Edin Dzeko key to Roma's charm offensive as Serie A begins
When Edin Dzeko landed at Rome's Fiumicino airport to sign for AS Roma a fortnight ago, around 3,000 fans were waiting for him. Their presence brought chaos to an airport that was already at breaking point following two recent fires, but as soon as they caught sight of the former Manchester City striker they let out a huge roar and somewhat optimistic chants of "we're going to win the league."
Dzeko certainly didn't experience such hype and fanfare when he signed for City, but Rome is no ordinary place and Roma is no ordinary club. The delight on the striker's face was there for all to see: finally out of Sergio Aguero's long shadow, he could bask in the Roman sunshine.
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"I expected some people [to be there] but not so many," he beamed to Roma TV last week. "I was amazed by how many people were there."
Two days after that interview, Dzeko rifled home the opening goal of his fledgling Roma career three minutes into last Friday's 6-4 friendly win against Sevilla in Rome. By the end of the first half he'd tapped in his second and set up another for Radja Nainggolan. It looked for all the world that Roma had finally got themselves a proper centre-forward, one who links play together and keeps his head in front of goal, something the club sorely lacked last season.
A win for Roma and another goal-scoring display from Dzeko in Saturday's Serie A season opener at Hellas Verona would not only justify coach Rudi Garcia's claim in Thursday's Corriere dello Sport that they will better their 10-in-a-row start to the 2013-14 season, it would also go some way to exorcising the ghosts of last season's traumatic campaign which saw them finish 17 points off Juve at the top.
Last September, Mattia Destro's outrageous 40-yard half volley sealed a 2-0 home win against Verona, Roma's fifth win from their five opening league games and one that kept them equal on points with Juventus at the top of Serie A.
Hopes of a first Scudetto in over a decade were high and the 5-1 thumping of CSKA Moscow and 1-1 draw at Manchester City in the Champions League suggested they were also ready for the European stage. But by the end of February's scrappy 1-1 draw at the Stadio Bentegodi they were nine points behind Juve and in a dire run of form that would see them win just three league matches in the first three months of 2015.
Destro had been sent on loan to Milan and has since been sold to Bologna; the title all but gone, the Champions League had become a distant, painful memory and qualification for this year's edition remained in doubt until the penultimate week of the season, when Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa's late Rome derby winner finally ended Lazio's charge for second place.
Consecutive second-place finishes were met with relief rather than joy and, despite the huge steps made since Garcia's arrival at the club two years ago, the Stadio Olimpico's demanding crowd had long since replaced cheers with jeers. The fans needed winning over again.
To that end, Roma's director of football Walter Sabatini has been working hard this summer to rejig a misfiring attack: bringing in Mohamed Salah and Iago Falque alongside Dzeko, and reinforcing what was already Serie A's second-strongest defence.
The imminent arrival of left-back Lucas Digne from Paris Saint-Germain and defender Emerson Palmieri from Santos will see Ashley Cole out the door, and Germany international Antonio Rudiger bolsters a central defence that has sold the promising Alessio Romagnoli to AC Milan and Yanga-Mbiwa to Olympique Lyonnais. Meanwhile the return of Leandro Castan after a season out recovering from a brain surgery will be like the proverbial new signing, while Arsenal loanee Wojciech Szczesny looks a safer bet in goal than Morgan De Sanctis.
The midfield, in particular Daniele De Rossi and Dzeko's close friend Miralem Pjanic, tailed off badly in the second half of last season, but there is a still a talented group of players there: one that also includes the underrated Seydou Keita, the combative Radja Nainggolan and Alessandro Florenzi, who with the prospective signing of Torino right-back Bruno Peres could move back into a more attacking role.
Kevin Strootman's return to action has been put back to mid-October, but should he manage to keep his troublesome left knee in check then the middle of the park is secure. It's easy to see why Sabatini concentrated his transfer dealings elsewhere.
A good start is essential, as opinion can turn quickly in Rome. It often only takes a couple of bad results for players previously hailed as heroes to be cast as heartless, uncaring millionaire mercenaries, and goodwill towards the club is already running low in some quarters.
Many fans are not happy with the club's lack of protest over Rome prefect Franco Gabrielli's decision to split the Stadio Olimpico's Curva Sud into two separate sections for reasons of "public safety," while draconian prematch security checks and endless queues before the Sevilla game meant that a huge portion of the 35,000 fans present missed the presentation of the new squad before kickoff.
The game itself was played in near silence thanks to protests from angry supporters -- hardcore ultras and non -- in the Curva Sud, who fear that once Roma finally build their own stadium they will be shoved aside for a more genteel brand of fan.
As long as Roma win, these problems will largely remain the domain of the ultras, but should results continue to be as they were in the second half of last season, there could be a full-on mutiny in the stands. Dzeko's competitive debut could be key to how things turn out, both on and off the pitch.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley