Roma seek return to relevance in UCL against old foe Diego Simeone
There’s not much love for Diego Simeone on the Giallorosso side of Rome. Simeone returns to the Eternal City on Monday to prepare for Atletico Madrid’s Champions League Group C opener with Roma at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday night, and there’s no doubt that 40,000 or so Romanisti won’t have forgotten his Lazio past.
Simeone was one of the architects of Lazio’s most recent Scudetto triumph, back at the start of the millennium, and the four years he spent in Rome (during which he also won a Coppa Italia and both the Italian and UEFA Supercups) were some of the most important of his fine playing career. His affection for Lazio is such that not so long ago he even promised that he would come back and coach them.
His bullet header at the Stadio Delle Alpi on April Fool’s day of 2000 (note the laconic assist from Juan Veron) brought the Biancoceleste to within three points of league leaders Juventus — having been nine back a fortnight before — after which he scored four goals in the final six matches of the season as Lazio overtook Juve and won their second league title on the final day.
A Rome derby the following year, with Roma inching towards a league title of their own, was the scene that immortalised Simeone in blue and white, and a scene that Roma fans won’t have forgotten.
Two goals down with 12 minutes left thanks to two sensational strikes from Gabriel Batistuta and Marco Delvecchio, the derby looked lost, with goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi hoping that they weren’t about to see a repeat of the four-goal hammering they took the previous season.
Then up stepped Pavel Nedved to pull one back, before one-hit wonder Martin Castroman crashed home a 95th minute equaliser, sending the Curva Nord into spasms of ecstasy.
As the celebrations continued at the final whistle, Simeone turned to the opposite end of the ground and let the Roma fans know exactly what he thought of them with an enthusiastic display of his masculinity. Francesco Totti, Batistuta and co. eventually ended the season with their third Serie A crown, but memories are long in Rome and as far as Romanisti are concerned it’s once a Laziale, always a Laziale.
Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco was a spectator from the bench the night of that derby, and he stands charged with not just beating an old foe, but also arresting Roma’s dismal run of form in the Champions League.
Just two wins from their last 16 matches in Europe’s top competition — a 5-1 hammering of CSKA Moscow in 2014 and a less convincing 3-2 win against Bayer Leverkusen a year later — is not good enough for a club with Roma’s ambitions.
Last season’s meltdown in the playoff against Porto was simply embarrassing, and the group stage two years ago wasn’t much better: after an encouraging start and a phenomenal Alessandro Florenzi goal against Barcelona, Roma scraped through the group stages having collected just six points. Humiliated 6-1 at the Camp Nou, they only made the knockout stages thanks to a last ditch Miralem Pjanic penalty that gave them the better of their head-to-head record with Leverkusen, who also finished on six points.
After their final group match, a goalless draw with BATE Borisov that just about got them through, they were showered with boos and whistles from a livid Stadio Olimpico. Real Madrid breezed past them in the round of 16, 4-0 winners on aggregate.
Club president James Pallotta has jetted into town for the match, and he’s hoping for a change of direction in Europe. The American is an open admirer of Atleti’s recent successes and sees them as a model for Roma.
Since Simeone’s arrival as coach in 2011 the Spaniards have more than doubled their turnover to €228 million (similar to Roma’s €218m for 2016) and, as well as reaching two Champions League finals, they have won one Liga title, two Europa Leagues, two European Supercups, one Copa del Rey and one Spanish Supercup. They’ve also managed to build themselves a new stadium (albeit with some controversy) upping capacity by 13,000 to 68,000 and priming themselves to make the next step as a club.
Roma meanwhile have won nothing in that period and haven’t ever really threatened to since beating Inter to the Coppa Italia in 2008. Pallotta’s bid to build a new stadium for Roma is stuck in a local bureaucratic vortex, and five managers have passed through the doors at Trigoria since Pallotta arrived with Thomas DiBenedetto to take over the club, the same summer that Simeone took the reins at Atletico.
After six years and consistent high placings in Serie A, it’s time that Pallotta’s Roma show what they’re made of on the continent — getting one over on an old Laziale can only be extra motivation.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC’s AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley