Spezia’s spectre looms over Roma ahead of Coppa Italia clash with Sampdoria

AS Roma Match Program (Tiziano Riccardi) A lot has changed in 400 days. Everything has changed in 400 days. Exactly 400 days ago – no more, no less – it was 16th December, 2015, and Roma were playing Spezia at the Stadio Olimpico in a Coppa Italia Round of 16 game. The game had to be decided on the night, and the winner would reach the quarter finals to play Lega Pro side Alessandria. Spezia were a mid-table Serie B side, so on paper it shouldn’t have been a tough ask. Garcia’s Roma weren’t in the best form, but it was a game they expected to win.

Soccer: Italy Cup, Roma-Spezia

What’s more, they were coming off a 0-0 draw at home against Napoli, which wasn’t a bad result at all given the pre-match predictions that Sarri’s side would run riot. The cup match was scheduled for early afternoon, at 14:30. The crowd was hardly worthy of a big occasion: the attendance was just 7,167, of which around 3,000 were Spezia fans in the Curva Nord. 6,370 tickets were sold, while the other 797 were season ticket holders. The ground was barely 10% full. There were too many empty seats in the stands, and too many empty heads on the pitch.

When the game kicked off, the Giallorossi weren’t able to settle into any sort of rhythm. It wasn’t a question of personnel: the likes of De Sanctis, Maicon, Rudiger, Castan, Pjanic, Dzeko and Salah all started. There was quality on the pitch, but you couldn’t see it. Nor was it the fault of the few youngsters who came into the side, such as Ucan in midfield and Emerson at left back. The Brazilian was actually making his first start for the capital club. There was no sign of Roma scoring as the game went on, and the longer it went on the worse the fans’ mood became. The 90th minute arrived without anything really having happened. Roma hadn’t been able to score.

That wasn’t particularly surprising though, given their form at the time: in the 4 preceding matches, they had only scored once (and that was a very lucky free kick scored by Pjanic against Torino. Extra time came and went, but the score remained 0-0. Penalties. Romanisti were in disbelief. OK, the team weren’t in the best of form, they were struggling to score, but not being able to score at least 1 against Spezia was too much. The lottery of the penalty shootout proved to be ruthless once again. Pjanic and Dzeko both missed their spot kicks, while no one missed their kick for the Ligurian side. The winning penalty was scored by Piersilvio Acampora, born in 1994, and now playing in midfield for Perugia.

The game was over. An unbelievable ending. A nightmare. Some young kids left the stadium in tears, scarves still round their necks. This should have been a game that was “so easy you could bring your mother along”. But no. Di Carlo’s Spezia won it. “It was like David against Goliath”, the stunned Bianconeri coach said afterwards. The defeat sent Roma into crisis mode. Garcia’s job was no longer safe. The club were open to doing anything in order to turn things around. President Pallotta was “disgusted”. The French coach kept his job, but only for around another month. On 14th January, 2016, the former Lille boss was sacked and was replaced by Luciano Spalletti. The cup exit to Spezia was, inevitably, the final curtain on his spell in charge.

It was a homecoming for the Certaldo-born coach though. “I’m here again to finish the job I started many years ago.” Luciano wanted to win. He wanted to win because “I’m fed up with always finishing 2nd”. He took over a Roma team in 5th place and, in a stunning second half of the season (46 points for a total of 80) he led them to 3rd place, 2 points behind Napoli in 2nd place. He would have to negotiate the Champions League play-off round, but that would come after the summer break. First of all, there was the transfer market, signings, sales, and all the usual idle transfer talk. Mid-August finally came around, and his side faced Porto in the play-off. Although it didn’t go to plan, as the Portuguese side won the decisive second leg at the Olimpico, it was a temporary hiccup on an otherwise consistently upward trajectory.

Roma have a lot of talent in their squad and in their coach. “They need more character and determination in order to compete”, Spalletti has repeated on numerous occasions. His players win a lot of games already, but they also draw or lose some costly games (such as the draws at Cagliari and Empoli, and the defeats against Toro in Turin or in Bergamo against Atalanta).

But, overall, they are in a good position. They finished the first half of the season in 2nd place with 41 points, and the second half of the season began with another win to take them to 44 points, 1 behind leaders Juventus (who have a game in hand). In the Europa League, Roma won their group and qualified for the knockout stages. They face Villarreal in the next round, but that’s some way off yet. In the meantime, on 19th January, the Coppa Italia returns. A round of 16 match against Sampdoria. Exactly 400 days after Spezia.

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