Straight from the dark heart of Italy
They say 'cometh the hour, cometh the man', and for AS Roma, that man has always been Francesco Totti.
Whenever his club has been left wanting, the undisputed King of Rome has stood up and led from the front. But in the run-up to this season-defining moment against Juventus, there were whispers around the capital that his powers were on the wane.
Last Sunday at Sampdoria, when Pablo Osvaldo ignored his captain (and designated penalty taker) before striding up to the spot and tamely missing, it was suggested that Totti was no longer in command.
Caretaker coach Aurelio Andreazzoli, in his first game in charge after taking over from the ousted Zdenek Zeman, was at a loss to explain why Totti had not pulled rank on the upstart, and subsequently faced the wrath of the fans and local media for not supporting their talisman.
The knives were out, and with old enemy Juve the next opponents arriving at the Olimpico, it was left to Totti to issue an appeal for unity; calling on everyone to get behind La Roma – a club that for a Roman through and through, he claimed, was “life itself”.
The impassioned battle cry had the desired effect, as the ferocity of Roma’s approach left the seemingly invincible champions reeling.
Antonio Conte’s complaints that his side would struggle to reproduce another high-intensity showing, following energy-sapping encounters against Fiorentina and Celtic, were borne out.
However, even the combative Conte would have been impressed with the transformation of an opponent his side had swatted away in a humiliating 4-1 defeat earlier this season.
The same players ran out to warm up on Saturday with a newfound spring in their stride. Zeman’s rigorous and rather suffocating approach saw the players put through a routine more akin to a boot camp.
On Saturday the full squad raced straight out to salute the Curva Sud – drawing the sort of response that would have left the hairs on the back of even the hardest-bitten veteran’s neck standing on end.
The gauntlet had been laid down in a manner hardly seen since Luciano Spalletti was in charge, though that is hardly surprising considering that Andreazzoli had been one his assistants. His influence, however, had faded under Claudio Ranieri, Luis Enrique and Zeman.
Dusting off his coaching manual, Andreazzoli went back to basics, building from the foundations of a solid defence, with Ivan Piris, Nicolas Burdisso and Marcos Marquinhos employed as a narrow back three.
Their will was to do nothing more than clear their lines while Marco Marquinho and Vasilis Torosidis – on his full debut – added further security along the flanks to nullify the runs of Stephan Lichsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah.
In a further purging of the recent past, Daniele De Rossi was used as a ‘gatekeeper’ in front of the back three, where he was back to his marauding best, harrying and berating those around him.
With something finally resembling a solid platform, the creative players were given free rein to switch positions. Erik Lamela was a constant threat through the middle while Totti and Osvaldo drifted out wide to be fed by the neat passing of Miralem Pjanic.
The opening quarter was a tide of Juve the home side managed to repel. When the pace dropped, it was the Giallorossi that began to play the better football, though there was still plenty of bite to accompany the guile.
Totti raked his studs along Pirlo’s knee which left a nasty gash (on another day he may have seen red), while De Rossi’s lunge on Lichtsteiner was evidence enough this was a battle in which the Romans were going to give their all.
Grit and determination are all well and good, but it took a moment of rare talent, aligned with raw power, to break the deadlock - and it was Totti who produced it.
His stunning 25-yard strike – the skipper’s 224th Serie A goal - was measured at 113km/hr and unleashed with a fury of pent-up frustrations. Gigi Buffon was left rooted to the spot and for a brief second there was silence, before a sonic boom hit the stadium.
Like everyone in the stands, Juve were left stunned. The visitors stumbled forward only to leave acres of space for Roma to exploit, although they were unable to widen the margin of victory.
However, this was Totti’s evening and in keeping with tradition the star performer was substituted in the final minutes to take the acclaim of his adoring subjects. Despite his regal standing there was only a brief wave to the crowd – but his actions had already demonstrated that the King of Rome is not dead yet.
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