With only three Scudetti to Roma’s name, it is no surprise their fans descend into a frenzy when the Giallorossi are involved in a serious title challenge. And that’s just what happened in March 2010 as the Roma faithful started to believe they could claim a Serie A crown that had seemed a million miles away just a few months before.
On September 1, 2009, coach Luciano Spalletti packed his bags, leaving the club bottom of the table and in apparent crisis. This was a shadow of the side that had been title challengers to Inter in previous years. Fans were protesting against president Rosella Sensi for not spending money. Two takeover bids had failed in the summer and star midfielder Alberto Aquilani had been sold with no major arrivals.
To replace Spalletti, Roma’s hierarchy called upon Claudio Ranieri. Having been sacked as Juventus coach two games before the end of the previous season, the appointment was met with moans and groans.
But Claudio is Roman born and bred and was determined to reinvigorate the club. He grew up in the Testaccio district of the Italian capital and was a regular in the stands before beginning his playing career at Roma. Despite making just six appearance for the Giallorossi, it has always been his club.
Slowly but surely, Ranieri rebuilt the Giallorossi. His pragmatic style marked a significant departure from the free-flowing football of Spalletti, but it was what the club needed after the turmoil of the summer. By the turn of the year, Roma were clicking into gear and as winter turned to spring, they had played themselves into contention for the Scudetto. By the end of March, they hosted reigning champions Inter knowing that a victory would take them within one point of Mourinho’s men.
In contrast, Inter’s start to the 2009/10 campaign had been much smoother. Despite the high-profile summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona, Jose Mourinho stamped his authority on the Inter squad. Out went the deadwood and in came experienced pros that the Portuguese tactician knew would fit his style. Diego Milito, Thiago Motta and Lucio were all brought in to supplement the marquee arrivals of Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder from Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.
Following an opening day draw at home to Bari, Inter made a huge early season statement by beating city rivals AC Milan 4-0. They were set to dominate for another year and by the time they headed to the Stadio Olimpico in March, Mourinho’s men had only been beaten three times in the league and were chasing a historic treble with their progression in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League. The scene was set for a classic Serie A showdown.
As the two sides entered the cauldron of the Olimpico, the magnitude of the occasion must have hit both set of players. Sky Italia commentator Fabio Caress proclaimed it “la partita scudetto” as the players shook hands.
In an all too rare occurrence in modern times, there was not a seat to be had in the modern Colosseum. A city expected. Roma knew a defeat would hand Inter the title.
And Inter were soon caught cold as Roma’s midfield ran all over the Nerazzurri, with Jeremy Menez finding space in and around lone forward Luca Toni. Unable to cope, Inter resorted to giving away free kicks and this allowed the Giallorossi to capitalise.
David Pizarro floated a tame ball into the box which was met by Nicolas Burdisso, a player on loan from Inter. The Argentine defender headed a weak effort towards goal and so disgusted was he with the attempt, that he turned away to let out a roar of frustration. In the meantime, Julio Cesar contrived to spill the ball at the feet of Daniele De Rossi who smuggled the ball into the net. Roma’s players wheeled away and Burdisso cottoned on as the celebrations began.
Before the interval, John Arne Riise and Mirko Vucinic went close and Inter’s Lucio hit the bar, but Roma were deserving of their narrow lead. Following the break, Inter took hold of the match. On the hour, Mourinho withdrew Dejan Stankovic for Goran Pandev to play in a front three alongside fellow summer signings Eto’o and Milito. And as was so often the case during the Mourihno years, his tactical tweak did the trick. Roma were unable to get out of their half and Inter dominated the ball. A goal was coming. When it did, it came in bizarre circumstances.
Wesley Sneijder, who had been quiet for much of the game, picked up the ball on the edge of the area. His through ball was partially cleared by Menez, although Pandev the intended recipient was clearly offside. A series of blocks resulted in Sneijder picking up the ball again and his cross was coolly converted by Milito. The Olimpico was silenced.
Instead of dampening Roma’s spirits, however, the goal jolted them into action. Just five minutes later, a miscued Rodrigo Taddei shot landed perfectly into the path of Luca Toni who fired home. It was a moment of redemption for forward. With his time at Bayern Munich coming to an abrupt end under Louis Van Gaal, Toni was back in Italy to secure his spot in the Italian squad for the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. And now Toni had scored one of the most important goals in recent Roma history.
As the Olimpico erupted, their king Francesco Totti began to warm up. When he entered for Vucinic, the stadium roared again. But Ranieri’s changes allowed Inter to take a grip on the game again. They camped outside Roma’s box but could not find a breakthrough. Then, in the 94th minute, the ball fell perfectly for Milito. The chance happened in slow motion. Milito could have virtually secured Inter the title. He hit the ball well, but it cannoned off the upright.
Seconds later the game was over. Totti famously said he would never have to go on a diet again as he had lost 10 kilograms “shitting himself” when Milito hit the post. As ‘Grazie Roma’ rang around the Olimpico, there was a realisation this side end what was almost a decade of hurt.
The result meant Roma had clawed back 13 points on Jose Mourinho’s men since the two clubs had last met back in November. All the momentum was with the Giallorossi. With seven games left, the title was set to go down to the wire.
In Florence a fortnight later, Inter were 2-1 up with 10 minutes to go but could only draw. Roma moved ahead but only for a week. As Phillipe Mexes cried on the sidelines, the Giallorossi blew the Scudetto losing 2-1 at home to Sampdoria. They won nine of their last 10 Serie A games, but their one defeat cost them dearly. Roma had won the battle in March but Inter won the war.
Inter went to beat Roma in the Coppa Italia final back at the Olimpico where the Scudetto game had taken place. And then in Madrid they completed an unprecedented treble with a third Champions League triumph. Mourinho’s men had claimed their place in Calcio history.
For Roma, it was yet another glorious failure. But for one balmy night in March, Ranieri and company had allowed the fans to dare to dream.
Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman