Roma 2001-2021: Part II – The bridesmaid years (2006-2010)

Martin Dunlop is chronicling Roma’s fortunes over the last two decades. You can read Part I of his epic journey here.

Totti’s San Siro catwalk

It’s late October 2005 at Milan’s San Siro stadium and AS Roma are leading Inter by a goal to nil with half an hour played. It’s been 11 years since Roma triumphed against Inter Milan in their own stadium, one of Italy’s – and arguably one of the world’s – most iconic cathedrals of football. Francesco Totti gathers a loose ball just inside his own half. Roma’s captain almost loses possession twice as he battles through the Inter midfield, but he retains control of the ball.

As Totti strides towards the Inter 18-yard-box, the Nerazzurri defence are backing off. Perhaps expecting a shot from distance, Italian international goalkeeper Francesco Toldo has positioned himself on his six-yard-line – he really should know better. What happens next is a thing of beauty. Evoking memories of his incredible goal against Lazio in 2002, and from an almost identical area of the park, Totti brings out the ‘cucchiaio’ and exquisitely lifts the ball over the Inter defence and a stranded Toldo. The ball drops into the net and the Roma players celebrate wildly at the corner flag.

In the world’s fashion capital, under the glow of the spotlights, Totti has treated the San Siro pitch as his own catwalk. In the television pictures, a young girl with a ‘Totti 10’ jersey on her back jumps up and down clapping and waving her hands in disbelief. Her idol has produced another masterpiece for the growing collection.

However, as we have seen on so many occasions over the years, the Roman capacity for self-destruction is never far from the surface. After Totti has added a third Roma goal from the penalty spot, the Giallorossi almost allow Inter back into the game with the concession of two second half goals, the second of which followed a bizarre moment of goalkeeping from Brazilian shot-stopper Alexander Doni (one of four signings who arrived in the eternal city before Roma’s one-year transfer ban, for the ‘poaching’ of Phillipe Mexes from Auxerre, was enforced). On this occasion, Roma survived and took the spoils, though Totti and Inter midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron were sent off late in the game following a heated clash.

So, first blood of season 2005/06 to Roma, but little did either side know just how significant their meetings would go on to become over the next half decade.

Spalletti slowly settles

In the summer of 2005, and on the back of a calamitous 04/05 campaign that saw four different managers in the dugout, Roma appointed Luciano Spalletti as the club’s new head coach. The previous season, Spalletti had guided Udinese to an outstanding fourth-place finish in Serie A and Champions League qualification.

Spalletti started life in Rome relatively slowly; the victory against Inter was undoubtedly the highlight of the first half of season 05/06. Roma lost five league games before Christmas – four of these defeats were home matches at the Stadio Olimpico, including a 1-4 reverse against Juventus.

Not even the most optimistic of Roma fans would believe that a 4-0 victory over Chievo on 21 December 2005 would be the first in a remarkable sequence of wins that would ultimately break a Serie A record.

The introduction of the ‘False 9’

In January 2006 Antonio Cassano, whose relationship with Roma had broken down the previous season, joined Real Madrid. Cassano’s departure and a series of injuries had left Spalletti low on striking options and led to him experimenting with a ‘strikerless’ system – effectively a 4-6-0 formation. Although a classic ‘Number 10’, Totti assumed the role of Roma’s most forward player. Spalletti’s system involved Totti dropping deeper to take possession of the ball and using his superb vision to pick out the runs of Brazilian wingers Amantino Mancini and Rodrigo Taddei and Italian international midfielder Simone Perrotta. This trio were highly adept at exploiting the spaces vacated by Totti, who was playing the role now recognised as a ‘false 9’.

Spalletti’s strategy could not have worked any better and his side took off. By the time Roma hosted Empoli on 19 February, the Giallorossi had won nine consecutive games – including victories over AC Milan and Spalletti’s former side, Udinese – and found the net 25 times. A Perrotta goal was enough to secure Roma’s tenth victory in a row but it came at a cost: only a few minutes before Roma took the lead, Totti suffered a bad ankle injury that would keep the Giallorossi’s talisman out for the remainder of the season and put his participation at that summer’s World Cup in grave danger.

With one more win required to set a Serie A record of 11 consecutive victories, what better fixture could be up next than the second Rome derby of the season. With Totti absent, Vincenzo Montella wore the captain’s armband and led Roma to a 2-0 win. Both goals were set-up by the excellent Mancini; Taddei headed home a corner at the near post before Alberto Aquilani swept a cut-back low into the Lazio net from just inside the 18-yard-box to seal the win. The post-match celebrations among the Roma team and fans were in sharp contrast to the mood surrounding the club throughout the 04/05 season.

The bald headed Spalletti, with his finely groomed facial hair, had brought some stability, and no shortage of skill, back to Roma. A post winning streak dip in form saw Roma finish the season in fifth place and a 4-1 aggregate Coppa Italia final defeat to Inter Milan denied Spalletti a trophy at the end of his first season in the capital. Although the Serie A fixtures were complete, the action soon moved to the court room. The summer of 2006 was to be one of the most dramatic in Italian football history.

Calciopoli & Coppa del Mondo

The Calciopoli scandal rocked Italian football to its core. Of the peninsula’s biggest clubs, only Roma, Inter and Napoli remained unscathed from ground-breaking corruption claims. The ins and outs of the scandal are a story for another day, however, the most significant punishment meted out, based on evidence from hours of wire-tapped phone conversations between club officials and referee organisations, was the relegation of Italian football’s biggest club, Juventus, to Serie B. Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina survived with their Serie A status intact but faced points deductions for the upcoming 06/07 season. As a result of deductions based on the 05/06 season, Roma jumped from fifth place to second and gained automatic entry to the following season’s Champions League group stage.

As is so often the case with Italian football, in the face of adversity comes resilience and, ultimately, great triumph. Marcello Lippi’s national side – which included De Rossi, Perrotta and Totti (who recovered from injury just in time) from Roma – were not highly fancied going into World Cup 06 in Germany. However, with a team spirit that grew as the tournament progressed, and a watertight defence that conceded only two goals in seven matches (an own goal and a penalty), the Azzurri defeated Germany in one of the great World Cup semi-finals and lined up against France for the final in Berlin .

A disappointing final, perhaps most remembered for former Juventus player Zinedine Zidane’s red card, following a head-butt on Italy defender Marco Materazzi, on his last-ever professional appearance, saw the sides exchange a first half goal apiece and remain tied for the rest of the 90 minutes and 30 minutes of extra-time. Palermo defender Fabio Grosso, who had scored a stunning goal against Germany in the semi-final, was, once again, the hero as he converted Italy’s final penalty and secured the Azzurri’s fourth World Cup triumph.

Of the Roma contingent, Perrotta, with his energy and skill, was a mainstay of Lippi’s side, starting every match on the journey to glory. Totti started all but one the Azzurri’s seven matches and displayed an ice-cold streak as he coolly dispatched a last minute penalty against Australia – a last-16 tie Italy had played 40 minutes of with 10 men following a Materazzi red card – to earn Lippi’s men a place in the quarter-finals.

For De Rossi, the tournament highlighted a worrying side to his game, a side he could never fully shake off in subsequent years. The tenacious midfielder started Italy’s opening two group games, but in the second match against the USA, he was sent off for a violent elbow to the face of Brian McBride. Suspended for four matches, De Rossi’s next involvement came as a sixty-first minute replacement for Roma teammate Totti in the final. The fact that Lippi trusted the midfielder in the biggest of occasions speaks volumes for De Rossi’s strength of character, and he repaid his manager’s faith and redeemed himself in the eyes of the nation with an expertly converted penalty in the nerve-racking shoot-out.

Drama, controversy, despair, and elation are never in short supply in the rambunctious world of Italian football, though the events of summer ’06, on and off the park, are unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. For Roma, especially given the exhausting emotions of season 04/05, it was, perhaps, no bad thing that other clubs were dominating the headlines.

‘Best football I have ever seen’

Speaking on the Golazzo podcast, hosted by the Godfather of UK Italian football coverage James Richardson, Italian football journalist James Horncastle described Roma’s play during Spalletti’s first spell in charge as ‘the best football I have ever seen’. “It was out of this world,” he commented.

Horncastle’s comments can, in some part, be attributed to the arrival of David Pizarro, the Chilean playmaker who Spalletti had previously managed at Udinese, in August 2006. Pizarro’s poise and terrific range of passing complemented the more combative De Rossi – the pair would play behind a trio mainly comprising of Taddei, Perrotta and Mancini (Aquilani had an injury-hit 06/07 season and was restricted to 13 appearances) with Totti, once again, excelling in his ‘false 9’ role.

No moment of play encapsulated Roma’s free-flowing attacking flair more than the winning goal against AC Milan at the San Siro in November 2006. Left-back Max Tonetto’s robust challenge on Clarence Seedorf saw the ball land at the feet of Aquilani. The Italian’s ‘rabona’ flick was perfectly timed for the run of Mancini, whose first-time cross was met by the head of Totti, who sent the ball beyond Milan goalkeeper Dida and into the net. It was Totti’s second goal of the evening and secured a 2-1 victory for Roma. This marked the Giallorossi’s first San Siro victory over AC Milan – who went on to win the Champions League later that season – in 20 years.

On an individual level, this was possibly the finest season of Francesco Totti’s career. On his way to winning the European Golden Boot with 32 goals (Totti was also Serie A’s top scorer with 26) Roma’s number 10 scored arguably his greatest-ever goal. Playing away at Sampdoria, a match the Giallorossi won 4-2, right-back Marco Cassetti chipped a cross towards the far side of the hosts’ 18-yard box. With all angles seemingly covered, a ball across the face of the goal looked to be the only option for Totti, the recipient of Cassetti’s pass. A matter of seconds later, it was not just the Roma fans celebrating; large numbers of Sampdoria supporters had taken to their feet to applaud an exquisite, outside of the left boot volley from Totti, which fizzed past the Sampdoria ‘keeper and into a corner of the net that only Totti could have envisaged. It was a truly breathtaking goal.

Big wins, but not big prizes

Despite many stunning displays during the 06/07 campaign (both Milan sides were beaten at the San Siro, Catania were crushed 7-0 and Palermo 4-0 at the Olimpico) Roma could only finish in second place, a massive 22 points behind Roberto Mancini’s Inter Milan. Inter were the main beneficiaries of Juventus’ Calciopoli punishment – the influential Patrick Viera and Zlatan Ibrahimović swapped Turin for the Nerazzurri and were instrumental in securing the Scudetto. For Roma, there were too many draws and six league defeats, including a 3-0 hammering at the hands of Lazio in the season’s first Rome derby (the second derby in April 2007 finished goalless). Unfortunately, the derby defeat was not Roma’s heaviest, or most embarrassing, of the season.

Madness in Manchester

With the Calciopoli fallout resulting in Roma finishing second the previous campaign, the Giallorossi went straight into the Champions League group stages for season 06/07. A potentially tricky group pitted Roma against Spaniards Valencia, Greek side Olympiacos and Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk. The campaign could not have got off to a better start as Shakhtar were swept aside 4-0 at the Olimpico. A 2-1 defeat in Spain against Valencia was followed by an impressive victory away at Olympiacos – Simone Perrotta scoring the game’s only goal. At the midway point of the group, Roma looked to be in a strong position.

However, the Giallorossi could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to Olympiacos and fell to a single goal defeat in Ukraine against Donetsk. By the time Valencia arrived at the Olimpico in December, the Spanish side – who appeared in two consecutive Champions League finals at the turn of the century (losing them both) – had already sealed first place in the group. On a tense evening for the Giallorossi, an early header from veteran defender Christian Panucci was enough to win the match and secure second place and a spot in the last-16 of European football’s elite competition.

To progress to the quarter-finals, Roma would have to overcome highly-fancied French side Lyon, who had topped a group that included Spanish giants Real Madrid. Referee Mike Riley was the busiest man on the park during the first leg at the Olimpico: the Englishman flashed 11 yellow cards (eight of them were shown to Roma players) in a physical encounter that ended goalless.

The second leg in France will forever be remembered by Roma fans for arguably providing Amantino Mancini’s finest moment with the capital club. Roma were already a goal in front, courtesy of a close-range header from Totti, when the Brazilian winger collected a cross-field pass from Marco Cassetti. With Lyon’s Anthony Réveillère blocking his route to goal, Mancini performed a mesmerising series of step overs, leaving the French defender completely bamboozled, before slamming a shot high into the net beyond experienced goalkeeper Grégory Coupet. The two first half goals were enough to see Roma progress, and the on-pitch celebrations at the full-time whistle showed a group of players confident that they could go on to achieve something special together.

The quarter-finals pitted Roma against English giants Manchester United. After the first leg, Roma’s European dream was still alive. A deflected shot from Rodrigo Taddei, after United had lost Paul Scholes following two first half yellow cards, put Roma in front. A super Wayne Rooney goal had drawn United level but parity didn’t last long. Montenegrin striker Mirko Vucinic – who arrived in the eternal city from Lecce the previous summer and who would go on to play a crucial role in Roma’s attack in subsequent seasons – thumped home the winning goal after United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar could only parry a stinging drive from Mancini into his path.

A week later, Roma’s European hopes were brutally extinguished during a chastening experience in Manchester. Clearly smarting from defeat a week earlier, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side produced one of their finest-ever European performances to crush Roma 7-1.

Despite the humiliation in Manchester and the enormous gap between themselves and Inter at the top of the Serie A table, Roma managed to regroup and gave fans cause to celebrate at the end of the season.

Second season silverware

Luciano Spalletti’s second season in charge at Roma was bookended with cup finals against Inter Milan. The Supercoppa Italiana, the curtain raiser to the Serie A campaign, pitted the two sides against each other, a result of the post-Calciopoli league table adjustments and Roma finishing runners up in the Coppa Italia the previous campaign. Despite racing into a 3-0 lead after 34 minutes at the San Siro, courtesy of a brace from Aquilani and a goal from Mancini, Roma let Inter back into the match; two goals from Patrick Vieira and a Hernan Crespo strike forced extra-time. Inter’s Portuguese superstar Luis Figo, who had joined the Nerazzurri from Real Madrid the previous summer, sealed victory for Inter in the ninety-fifth minute.

Nine months later, and with a confidence boosting 3-1 league victory over the Nerazzurri at the San Siro in April fresh in the minds of the players, Roma concluded the campaign with a two-leg Coppa Italia final showdown against Inter. The Giallorossi’s start to the Supercoppa final in August may have been quick but it was nothing compared to their explosive beginning to the first leg of the Coppa Italia final at the Olimpico. With only 16 minutes on the clock, Roma were 3-0 ahead; Totti stroked home the opening goal from close-range with less than a minute played before De Rossi diverted a Mexes volley into the net five minutes later. Simone Perrotta added a third goal in the sixteenth minute, but Crespo reduced the arrears four minutes later. Roma’s three-goal cushion was soon restored by Mancini and the Giallorossi went into the break with a 4-1 lead.

Shortly after the restart, Panucci powerfully headed in a pin-point David Pizarro corner kick to put Roma, incredibly, 5-1 up against the league champions. Crespo then added his second goal of the match to give Inter slight hope of overturning the tie at home in the second leg. However, with only two minutes remaining, Panucci capped one of Roma’s finest displays in modern times by adding his second goal of the match – a close-range tap-in after Inter goalkeeper Francesco Toldo could only parry a ferocious Totti free-kick – and earning Roma a remarkable 6-2 win.

At the San Siro, early second half goals from Crespo and compatriot Julio Cruz gave Inter a glimmer of hope of adding the Coppa Italia to their league triumph, but any lingering hopes were extinguished in the eighty-third minute as Perrotta cleverly diverted a Totti shot into the net from inside the 18-yard box. Perrotta celebrated wildly with the travelling hordes of Giallorossi tifosi gathered behind the goals in the first tier.

It may not have been the Scudetto they so craved, but Roma’s Coppa Italia showed that they were more than a match for Inter at a one-on-one level, and the trophy was an important memento of some of the most scintillating football a generation of Roma fans is likely to witness.

Mirror images

You would be forgiven for thinking you are reading a repeat of the preceding paragraphs but in season 07/08, Roma contested the league title with Inter Milan, battled with the Nerazzurri in the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia finals, and were knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage by Manchester United.

In a feisty subplot to the beginning of the new season, the burgeoning rivalry between Roma and Inter intensified when Romanian defender Cristian Chivu swapped the eternal city for the fashion capital. The transfer of Chivu – who had spent four years at Roma and had been an integral part of Spalletti’s stylish side – was a significant set-back for the Giallorossi and cemented Inter’s status as the Peninsula’s premier club and biggest beneficiaries of the Calciopoli era.

However, it was Roma who drew first blood with victory in the Supercoppa Italiana at the San Siro. A late penalty provided the perfect platform for Daniele De Rossi to show he was deserving of his ‘Capitano Futuro’ moniker. With Totti unable to take the spot kick, which was awarded after Roma’s number 10 was fouled by Nicolás Burdisso (who went on to join Roma two years later), responsibility landed on the shoulders of the 24-year-old midfielder. At the same end of the ground at which they had celebrated Perrotta’s goal a few months earlier, the Giallorossi fans were, once again, in raptures as De Rossi confidently drilled his spot-kick beyond Brazilian Júlio César in the Inter goals and secure a 1-0 triumph.

Final day heartache

With only 30 minutes remaining of Serie A season 07/08, Roma were at the top of the standings and a fourth Scudetto was within touching distance for the Giallorossi.

Despite a 4-1 hammering by the Nerazzurri at the Olimpico early in the campaign, Roma had clung onto their rivals’ coattails and a late season blip from the Milan side left them only a single point ahead of the Giallorossi going into the final round of fixtures.

For Roma, the task was simple (on paper at least): win at relegation-threatened Catania and hope that Parma, also embroiled in the battle for Serie A survival, could take at least a point from visitors Inter.

With only eight minutes played in Sicily, Mirko Vucinic gave Roma fans cause to dream as his fantastic solo goal put the Giallorossi ahead. While Roma were in command in sunny Sicily, Inter were being held at a rain-soaked Ennio Tardini stadium in Parma. Would Inter’s Scudetto hopes be washed up in the same fashion as Juventus famously faltered on the last day of the 99/00 season amidst a storm in Perugia? With a little less than half an hour of the season remaining, Vucinic’s strike for Roma was still the only goal scored between the two key matches. Enter Zlatan Ibrahimović to break Roma’s hearts; Inter’s talisman wasn’t fit enough to start the match but came off the bench to score two second half goals to win another Scudetto for Inter and relegate hosts Parma.

As news of Zlatan’s late show filtered down to Sicily, Roma conceded a late equaliser, which kept the home side in Serie A for another season. In truth, a draw was the least the hosts deserved as – roared on by their passionate support – they laid siege on the Roma goal for large parts of the afternoon. For Roma and Spalletti, it was a case of what might have been. The following weekend, as had often been the case in previous seasons, they would show they could rise to the big occasion in a one-off match. However, the longer-term challenge remained: could Spalletti build on the latest league set-back – and shake-off the role of Serie A bridesmaid – by outlasting Inter over the course of a full season?

Magical Mexes lifts Roma

Despite spending his career at the heart of defence, Mexes had an eye for a spectacular goal (later in his career, having joined Milan, he scored one of the finest Champions League goals of all time with an audacious overhead bicycle kick against Belgian side Anderlecht). One such moment of Mexes magic set Roma on the path to victory in the latest instalment of the Roma v Inter Milan cup final series.

Six days after the Scudetto finale, the Stadio Olimpico played host to the fourth successive Coppa Italia final between the Giallorossi and the Nerazzurri. The cup final was now settled by a single tie, having previously been played over two legs since season 1980/81. 10 minutes before half-time, and with the match goalless, Mexes darted to the near post to meet a David Pizarro corner and send a crisp shot high into the Inter net – a training ground routine executed to perfection. The second goal, and the ultimate match-winner, was emblematic of Spalletti’s Roma at their free-flowing best. Collecting a pass from Ludovic Giuly just inside the Inter half, Simone Perrotta burst forward and, as he approached the 18-yard-box, delicately clipped a pass over the heads of the Inter backline to Mirko Vucinic. The Montenegrin could have had a shot at goal himself but, instead, chose to flick the ball to Perrotta who, having continued his run, took a touch before calmy lobbing the ball home.

The champions hit back courtesy of a spectacular long-range strike from Portuguese midfielder Pelé, but Roma held on to secure their second consecutive win in the national cup.

Roma conquer Real, but fall to familiar foe

Under the floodlights and the steep galleries of the Santiago Bernabéu stadium – home of the Galacticos, Real Madrid, Europe’s most storied club and, in 2008, nine times European Cup winners – the stage was set and the setting perfect for one of Roma’s finest evenings in European competition.

The Giallorossi went into the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie with a 2-1 advantage, following a pulsating first leg fixture at the Olimpico. In Madrid, Alberto Aquilani signalled Roma’s intent when his thunderous long-range effort crashed off the post. Madrid ‘keeper Iker Casillas had to be alert to thwart another strike from the midfielder soon after.

In the second period, Brazilian striker Julio Baptista, who would go on to join Roma the following season, almost put Madrid in front but the hosts were dealt a blow with 20 minutes remaining when Portuguese defender Pepe was sent-off for his second bookable offence. In the seventy-third minute, Rodrigo Taddei put Roma in front and 3-1 ahead on aggregate. Drifting in from the right wing, the Brazilian stole a march on the Madrid defence and cleverly headed home a cross from full-back Max Tonetto. Two minutes later, Madrid hit back courtesy of a strike from Spanish football’s golden boy Raul. With the hosts pushing for the goal that would take the tie to extra-time, Vucinic silenced the Bernabéu, save for the travelling pocket of Roma fans who were in ecstasy. The Montenegrin, by now a key player for Spalletti following a slow start to life in the capital, met a Christian Panucci free-kick with his head and scored the goal that sealed Roma’s spot in the last eight of European football’s premier club tournament for the second consecutive season.

Roma’s dubious reward for their Madrid heroics was a repeat of the 2007 quarter-final with Manchester United. An opportunity to exorcise the horror of the 7-1 defeat had already presented itself to the Giallorossi as the two sides were drawn together in the group stage alongside Dynamo Kiev and Sporting Lisbon. A resolute showing at Old Trafford on matchday two saw Roma lose by a single goal, scored by Wayne Rooney. By the time the two sides shared a 1-1 draw at the Olimpico on matchday six, United had already secured first place in the group with Roma also guaranteed runners up spot and a place in the last 16.

Roma went into the last eight tie without the injured Totti, but it mattered little as United were just too strong – Sir Alex Ferguson’s side displaying the ruthless streak that would see them go on to lift the Champions League trophy for the first time since 1999. The first leg in Rome was most notable for a stunning headed goal by Cristiano Ronaldo – who was showing the kind of form that would soon see him recognised as one of the world’s greatest players – to set the English side on their way. A second half goal from Rooney put United firmly in command over a subdued Roma.

In the second leg in Manchester, Daniele De Rossi spurned a glorious opportunity to reignite the tie when he blazed a penalty kick high over the United crossbar. Any lingering hopes the Giallorossi had of upsetting the odds were dashed when Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez scored the only goal of the game in the second half.

Perhaps with a kinder draw, Roma may have had the opportunity to reach the final of the European Cup for the first time since they lost the 1984 showpiece on their home turf against Liverpool. However, as has so often been the case for Giallorossi players, coaches, staff, and fans, they were left pondering what might have been.

Mixed results, as red mist descends

Season 08/09 was Spalletti’s poorest in charge of Roma. The Giallorossi could only muster two wins from their first ten league fixtures – a sequence that included a crushing 4-0 defeat at home to Inter Milan. The Nerazzurri had beaten Roma on penalties in the Supercoppa Italiana final in August and went on to secure their fourth consecutive Scudetto.

The poor form brought with it an unhealthy dose of ill-discipline; De Rossi was sent off in a 3-1 defeat away to Genoa while Panucci and Mexes both saw red in a 1-0 loss at Siena.

Roma’s third win of the campaign could not have arrived at a better time. Summer signing Julio Baptista ensured his name will forever be remembered among Roma fans as his header from a Totti cross resulted in the only goal of the season’s first Rome derby. Victory over Lazio in November gave Roma a noticeable boost, as they went on to win their next four league matches.

The second half of the campaign brought more mixed results. There were high points – a 3-0 victory away at Napoli and a 3-2 win against AC Milan at the San Siro – but plenty of lows, also. Juventus, playing their third year in Serie A following a single season stint in Serie B, a result of the Calciopoli scandal, thumped Roma 4-1 at the Olimpico. Fiorentina also defeated an out-of-sorts Roma by the same score-line in April. Worst of all, however, was the 4-2 defeat by Lazio in the season’s second Derby della Capitale. Roma’s worrying habit of collecting red cards was showing little sign of abating; Panucci and Mexes both received their marching orders in the derby and Pizarro was sent off in the defeat to Fiorentina. In total, the Giallorossi received 12 red cards during the 38-game league season as they stumbled to a sixth-place finish.

The 08/09 campaign brought an end to the four-year sequence of consecutive Roma v Inter Milan Coppa Italia finals, as the two sides were drawn together at the quarter-final stage of the tournament. Inter knocked out Roma thanks to a 2-1 win at the San Siro.

There was a familiar feel to Roma’s Champions League exit too as they fell to English opposition for the third consecutive season. Having finished top of a group including Chelsea, the Giallorossi were paired with Arsenal in the last-16. A Robin van Persie penalty gave the English side victory in the first leg in London, but Brazilian central defender Juan drew Roma level nine minutes into the second leg. The remaining 81 minutes of normal time and 30 minutes of extra time produced no further goals and, for only the second time since losing the 1984 European Cup final to Liverpool, Roma would take part in a penalty shoot-out in European competition (the Giallorossi were knocked out of the 1986/87 European Cup Winners’ Cup first round by Spanish side Zaragoza on penalties). As was the case 25 years earlier, the English side triumphed and silenced the Olimpico.

Given the club’s sixth-place finish in Serie A, there would be no Champions League football for Roma the following campaign. However, 2009/10 was not a season lacking in drama.

Spalletti steps aside

In four years in charge of Roma, Luciano Spalletti had overseen a record-breaking 11-game winning streak, won two Coppa Italia titles, and come agonisingly close to securing the club’s fourth Scudetto. As well as his introduction of the ‘false 9’ system, Spalletti’s tactical nous allowed relatively unheralded players, such as Marco Cassetti, Rodrigo Taddei and Simone Perrotta, to flourish. However, by the summer of 2009, and on the back of a disappointing Serie A campaign, the dark clouds were, once again, hovering over the Olimpico. Alberto Aquilani was sold to Liverpool and the lack of any major arrivals at the club over the summer added to fans’ frustrations.

Rome is a city of extremes and when there’s unrest in the air, something usually gives. When the Giallorossi lost their first two games of the 2009/10 campaign – a 3-2 defeat away to Genoa was followed by a 3-1 loss to Juventus at the Olimpico – Spalletti resigned from his post.

Ranieri’s Roma revival

There are few more widely popular men in football than Claudio Ranieri. The avuncular Italian’s witty humour has endeared him to fans across the five countries in which he has managed. Born in Rome and a fan of Roma since his youth, Ranieri was the man the Sensi family turned to in September 2009 to lift the Giallorossi from their malaise.

Ranieri brought some immediate and much-needed stability to the club with two victories in his first two league matches, which were followed by two draws. After defeating Napoli in early October, Ranieri’s Roma were unbeaten in five matches. However, three consecutive league defeats saw Roma going into the long days of winter with tension and uncertainty in the air.

On 1 November, as the Giallorossi lined up to face Bologna at the Olimpico, not even the most optimistic Roma fan alive could have dreamt of the journey the club was about to embark on. Between a 2-1 victory over Bologna and Inter Milan’s arrival at the Olimpico on 27 March 2010, Roma won 14 matches, drew six and lost none in the league. The run of form had propelled the club into the most unlikely of Scudetto challenges.

Roma v Inter, Ranieri v Mourinho

A recent war of words between Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho, who had replaced Roberto Mancini as Inter Milan manager in 2008, provided an interesting subplot to the 2010 title race.

Mourinho had taken over from Ranieri as Chelsea manager earlier in the decade and criticised the Italian for his managerial style and failing to win an important title during his career in the dugout. Following his arrival in Italy with Inter Milan, and with Ranieri in charge at Juventus, the Portuguese coach spoke of his counterpart’s ‘struggles’ with the English language. The rivalry between the two managers only added to an already bristling tension simmering at a packed Stadio Olimpico as Roma and Inter took to the field in March 2010.

The Giallorossi began the game stronger than the visitors and took the lead after 17 minutes – Daniele De Rossi bundling the ball into the net following an uncharacteristic fumble from Inter goalkeeper Júlio César.

Former Roma defender Water Samuel almost drew Inter level before half-time but the Argentinian’s header crashed against the crossbar. Samuel’s compatriot Diego Milito equalised for Inter on 66 minutes, but parity didn’t last long. With 17 minutes left to play, a wayward Rodrigo Taddei shot was expertly trapped by Luca Toni, the Italian World Cup winner who had joined Roma on loan from Bayern Munich earlier in the season. The former Fiorentina striker swivelled and sent a perfect shot into the net to spark scenes of bedlam in the Olimpico. Giallorossi joy was perfectly encapsulated in the celebrations of De Rossi; as the ball hit the net, De Rossi performed three jumps in the air before burning off some of his excess energy by going for a swing on Júlio César’s crossbar. De Rossi’s idol Totti had already tasted Scudetto success, and you couldn’t help but feel how desperate his protégé was to savour league title glory for the team and city he so loves.

In the game’s final moments, Milito smashed a close-range shot off the post, but, as the referee whistled for full-time, Roma had closed the gap to Inter at the top of the table to a single point (the gap had stood at 14 points when the sides drew 1-1 at the San Siro in November).

At this stage of the campaign, Inter’s city rivals, Milan were also still in the hunt for the Scudetto, but a dip in form in the closing weeks left it a two-way fight between Roma and Inter, Ranieri and Mourinho.

Ranieri’s biggest call

It’s just after 19:15 on 18 April 2010. Moments earlier, referee Paolo Tagliavento has blown for half-time in the second Rome derby of the season. Lazio head to the dressing rooms with a 1-0 lead thanks to an early goal from striker Tomasso Rochi.

A week earlier Inter only managed a draw away at Fiorentina while Roma defeated Atalanta 2-1. The results mean that, with five games to go for each side, the Giallorossi’s Scudetto destiny is in their own hands. On paper at least, there was one massive hurdle in Roma’s way: the Derby della Capitale. If Roma could overcome Lazio, they would have home games against Sampdoria and Cagliari, a visit to Parma and a final-day-of-the-season to trip to Chievo to negotiate to clinch the Scudetto.

Back we go to the Olimpico dressing rooms on 18 April. With the Scudetto dream on the line, Claudio Ranieri does the unthinkable. Totti and De Rossi – the modern-day Romulus and Remus, Roma’s captain and vice-captain – are substituted for Rodrigo Taddei and Frenchman Jérémy Ménez. It’s an outrageous gamble from the man christened the ‘Tinkerman’ in England, a moniker earned due to his fondness for over-rotating his line-up. Totti and De Rossi had both been booked in the first half but it’s difficult to think of any other manager even contemplating such a move on the biggest of occasions. Roma had been overrun during the game’s opening 45 minutes and Ranieri believed the double substitution would give his side more balance.

Ranieri later admitted he felt he would have been ‘crucified’ if his substitution had backfired, and, one minute after the restart, the coach must have been contemplating such an outcome as Lazio were awarded a penalty. As it happened, Sergio Floccari’s spot-kick was tame and Roma goalkeeper Júlio Sérgio earned his manager a stay of execution with a save down at his right-hand-side.

Six minutes later, Roma had a penalty of their own after Taddei was clipped in the box by Aleksandar Kolarov, who would go on to join Roma later in his career. With Totti and De Rossi on the side-lines, Mirko Vucinic took on the responsibility in front of Roma’s Curva Sud. The Montenegrin made no mistake, slamming his penalty past Fernando Muslera in the Lazio goal.

Roma sensed blood and struck Lazio while they were down. If Muslera had little chance with Vucinic’s penalty, the Uruguayan goalkeeper had even less hope when a ferocious free kick from the Montenegrin thundered past him and into the Lazio net 10 minutes later.

Vucinic’s explosive second half performance was enough to seal the victory for Roma and, with four games to go, they were, quite incredibly, in pole position in the race for the Scudetto. As the players – including Totti and De Rossi, who raced onto the park at the final whistle – celebrated, one can only imagine the range of emotions that must have been swirling around Claudio Ranieri’s head.

As has so often been the case when it comes to Roma, elation didn’t last. This is a story that would, quite literally, end in tears.

Mexes & Roma cry

Unless you are born and raised as a child of the eternal city, it’s claimed that it’s difficult to fully understand and appreciate the Roman mindset. If one non-Roman has come close to embodying the passion and spirit of the city over the past two decades, it has to be Philippe Mexes. Since his arrival in 2004, the French defender had given his all to the club. His high intensity defending, and outward displays of emotion earned the adulation of the Giallorossi faithful. Of course, and in keeping with his surroundings, Mexes’ passion would often boil over – he was sent off six times in his Roma career. When the moments of madness occurred, it was usually a result of Mexes caring. Maybe he cared too much?

Perhaps the most defining image of Roma’s rollercoaster 2009/10 campaign was the sight of Mexes in tears as Roma faced Sampdoria the week after the Lazio victory. The visit of Sampdoria was arguably Roma’s toughest looking game of the league run-in, but Francesco Totti settled the nerves with a goal after 14 minutes and Roma led 1-0 at the break. Shortly after the restart, former Roma favourite Antonio Cassano provided a pin-point cross for strike partner Giampaolo Pazzini to head past Júlio Sérgio in the Roma goal. The Giallorossi threw everything at the visitors in search of a winning goal but were stunned when Pazzini added a late second for Sampdoria.

As the Olimpico fell silent, the cameras cut to substitute Mexes, who was sitting on the bench with tears rolling down his cheeks. The agony of defeat and the realisation that the Scudetto dream was crumbling before his eyes, was too much for the Frenchman to take.

Despite an incredible run of form – losing only one match in 28 after the first 10 games of the season – Claudio Ranieri’s Roma had to settle for the all too familiar role of Serie A bridesmaid; the Giallorossi finished an agonising two points behind Mourinho’s Inter Milan. On the same weekend Roma had lost to Sampdoria, Inter defeated Atalanta and regained top spot. Both Inter and Roma took maximum points from their final three matches. The final day of the season shared more than a passing similarity with the closing day of the 07/08 campaign. Once again, both Roma and Inter faced away fixtures – at Chievo and Siena respectively – and, once again, the Giallorossi led the table at half-time only to have their hopes dashed in the second half. With Roma 2-0 up and cruising in Verona, Diego Milito’s goal in the fifty-seventh minute sealed victory and the Scudetto for Inter.

Milito, a striker who excelled under Mourinho and would go on to score both goals as Inter beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in that season’s Champions League final, had already broken Roma hearts when he scored the only goal as Inter defeated the Giallorossi in the Coppa Italia final on 5 May. The final had ended on a sour note for Francesco Totti: the Roma captain was sent off in the closing stages for a violent kick at Inter’s Mario Balotelli.

But if it happens…

During the second half of the 2009/10 season, as Ranieri’s side looked like they may just achieve something spectacular, Roma fans adopted the mantra, ‘non succede, ma se succede…’ (it won’t happen, but if it happens…). The phrase encapsulates both sides of life in Rome and the aspirations of Roma. It’s just not meant to be, it will happen to somebody else instead. But the day it does happen, there will be a party that nobody is ever likely to forget.

Words by: Martin Dunlop. @dunlop85