The end, when it came, was abrupt. For months Roma had been dreaming the impossible dream, winning one match after another and convincing themselves that Juventus would eventually slip up.
But on Saturday, manager Rudi Garcia finally threw in the towel, acknowledging that the Bianconeri—eight points clear, with three left games to go—simply could not be caught. A day later, Roma were beaten 4-1 by last-placed Catania.
It was a jarring result, and one that raised a lot of eyebrows. Garcia immediately cancelled his players’ day off on Monday, stating that he never wanted to see another performance like it from his team (quotes in Italian).
Roma’s supporters do not seem too concerned. Two days after the loss to Catania, hundreds of them lined up before dawn to purchase 2014-15 season tickets as soon as they went on sale at the club’s official store. Seats in the Curva Sud—the only section made available at this early stage—sold out in less than a day.
Already there is speculation that the club could break the record it set in 2002-03, when more than 48,500 season tickets were sold. That would be quite some achievement; less than half that number were taken up for the present campaign.
It is easy to forget how low the mood had sunk at Roma last summer, as the club contemplated its second consecutive season without European football. As if their sixth-place finish in Serie A was not disappointing enough, the Giallorossi had lost the Coppa Italia final to city rivals Lazio, whose fans staged an enormous mock funeral in their honour.
At the time, it seemed that Roma were light years away from competing for a Scudetto. Daniele De Rossi, 30 years old and still without a league title to his name, contemplated leaving his boyhood club in order to go chase glory elsewhere. It was only his unwillingness to depart on the low note of derby defeat that ultimately persuaded him to stay.
The last 12 months have shown how quickly a team’s fortunes can turn. Roma had to settle for second place in Serie A this time around, but in what is their first season under Garcia, they have already set new club records for most points (85), as well as most clean sheets (21).
But the difficult question now is whether such success can be sustained. Have Roma just wasted one of the greatest seasons in club history, simply because they had the bad luck to run into a Juventus side that happened to be even better? Or are they ready to build on this platform and challenge for many more years to come?
There are valid arguments to be made on either side. The sceptics point out that Roma had fewer matches to play than Juventus this season, due to their absence from Europe. That will not be the case next time around.
And then there is Roma’s continued reliance on Francesco Totti, a player who turns 38 in September. The Giallorossi have averaged 2.58 points and 2.42 goals per game with the forward in their line-up this season. Without him, those numbers fall to just 1.92 points and 1.17 goals per game.
Totti has thrived under Garcia, enjoying one of his best seasons in years. He is under contract until 2016 and could conceivably hang around even longer. But the plain truth is that he cannot go on forever. With each year that passes, Roma’s window of opportunity to win with Totti grows smaller.
But on the other side of the coin are the injuries and suspensions that cost Roma dear at points during this season.
Fans are entitled to wonder how things might have been different if Mattia Destro had not missed almost half the campaign with a hamstring problem. He has played just 18 games—and six of those as a substitute—but found the net 13 times.
Gervinho has been available more often, but it was perhaps no coincidence that Roma's perfect start to the season should end while he was out with a thigh injury. Mehdi Benatia, arguably the best centre-back in Serie A, missed almost the entire month of April and returned just too late to avert Sunday’s debacle in Sicily. He made his comeback as a second-half substitute against Catania, after the worst damage had already been done.
Of course, one could argue that this is all just more evidence of insufficient squad depth—an issue that will only become more pressing with the return to European football next year. Which is why Roma’s prospects of challenging for the title again next season might ultimately be determined by their actions in the transfer market this summer.
Owner James Pallotta is flying into Rome this weekend to watch his team’s game against Juventus, giving him the opportunity to assess the gap between the teams for himself. Last summer, his team was able to fund some important signings—most notably Benatia and Kevin Strootman—by selling both of Dani Osvaldo and Erik Lamela, their top two scorers from the previous campaign.
Garcia will not want to see any such high-profile departures from his starting XI this time around. In fact, one of Roma’s top priorities right now is to extend the deal of Miralem Pjanic, whose existing contract is set to expire in 2015.
The challenge for Pallotta and sporting director Walter Sabatini, then, will be to either add depth on a budget or find some more creative ways to raise funds. Qualification for the Champions League has certainly helped, although a significant part of the revenue from that tournament will simply go toward balancing the books. Roma posted a loss of €40 million in 2012-13.
But playing in Europe tends to bring other benefits, including better sponsorship deals. Roma have already landed one with the broadcaster Sky, whose logo will appear on the team’s shirts for the final two games of this season.
Best of all, success helps to put bums in seats. The best kinds of sales that any club can make during the summer transfer window are the ones that go on at the ticket office.