Can AS Roma's players, manager react to their biggest wake-up call yet?
Daniele De Rossi's verdict of Wednesday night's 3-0 cuffing at the hands of Real Madrid made tough listening for Romanisti. The Roma captain spoke of being "demoralised" at having to chase the ball all night, as Luka Modric & Co. casually strutted about the Santiago Bernabeu and batted around his side like a bored cat with a ball of wool but instead of anger, he seemed resigned.
"In the past we've been given bigger slaps."
This is their level, it seems: a red and yellow carpet for Europe's top attacking talent or, put another way, big stage cannon fodder. The 3-0 defeat was Roma's fifth straight loss away from home in the Champions League and in their last three European matches on the road (at Barcelona, Liverpool and now Madrid) they have conceded 12 times. Without Robin Olsen putting in his best display since arriving in the summer, the score would have been much closer to the famous batterings handed down by the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
Madrid pumped in 30 shots at goal on Wednesday, 15 of which were taken in the penalty area, and the Swedish stopper made at least six excellent saves to stop the hosts running up a more embarrassing total.
The first came after just nine minutes when Casemiro strolled past Roma's ball-watching midfield and found himself totally unmarked and just yards out; that was preceded five minutes earlier by Gareth Bale simply walking in a straight line to pick up a long pass only to somehow smash his shot wide. Roma didn't heed the two let-offs in the first 10 minutes and continued to let the European champions do arrive with dizzying ease in their area, giving Olsen the perfect chance to perfect his shot-stopping technique.
The verdict handed down by the Italian media was even more emphatic than De Rossi's. Rome-based daily Corriere Dello Sport took aim at sporting director Monchi for the "howlers and blunders" he's had since arriving in the Spring of 2017 -- in particular the sales of Radja Nainggolan (to Inter), Kevin Strootman (to Marseille) and Alisson (to Liverpool) that "have emptied Roma."
Now, of all the big-name sales Roma have made over the past few seasons, Strootman's was possibly the most understandable even if his Rome Derby exploits meant he occupied a special place in the hearts of many Roma fans. The Dutchman was never the same player after coming back from his ACL tear and managing to sell him on at a profit to Marseille (thanks, Rudi Garcia!) was all-in-all a decent move taken in isolation. However his sale is part of a broader transfer strategy that runs the risk of weakening the team in the name of saving the balance sheet, and the loss of Nainggolan and Alisson (leaving aside Olsen's performance on Wednesday) added the recent sales of players like Antonio Rudiger, Miralem Pjanic and Mohamed Salah have left Roma time and again trying to replace proven quality with calculated gambles.
These constant rebuilds have kept Roma afloat -- the club's finances are far from rosy despite last season's Champions League run and the constant trips to the player pawn shop -- but should Roma carry on like this not only will their revenue from European competition drop significantly in the very short-term, but they'll risk having none at all next season.
On Wednesday, coach Eusebio Di Francesco decided to one of the players who arrived as part of the deal that took Nainggolan north to Inter his first Roma start. Nicolo Zianolo is 19 years old and has never even played a Serie A match before; yet there he was, making his professional debut against Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro while more established midfielders Lorenzo Pellegrini and Bryan Cristante watched their fledgling teammate get cut to ribbons. Meanwhile, another 19-year-old, the exciting winger Justin Kluivert, wasn't even on the bench.
Kluivert was bought in from Ajax in a deal worth nearly €19 million. He has over 50 league appearances under his belt and wowed fans in Amsterdam last season with his skill and eye for goal from the flank. On Wednesday, he was left in the stands in place of an unfit Diego Perotti, who made little impact when he replaced the equally ineffective Stephan El Shaarawy.
Di Francesco said that starting Zianolo was a "message to the others" -- a reference to underwhelming efforts from both Cristante and Pellegrini in Sunday's frustrating draw with lowly Chievo -- but Romas'matt attack and defence have been the main issue so far this season and Kluivert has surely done enough in his three substitute appearances to merit inclusion, if nothing else as a message to his misfiring attacking teammates.
If last year's run to the semifinals was a dream for the Eternal City, the club's best display on the continent since losing the European Cup final at home, Wednesday night was brutal wake-up call. It's time "That Night Against Barcelona" is consigned to the past, because it doesn't represent Roma's current reality.