Ballon d'Or in the Messi years," Garcia quipped. "But in the end Cristiano won it [again]." The question everyone's asking is: Can Roma be the ones to break the cycle of dominance that Juventus started in 2012?

Many understandably had them down as the main threat to the Old Lady's crown. Now, Roma are even being made favourites. Conte's resignation from Juventus at the beginning of preseason brought to mind an exchange between Dennis "Cutty" Wise and Slim Charles in The Wire. "The game done changed," Cutty says. "The game's the same," Slim replies. "It just got more fierce."

Conte didn't think Juventus could do better in Serie A than it did last season, and the timing of his decision to leave hasn't helped them. Roma also capitalised on the uncertainty it caused by signing Verona's Juan Manuel Iturbe, who had seemed poised to join Juve. The identity of Conte's successor hasn't inspired confidence, either. Massimiliano Allegri's past with Andrea Pirlo seemed to preclude his consideration for the role of Juventus coach. One can therefore imagine the shock at his appointment and the protests that followed on the day of his unveiling. New signing Alvaro Morata's knee injury, which rules him out for the start of the season, was also taken as a portent of doom.

Juventus look weaker as Allegri takes over for Conte, but they can't be counted out yet.
Juventus look weaker as Allegri takes over for Conte, but they can't be counted out yet.

And so, as if last season hadn't already given them enough self-belief and confidence, there's even more to encourage Roma now. They're also reinforcing like no other team in the league, upgrading and adding depth to their squad ahead of a return to the Champions League. Ashley Cole and Seydou Keita are previous winners and bring experience. Salih Ucan, Iturbe and DeAndre Yedlin (the latter yet to be confirmed) are young and talented. Even Urby Emanuelson is useful -- just like his predecessor Rodrigo Taddei, he's a Swiss Army knife of a player. Got a problem position? He'll fill it.

It means Roma now have two players per position. They've spent 42.5 million euros and don't seem to be stopping any time soon. Unlike last year, there's no impression that the club need to recoup their outgoings with a big sale either. There's been a lot of speculation about the future of Mehdi Benatia -- he claims the club promised him a pay rise and that it hasn't been kept -- but after talks this week, the club seem confident of keeping a player who was arguably the best centre-back in Europe last season.

The loan of Davide Astori from Cagliari -- which surely irked rivals Lazio, who thought they had him in the bag -- should be seen as Roma acquiring a stand-in rather than a successor. But if Benatia does push for a move or an indecent proposal is made, at least they've got themselves some insurance.

The signing of Juan Manuel Iturbe, right, from under Juve's nose is further cause for optimism at Roma.
The signing of Juan Manuel Iturbe, right, from under Juve's nose is further cause for optimism at Roma.

However, Garcia made it abundantly clear at the beginning of the summer that he would prefer not to lose any of his best players. He didn't want a repeat of what happened after he won the double at Lille in 2011 when Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, top scorer Moussa Sow and Gervinho were all sold, leaving the team ill-equipped for the Champions League.

Roma's outstanding defence should remain intact as will their midfield, which is undoubtedly one of the best in Europe. Miralem Pjanic has signed a new deal, Daniele De Rossi is as enthusiastic as ever and Kevin Strootman is also well on the road to recovery following a knee injury. Bring in another centre-forward to complement Mattia Destro and Totti, and Roma really do have the look of a squadrone -- a beast of a team.

The case for them to win their first Scudetto since 2001 is compelling, but don't write off Juventus. Conte's legacy is a ferocious winning mentality. Allegri has won a Scudetto before and, in all probability, would have been in Garcia's place had he not decided to stay at Milan a year ago. He was the front-runner for that job. Also, recall the time Juventus last won three in a row: They went on to make it five even though Carlo Carcano, the mastermind behind them, "left" after the fourth.

Roma will also have to approximate what they achieved last season. They know that their opponents will be more familiar with their style of play, too. Back in top European competition, Roma can no longer concentrate solely on the league, and although they have reinforced,how they cope remains to be seen. Totti is also another year older. Can he stay fit and in form?

For all these concerns, optimism is high. The Lupi -- or Wolves as Roma are nicknamed -- can sense vulnerability. They can smell blood. And maybe -- just maybe -- it's their time to be pack leaders again.

James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a European football writer who contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.