Rudi Garcia's Roma
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
The Giallorossi started their season with their sixth coach in three years, and the sale of Erik Lamela was supposed to have left them much the weaker. The departure of Marquinhos to Paris Saint-Germain left the defence short on pace, and they hadn't signed the top quality, experienced striker that most commentators felt they needed.
And yet, they're top of the table. Five wins from five, the first time in the history of the Lupi that they've managed to win this many of their opening fixtures.
Among those wins was an emphatic derby performance against local rivals Lazio, dispelling the ghosts which had lingered since May's depressing defeat to the Aquile in the historic all-Roman Coppa Italia final.
Rudi Garcia took the reins at Roma during difficult times, and his immediate impact has been nothing short of spectacular. The whole squad seems more balanced and harmonious than any time in recent memory, and even though they've lost Lamela, the Lupi look a lot better going forward.
Francesco Totti—signed to a new contract that should see him captain his boyhood club until the age of 40—continues his Indian summer.
Er Pupone has been rolling back the years with energetic, intelligent and above all creative displays few others are capable of. And alongside him, new signings Adem Ljajic and Gervinho—a gamble after the Ivorian's disappointing stay at Arsenal—have settled immediately and contributed too. The partnership between the Serbian and Roma's No.10 looks especially promising.
Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi are both at their best in the midfield, complemented by the Dutch national side's captain Kevin Strootman.
It is, in fact, a central trio to envy. Each of the three has his own merits, and each complements his companions well. There's grit, steel, tactical understanding, the ability to control the pace of a game and to create devastating attacking opportunities.
At the back, Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castan have been flawless. They've conceded just once so far this term, and though the pair lack pace, their overall ability and physicality more than make up for it. On either flank, Federico Balzaretti and Maicon have had positive starts, too.
The Italian has had difficult times in the capital, and suffered harsh criticism from the fans in the past. His goal against Lazio—and the player's reaction to it—suggests that the bad is all behind him. He's been excellent this season. So too, has the ageing Brazilian. Maicon looks more the player of old, when he was so integral to a great Inter side, than he does the spent force of his more recent spell at Manchester City.
More important than all the individual performances, however, has been the overall tenacity and consistency of the unit.
Can Roma qualify for the Champions League?
Garcia's side has yet to score a goal in the first half of a game, but with 12 goals in five games they haven't been goal shy. The Frenchman's approach thus far has seen his well-drilled, compact and organised team work patiently and cleverly to wear down opponents without ever displaying weakness.
There's been another, far more important factor in the Giallorossi's early performances. Historically, the capital side has rarely been short on talent. But all too often their ability has been undermined by a mental fragility. The difference between Roma and Italy's other big sides has been the ability to grind out wins or to perform with their backs to the wall.
Garcia has changed all that. When Roma came from behind to beat Parma 1-3 at the Ennio Tardini, the coach achieved something that had only happened once in the previous 76 games: a comeback.
Luis Enrique, Zdenek Zeman and Aurelio Andreazzoli all failed to instil a winning mentality at Trigoria. With the exception of a win over Siena in December 2012, when they came from behind to win by two, Roma hadn't been able to respond to difficulty in the way any side with serious ambition must.
In the game against Parma, Garcia's squad showed maturity and self-belief and patiently worked for the win they knew they deserved. And the significance of the win will have been lost on no one in Italy.
Roma have always been able to turn on the style in spurts and to win beautifully. But it had to be on their terms, when they were in control and at their best. Put them in difficulty and watch them squirm.
Not anymore. This Roma is capable of winning whatever the circumstances. And the rest of Serie A should sit up and take notice. It's far too early to talk about league challenges, but Garcia's Lupi have teeth. And are always hungry for the win.
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