Edin Dzeko's two goals vs. Chelsea emblematic of career revival
Wednesday night will live long in the memory of the Romanisti who made it to Stamford Bridge. Used to their team collapsing in the face of adversity, they watched Roma battle back from two goals down to the Premier League champions Chelsea, a team managed by hated Juventino Antonio Conte, and come just a whisker away from leaving London with what would have been a huge -- and fully deserved -- three points.
They saw their team, so often a joke on Europe's biggest stage, and their main man Edin Dzeko, once the laughingstock of Serie A, show that they can do battle with the continent's top teams on their own turf, and on their own terms. The Giallorossi might not have won, but for success-starved Roma fans, the team's thrilling 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge has the sweet smell of victory.
"It was a fantastic night," said Dzeko while he was still fighting off his teammates and coaching staff. "We're not happy about the goals we conceded, as we could have won the game, but a point is OK."
A point is more than OK given Atletico Madrid's disastrous goalless draw with Qarabag in Baku, which leaves the Spaniards three points behind Roma after three matches. Going two down after 37 minutes -- Chelsea's second the result of typically sloppy play from right-back Bruno Peres -- brought fears of another European humiliation along the lines of that 7-1 debacle at Manchester United. Instead Roma find themselves in control of their Champions League destiny.
At the very worst, Roma will go into matchday five level on five points with Atleti, when they host Qarabag and Diego Simeone's side travel to London.
For Dzeko, meanwhile, this was a personal victory: His two goals weren't just his first against Chelsea (the 90th club he's scored against) but also his first brace in the Champions League, and the way he took them both is symbolic of a career revival that has been percolating for a year and a half.
Rome-based sports daily the Corriere Dello Sport proclaimed the striker "King Dzeko," while the Gazzetta Dello Sport heaped praise on "Big Edin" for marking his 100th Roma appearance with his best goal and his best performance. Ten goals in as many games in all competitions has taken Dzeko's Roma tally to 59, an incredible number given that he scored just 10 of those in the 39 appearances he made in 2015-16.
Footage of Dzeko's special volley has already swept the web in the same manner he crashed the ball past Thibaut Courtois, but his second, which put Roma 3-2 up, was perhaps more emblematic of the way he's grown since his disastrous first year in Rome. One of the key criticisms of Dzeko, even while he bagged 39 last season, was that he doesn't move enough in the area, that he isn't hungry for goals like a true poacher. The way he hustled and slipped Chelsea's marking before glancing Aleksandar Kolarov's whipped cross across Courtois would have made Didier Drogba proud.
Dzeko's early-season numbers mask a change of mentality, a new harmony with coach Eusebio Di Francesco's 4-3-3 system that hasn't just involved the striker, but the whole team. After Roma's goalless draw with Atleti in Rome, a result that was down entirely to the away side's sloppy finishing, Dzeko had public words about how the new formation was more difficult for him to play in, and how he missed having Mohamed Salah by his side. He wasn't the only one struggling -- at times Roma as a whole have looked uncomfortable and stilted in the coach's set-up.
Di Francesco quickly shut that talk down however, and since then his team have inched toward a settled playing style. Meanwhile his centre-forward has looked a new player, even better than the one that won the Serie A Capocannoniere title last season. Nine of Dzeko's 10 goals have come in the seven games after that draw with Atleti, and in that period he's also hit the woodwork three times and been denied tap-ins by flailing defenders turning the ball into their own net.
He could have had more goals on Wednesday too. As well as coming out brilliantly to stop Radja Nainggolan equalising just before Eden Hazard doubled Chelsea's lead, Courtois also stretched his leg out just far enough to divert Kolarov's low cross away from Dzeko, denying him what would have been a less spectacular, close-range equaliser and a potential hat-trick.
"More than the goals, I really liked the work Edin did for his teammates," said Di Francesco after the match. "I already knew that he was a devastating striker."
That work rate and above all belief could be seen throughout the team, and despite the individual errors -- from players who wouldn't be in the starting lineup if it weren't for injuries -- that cost Roma the win they deserved, Roma looked like a team that knew both its job and how to do it. They came out on the front foot and dominated a team with a much stronger recent European pedigree, coached by a man with four league titles in two different countries under his belt.
Juventus might have been the only one of the three Italian teams in the competition to win this week, but they were truly mediocre at Allianz Stadium, while the much-vaunted Napoli were almost blown away by Manchester City before steadying themselves and nearly coming away from the Etihad with a point. Neither dominated their opponents like Roma did theirs, and to do so at a team like Chelsea bodes very well for the rest of the group stage.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley