Adam Digby reports on Roma's summer rennaissance.
Since winning their third league title ten years ago the Giallorossi have struggled with issues off the field but have enjoyed one of the most successful periods in their history, not only winning two Italian Cups but also appearing four other finals, finishing second in the league six times and twice reaching the Champions League Quarter Finals.
Largely living out those seasons in the shadow of the all-conquering Inter side and after being under the control of bankers Unicredit since last year - due to the financial woes of the previous owners - a new chapter in the history of one the greatest clubs in Italian football has begun.
In the early hours of April 16, shortly before 1am local time, the city of Rome finally had the news it had waited for so long to hear; the American Thomas Di Benedetto and his consortium had gained ownership of its football club, AS Roma.
"Hallelujah. Finally, after years of waiting this is the turning point” – Gianni Alemanno, Mayor of Rome
They have invested into what is undoubtedly a unique city, team and situation, unrepeated almost anywhere in world football. Much of this stems from Roma being among the largest one club towns in any of the major European leagues, with Lazio being the team of the surrounding provinces. Fabio Capello famously said "a Scudetto with Roma is worth ten at Milan or Juventus", and it is hard to argue against such logic.
When one of the northern giants win the league you will not see over a million people gathering in a place like Circus Maximus to celebrate, but that is exactly what the Giallorossi faithful did in 2001. Such support is amazing when the team wins, but it breaks previously great players and coaches when things don't go well, the clubs history littered with men who failed to live in the goldfish-bowl-cum-pressure-cooker atmosphere that sees the city live and breathe its club every minute of every day.
Di Benedetto seems keen to follow in the trophy-laden footsteps of Silvio Berlusconi and told journalists he wants to replicate the Milan owners success. Given that under his patronage the Rossoneri have won seven league titles and five European Cups, Di Benedetto has some serious work to do.
He began by making an appointment that had echoes of one of Berlusconi's early moves when calling a relative novice to the coaching role. Arrigo Sacchi had been atParma just two years when given the reigns to the Rossoneri, Luis Enrique spent almost three in charge of Barcelona B. The Spaniard does have a stellar playing career behind him too, which by Sacchi's logic would make him an ex-horse.
The new owner also rid Roma of much-maligned Sporting Director Daniele Prado, replacing him with a man widely acknowledged as one of the best in the business. Former Palermo man Walter Sabatini has arrived, bringing a wealth of expertise, a superb track record and an overflowing book of contacts.
It was immediately put to good use as he set about giving the new coach a squad to suit his tactical and stylistic ideals, as well as moving a number of players out of the club. The loss of Philippe Mexes on a free transfer was beyond his control, but the exits of the overpaid Julio Sergio and Alexander Doni as well as the poor performing Simone Loria and John Arne Riise were all timely moves.
Added to that is the sale of both Jérémy Menez and Mirko Vučinić, both supremely talented players whose abilities are beyond reproach, yet whose temperament left much to be desired in recent months. The Frenchman's expiring contract made his departure almost inevitable, while Vučinić's lack of commitment meant he too had overstayed his welcome, no matter his impact on games when on form.
One more intelligent move by the new Director was sending Stefano Guberti on loan to Torino. With Giampiero Ventura's well known utilisation of wingers, the 26-year-old will get time and space that simply would not be afforded to him in the capital, perhaps making him a valuable addition if brought back into the fold in twelve months time.
All of which brings us to the new signings Sabatini has brought to the club, all of which seem to mesh nicely into the existing squad. Maarten Stekelenburg of Ajax marks a remarkable increase in ability in goal, the best goalkeeper the club has seen in quite some time. The return of Gianluca Curci as a cheaper alternative to the two Brazilians is one that also helps towards UEFA's imposed quotas on homegrown players.
In defence Loic Nego and José Ángel provide some youth and agility at both fullback positions, while Gabriel Heinze brings veteran intelligence and a much needed winning mentality to central defence. Added to Juan, Nicolás Burdisso, Marco Cassetti and Cicinho they provide a good blend and a variety of options from which Luis Enrique can tailor the line-up to suit the opposition.
While his best and most necessary work has been at the back, it is in attack where Sabatini has done perhaps the most eye-catching work. To offset the loss ofMenez and Vučinić, he first took advantage of River Plate's relegation to capture 19 year old prospect Erik Lamela at a reasonable price. The attacking midfielder is joined by Barcelona's Bojan Krkic, perhaps a player with even greater potential than the two departed wide-men, but one who's transfer deal has become a major talking point.
Ostensibly a loan, the contract is filled with so many delayed payments, buy-back clauses and forced options to the point that it becomes almost impossible to understand. In essence it is a two year loan at a cost of 12m€, after which there will undoubtedly be much renegotiation, no matter the endless stipulations and prices set out in the deal.
Little work has yet been done in central midfield, although that may change as Sabatini claims there are three more signings still to arrive. That would push the first team squad up to around thirty-five players, meaning there should also be a raft of further departures.
Luis Enrique could easily field six newcomers - if not more - in the starting line-up come Serie A's opening weekend, but whatever happens both now and in the future, AS Roma and indeed Italian football has its first ever foreign owners. It is, in every sense, a bright, new, sensible dawn.