In 27BC, the Roman Republic was overthrown and Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian was granted imperium. The first two centuries of the Empire marked an unprecedented period of prosperity and political stability, referred to as Pax Romana – roughly translated as Roman peace. AS Roma are still a decade from their first hundred years of existence, so quite what their history will read in 2137 is pure speculation. What we can say for sure is that up until now the club from Italy’s capital has been subjected to horror annis.
Roma has only three Scudettos to their name, spread out between 1942, 1983 and 2001. Since that last title, the Giallorossi have finished runners-up on seven occasions. They haven’t won a Coppa Italia in ten years and lost to bitter city rivals Lazio in their most recent final appearance in 2013.
If fortune hasn’t favoured them domestically, it’s magnified in a continental context. Roma’s recent European campaigns are characterised by humiliations – getting dumped out 7-1 by Manchester United in 2007, the thrashing by the same scoreline to Bayern Munich in 2014 and the 6-1 beating to Barcelona the following year. Their tale of woe was even greater prior to the Champions League era. In 1984, Roma reached their only European Cup final to date, but lost against Liverpool on penalties in their own stadium the Stadio Olimpico.
All of which makes their run to this season’s semi-final more special. Last week’s improbable comeback against Barcelona captured the imagination and set the eternal city off on an all-night party. Trailing 4-1 from the first leg, few outsides of the home dressing room gave them a hope. When the player’s returned from their warmup, Danielle De Rossi – who scored an own goal in the first leg – remarked upon the sold-out Olimpico crowd in the old ground. “If they believe, I believe.”
It turns out he wasn’t the only one. Edin Dzeko’s early goal galvanised the team and when De Rossi blasted home from the penalty spot in the second period, momentum was on their side. Then eight minutes from time, Kostas Manolas – also guilty of putting through his own net in the Camp Nou – rose high at the front post to nod past Andre Ter-Stegen and spark wild scenes. There wasn’t a nail left on the fingers of those in the stands, but those on the field echoed their captain’s words. They believed.
For once they were the prevailers rather than the whipping boys, but in truth, there appears to be something different about this version of Roma. Gone is the fatalism that plagued them for so long, replaced by a new-found resilience. That was evident as early as the group stage when they were 2-0 down at Chelsea despite dominating the game and still fought back to retrieve a point.
Topping a group including the English champions and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid was hugely impressive. Even more remarkably, they’ve faced the likes of Leo Messi, Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann and are yet to concede a home goal in this season’s tournament.
Allied to that defensive solidity is the presence of Dzeko up front. The Bosnian scored 39 times last season, and while he hasn’t quite matched that prolificness this year, his contribution has been crucial. It was he who initiated the comeback at Stamford Bridge with a sumptuous Van Basten-esque volley, grabbed the winner in the last 16 against Shakhtar Donetsk and kept Roma in the Barca tie by scoring a vital away goal in the first leg.
Dzeko’s time at Manchester City is often described as a case of what might have been. He won two Premier League medals and grabbed the equaliser which set in motion Sergio Aguero’s defining title-winning goal, but was often back up to his more illustrious Argentine teammate. Sometimes he appears to struggle for motivation in more mundane league matches, yet he comes alive the bigger the occasion. His immense performance leading the line against Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti was reminiscent of Didier Drogba when he dragged Chelsea to the European Cup in 2012.
Much of the credit for Roma’s resurgence must go to the coach Eusebio Di Francesco. An industrious and committed midfielder during his playing days, he was part of Roma’s last Scudetto winning team in 2001. The 48 year old quietly established tiny Sassuolo as a Serie A club and was frequently linked with returning to his former side when the managerial position became available. He finally took the leap last summer and has implemented an aggressive pressing system. It was his willingness to change from a 4-3-3 and put 19 year old Patrik Schick alongside Dzeko in a 3-5-2 formation which swung the quarter-final in their favour.
And so Roma now march forth and go up against Liverpool in the last four and a reunion with Mo Salah. The Egyptian has had one of the great debut seasons in recent memory, but he was also integral to everything Roma did in his spell there. Reds supporters would be lying if they didn’t admit wanting Roma in the draw, but likewise, Romanistas surely would’ve preferred the Merseysiders to Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. Much like his adversary Jurgen Klopp, expect Di Francesco to be brave and stick to his principals.
Previous Roma teams would currently be feeling a sense of resignation that history will repeat itself, that Salah will come back to haunt them. But it’s a measure of how much the mentality has changed that Roma players were openly relishing the opportunity to face him because they know him better than anyone.
34 years ago, a young boy cried when Roma were beaten by the same opponents and vowed that one day he would win the European Cup for his team. That kid was Francesco Totti, whose shadow still looms. It would be the ultimate irony if they got revenge for his heartache the year after he retired. Do so and Roma’s footballing empire may really begin.
Also published on Medium.