It had been looking good for AS Roma. Since the derby defeat to Lazio in early November, the Giallorossi had put together a fine run of form, and even a disappointing loss away to ChievoVerona didn't sting too much given the convincing nature of the victories at home over Fiorentina and AC Milan.
Then, came the winter break. Many tifosi questioned the wisdom of travelling to the US to train and then play a friendly in Orlando, given that the squad had been involved in such an important match against Milan on December 23 and would face Napoli January 4.
As we all now know, that game against the Partenopei ended in disaster. There's no shame losing in Naples, but the manner of the 4-1 defeat angered fans and confounded commentators. Surely Napoli weren't that much better than i Lupi?
This is a question that sums up the confusion surrounding Roma: just how good—or bad—are they? Again, against Catania they managed to look dominant and hopeless at the same time. Six gilt-edged chances went begging in a first half that would have seen any decent striker in Mattia Destro's position slot home at least three.
So who's to blame? Well, the papers in Italy seem to think Zdeněk Zeman's job is on the line, so obviously plenty of people think it's the Czech at fault. And the coach's ongoing conflict with Daniele De Rossi—who again went unused against Catania—has won him few supporters.
That said, given that Zeman's preparation, tactics and his team selection are the primary cause of this Roma side having the ability to create six gilt-edged chances in 45 minutes of football, it seems ludicrous to blame him. And Roma's problems weren't in midfield, so the De Rossi problem—it is a problem—shouldn't factor in assessing what's happened since the victory over Milan.
De Rossi is one of the world's truly great midfielders, and improves the Roma squad immeasurably. He'd improve any squad. Just what's going on between him and Zeman is a mystery, though there's plenty of speculation. It seems strange that the coach would clash with De Rossi so, when he's always had such a special relationship with Rome's other talisman, Francesco Totti.
But, and this is something that needs more attention than it's getting: Roma's problems haven't really been in the midfield lately. They've been up front.
Many question Zeman's perseverance with Panagiotis Tachtsidis, as well as his preference for Michael Bradley, who is a fine squad player, but nowhere near the class of De Rossi. But changing Zeman now—even for Pep Guardiola—would be a mistake.
The capital side have been without any consistency on the bench since Luciano Spalletti left in 2009. In fact, since Zeman was dismissed so controversially in 1999, there have been 10 changes of coach (even if, admittedly, Cesere Prandelli's stay was only cut so short by personal reasons).
The side's new American owners promised to bring stability and prosperity back to the Eternal City, after several difficult years under Rosella Sensi. But to get back to the heights enjoyed under Sensi's father Franco, the highlight of which was when they lifted the Scudetto with Fabio Capello in 2001, the club needs to think long-term.
Zeman's a unique proposition. His tactics—an all-out 4-3-3—are carved in stone and his rigorous training methods a throwback to another age. But combined with his unwavering view on how the game should be played—clean, the right away—and his commitment to nurturing young talent—no coach was more responsible for the greatness Totti achieved—he seems a man worth backing, at least for a few seasons, to see if his labours can bear fruit.
Already, the performances of Erik Lamela, Miralem Pjanic and Marquinhos hint at great things to come. So too does his use of young local stars Alessandro Florenzi and Alessio Romagnoli, who is just 17.
He's also almost universally loved in the capital, and was certainly hard done by when dismissed by Sensi, who chose to bow to pressure from the league following the Czech coach's criticism of Juventus' methods in the late 1990s.
Following that dismissal, the Bohemian was seen as untouchable in Italian football, and only his fine work at Pescara and Franco Baldini's bravery won him the right to coach at the top level once more. This, most feel, is Zeman's deserved second chance at the big time, in what has long been his home city, at his most beloved club. No question about it, this is one for the romantics out there.
There are issues to resolve at Roma. Form has been erratic, and a player of Daniele De Rossi's stature must surely feature more often. But the main issue is profligacy. It's a struggle to think of a side who squander more golden opportunities in front of goal than Roma. The tactics and the players all work beautifully—until they don't. Other teams could only dream of being as lethal going forward, but nearly all of them would convert the chances once they were there.
Where most sides work hard to create a couple of chances per game, the Giallorossi waste handfuls. But—and it's a big but—if they were to become more consistent in front of goal, they'd be among the most devastating and attractive teams in world football. The question is whether Zeman and his young charges will get the time to prove themselves.