Let’s be honest, I would not have wanted to be an AS Roma fan in June 2013. The Roman club had fallen hard since their down-to-the-wire Scudetto challenge in 2009-10 (where Inter Milan beat them on the last day of the season to the Scudetto): knocked out of the Europa League playoffs in 2011, failing to make European competition in 2012, and then the defensive nightmare that was Zdanek Zeman’s controversy-frought spell at the club. Worse still, they lost the Coppa Italia Final in humiliating fashion to SC Lazio, the other half of the nastiest rivalry in professional sports (as evidenced by the crude assortment of makeshift pole-axes that fans tried to bring into the final last year). Even more gallingly, it meant that Lazio picked up the Italian League’s final Europa League spot, while AS Roma spent another year in the wilderness following the glory of the Luciano Spaletti years. The manager was fired, needless to say.
Things got even worse over the summer. Marquinhos – by far their best defender and one of the most talented young players to come out of Brazil in generations – was sold to Paris $t Germain for $50 Million. Erik Lamela – another bright, young South American winger – went to Tottenham Hotspur for $35 Million. Striker Pablo Osvaldo left for Southampton, and keeper Marten Stekelenburg left for Fulham. They came perilously close to losing Vice Captain Daniele De Rossi to Chelsea, while eternal Capitano Francesco Totti now reaches well into his late-30s. Things could not have looked bleaker.
Come Week Five of this Serie A season, and AS Roma are top of the table. They defeated Lazio in a charged Rome Derby last weekend 2-0, and have also beaten Hellas Verona, Parma, Sampdoria, Livorno, Bologna, and Inter Milan to make it seven wins from seven for the first time in their history. They have conceded only a single goal thus far in the season, and are absolutely flying out of the gates in Serie A. Juventus and Napoli (more on them) are unbeaten and enjoying among their best-ever starts to the Italian season, yet even they are two points back of Roma.
How the hell did they do it?
The easy answer is the coach: Rudi Garcia, formerly of OSC Lille (who won the French Double in 2010-11). Garcia has built the team around a quick-firing pass-heavy system, which allows them to exhaust their opponents in the first half (much as Barcelona does) before grinding them down in the second half, opening up the pitch, and scoring. He’s also managed to reintegrate Vice Captain Daniele De Rossi back into the side following his exile by Zeman for much of last season. More importantly, he’s built an wall around the team, insulating them from criticism and defending them to the oft-fickle Italian press. They also bought well: Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman from PSV Eindhoven, Ivorian Striker Gervinho from Arsenal (and he’s got him scoring. No one has EVER done that), and Italian GK Morgan De Sanctis from SSC Napoli. More importantly, Garcia has them playing with an identity that is both defensively solid and fluid in attack. That their main rivals at the moment have to play heavy European competition as well – Juve, Napoli, and Milan are in the Champions League, while Fiorentina and Lazio are playing in the Europa League – means that they have a fitness bonus from having to play fewer games. Roma are by no means guaranteed the Scudetto – and this weekend’s game at Inter Milan will provide a much harder test for them – but they certainly seem to have rebuilt extraordinarily well after the disaster of a season that was 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Route B: Balance the Squad
Neither did Napoli have an enjoyable start to the summer. Last season, they finished 2nd – their highest finish since their Scudetto win in 1990, coming nine points behind Juventus in the race for the League Title. They were battered in the Europa League Round of 32 by Plzen, and failed to defend their Coppa Italia title. Worse still, PSG met the buyout clause of Edinson Cavani, who had provided the overwhelming majority of Napoli’s goals through the last three seasons. Cavani was always going to be hard to replace, but then Mazzarri also happened. One of the most successful coaches in their history – a man who had led them to Champions League spots twice a mere five years after they’d been basement-dwelling in Serie C1 – decided to trade up and move to the vacant coaching position at Internazionale Milan. Losing your best player is one thing, and losing an unsuccessful coach is another, but losing your best player AND your most successful coach in the same off-season?
Honestly, the man’s time at Chelsea was miserable, with the club’s fans displaying the short-sighted, mean-spirited petulance of…well…multiple Chelsea players (*cough* John Terry *cough* Ashley Cole *cough*). Amidst uncompromising venom from the fans (“Rafa Out: Fact” banners at every home game), having to juggle three competitions at once in the Europa League, FA Cup, and Premier League, Rafa Benitez…actually did pretty good. He won the Europa League, made it to the FA Cup Semifinal, and steered Chelsea to 3rd place and a spot in the next season’s Champions League. His reputation was unjustly diminished by his final season at Liverpool and his brief time at Inter Milan, but Chelsea helped to restore some of his prestige. His contract up, he signed with Napoli.
And then bought players. Extremely well.
FW Jose Callejon and DF Raul Albiol from Real Madrid, Rafael Cabral from Santos, Pepe Reina from Liverpool in a massive coup. A La Masia grad and backup keeper for the Spanish National Team, Reina was superb at organizing the defense when Benitez was at Liverpool, was better at playing the ball than most of England’s midfield, and is one of the best penalty-stopping keepers of the last decade. But the big one was Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentine forward signing from Real Madrid for nearly forty million euros. He was systematically underrated and underappreciated at Real Madrid, but still managed to bag 120 goals in 200 games for the club (anything above 0.45 goals per game is top-class for a striker). He became the first Argentine player to move from La Liga to Napoli since a man by the name of Diego Armando Maradona, the striker who is universally adored in Napoli for his role in winning the club’s first two Scudettos.
Thus far, Napoli have dropped a single game, losing 2-0 to a revamped Arsenal side at the Emirates in the Champions League. Domestically, they’re tied for 2nd with Juventus, two points behind the leaders AS Roma. The team is also playing more proactively; where Mazzarri set up his teams to contain the attacks of the opponent and looked to hit them on the break, Benitez is transforming them into a possession-heavy side that forces other teams to react to their style of play. Marek Hamsik is scoring for fun, as is Higuain, and the fans are loving it – see this spine-tingling reaction to Higuain’s goal against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. They stand a good chance of navigating a supremely difficult group in the Champions League – Dortmund and Arsenal are both superb teams – and at the very least could make a deep run in the Europa League, where Spurs would be the only team that come even close to them. Above all else, what Benitez has managed to do is make them a much more balanced team than their Cavani incarnation. The team relied on him for goals in the last two seasons, and when his form suffered, Napoli suffered; their 5-0 aggregate loss to Plzen in last year’s Europa League came when Cavani was going through a goalless patch. A team with as many scoring options as Napoli now have is certainly one that should be feared. They are no longer a dark horse in Italian football: They are legitimate contenders for this year’s Scudetto.
Route C: The Philosophy
Speaking of clubs selling strikers to rich French clubs for a ridiculous amount of money, let’s talk about Atletico Madrid. Last year Atletico enjoyed probably their best season since the 1995/6 Double-winning campaign. Buoyed by trophy-magnet Radamel Falcao, Atletico battered Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA Supercup, stormed to an early La Liga lead over Real Madrid, finishing the first half of the season seven points ahead of them. Real Madrid eventually caught and surpassed them, and Atletico ultimately finished 3rd with 76 points – one of the best finishes in “The Other La Liga” since Real Madrid and Barcelona started finishing seasons with 90+ points. Diego Simeone’s side succeeded in beating Real Madrid in the 2013 Spanish Cup Final at the Santiago Bernabeu, thanks to an extra-time goal from Joao Miranda and a Red Card to Cristiano Ronaldo. They broke their Madrid Derby Hoodoo, as it marked their first win in the derby since 1999.
But they then faced the loss of Falcao over the summer, as the striker departed for AS Monaco for an absolutely insane sum of money. However, due to Falcao being partially owned by the Doyen Sports Group (allegedly, for legal reasons), Atletico only got about half of the transfer fee. Their ridiculous level of tax debt to the Spanish government remains, as does the constant infighting between the Gil Regime (owner) and the chairman. The lopsided tv revenues of La Liga further exacerbated the potential damage from losing Falcao. In many quarters, it was felt that Atletico had blown their last best chance to overtake Real as the premier club in the Spanish capital.
And then the Summer Transfer Window happened.
Atletico Madrid successfully pulled off some of the coups of the summer in the transfer market. They bought David Villa from Barcelona for a quarter of what Tottenham were willing to pay for him. He may be less pacey than he was at the peak of his powers in 2010, and the shin-break from 2011 slowed him down, but he’s still a born goalscorer (20+ goals in 10/12 seasons in professional football), excellent at orchestrating play in the final third (having been part of the Spain and Barca sides that rely so heavily on that pass-happy system), Spain’s all-time record goalscorer, and a big-name signing that energized Atletico’s fans; see the 25,000 fans who showed up for his unveiling and then rushed the pitch midway through. They also got young Brazilian striker Leo Baptistao from Rayo Vallecano, and managed to hold onto Wide Midfielders Arda Turan (good at crosses and sporting one of the manliest beards in sport) and Koke, and fought off a large bid from Liverpool for Diego Costa as he continues to become a goal machine. They also pulled one of the sneakiest bits of business of the summer: They signed Martin Demichelis on a Free Transfer from Malaga, then turned around and sold him to Manchester City before he’d played a game for Atletico, and then used the money to buy Belgian defender Aderwereld from AFC Ajax – one of the Ajax Academy’s line of top defender prospects.
But key to the whole project has been Diego Simeone, Atletico’s coach since 2011. He has built Atletico into a team that is tactically intelligent, extremely difficult to break down defensively, lightning fast on the break, and generally difficult to play against. His back four of Diego Godin, Joao Miranda, Filipe Luis, and Juanfran have been impeccable; only Bayern Munich and Juventus have conceded fewer goals since the start of the 2012-13 season. With Falcao gone, Diego Costa has emerged into a preeminent role, and currently leads La Liga with ten goals from eight games. More than anything, Simeone has united the dressing room that was so often fraught with internal tension. He is universally adored by Atletico fans, and – having delivered three trophies in less than three years – is trusted by both the owner and President (even if they still hate each other). He is realistic about their chances; it is unreasonable to expect a squad as thin as Atletico’s to compete with Barcelona and Madrid through an entire season, even if they are more than capable of matching them in an individual game. Injuries will take their toll, but for now Atletico are the most in-form team in Europe. They have secured ten wins from twelve matches (two draws in the Spanish Supercup), have played Real Madrid and Barcelona a combined three times and have yet to lose, top their group in the Champions League, and are one of only three sides in Europe to win all of their league games thus far (Barcelona and AS Roma being the others). They are joint-top with Barcelona, and five points ahead of Real Madrid. Two weeks ago they played Real Madrid and beat them 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. More importantly, they deserved the win. It was the first time Atletico have ever won back-to-back games at the Bernabeu, and the first time they’d won consecutive Madrid derbies since the 1950-51 season. They beat FC Porto at home – the Portuguese club’s first loss in their home ground since slightly before the death of Julius Caesar (or at least that’s what it seems like), scoring one of the most brilliant set-play goals of the year when Arda Turan peeled away from the wall and hammered it into the top corner in the 88th minute. They have proven equally adept at reactive and proactive football; they are lightning fast on the break, yet spent the first sixty minutes of their game against Celta Vigo at the weekend steamrolling the Galician club, penning them back in their own half and producing eight first-half saves from Celta’s keeper. They are, without a doubt, the most in-form club in Europe, and have been for most of September.
Atletico Madrid used to be their own worst enemies. No more. They used to be the laughing stock of Madrid, the whipping boys for their far wealthier cross-town rivals. No more. They used to talk of Spain as being a warm Scottish Premier League, where no third team could even hope to challenge the Big Two.
No more. Atletico Madrid have arrived, and they are here to stay.