Associazione Sportiva Roma 2008-09.
It can finally begin. After a tumultuous summer with the ownership negotiations, death of Il Presidente, and the strange "opening" to the season, the actual festivities can begin and it's now all about the football.
Last year was, without question, a successful progression. Though the trophy haul stayed constant, it was clear the team had become a more cohesive, better equipped group, one ready to challenge and challenge seriously for some heavy hardware. What can we expect this year? More of the same. Though Francesco Totti is a bit older and a banged up, the stars around him are young and improving: Daniele De Rossi (25), Alberto Aquilani (24), Philippe Mexes (26) and Mirko Vucinic (24) form a solid nucleus for now and for the future. Add the rest and it's cause not only for optimism, but expectations.
And of course, some pretty football, as is The Giallorossi Way.
Last year's description brought about two revelations:
i. Spalletti has been marked for greatness in that everyone knows what's coming and yet stopping it is nothing short of a herculean task.
ii. I desperately need an editor.
Luciano Spalletti, known as The Grand Imperial Poobah around these parts, is one of Serie A’s premier coaches, and worthy of all the praise he’s acquired throughout his few seasons in Rome. In short, he’s a tactical wizard. The reason La Magica is seen as one of Europe’s premier teams is because of TGIP and his unique attacking style. An offensive based system that operates largely without a true out and out striker but relies on dual contributions throughout the entire squad, including the much ballyhooed - at least around here - Roman Clusterfuck that sets up shop in the opponent’s box with regularity. Aside from his tactics, Spalletti favors the team concept, and wants no part of any players who threaten cohesive unity in his squad. After the debacle that was Antonio Cassano, TGIP has worked hard to create, at the very minimum, a civil feel within the locker room, and halt any public rifts within the confines of the Olimpico. As an added bonus to his own abilities, it is no secret that one of the biggest draws to playing for Roma is not a paycheck, it’s the potential to receive the vaunted Spalletti ass slap on a regular basis. One of these days, there will be a line forming outside Rosella’s office compiled of all the greatest player’s in world football willing to sacrifice all financial demands for the once in a lifetime chance to get a firm palm on the ass cheek from one Luciano Spalletti - mark my words. Kidding aside, he’s on the short list for one of the best coaches in Europe. Period.
Another year, another period growth - and not just for him, but for the entire squad as a whole. It wasn't built in a day, but it's begun to look gorgeous.
In nearly every game the season, TGIP will employ a 4-2-3-1 system calling for a standard back line, two holding/defensive midfielders, a midfield line composed of two wingers and one trequartista and a sole striker up top. To the Roma novice, it sounds like a very complicated and layered system, but it’s somewhat misleading. Yes, it is fairly complicated, but it can be simplified quite easily: run your fucking ass off. Basically, run back to fulfill the necessary defensive duties, run towards and join the aforementioned Roman Clusterfuck, rinse, wash, repeat. That simple. Obviously there are set positions, but the fullbacks and even center backs are offensive oriented, the two “defensive” midfielders are two of Roma’s most talented offensive players, and the third option has little defensive skill to speak of. Then there’s the second striker, or trequartista, who spends half his days defending his own half. Two wingers will probably score 8-10 goals apiece and are one of the primary “through lanes” of the offense and both have the defensive abilities of a wingback; and then the striker, who duties including playmaking from the midifeld. So yeah, in short, run your ass off, defend, then join the Roman Clusterfuck on top. It should be a beaut.
Still holds true, only substituting a more incisive, less pouty wingforward into that starting XI.
The Holy Romans.
As much as this is a team, three are different because of their bond with the city and the tifosi. Every day they see Bruno Conti they know just a little bit better than everyone else what this year means.
Francesco Totti: Normally this space would be reserved for gushing and celestial visions of fairytales to be, but this year it's only about keeping Jesus healthy - for now and for the long term. His presence is welcome, it is a boon without equal, one which takes the squad to another level unachievable with anyone else, but this team is no longer dependent on him week-in, week-out - a credit to Spalletti and the young stars budding around him. So while a guaranteed 3 points against Catania with a brace, countless backheels and unthinkable flicks are nice, when the time comes for a Roman assault against Chelsea, he needs to be in that lineup. As ever he is still, and always will be, Roma; but he is no longer Roma because he needs to be, he is Roma because of what he can make her.
Daniele De Rossi: At some point in every great athlete's career it becomes evident he has simply arrived. Daniele De Rossi has arrived. Just now. Last year he was a marvel, but to do what he's done in these two weeks while dealing with two passings is nothing short of astounding. Talent is one matter - and lord knows he has it in abundance - but he's becoming the complete athlete, so much more than a complete midfielder. A physical force, a mental rock and its greatest source of blinding fury and passion. He is, without doubt, a legend. Now we just enjoy the ride that is the evolution of Daniele De Rossi.
Alberto Aquilani: And everything that is true for Daniele right now is exactly what he hope for from Alberto this year, because he's still got a bit to go.
It's almost as though this is a movie script, waiting for these three gems to be brought together finally. After which the skies will open up, a luminous beam will shoot up from the bowels of the earth and a mysterious force will form a three-headed superpower unheard of in history. At least that's how I see it whenever I hear the words "Holy Roman Trinity".
Doni: Alex is like a set of speakers that only work about half the time, but when they do they're absolutely magnificent. You'll bring over a nice young lass, turn up the volume and your loft turns into front row at La Fenice. And then they start crackling, get speaker Tourette's and James Earl Jones - he's everywhere - suddenly begins calling your date a dirty whore. That's Doni. Brilliant one moment, shithead the next. Expect more of the same.
Artur: I'm guessing he's a poor man's Doni. Pray for us all.
Julio Sergio: Normally he'd be designated to prospective transfer target apartment hunting duties, but he may actually have to play this season. I like Julio, don't get me wrong, he's done about as much for the mercato as Prade (and that's no slight on Prade), but I'd prefer he spends the season in the stands chatting up Brazilians at Real Madrid who are currently unhappy and would love to join the samba line in Rome (Marcelo in 09-10).
Pietro Pipolo: He's my early Christmas present. Token Italian goalkeeper on the roster.
Cicinho (RB): Aside from carrying Mancini's flame as the moody Brazilian, I love what he brings to the table. He's lightning up that wing, attacks with purpose and can dribble through a minefield for fullback. Just wish he'd be a bit more selective with his crosses. After all, the best headerer on the team - at least by last year's standards - is a guy he's usually replacing in the lineup. And lord knows Simone's rebound conversion percentage is down around Moratti's IQ.
Marco Cassetti (RB/RW): Can I step up front and drive the Cassetti bandwagon for a minute here? I love him. For a team of 23, Cassetti-types are imperative: professional, consistent, versatile, high workrate and , well, good. No, he's not a superstar and probably isn't first choice against the best attackers the world has to offer, but he brings a lot more to the table than he's given credit for. He's the type of guy who helps create the best team, not the best XI.
(I'm pretending Cyprus never happened, yes. And I can also really like two rightbacks, before you ask.)
Christian Panucci (RB/CB): Oh GOMR....I'll be happy if he does two things:
i. Plays solid football across the board, at whatever position.
ii. Throws down with someone not wearing giallorosso.
That's not too much to ask, is it?
Philippe Mexes (CB): Hard to believe he'll only be entering his prime within the next couple of years, isn't it? Only 26 and he's perhaps the best defender in Serie A.
The key for Philou isn't individual, it has to do with his partner in crime, Tubbs. They quite simply need to further gel and become a wrecking ball tag team rather than two quality central defenders on the team sheet. And it's not that there was anything wrong with last year, they had their growing pains as was expected but never any catastrophic stretches, it's just a part of the process.
Juan (CB): And yet for Juan it is somewhat more individually based, because last year was surely a disappointment for him in terms of injuries. Already starting with an advantage because he didn't have the Copa America to worry about, thus afforded a well-deserved summer of rest. If he can stay healthy and the Crockett & Tubbs duo can formulate a better partnership, there's no question in my mind who the best defensive partnership in Serie A will be.
Simone Loria (CB): See Christian Panucci. But you can remove the italics from "not" in number two. No need for emphasis there, would just like to see him throw down with someone - and preferably while up 14-0 or something.
Max Tonetto (LB/LW): As much as JAR might take away from his playing time, do you think there was anyone in the world happier than Max when the officials on that transfer were announced? Doubtful. I'm sure his quads began to spasm in a futile attempt at clapping. It was pretty evident late on in the year the miles on his legs were adding up after spending the entire season without a trusted backup, and at his age it really affected his performance. Hope to see some typically solid play with some well deserved breaks in between.
John Arne Riise (LB/LW): As long as he can defend his position and send in the odd cross, anything else will be a bonus. Although I'll be incredibly pissed if he doesn't score one from 50 yards taking off limbs as it heads towards net. Entertainment value matters too.
David Pizarro (DM): Pizarro is like Doni, speakers that unexpectedly crap out half the time. Or they'll meander over to the receiver and start beating the shit out of it. Or inexplicably change the channel from opera to Shakira while you sit on the couch with your date in bewilderment, unable to do anything but mouth "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING". I hope he plays as well as he can, which is very good. I also hope he doesn't play as poorly as he can, which is very poor.
Basically, I just hope he doesn't drive the lot of us to institutions. Not holding my breath.
Matteo Brighi (CM): There's got to be some sort of profession analogous to what Matteo does for Roma. End of the game he comes in to shield the back, bringing serious workrate and grit to the equation when it's needed most against adrenaile-charged opposition. We could say he's a closer, as in baseball, but Totti's the high profile superstar who gets the glory with a late goal when he's en fuego, so that's out.
Do strip clubs have someone who picks up all the dollar bills the dancer couldn't grab?
Mirko Vucinic (LW/ST): Maradona of the Balkans. The Next Zlatan. Vucigol. Big Game Mirko.
The names say enough. The next superstar.
Jeremy Menez (LW/RW/Treq): Still cannot believe he's only 21, which means the production is not likely to match the hype. Not being in a new league, new country, fresh off a summer of injury and in a unique tactical system. But that's also not to say he won't have our jaws resting firmly on the floor at times and perhaps occasionally wondering if you can make love to someone's technical skills - don't answer that. On the assembly line, just unsure when the finished product will be ready to be laid under the tree with a bow on it.
Julio Baptista (Everywhere?): Julio's played 3+ halves in giallorosso thus far and I think he's played at least 3 different positions. While the emergency ward is still packed he'll play wherever he has to, but hopefully by November Spalletti will have a solid idea of where he best fits into this system with what players. And then we can all watch him bulldoze his way from half to goal with no abandon for women or children.
And no one loves Simone Perrotta more than I, but can you imagine if La Bestia nets even one out of every three chances Simone missed? Madness. Of course, that means Julio must get into the positions Simone is able to get himself into - another matter entirely.
Simone Perrotta (CM/Treq): As much guff as he gets...still integral, still a high quality player who means more to the tactics of the side than he does the team sheet. Will always frustrate when it comes to his finishing booties, but also gets to twice as many chances as nearly anyone else would in his position while adding a ridiculous amount of defensive assistance from the treqaurtista spot, if that's what you want to call it.
Taddei (RW): I still maintain last year was bad year largely because of the injuries he simply could not shake. Constantly banged up and his form suffered for it, though he never stopped trying and always brought tenacity to the table, something my dry cleaner could learn. Hopefully the technique will come back and Taddei will once again become one of the most underrated performers in calcio - and you don't even need to look at his performances to tell, just assess the guy behind him in the formation.
Okaka (Attacker): Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus. Everything is a bonus.
But goddamn is he a special talent.
Vincenzo Montella (ST): I've been searching for something to say about L'Aeroplanino since the summer of '07. Still can't figure it out. There's enough nostalgia there to suffocate oneself, but at this point we can't be sure if that's all. Again last year with the injuries, and being retained was more financial than technical. So I guess, once again, everything is a bonus?
Though the year would be complete with three in the derby. That's not too much to ask, is it?
It's not worth making season long predictions last year. Can't account for things like referees, referees or, uh, referees. Nor can we account for fixed draws in the Champions League. Can predict they'll win the Coppa, but how's that adventurous?
So we'll just have to resort to last year's predicted awards, 2008-09 edition:
Top Scorer; Or, Will Totti Stay Healthy?: Cautious optimism, Francesco. (20 goals)
Assists; Or, Ditto: Totti. (11)
Yellows: DDR (12)
Reds: Perrotta (2) Something tells me he pissed off someone important. Maybe Collina.
Best Player: As strange as this may be, this is an actual question now. Obviously someone else could be, but there are only two logical choices after only being one for so many season. If Totti's healthy, it's him. Again with the cautious optimism....
Most Important Player: Medical staff. Wish I was joking.
Player To Watch Out For: Jeremy Menez. If he acclimates quickly while matching consistency and tactical awareness with technique, holy shit.
Player NOT To Watch Out For: Valerio Virga. I'm setting the +/- on his games played at 3.5.
Player Expected To Improve The Most: From last year, Taddei. As a player, Aquilani - at least in terms of consistency.
Player We Pray Will Improve The Most: Gianluca Curci. For the love of buddha would this kid end my misery and fulfill the hype already. (I'm transferring all the good juju to Siena as we speak.)
Player Who Will Surprisingly Impress The Most: Can I say Valerio Virga? Is that even legal?
Most Broken Legs: Loria, of course. Let's just hope none in training.
Most Goals Against Lazio: L'Aeroplanino. (3) What?
Most Illegal Midseason Contacts: Massimo Moratti. Come on.
Best Surprising Inclusion of a WAG Midseason: Aquilani can't be considered surprising anymore, so.....how about Riise? I mean, he does look liked he'd snowblind dates from the moment he takes his shirt off so that has to put a hamper on the old love life. We'll go with that one. Unless she's blind with an albino fetish (don't ask). Then all bets are off.
The Christian Wilhelmsson aka Focal Point of My Quasi-Logical Hatred Award: Artur. I can't explain, but that's really the point, isn't it?
Most Spalletti Ass Slaps Award: Brighi. I'm actually expecting Spal to implement a warmup system this season on the bench, spending much of the games practicing on the substitutes. And think what this could mean for team morale - everyone will be thrilled to ride the pine.
Most Handbags Bought Midseason: Mild upset here - Riise.
Daniele De Rossi - Best Midfielder in Serie A; Best Italian; Best Player.
Philippe Mexes - Best Defender in Serie A.
Oh what the hell.....