The "Wolf" Trader of AS Roma
Walter Sabatini is one hell of a trader.
In recognition of this, Roma supporters did some Photoshopping over the summer. They made a few adjustments to the poster advertising Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." On it, Leonardo DiCaprio was no longer playing Jordan Belfort. Standing in his place is their director of sport Sabatini, smiling like the cat who got the cream. Business has been good, very good, particularly in the acquisitions department for the man now known as Il Lupo di Trigoria -- The Wolf of (Roma's training ground).
An audacious derring-do has characterised the way Sabatini has gone about his work in the transfer market this summer. There has been some real showmanship. More than once Italian football has gasped as if to say, "OMG, I can't believe Roma just did that!" in reaction to Sabatini's exploits during the offseason. Take the most expensive transfer of the window so far in Italy, that of Verona winger Juan Manuel Iturbe, for instance.
At 22 million euros, he became the fourth biggest purchase in Roma's history after Gabriel Batistuta, Antonio Cassano and Vincenzo Montella -- a real statement signing. For weeks, though, the Paraguayan-born Argentine, one of the many "New Messis," had seemed on the brink of joining champions Juventus. La Stampa revealed flights had even been booked to take the player from Frankfurt to Turin on the afternoon of July 16. So what happened?
Well, the day before Iturbe was due to travel, Juventus coach Antonio Conte unexpectedly resigned. The club was thrown into a state of emergency. Preseason had already started and a successor needed to be found quickly. Opportunistic as ever, Sabatini capitalised. A fee was sorted with Verona. The player and his agent flew to Rome and terms were agreed to with them. The deal was done in the 36 hours that Juventus had been sidetracked and left in shock.
To take advantage was pure coup du théâtre. As if losing Conte, "the emblem of our renaissance" as Juventus captain Gigi Buffon put it, wasn't enough, for Roma to get one of the players their rivals dearly wanted ahead of them was quite the snook to cock. That it wasn't the only display of bravado from Sabatini this July only added to the enthusiasm around the club. Lazio were a victim of it, too.
They had been in negotiations with Cagliari for centre-back Davide Astori since the end of last season. Owner Claudio Lotito was living up to his nickname as Lo-tirchio. Tirchio, for the uninitiated, means "Tight." Unprepared to pay the extra couple of hundred grand needed to meet the player's 7 million euros asking price, he figured that in the end their valuation would come down. Exasperated by it all, Cagliari broke off talks and signed Astori to a "new contract." That seemed to be that then. If he wasn't going to Lazio, he'd be staying in Sardinia another year.
Except out of nowhere Sabatini bid exactly what Cagliari had been after all along and the player was on his way to Roma. Without even kicking a ball Lazio had "lost" the first Rome derby of the season. Five hundred disgruntled fans of theirs hung outside the team hotel in Auronzo di Cadore demanding answers that night. Il Messaggero called it a "humiliation."
Once director of sport at Lazio, a past that Roma supporters frequently reminded him of when results were poor -- Sabatini had to endure banners like "we only want Romanisti (Real Roma supporters) at Trigoria" and being called "Laziale (Lazio fan)" -- this exploit went down particularly well. With the additions of Iturbe and Astori, the impression left was of Roma not only strengthening but also delivering a psychological blow by getting one over a fellow contender for the title and their cugini or cousins.
That has given an extra lustre to an already excellent transfer window. Roma's squad was more than decent last season. It has since got better. They now have two players in most positions. A lot of good has been done for free, too. In Ashley Cole, Roma are looking to repeat the same trick they performed with Maicon a year ago: that is signing a world-class full-back who is getting on but not yet past it and has another couple of good campaigns in him. Seydou Keita is another ex-Champions League winner who adds to the squad's experience ahead of their return to that competition.
Together with fellow new arrival, the Fenerbahçe talent Salih Uçan and January signing Radja Nainggolan, Roma now have a midfield to shadow their first-choice one comprising Miralem Pjanic -- who signed a new contract before the World Cup -- Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi. Another freebie, the versatile Urby Emanuelson, has been brought in to fill problem positions as Rodrigo Taddei did in the past. Then consider the competition further forward: Adem Ljajic is competing with Gervinho for a place out wide on the left and Alessandro Florenzi for one with Iturbe on the right. At centre-forward (or False 9) Francesco Totti is backed up by Mattia Destro. Framed like that, you begin to see what a formidable proposition Roma represent. They haven't lost anyone significant so far, either.
However, this week there has been more speculation about the future of star centre-back Mehdi Benatia. Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport at the end of last season he claimed: "Before signing for them, Roma said to me: 'Bena, we know you deserve more and you have refused a lot of money. Come, show that you're worth it at Roma and if we get into the Champions League or win the Scudetto we'll give you a good contract.' But an unacceptable offer was made. I've heard it said I asked for 4 million euros a year. I didn't even ask for 3 million euros."
President James Pallotta held talks with Benatia during Roma's preseason tour of the U.S. Coach Rudi Garcia has insisted he doesn't want to be deprived of any of his best players. Teammates have told Benatia to stay. He has also reassured fans: "I'm staying. Sure I'm staying." Roma are under no obligation to sell. As Garcia reminded everyone, Benatia is under contract until 2018.
The club can also point interested parties to the market for a top-class centre-back these days: if David Luiz cost PSG 49.5 million euros and Porto received 30.5 million euros from Man City for their 57.7 percent stake in Eliaquim Mangala then what's Benatia, arguably the best in Europe last season, really worth?
Were they to sell -- and Pallotta insists the player never has been on the market -- Astori would go from stand-in to successor with Kostas Manolas and Eder Alvarez Balanta also linked with the club in recent weeks. As alluded to above, Roma would also be handsomely remunerated. Sabatini all but guarantees this.
He bought Aleksandr Kolarov and Stephan Lichtsteiner for a combined 1.7 million euros at Lazio. They were later sold for 28 million euros. He bought Javier Pastore and Simon Kjaer for 9 million euros at Palermo. They were then sold for 55.5M euros. At Roma, he bought Marquinhos and Erik Lamela for 22.7 million euros and sold them for 61.4 million euros.
Even if Plans B and C exist -- contingency strategies are a must -- Plan A remains keeping hold of Benatia. With him and the rest, this squad is equipped to repeat what they did in Serie A last season -- a points total that would have been enough to win the Scudetto in five of the past six years -- and to do the club proud in the Champions League.
Roma go into this campaign as close to the status of favourites as they have been since 2001-02 when they were last the holders. Even in the Luciano Spalletti and Claudio Ranieri years, it bears remembering they were always romantic outsiders for the title and never tipped ahead of Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho's Inter.
How they cope with that expectation and added pressure remains to be seen. It looks like a boom year, not a bust. Roma don't seem to have had it this good in a long time. The Barbarians aren't at the gate. The Wolf is at the door.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.