By Aditja Bajaj
In his aptly titled autobiography, ‘I think therefore I play’, Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo reveals how Franco Baldini tried to sign him for Roma back in the summer of 2011 when his contract with AC Milan had run dry. The midfielder, however, wasn’t exactly sure of the project that was taking shape at the Stadio Olimpico under the new American regime that had just taken over and eventually opted for Turin over the Italian capital.
To be fair, the ‘Roma project’ did take time to take root - but if Pirlo was in a similar situation today, he wouldn’t have had any doubts. That’s how much things have changed over the past three years at the Olimpico.
Indeed, the Giallorossi now pose a direct threat to the Bianconeri’s quest for a fourth straight league title.
They may have missed out on Pirlo but, in terms of personnel, those responsible for revamping Roma have, for the most part, been making making all the right moves in the transfer market since 2011, building a squad of decent depth and impressive versatility.
Luis Enrique was hired three years ago so the capital club could play the ‘Barcelona way’. However, despite the influx of players like Pablo Osvaldo, Bojan Krkic, Miralem Pjanic, Fabio Borini and Erik Lamela to name a few, the whole idea turned out to be a disaster. Luis Enrique dutifully resigned as Roma failed to even qualify for Europe at the end of his first - and only - season at the helm. The problem wasn’t as much with the squad or the coach; rather it was the implementation of a wrong philosophy with the wrong players.
The story continued under the ultra-attacking philosophy of Zdenek Zeman, who completely neglected the defence - and almost inevitably got the sack in the spring of 2013. That season the Giallorossi had added youngsters like Mattia Destro, Marquinhos, Leandro Castan, and Alessandro Florenzi alongside the experienced Italy full-back Federico Balzaretti and American international Michael Bradley to a roster that was improving season after season, albeit only on paper at that stage.
Once again, the so-called 'project' seemed to collapse, as the club failed to qualify even for the Europa League, let alone the Champions League. But then, crucially, Frenchman Rudi Garcia was handed over the reins in June, 2013.
The former Lille coach led Roma to a best ever points total (85) last season. Under normal circumstances, the tally would have been sufficient to win the league title but instead they had to settle for second, with champions Juventus having set the bar at a new record high after becoming the first Serie A side to break the 100-point barrier.
However, what Garcia had shown was the importance of having the right trainer and playing to the strength of the squad in hand. Under him, not only did Roma score more than they had in the previous seasons, they also more than halved their goals against tally, conceding just 25 times all season.
Under Luis Enrique, they had shipped 54 goals, while Zeman and caretaker coach Aurelio Andreazzoli were collectively responsible for the team letting in 56 goals in the league.
Also important was the trust Garcia had in his players. Arsenal misfit Gervinho, who the Frenchman had coached in Lille, was brought in and the Ivory Coast international played a major part in Roma’s revival last season. Similarly, Bosnian international Pjanic, who had failed to explode in Italy ever since his move from Lyon in 2011, was kept in the squad while Erik Lamela – a fan favourite – was sold to Tottenham for a good €30 million.
Pjanic paid back the faith shown in him by being amongst the best midfielders in Europe last season. Add to that the brilliant signings of Mehdi Benatia – one of the most sought-after defenders on the circuit today – and Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman, and Garcia had a group that was second only to Juventus on paper – and, in transpired, also on the field.
Apart from having a fine squad, converting these players into a strong unit and deploying a strong sense of team spirit among them is perhaps the most important contribution of the 50-year old, something he will aim to take forward this season.
Roma last won the title more than a decade ago in 2001, but they finally look to be ‘Scudetto ready’.
An impressive mercato this summer has seen a mix of youth and experience to add further quality to the squad that will participate in the Champions League for the first time since 2009-10. Former England full-back Ashley Cole was signed for free as he finished his contract with Chelsea, backed by the versatile Urby Emmanuelson, who has been acquired from AC Milan.
Similarly, Seydou Keita – a double Champions League winner with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 – has been acquired to provide cover to a stable midfield that already boasts the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Strootman, Pjanic and Belgian international midfielder Radja Nainggolan, who will start his first full season following his transfer in January this year.
Having hijacked the deal for Verona right winger Juan Iturbe from Juventus, Roma have one of the game's fastest wingers on the opposite flank to Gervinho. They will line up either side of veteran Francesco Totti or Mattia Destro.
Juventus, on the other hand, have lost their biggest asset, as coach Antonio Conte shocked the world with his resignation last week. New boss Massimiliano Allegri now faces a daunting task in trying to maintain the staggeringly high standards set by his predecessor.
Also, the increasing speculation regarding the future of Arturo Vidal – the champions' most consistent midfielder – is a major cause for concern.
Napoli – the third wheel in the race for the title this season - are yet to make a significant signing apart from Spanish striker Michu, while the likes of Fiorentina, Inter and Milan don’t have the quality yet to challenge for a top-three place in the table.
Roma, on the other hand, have only improved, which will not only help them increase the gap between themselves and Napoli but also reduce it with defending champions Juventus.
However, it is important to note that Roma had only Serie A and the Coppa Italia to play for last season, so their inclusion in the Champions League will severely test their mental and physical fortitude.
Still, while it’s fair to say that Juventus are still the favourites to win the league for the fourth straight season despite Conte's departure, Roma look set to pose an even greater threat this time around.
Indeed, they should give Pirlo plenty of food for thought throughout the 2014-15 campaign.