AS Roma have gone backwards but all is not lost for Eusebio Di Francesco
A sobering and honest assessment of Roma's misadventures at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night made defeat no less painful for the away support. But it was hard not to find a kernel of truth in the words Monchi uttered while passing through the mixed zone shortly after full-time.
"The best Roma last season would probably have lost tonight as well," he observed, and it's hard to disagree.
Real Madrid have won the Champions League in four of the past five years and for all the curiosity surrounding how they would fare without Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, their recent dominance was not exclusively down to that duo. Luka Modric is expected to clean up the individual awards this season, ending Ronaldo and Messi's decade-long hold on the Ballon d'Or, and as Roma's coach Eusebio Di Francesco noted in his postmatch media conference, there were six Real Madrid players in the team that took Croatia apart 6-0 in the Nations League earlier this month.
Everyone knew when the draw was made that going away to the European champions represented the hardest of Roma's group games. La Gazzetta dello Sport likened it to scaling Mount Everest and in the end, a white storm meant they got nowhere near the summit. Given Di Francesco closely resembled Sherpa Tenzing last year in guiding Roma to the semifinals for the first time since 1984, the disappointment can be explained, at least in part, by raised expectations.
Roma would maybe have lost to the same opponent had they met in the knockouts earlier this year. But the key difference between losing 4-1 at the Camp Nou in April and the 3-0 defeat at the Bernabeu on Wednesday is that Roma left the pitch in Barcelona convinced the result was a lie and that they deserved better. (The same was true, incidentally, after the 3-3 at Stamford Bridge in December.) That performance in Catalonia gave them the confidence needed to pull off the "Romantada" a fortnight later.
Unfortunately, the truth was altogether uglier this time as Madrid were the ones thinking the result failed to tell the whole story.
"Madrid's dominance was absolute in the first half," Emilio Butragueno told reporters in the mixed zone. "We went in at halftime 1-0 up but deserved more goals. We scored three of them and their goalkeeper was their best player."
Robin Olsen -- who has received a disproportionate amount of criticism this season ostensibly for not being Alisson and for making a mistake on a goal Torino had disallowed on Matchday One -- stopped this from being another "Sack of Rome" to match the Bayern and Barcelona humiliations of the Rudi Garcia era, not to mention the 7-1 at Old Trafford in 2007. To me it bore closer resemblance to last year's Champions League opener, the 0-0 with Atleti, which probably would have gone the same way were it not for another exceptional goalkeeping display and poor finishing from Roma's opponents on the night.
The big picture here, though, is that all is not lost. Five group games remain and the next two are at home to Viktoria Plzen and a CSKA Moscow side in transition now that Berezutski brothers, Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksandr Golovin have all moved on. The frustration for captain Daniele De Rossi, though, comes from the fact that he knows Roma are better than this.
"We're a strong team too," he told Sky Italia on Wednesday, "not as strong as [Madrid] but we've got to get a fix on the form we've been showing up until now." Roma are ninth in Serie A and haven't won since the opening day as some of the problems they encountered last season remain.
Excellent at the Olimpico on big European nights, they were beaten six times there in Serie A last term and their home form continues to let them down. Scoring goals didn't come easy in Di Francesco's first campaign and while they're flowing better this season, finding the back of the net still feels like hard work. They can't rely on Edin Dzeko to do his best Marco van Basten impression every week, nor Javier Pastore to back-heel speculative crosses in like the one he scored against Atalanta. Roma create a lot but few of their chances are clear-cut and when they are, the conversion rate is much too low.
New concerns this season include giving their opponents a head start by gifting them the first half. It happened against Atalanta, who were six weeks ahead of them in their physical preparation after coming back early for the Europa League, then against Milan, who had played a game less than them and should perhaps have been rustier than Roma at this stage of the season. Lamentably, it happened again on Wednesday night against a vastly superior Real Madrid.
We can speculate about whether the change of fitness coach is responsible for this dynamic or if it falls on Di Francesco's initial tactical approach, as was the case against Milan, but Monchi seems to think a big part of it is mental, recalling the slump between December and February last season.
Di Francesco meanwhile hinted at a problem of application, saying he decided to give promising teenager Nicolo Zaniolo his debut at the Bernabeu partly as a reward but also to send a message with the intention of making "this group understand that I give opportunities to those who train, as Zaniolo has done, with intensity, desire and quality."
For some, though, it seems that playing a demanding style at full pace is complicated by a long summer spent at the World Cup. Aleksandr Kolarov, a revelation last season and a vital member of the team for his unique playmaker role from the left-back position, looks a shadow of himself. The same can be said of Federico Fazio, and as for Steven Nzonzi, whose tired pass led to Milan's late winner at San Siro, he's hardly had a break since his run to the final with France.
A lot has been made of the wholesale change at Roma in the summer. But it would be wrong to say there is no continuity and Di Francesco is having to start over from scratch. Of the 11 players Monchi brought in, Olsen is the only new signing to have started every game and he will benefit immensely from working with Marco Savorani, the goalkeeping coach responsible for the huge strides made by Wojciech Szczesny and Alisson during their time at the club.
Also, no one was complaining when throwing on Bryan Cristante and, particularly, Justin Kluivert helped Roma win the game against Torino. Aggravating matters are the sales of a world-class player in Alisson, and fan favourites like Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman, who embodied the spirit the club. That led Il Corriere dello Sport's Giancarlo Dotto to sensationally claim Monchi has "emptied" this team of personality and skill, carrying out a "surgical castration." (Yes, that's an actual quote.)
That it was Roma's last chance to get good money for the two midfielders matters little to supporters. The instant impact Strootman has had at Marseille under Garcia rubs salt in the wounds, as does the sight of Gregoire Defrel (who hardly played last year) topping the goalscoring charts in Serie A while on loan at Sampdoria.
Roma fans had hoped that exiting the settlement agreement the club had with UEFA over FFP, and the revenue boost generated by last year's Champions League run, would lead to a shift in the paradigm. But this is football in 2018. Everyone has a price and as club co-owner and chairman James Pallotta points out, Juventus are just as unsentimental about players when the right offer comes in.
It's useless dwelling on the past and Roma need to look forward, claims Di Francesco. Maybe we should avoid rushing to judgement on the business done up until now. It's still early days. Recall, for instance, how Cengiz Under suddenly caught fire in February. The hope is that Cristante and Kluivert will suddenly explode.
It's a different story for Roma's major summer signing. How exactly Javier Pastore fits in a system with no obvious place for a No. 10 remains to be seen. Di Francesco's attempts to integrate him, deploying the Argentine in three different positions while also chopping and changing formations, has caused confusion. Mix it altogether and you can see why the team isn't the cohesive unit it once was.
Roma's pressing game is off too and, as a consequence, only two teams have conceded more shots and have a worse defensive xG (expected goals). Luckily for Roma they're playing Bologna at the weekend, a team that still hasn't scored this season. All in all, another chance to rectify things before the Rome derby appears on the horizon at the end of the month.