Roma top Serie A after winning opening nine league matches
Serie A leaders clear at top of table by five points after stunning start
New coach Rudi Garcia key to Roma's renaissance
Roma talisman Francesco Totti rejuvenated under Garcia
Nobody would have predicted this.
A team coming off the back of a mediocre season with a newly-appointed, unheralded coach, sitting at the top of the Italian Serie A table after a run of nine successive victories.
No team in European football has made a better start to the 2013-14 season than Roma; no team in Italian football history has ever made a better start to a Serie A season.
A handful of vibrant new recruits and a wily old-timer have all combined to lift the club to the top of the table, with Roma’s form attracting admiring glances from around the world.
“What I really like about this Roma team is that they play with a strong mentality,” Italian football expert Tor-Kristian Karlsen told CNN.
“They play with such intensity and have a winning mentality,” added the former Monaco chief executive.
With many scratching their heads as to how this incredible run has been put together, CNN gives you five reasons why Rudi Garcia’s team are the toast of the continent.
Garcia’s arrival at Roma in June went largely unnoticed, the Frenchman replacing Aurelio Andrezzoli after an unspectacular sixth-place finish in the 2012-13 campaign.
The Frenchman won the Ligue 1 title with Lille in 2011, a team which featured players like Gervinho (more on him later) and Chelsea star Eden Hazard, but arguably Garcia had flown under the radar of all but the most-discerning European football fans.
“He has a very strong personality, he is very articulate and commands huge respect,” French football expert Philippe Auclair told CNN.
“I recently talked to Hazard and he was speaking about Chelsea manger Jose Mourinho’s insistence on taking care of defensive duties. He said that approach is similar to Garcia and that speaks volumes about the thoroughness of his preparations.”
Garcia is one of a small band of French coaches to have worked in Italy’s top division and the 49-year-old has faced his fair share of doubters during his first six months in Rome.
“His success has been a huge surprise,” added Auclair. “France has exported a lot of players to Italy, but when he went to Roma there was a negative reaction that this guy was a ‘no-hoper’.”
Garcia’s success is made all the more remarkable given the pressures which weigh on the shoulders of any Roma coach.
Despite having left Monaco earlier this year, Karlsen remains in touch with former Roma player and coach Claudio Ranieri, who is currently in charge at the Ligue 1 club. The Norwegian said: “Ranieri told me that Roma is probably the toughest job in the world given the pressure and focus from outside the club.”
Garcia has also done well to utilize the considerable talents of club captain Francesco Totti, a player who is idolized by the Romanisti and whose exclusion from the side can result in uproar.
“Totti is a talisman for Roma, but that also creates problems for any incoming coach,” explained Karlsen.
“He is a God to the club’s fans and you wouldn’t want to be the coach that ends his career. You’d imagine that the other players look up to him and he is strong influence in the dressing room.
“He is a leader, who is deeply attached to Roma and wants the best for his team and city.”
Roma’s smart preseason trading has been another factor in their record-breaking start.
Argentine winger Erik Lamela and Argentine-born Italy striker Pablo Daniel Osvaldo were both sold to English clubs, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton respectively, in big-money deals, giving Roma scope to recruit some exciting talents.
Gervinho arrived from Arsenal, while sturdy Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman –“made for Italian football” according to Karlsen – was signed from PSV Eindhoven despite reported interest from Manchester United.
Morgan De Sanctis and Medhi Benatia are two new recruits who have helped make up a formidable defence, along with veteran Brazilian right-back Maicon.
Lamela has been replaced by Adem Llajic, a Serb who joined Roma from Fiorentina and who has already scored three times in six appearances.
“You have to praise the technical director Walter Sabatini – and he deserves a lot of credit,” added Karlsen.
“The first part of the transfer window they were just a selling club, but Sabatini kept a cool head, bought the right players at the right price at the right moment having made a profit of 40 million euros.”
A water tight defence
Nine games played, nine games won and one goal conceded.
Parma are the only team to have breached Europe’s meanest defence, taking the lead in a match Roma went on to win 3-1.
Goalkeeper De Sanctis arrived from Napoli for a modest $690,000 in July and he has enjoyed a near faultless start to his career in the Italian capital, stationed behind the center back pairing of Italian international Federico Balzaretti and Morocco’s Benatia.
Roma’s latest win, a 1-0 success at Udinese, was proof of their defensive steel.
Down to 10 men, without the services of attacking talisman Totti and in-form winger Gervinho, Roma ground out a 1-0 win to become the first visiting team to take three points from Udine since September 2012.
“Congratulations to my team-mates,” said Totti on his website after the match. “Each one showed courage, strength and, as we say around here, two massive balls!”
Like the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus, Totti is an immovable monument on the landscape of the Eternal City.
The flamboyant attacker is Roma’s captain and the definition of a one-club man.
Since making his debut in 1992, Totti has made 542 appearances for the Giallorossi, scoring 230 goals. As Roma’s official website says, “the number 10 is without question the best player in the club’s history.”
Totti’s form this season has been imperious, with the veteran scoring three goals and contributing six assists.
His standout performance of Roma’s winning run came away at Inter Milan, where he found the net twice in a convincing 3-0 triumph.
His performances have led to calls for him to return to the Italy team for the first time since 2006.
His last match for the Azzuri was the penalty shootout triumph over France in the 2006 World Cup final, with current national coach Cesare Prandelli suggesting a fit and in-form Totti would be a shoo-in for a place at Brazil 2014.
Another attacking star of Roma’s renaissance has been Gervinho, the Ivorian forward who has thus far proved to be a shrewd acquisition from English Premier League team Arsenal.
Gervinho’s two-year stay in England was largely unremarkable as he developed a reputation for missing chances.
His preseason move to Roma saw him reunited with Rudi Garcia, who was his coach during a successful stay in France with Lille, and it has paid dividends.
Three goals and one assist from a player who managed just six Premier League goals in his final season with Arsenal is an impressive return, hinting that Gervinho could be ready to fulfill the promise he showed during he and Garcia’s first spell together.