Daniele De Rossi finally showing he's mature enough to take Roma forward
Not so long ago, Daniele De Rossi's Roma career looked to be coming to an end. The 33-year-old, who has spent his entire footballing life in giallorosso, was eyeing offers from the United States as his big contract edged towards its close. A disastrous start to the season, compounded by his disgraceful red card in August's Champions League playoff against Porto, only hastened talk of his departure in the summer. Now, with Thursday night's Europa League clash at Villarreal and a new contract on the horizon, the born-and-bred Roman is looking to lead his hometown team to European redemption.
De Rossi was stripped of the captain's armband for three league games following his outrageous "tackle" on Maxi Pereira 39 minutes into the second leg of the Porto tie at the Stadio Olimpico, with Roma only 2-1 down on aggregate. Since then the Italian has kept his head down and the results are clear for all to see: this season has been easily his best since bagging a net annual salary of €6.5 million in 2012 (the highest in Serie A until Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus) and thanks to Luciano Spalletti, he's once again become key to an impressive Roma side, just as he did as a maturing youngster during the Tuscan's first spell in charge a decade ago.
With Francesco Totti set to retire at the end of the year, De Rossi might finally make the transition from capitano future to captain, not just wearing the armband because an ageing Totti has finally and definitively been relegated to the bench, but because he is the team's figurehead.
De Rossi's two superb assists in the 4-0 slapping of Fiorentina -- one a millimetre-perfect pass for top scorer Edin Dzeko, the other a fizzing set-piece dispatched by Federico Fazio -- and a wonderful pass that set Kevin Strootman away to pick out Radja Nainggolan for Roma's swooping counter-attack third, capped a leader's display and were testament to his rebirth.
On Thursday, De Rossi comes up against a pretender to a place in the Italy midfield. Roberto Soriano, alongside his countryman Nicola Sansone (both are German-born with parents from the southern Italian Campania region), has helped push Villarreal to sixth in La Liga despite the Yellow Submarine having sacked manager Marcelino García Toral and losing star striker Roberto Soldado to a long-term knee injury at the start of the season. The 31-year-old Soldado was given the all-clear on Wednesday to resume training but it will be Sansone bumping up against Fazio, Antonio Rudiger and Kostas Manolas, as well as Soriano against De Rossi in the centre of the park.
"For us as Italians, this match has a special flavour," said Soriano in an interview with the Corriere Dello Sport. "It needed a bit of time, but both we and Roma are going in the right direction. Roma are doing even better than we are."
This will be a different Roma team to the one that topped a weak Group E by four points, a side that was still on an uncertain defensive footing at the time. Seven goals conceded in six matches against paltry opposition, including five against bottom club Austria Vienna, weren't enough to dispel the fears that Roma aren't up to European competition; such worries aren't just driven by the meltdown against Porto but a series of embarrassments inflicted by the continent's big guns.
However since their last group match, a 0-0 draw with Astra Giurgiu in the Italian capital, Roma have kept seven clean sheets in 11 matches across domestic competitions, and before that match shut out Lazio in a hard-fought Rome derby victory. Spalletti's 3-4-2-1 formation has made his team infinitely more solid and after a dry patch, the goals are coming back too: they've managed 18 in nine matches since Juventus ended their Serie A title hopes in December.
Alongside Strootman and in front of Fazio, De Rossi has been the sturdy backbone that has turned Roma from a flamboyant, often disjointed but goal-hungry set of bottlers to a compact outfit that attacks and defends as a team. That structure will be crucial in the coming weeks, when Roma have to take on Villarreal twice and face Inter, Lazio (in the semifinals of the Coppa Italia) and Napoli in the space of seven days, with Torino at the Olimpico on Sunday thrown in for good measure.
While the Scudetto is beyond Roma, they are still in two cup competitions and despite the strong fields left in both, they must be confident of going deep in the Europa League and finally doing something that has eluded both their American owners and their rejuvenated future captain: making their mark beyond the Alps.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley