The spirit of Roma, of not backing down but resisting and keeping going, is typified by their three midfield players, who were able to neutralise Porto with their strength and tackling. One of them, Daniele De Rossi, prophetically called the game “a battle”. If the target of the Champions League now seems to be within reach, it’s down to the perfect execution of the job done by the captain against Porto – De Rossi himself.
The captain was everywhere: in the box, outside the box, rising in the air and sliding in on the ground. “He cleaned up his area of the pitch without ever breaking the defensive line”, observed Spalletti after the first leg of the tie. De Rossi now looks like a real samurai, with his new long and sharp beard, a look he’s taken on for the start of the season. Flanked by Nainggolan, who is known to everyone as il Ninja, and by Strootman, an indestructible warrior even after those 3 serious and painful injuries to the same knee, De Rossi led the team out of the dangerous Dragao, which burned with passion but was neutralised by the Roman midfield barrier.
The rebirth of De Rossi can be explained by the hard physical work he has put in, by a different focus to his daily training regime, but also in the extraordinary motivation of a son of Rome who is now seeing the realisation of a dream on the horizon: the rank of club captain, as the natural heir to Francesco Totti. Between now and then is the last year of his lucrative contract and the exotic temptations of American life that have started to take shape on him. Nothing has been decided though, and the night in Oporto gave a strong message: De Rossi is still capable of starting for any Italian team at a European level. It’s something worth considering.
De Rossi took 20 days holiday, around half of what nearly all his team-mates took. He willingly gave up his break, after a great European Championships that was cut short because of a back injury sustained just before the quarter final against Germany. “The qualifying round of the Champions League was coming up, a crucial tie, it was right to make myself available”, he said during the pre-season training when, in North America and Trigoria, he and the Roma coaching staff focused on one aim in particular: maintaining the physical and athletic standard that he had reached with the national team.
After so many problems with the soleus muscle in his calf, which has interrupted his last two seasons and put him at serious risk of not being selected by Conte, De Rossi is now back in excellent condition thanks to his work with Paolo Bertelli, the coach who he first came to know and appreciate during Spalletti’s first spell in charge of Roma. A healthy diet, which has allowed him to lose fat mass, and a greater attention than normal to the intensity of training are other factors that led him to become the player so widely admired for his performance in Oporto. “It was Spalletti”, he admits, “who made me realise that I have to work harder at my age”.
He’s never won the scudetto. And that’s why he has stopped talking about it. When he was asked what he thought of the new Roma, about their transfer market activity, about the new season which starts tomorrow, De Rossi replied that he was tired of pre-season bar talk and about winning a game at a time, instead preferring to look at how things stand when it comes to the final stages. He doesn’t look at Roma’s trophy drought, which has lasted since the Coppa Italia won under Spalletti in 2008, as an obsession, but nor does he wear the Roma shirt as an already beaten man.
It’s the pride of now playing as captain virtually all the time, with an almost universal love from the fans, which is spurring him on to make himself available as much as possible this season. “If this were to be my last season with Roma, I want it to be the best”, he said during the pre-season tour in America. And he is applying himself day after day to achieve this, thanks to the calmness of a man who feels accomplished both in his public and his private life. The lucidity with which he played in Oporto, where every inch given to the opposition could result in conceding a decisive goal, is also the result of his coming of age. Those angry gestures of the past, those tense reactions, might not be seen any more.
With some quick movement inside Porto’s penalty area, De Rossi put pressure on Felipe who put the ball into his own net as a result. It’s hard to calculate how much credit should be given to the attacking player when such an own goal is scored, but De Rossi is certainly a player who is greatly feared by opponents and referees, and respected by his team-mates. He has a different character to Totti, more noisy and aggressive but possibly less light hearted, but they’re both points of reference for the team. These positives in his character, as well as the attachment to the shirt that he has shown throughout his career, are why Roma don’t want to lose him.
As a result, they will soon offer him a reasonable solution that will be acceptable to both the player and the club: a renewal of his contract, which currently lasts until next summer, of two more years to take him up to 2018, with a salary of around €4m net over the two seasons. Negotiations have never begun, both parties agreed to postpone the issue, but it’s a topic that will be addressed. It’s no coincidence that De Rossi has suspended all thoughts of migration to the United States while he waits to find out if he can stay at Roma, because “it would be sad for the fans if both Francesco and I left in the same year”.
This article is a translation – the original was written by R. Maida for Il Corriere dello Sport.