Champions League: Luciano Spalletti’s Errors Led To Roma’s Capitulation Against Porto

The first two footballing cases of the new season are at Inter and Roma. But there is one big difference: while Inter’s defeat by Chievo was only the start of their trial, Roma’s crazy defeat by Porto and elimination in the playoff round of the Champions League was an early conviction. If what De Boer has shown in his early days in Italian football raises questions, Spalletti’s work already contains answers, unfortunately for Roma: awfully negative ones. From an economic and sporting point of view, he has already suffered an incredible heavy defeat. To fix it, there is only one possibility: to fight right up until the end of the season (not just until March) for the title.

De Boer has come from Holland, and has everything to learn about Italian football. Spalletti comes from Certaldo, and has always known everything there is to know about calcio. And that’s why what happened over the course of those 180 minutes against Porto – the most important of the season – is surprising, almost inexplicable. We watched the game at the Olimpico with dumbfounded expressions: open mouthed, eyes bulging, disbelieving of what Roma were doing, unable to understand why on earth what was happening was happening. It’s something of a paradox, but the only thing that was normal (which doesn’t mean it was forgivable) was De Rossi’s tackle: if a player who has played so many times for Italy and in Serie A gets himself sent off for the 14th time in his career for a foul like that then you hardly need to ask for an explanation. That’s how he is. If he plays, you know he runs that risk. End of story.

Paredes and Strootman are better than Pjanic. When Spalletti proclaimed his midfield pair to be better than the Bosnian, rather than a true evaluation which we struggle to share (‘oh, but he has managed them, he will know better than anyone else’), he probably did so to increase their self-belief. But then Paredes failed to perform at all and Strootman only appeared in the second half, with the team down to 9 men, when desire was needed more than technique. Maybe the coach was excessive in trying to get his players up for the game. Nor was the preparation for the second leg convincing. On the eve of the game, Spalletti was really trying to motivate his team. “The result from the first leg needs to be forgotten, this is the decisive game. Whoever is afraid of playing in it isn’t worthy of playing for Roma.” All true, all things that can be agreed with, with one caveat: the coach had to be certain that his message would be received in Trigoria in the right way. It was a message for adults. But Paredes, who played excellently last season in the role of regista, soon became one of those players that Spalletti was talking about – someone who was afraid of playing that game. And Emerson Palmieri was even worse when he came on, entering not onto a football pitch but into the ring. They are both players born in 1994, both players making their debuts in the Champions League, and that responsibility crushed them.

Before the Porto-Roma game, Spalletti said that the person who performed best in training would play in goal every time. Needless to say, feeling calm is the most important thing for a goalkeeper. Alisson didn’t play badly against Porto in the first leg, but against Udinese and the second leg against Porto it was Szczesny who played, and he was responsible for Layun’s goal that made it 2-0. And what about De Rossi at centre back. He has played very few times there in a 4-man defence; Prandelli tried it in a friendly against Argentina at the Olimpico and then dropped the idea as the test failed. If he struggled in that position at 30, it can hardly be easier at 33. And he was playing against an attack made up of young, agile, quick and sneaky players, the exact opposite of De Rossi. Some say that Spalletti isn’t confident enough in Fazio yet. That may be, but in Oporto, in those last terrifying 15 minutes, the Argentine came onto the pitch and Roma conceded hardly any more opportunities. True, it was a 3-man defence, but Fazio seemed in good shape. It’s also true that he didn’t play much last season, but that’s irrelevant to Spalletti given that Strootman was out for two and a half years and he has played 3 times in 7 days. In the second leg, rather than play his players in position, Spalletti preferred to try De Rossi in defence, leaving a natural centre back (Fazio) on the bench and play the other (Juan Jesus) on the left.

The game in Oporto changed with Vermaelen’s red card after 40 minutes. Spalletti took off Perotti for Emerson Palmieri, putting Juan Jesus into the centre and maintaining a 4-man defence. The team was set up in a 4-3-2, with Salah playing close to Dzeko and consequently gifting the wings to the Portuguese side. Spalletti’s intentions were laudable, but based on an incorrect evaluation of his team’s ability. He wanted to counter through Salah, but to counter Roma needed the ball and they were never able to get it back off Porto. As a result, Maxi Pereira – the full back who suffered that foul by De Rossi – transformed into the old Dani Alves in the second half: he had all the free space he needed. In the second leg, the coach made the same change after the first red card: Emerson Palmieri on again, this time for Paredes, with Juan Jesus moved into the middle. And Fazio, a centre back, still on the bench. The substitution that was really striking (even if became insignificant with Roma’s subsequent disintegration) was Dzeko being replaced by Iturbe after an hour. Roma had 9 men but the result was still only 0-1 and Perotti, just a moment before, had come close to making it 1-1. What was Iturbe going to do in that situation? The team needed someone who had clear ideas and that isn’t the case with him. At least Dzeko was still fighting.

Teams’ physical preparation is now based on scientific work, club staff collect data that would make NASA’s engineers pale – and that data is kept more secret than NASA’s own. Ultimately though, it’s the match which presents the final result of this work and we can deduce the following from Roma’s first 3 games. The first game in Oporto: 30 minutes with great rhythm, intensity and fluency, 15 minutes where that declined, then a second half in which they really struggled with 10 men. Against Udinese: there was no spark, no pace, everything was played at the same speed – a draining slowness – in the first half. The second half was brilliant, quick and convincing in terms of tempo. The third game against Porto: even before the goal, the team was not only slow but worried, made even more so after Felipe’s goal (but probably this was more mental than physical), and with 9 men in the second half everyone was a bundle of nerves. If, as Spalletti said but is also blatantly obvious, the two Champions League games were the most important of the season then Roma need to approach them in a different way. Both physically and mentally. Legs and head must support each other, but that didn’t happen – both individually (Vermaelen, De Rossi, Emerson Palmieri) and collectively.

And in 3 games, Totti played 0 minutes. It’s not a scandal, nor even was it something unexpected or unpredictable. When he signed his new contract, Totti already knew that he would spend much of his last season on the bench. But that doesn’t prevent an observation: the captain would probably have been useful when the team was down to 9 men and still 0-1 down. In that situation, the game could only have been rescued in one of two ways: either with a miracle or with all 40,000 Romanisti in the stadium having an effect on the pitch and terrorising Porto. And in Rome, only Francesco Totti is capable of inciting that sort of fanaticism. When Iturbe came on instead of the captain, it didn’t seem as though it was a humiliation for the number 10 but rather represented the death of those faint, crazy hopes that Roma were still clinging to. His presence would have re-energised and spurred on his team-mates and unleashed the Olimpico. The message would have been clear: we will take on a challenge that no one has ever taken on before. There are players whose effect goes beyond just the match itself; they are rare, but they exist. Totti is still part of that small category of players. Iturbe, with the greatest respect, is not.

In the two games against Roma, Porto played with these forwards: Andre Silva, 21 years old; Jesus Corona, 23; and Otavio, 21. None of the 3 seemed uncomfortable in terms of temperament or personality. None of the 3, in all likelihood, will ever play for Barcelona or Real Madrid – they are just good forwards. The 3 Porto players played with calmness, but Leandro Paredes and Emerson Palmieri – both 22 years old – played with terror. In the Dragao, Palmieri committed the handball that gave away the penalty from which Porto equalised, while in the second leg he followed his captain De Rossi with a terrible challenge on Jesus Corona. He had come onto the pitch in the 41st minute and was sent off after 5 minutes of the second half. Paredes, on the other hand, was substituted when De Rossi was sent off. He was all over the place in that game. Moving from Empoli’s Castellani to Rome’s Olimpico, from a season of serenity to this tension, was too much. That is nothing to be ashamed of, it can happen at that age and was exactly what happened to Saponara when he went to Milan. The problem was in the mistake in Spalletti’s evaluation: neither he nor Palmieri were ready for that sort of challenge.

This article is a translation – the original was written by Alberto Polverosi for Il Corriere dello Sport.

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