In Europe’s premier leagues, the big guns are being challenged this season. In England, Manchester United are in transitonary hell, although you cannot write them off until it is mathematically impossible for them to win the Premier. Arsenal – whoever thought they would be referred to as outsiders? – have their best chance of winning the title in years. And with Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City all capable of hitting the top, this could be the most open Premier in years. Let’s hope so, because it is getting all too predictable.
In Spain, it is good to see Atletico Madrid set the pace, although the bubble may have burst with their 1-0 defeat at Espanol last weekend. Germany is very much business as usual, with Bayern Munich claiming pole position, and in France, the newly bulging purse of Monaco is going head-to-head with Paris St Germain.
In Italy, however, Roma are the surprise package of the season, winning their first eight Serie A matches. Only the most myopic Giallorossi fan would have predicted that his club would take Italy by storm in 2013-14. Last season, they finished sixth and were beaten by local rivals Lazio in the Copa Italia final in the eternal city.
Roma’s success this season has been founded on the energy of young players and the experience of players like the veteran Francisco Totti who is having something of an Indian summer in Roma colours. Totti, the second highest Serie A goalscorer of all-time, is 37 years old and is in terrific form, so much so that Italy’s manager, Cesar Prandelli, recently commented that he would consider Totti for a return to the Azzuri if the World Cup was just around the corner. Easy for Prandelli to throw that soundbite into the media in October, knowing Brazil 2014 is some way off.
The bad news for Roma, and Totti, is that he will miss the next month’s action due to an injury he picked up in the 2-0 win against Rafa Benitez’s Napoli.
Equally influential, and just as eyebrow-raising, is the performance of Gervinho in the opening weeks of the Italian season. English fans will recall his profligacy in Arsenal colours where he struggled to take advantage of the many chances created for him. The Ivorian has had a new lease of life in Rome and has scored three times already.
Miralem Pjanic is also enjoying life this season, scoring the two goals against Napoli, just a few days after helping Bosnia & Herzegovina qualify for the World Cup. And then there’s Alessandro Florenzi, the young right winger who heads the Roma scorers’ list with four, and Serbia’s Adem Ljajic, who joined Roma from Fiorentina in the summer for 11 million euros.
It’s not just been about getting goals from all departments (Roma have scored 22 goals from 10 players), Roma’s goal difference is plus-21 after eight games, an astonishing figure for any league, let alone Italy. It’s especially remarkable given Roma’s recent history. In the past two seasons, they have averaged 1.44 goals against per game (a total of 110) and in 2012-13, their defence was heavily criticized. But when manager Rudi Garcia arrived in June from Lille he tightened the Roma rearguard. He paired new signing Udinese’s Mehdi Benatia – who was signed in the summer for EUR 13.5m – with the Brazilian Leandro Castan at the heart of the Roma defence and it has worked spectacularly. One goal in 720 minutes harks back to the golden age of catenaccio.
Roma have only won the Scudetto three times, a paltry total for such a big club, and the last of those was in 2002. They are currently five points clear of Napoli and Juventus, but they have still to meet reigning champions Juve. They don’t meet until the New Year – in Turin on January 6 and then in the penultimate game of the season on May 11 in Rome. A lot will change before then, but Roma are clearly going to have a big say in the title race this season.