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Nov 5, 2008

Roma's 'heart' returns against Chelsea

Come back, Spalletti, all is forgiven. Er, actually, Luciano Spalletti, Roma's coach since 2005, never went away in the first place, but perhaps he wished he had, after the Giallorossi's awful start of the season. Some unimpressive performances early on brought about a chain reaction of events and, more to the point, controversies, that threatened to dissolve all the good work the wiry, perennially tanned Tuscan has done in the capital.

Two points off the bottom in the Serie A with a relegation six-pointer coming up at Bologna on Saturday evening, Roma have had to reinvent themselves from Inter's main challengers for the title. Now they are a non-entity which has had to split its time between the glamour of Champions League nights and the plodding weariness of a domestic season where their main goal, winning a Scudetto, already seems to have evaporated.

Indeed, the contrast between expectations (high as always for a team of Roma's stature) and the harsh reality, had created seismic fractures inside the Giallorossi camp and between the team and the fans, which burned as passionate and hot tempered as ever.

It might be argued that because of the volatility of its environment and structure Roma, more than most of their rivals, must always keep their head above water, because as soon as they start going under they gasp for air, panicking and thrashing about wildly. The first couple of months of the current season have done nothing to disprove this theory.

The death, last August, of avuncular owner Franco Sensi, whose family is linked forever to the history of the club - his father had built Roma's historic first ground, the Testaccio - had put a sad note on the campaign. Not least because the Sensi family - daughter Rosella is Roma's CEO - has long been under pressure to sustain its involvement with the club while at the same time trying to reduce its huge debt and, still, strengthen the side.

An impossible proposition, made even worse by the fact fans expect Roma to challenge for the title every year, and after the club was heavily in the red last year, too.

A couple of upgrades to the side would have meant a stronger challenge this time, but economical restrictions meant Roma had to let Amantino Mancini go while reinforcements were brought in on the cheap: John Arne Riise, French winger Jérémy Menez and former Siena central defender Simone Loria, with another late addition in Brazilian Julio Baptista. None of them has impressed, and it is perhaps no coincidence that all were dropped for Roma's surprising 3-1 win over Chelsea on Tuesday on the bench.

Worse yet, Francesco Totti, the iconic captain and best expression of Roman spirit, has struggled to recover from yet another injury, this time to his knee, and his medical situation has also contributed to the trouble Spalletti has had in finding the right balance to the side. As long as Totti can stand on two feet and kick a ball, he's almost guaranteed a place in the starting XI, but there are some who believe the declining health of the 32-year old means he's not going to be a fixture anymore so Roma should move on and start planning without him.

It has been long known, anyway, that Totti's position as an unorthodox centre-forward in Spalletti's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation bars the entrance to a big, strong centre-forward which could help the side when it has to abandon its free-flowing football and start sending in crosses or long balls, which has been the case this year in the many matches when Roma have fallen behind.

In fact, a criticism of the side even when they were at their best was that they apparently had no change of pace, and their free-flowing football was monotonously brilliant but unable to achieve results once opposing sides went ahead, as they sat back with ten men behind the ball and challenged Roma to out-muscle them. To their credit the Giallorossi did many times, but the sense of vulnerability - famously apparent at Old Trafford in that 7-1 trashing eighteen months ago - remained.

Not that formations, or tactics, are foremost in the minds of disappointed fans. All that matters to the fans is heart.

An interesting pattern seems to go across all sets of fans subjected to the sight of a team failing to deliver: the belief that disappointing results are not, as sometimes is obvious to the eye, the product of missing skills or disjointed tactics, but of lack of effort.

One banner at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday asked players to show "heart, guts and sweat", which were apparently the only roads leading back to what was identified as "honour", and may well be translated more accurately as "pride".

The same exact ingredient that Roma players, according to a large portion of the fans, seem to be missing at the moment. Five defeats in a row before Tuesday's win, which revived the Giallorossi's European hopes and might have saved their season, saw reality fastidiously creep back into the dreams of a title challenge.

Among the worse habits of the 2008/09 Roma, if you listen to fans, is the aforementioned lack of effort. The kind of behaviour that all of a sudden seems to remind paying spectators that players are not selfless athletes giving 110% and kissing the badge out of deep, eternal love, but "mercenaries letting down people who pay hard-earned money to watch them".

Hence, the tired, customary scenes of Southern European incivility: mobs outside airport terminals waiting for the team to return from yet another disappointing away match - in this case, the awful 2-0 defeat to Juventus last Saturday - and yet more mobs turning up at the training ground the next day with threatening banners and an urgent request, again, to show more heart.

True to form, it took team leaders like Totti to part the red (and yellow) sea of brooding fans with a few words of wisdom and self-confidence, but the truth was another loss on Tuesday and the prospect of that difficult match at Bologna, who have just installed Sinisa Mihajlovic, mysteriously, as their new coach, would have led to even worse times at Roma.

Whether that would have meant Spalletti would go, no one can say. Rosella Sensi has always maintained Spalletti's position was safe, but we all know how temporary even the strongest words of encouragement can be. Before tracking back on his thoughts, the coach had indeed voiced his disappointment at the fact his children did not feel at ease leaving their home and going to school in the morning, yet another example of how horrible things turn in pressure-packed, football-obsessed places like Rome.

Spalletti may have overstayed his welcome in the city, where he was greeted by fans eager to put the disappointment of Fabio Capello's move to Juventus behind them - a few months after he'd delighted Roma supporters by stating he did not like the Turin club's way of conducting business. But the Tuscan manager has not renounced his right to go about his business in the way he deems best, and in fact there was more than a hint of his old self in the press conference after the win over Chelsea.

In an oblique but clear criticism of his side's fans - and beat writers, trust me - after Tuesday's win Spalletti did not mention Mirko Vucinic's brilliantly taken goals or Totti's couple of deft touches as keys to the victory, but the tireless running of Matteo Brighi and Simone Perrotta at the sides of a midfield diamond in a newly-unveiled, and surprising, 4-3-1-2.

With little width anyway since Rodrigo Taddei and Menez hit a bad patch of form, Roma were forced to use Brighi and Perrotta to cover a wider area, helping out the indefatigable Christian Panucci and Cicinho against the threat posed by Jose Bosingwa and Wayne Bridge.

And while Frank Lampard and Deco were left free to exploit space right in front of the defence during a difficult start for the home side, when Daniele De Rossi - rumoured by some to be at odds with Spalletti, though both deny this vehemently - ran himself into the ground as usual but could not cover adequately when Chelsea attacked in numbers. Chelsea could not score a crucial first goal and let the home side back into the game, conceding a soft goal which turned the contest.

It may be too early to say Roma are back, and in fact there may be a hint of a "too good to go down" syndrome in their domestic performances, but, yes, heart, guts and sweat were shown, and Spalletti's children may now leave their home this week without looking over their shoulders.

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