Il Tempo (Alessandro Austini) There is belief, and there needs to be like never before. Roma are sat just 1 point behind Juventus, though this should be multiplied by 4 given that the Bianconeri should easily win their game in hand against Crotone on 8th February. Even so, that gap is hardly big enough for fans to stop dreaming. It has been a very open title race so far and will continue to be if Roma and Juventus continue to perform on the pitch, where they have been winning all their home games but dropping a few points on the road. The difference, leaving the match they played against each other to one side, is those wretched draws the Giallorossi got at Cagliari and Empoli – the 4 points they dropped in those games have given Allegri a sense of security. But Spalletti’s hopes remain intact: as well as the recent positive signs he can also look back at recent seasons with interest. If we limit ourselves to the last decade, Roma have never been so close to the top of the table after 21 games, from the 11 point gap in 2006/07 to Mancini’s Inter, when Spalletti himself was in charge and the league was getting used to the after-effects of Calciopoli, to the 12 point deficit to Napoli last season: the club’s lowest point came after their defeat in the Juventus Stadium on matchday 21 but was the prelude to the Giallorossi’s remarkable resurgence back up the Serie A table to make up 10 points on Sarri’s side, who in the meantime had been overtaken by Juventus.
Over the course of the last decade, the best position Roma have been in at this stage of the competition has been to be 6 points behind the league leaders: in 2010/11, before Ranieri was sacked, they were 3rd on 38 points behind Milan (44) and Napoli (40). In Garcia’s first season they picked up 30 points in a perfect start to the season and had reached 50 points by the 21st game, but the problem was Conte’s absurd Juventus side who had already got 56 points and would end up with 102 – a record total that will probably never be beaten. Roma’s current haul of 47 points would have been enough to lead the way in both 2010/11 and 2011/12 as well as last season, and would almost always have been enough to remain in the title race. Only twice in the decade since 2006 have Totti and co. been able to stay in the title race right to the end, once under Spalletti (2007/08) and once under Ranieri (2009/10), both times falling on the final day to the unstoppable Inter. You have to go back 15 years to find Roma in a better situation than the one they’re in now: in 2001/02 the Giallorossi had the scudetto on their shirts and were leading Serie A (which at that time only had 18 teams) on 44 points after 21 games, 1 more than Juventus and Inter. The Bianconeri emerged victorious from that 3-horse race, infuriating the Nerazzurri on that unforgettable day of 5th May, but that’s all in the past now. Now the third horse is Napoli, and on paper they are equally capable of staying in the title race: if they do, it will be one worth watching after 5 years of monotonous Bianconeri processions to the championship. Not that the current season is that much different: it’s likely the title winners will finish with more than 90 points and Allegri’s side are still clear favourites, but it’s forbidden to give up now. Looking beyond the stats, is this Roma side really the most competitive of the last 15 years at this stage? It’s difficult to say, but this current team is strong and are increasingly solid and full of depth.
It’s got to the stage where Spalletti is having to reconsider his thoughts about the transfer window: up until a couple of weeks ago there were calls to sign a forward or a midfielder, but now he almost doesn’t know what to do given that both Salah and Florenzi will soon return. The switch to a 3-4-2-1 has been key to this turnaround: Fazio is the heart of the new, unbeatable defence, which was also transformed by Rudiger’s return, and Vermaelen and Juan Jesus are now both struggling to get game time. When the Egyptian returns, Spalletti will either be forced to leave both Perotti and El Shaarawy on the bench or withdraw one of the 3 midfield generals, who Juventus themselves are jealous of. There’s even a wealth of options on the much-discussed wings: Peres and Florenzi vie for the right wing while Emerson and Mario Rui compete for the spot on the opposite flank. Even so, the club are continuing to negotiate for Sassuolo’s Defrel: if they can obtain favourable terms they will buy him, partly to give themselves the opportunity of occasionally giving Dzeko a rest (who, incidentally, scored his 20th goal of the season against Cagliari – no one in Italy has scored as many as him). The 3 consecutive victories, won by the smallest of margins, and the 2 goals conceded in the last 7 games (8, if you include the 4-0 win in the Coppa Italia against Sampdoria) are the marks of a squad accused by their own coach of lacking the ruthlessness and focus to make the most of all their opportunities finally reaching maturity. But heaven forbid that they relax just at when they are at their peak: next up they have another difficult trip to Marassi to face Samp. It’s a must-win game, if their objective is to overtake Juventus.