Classic Match: Roma vs. Sampdoria (2009/10)

On January 3, Roma beat Sampdoria 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico. The three points were important for the club, keeping them in third place and firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot. This fixture also has a retrospective background in Serie A’s recent history. Roma and the current Sampdoria manager Claudio Ranieri would have been happy to have achieved the same result back in 2010.    

Inter were the favourites to claim another title in 2009-10. New signings Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito, Thiago Motta, Lucio and Goran Pandev ensured that the reigning champions were expected to remain ahead of the other title contenders. It was post-Ancelotti’s Milan, Juventus were yet to fully recover after Calciopoli, and Napoli were just about to start their new rise. When Inter beat Milan 4-0 on matchday two, it appeared inevitable that the Nerazzurri would earn another championship. In the end, they did, but it was far from straightforward. Throughout the season, there was another team who pushed them all the way.        

The same week that Inter won the Derby della Madonnina, Roma were bottom of Serie A, without a single point. The 1-3 defeat against Juventus at the Olimpico signalled the end of Luciano Spalletti’s five-year tenure at the club. Before the international break, he was replaced by a well-known manager in Serie A, who was also a Roma fan.

Claudio Ranieri’s first assignment was to overcome the turmoil surrounding the club, whilst helping the team climb the table. By the end of season, he had managed that. However, the campaign could have been a truly special one had Roma added a trophy to the club’s museum in May that no one could have imagined back in September: Scudetto, Coppa Italia or both.    

Ranieri started his Roma career with a 2-1 win against Siena. Within a matter of weeks, the side were back on song, and back into the top half. Despite suffering three straight defeats in October, Roma bounced back quickly to go undefeated throughout November, before picking up a 1-0 win over arch-rivals Lazio in December. This was more than a derby victory as it also showed that the memories from the opening weeks of the season had been banished. When the new year started, there was cause for optimism for Ranieri’s team. 

Francesco Totti played a vital role as Roma moved into title contention

Roma’s form improved week-by-week as they rarely dropped points. Meanwhile, Inter managed to win only six of their first 13 matches of 2010, leaving the title race in the balance. A potential title-decider took place on matchday 31. Roma beat Inter 2-1 to move within a point of their opponents. It was now anyone’s title. Dropping points could prove costly for either side.  

The moment that Roma had been waiting for arrived two weeks later. The day after Inter’s 1-1 draw at Fiorentina, Roma beat Atalanta 2-1, and moved into top spot for the first time. Winning the final five matches or Inter dropping points would allow Roma to clinch the title for the fourth time in their history.

The first and arguably biggest obstacle on the way to the Scudetto was the Derby della Capitale. Lazio were desperate to spoil the party. They held a 1-0 lead and earned a penalty at the beginning of the second half. A defeat could end Roma’s Scudetto dream. However, Julio Sergio saved Sergio Floccari’s penalty to keep Roma’s hopes alive. Just five minutes later, Roma earned a penalty of their own. Mirko Vucinic levelled the score, and ten minutes later the comeback was complete when the Montenegrin forward fired home a free-kick to seal a 2-1 win. Roma were one step closer to the Scudetto.

While Roma were the leaders with only four matches to go, Inter had a difficult Champions League semi-final tie against Barcelona to take care of. Juggling domestic and European commitments had the potential to derail Inter’s campaign. It was clear that Roma were in the driving seat.

Four days before their infamous game at Camp Nou, Inter beat Atalanta 3-1 to return to the summit of Serie A. The next day, it was Roma’s turn. Their opponents, Sampdoria, were a contender for the Champions League places. Luigi Del Neri’s team were Roma’s toughest test on paper in the final run-in. Yet the game was to be played at the Olimpico. Ranieri’s side were on a 24-match unbeaten streak, and with the backing of over 56,000 fans they were expected to get the job done.

Roma started the game well. After missing a couple of chances, Francesco Totti’s goal gave them the lead in the 14th minute. The perfect start, but Roma needed a second goal to settle any nerves. Chance after chance came and went. Captain Totti hit the post and missed an open goal, before Vucinic forced a sharp stop from Marco Storari. Roma should have been out of sight by half time. Instead, they held a slender one-goal lead at the break.

Still, a similar pattern of play would surely result in a second Roma goal sooner or later. However, in the second half, the tide turned. Del Neri, clearly dissatisfied with what he had seen in the opening 45 minutes, introduced Fernando Tissone and Daniele Mannini. Seven minutes after the interval, his changes had the desired effect. Ex-Roma player Antonio Cassano received the ball and crossed it into the six-yard box for Giampaolo Pazzini to head home the equaliser.

The Olimpico was momentarily silenced, but there was still plenty of time left. Luca Toni and Rodrigo Taddei were sent on as Roma went in search of the winner. Jeremy Menez, Toni, and Vucinic all squandered opportunities, whilst John Arne Riise’s long-range effort was also parried away by Storari.

Roma were throwing bodies forward, but to no avail. Eventually, with five minutes left on the clock, a goal did arrive. Only it came at the wrong end for Roma. Just like their first goal, Sampdoria created another chance from their left side. Mannini picked out Pazzini who darted into the six-yard box and provided the finishing touch. Somehow, Sampdoria were ahead. Roma’s efforts in the closing minutes were not enough to change the scoreline and, most importantly, the standings. With three weeks to go, Inter were now two points ahead of Roma.      

The silence in the stands, the tears of Philippe Mexes, and Totti’s expression told the full story. The Scudetto had slipped from Roma’s grasp.

In the post-match interview, Ranieri swiftly turned his attention to the remaining three matches, stating: “The championship race will continue till the last second. We will be determined like we have been doing over the last 24 matches.” 

Indeed, Roma did fight admirably until the end. They won all three matches. Unfortunately, their opponent was Jose Mourinho’s Inter. Once in front, the Portuguese coach rarely surrenders the advantage. That was the case once more on this occasion. At the end of the season, Inter won the Scudetto with 82 points, while Roma got 80. The game of two halves (Roma-Sampdoria) had cost the Giallorossi the title. Moreover, Inter also beat Roma in the Coppa Italia final on their way to winning a historic treble. Roma would have to settle for second best twice in May.

Ranieri would go on to win the Premier League at Leicester City in 2016, which can be described as one of the most remarkable victories this century, alongside Greece at Euro 2004 and Montpellier’s Ligue 1 triumph in 2012. However, Ranieri never forgot how he fell short in 2010. In his own words: “None of the trophies can repay the championship that I missed at Roma.”

Words by Onur Bilgic