Francesco Totti started his first game in six months for the Giallorossi after damaging knee ligaments against Livorno last April, and the roar from the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Sud (south stand) as he emerged from the tunnel was deafening. Almost as deafening as the silence in said stand as Victor Obinna completed Inter’s scoring in a 4-0 rout of the home side.
“The result seems false to me, exaggerated,” reflected Roma manager Luciano Spalletti afterwards. Hardly. Had Inter not eased into second gear after Obinna lashed home the fourth just 56 minutes in, things could easily have been a lot worse.
True enough, the statistics show that Roma had just two fewer attempts on target than Inter and actually enjoyed more possession. But they offer a false impression of a game that Inter had safely in hand from the moment Zlatan Ibrahimovic chipped Doni four minutes in. With the lead secured, Inter happily sat back and invited Roma on to them, looking for opportunities on the break. Given that Roma were on their sixth different centre-back pairing of the season — Simone Loria alongside Juan — there was little doubt that such openings would sooner or later present themselves.
Such a strategy has its own risks, of course, and the game might have taken a very different aspect had Roma converted one of a pair of superb crosses laid on by Totti just before half-time. But herein lies the crux of the enduring problem for Roma. Last night nobody else in a red shirt came close to matching the industry and incisiveness of the Roma captain — a man who had played just over an hour of football in two previous cameos this season, the most recent of which took place a month ago.
Roma fans might be quick to point out that they lost to Inter 4-1 at the Olimpico last year, only to eventually take the title race right down to the wire — but at least on that occasion the drubbing looked like an isolated result. Roma went on to lose a total of four league games last season, and they have already matched that figure this time around. Already talk of challenging for the title has been replaced by discussion over whether this side can recover to finish in the top four.
Such speculation can wait until a little later in the season, but there is certainly reason to believe the roots of Roma’s current malaise run deeper than their recent spate of injuries and suspensions. Their defence was shorn of Christian Panucci, Philippe Mexes and Marco Cassetti yesterday, and both of Ibrahimovic’s goals might have been avoided had the back line not been such a makeshift one, but to focus solely on that would be to ignore the fact that they were also outmanned almost everywhere else.
There is a creeping sense that this Roma team have simply run out of steam. In midfield Daniele De Rossi looks worn out from his attempts to carry both Roma and the national side, and though Alberto Aquilani is developing well alongside him, he can be naïve and was comfortably shackled by Dejan Stankovic. Ahead of them, the bank of three behind Totti looks worryingly short of a creative spark now that Mancini has departed, though Julio Baptista may help fill that void when healthy. Across the board, the squad’s depth is poor.
Spalletti has done well to lead this team to three consecutive second-place finishes, but questions must also be asked over his persistence with a 4-2-3-1 that no longer looks like the best use of the talent at his disposal. He has experimented with 4-1-4-1 at times this year, but continues to shun the idea of playing Mirko Vucinic — a natural striker who has never looked entirely at home on the left wing, where Spalletti usually deploys him — alongside Totti in a two-striker formation.
Roma president Rosella Sensi was seen crying at the final whistle last night, and for all that she clearly cares deeply about the club, you wonder if she doesn’t feel it might be better off in someone else’s hands. Sensi only took up her post following the death of her father, Franco, in August, but was reported to have been heavily involved in negotiations to sell the club to a number of different investment groups towards the end of last season. The club’s majority shareholders, Italpetroli — a company owned by the Sensi family, are heavily in debt, and although repayments were restructured over the summer, they are not in position to fund significant squad-building. Even the addition of Baptista was only made possible by the sale of Mancini.
None of this should take away from Jose Mourinho’s most significant win to date in Serie A — one that leaves his team two points clear at the top of the table. The decision to start Obinna, who would have been on loan at Everton this season were it not for his work permit being rejected — looks an inspired one in the light of his goal, while Sulley Muntari put in one of his best performances for the club so far. If there has been one consistent complaint with Inter so far this season, it is that the midfield and attack sometimes appear too far apart, but the two banks of three looked far more cohesive yesterday with Muntari growing in confidence pushing on from midfield.
And then, of course, there’s Ibrahimovic, who took both his goals superbly. In a big game. Take that lazy journalism. Both clubs now look ahead to this week’s Champions League games with very different outlooks. Inter will be full of confidence ahead of their home game against Anorthosis Famagusta, whereas for Roma there will only be trepidation ahead of a visit to Chelsea. The same Chelsea who won 5-0 at Middlesbrough. Probably best not pack the party hats.