After his stint with England, Fabio Capello’s reputation has taken a hit that he has never really experienced before, throwing an interesting spin to his new role as Russia manager. Still, he has shown an ability to come back from failure before. In his only other management failure, Capello returned to a decaying Milan side, where Oscar Tabarez and Arrigo Sacchi had struggled to deal with the aftermath of Capello’s prior success. He didn’t see the end of a season in which Milan finished a lowly 10th, outside of even Intertoto Cup qualification, yet just three years later he had another scudetto to his name. Let us transport you to 1999 – before the dawn of the new millennium, the fall of the twin towers or London winning a European Cup.
Having accepted responsibility for Milan’s failure, Capello took a year out, spending some time as a highly-rated co-commentator while enjoying his first break since he entered football as a teen. Suitably rested, Capello was ready to get back into football, but as he didn’t want to go abroad, there were few choices for him to pick from: Juventus, Internazionale, Lazio and Fiorentina were all happy with their coaches and Milan was obviously off the cards, leaving only Roma.
Their coach, Zdenek Zeman (currently back for his second stint), was very popular due to his ultra-attacking playing style and criticisms of the Palazzo (the establishment, that supposedly enjoyed beneficial treatment – Milan and Juventus having won every scudetto since 1991), yet his abrasive nature had worn Franco Sensi’s patience thin, and 4th and 5th place finishes weren’t enough for the Czech to keep his job. As Silvio Berlusconi’s company man at Milan, Capello was very much a part of the establishment, potentially winning Roma their respect, and he could sort out the defence that had been a bit of an afterthought under Zeman, with the added bonus of a link to the capital club from his playing days.
Zeman’s teams are always built around a 4-3-3 with attacking full-backs, which created some nice football but didn’t suit Roma’s best player Francesco Totti, who was stationed out on the wing. Capello’s first move was to move him into the centre, behind the strikers. Full-backs Cafu and Vincent Candela were excellent going forward, so the other winger wasn’t needed either, making room for another striker. The defence had been weak under Zeman, and putting even more emphasis on the full-backs to get forward wouldn’t help matters, so he added an extra man to the defence from the midfield to provide more cover. In switching to a 3-4-1-2, Capello only needed to make some small changes, but in doing so he gave the team a far better balance.
Not that it showed in his first season, when Roma finished 6th and, even worse, Sven-Goran Erikssen won the scudetto with their expensively-assembled cross-town rivals Lazio. The main problem was the injury-plagued midfield: the talented Cristiano Zanetti picked up knock after knock, Marcos Assuncao – the only player Capello had asked for – was meant to be the deep-lying playmaker to take some creative burden off of Totti but missed three months through injury, while Damiano Tommasi and Eusebio Di Francesco had problems of their own. Still there was enough to suggest Roma were moving forward, although they needed upgrading in parts.
Amedeo Mangone had been brought in the season before but wasn’t up to the standard Capello was trying to push Roma towards, so in came the uncompromising Walter Samuel and more mobile Jonathan Zebina in defence. Assuncao had been a bit of a disappointment, and was replaced by another Brazilian, Emerson, who could mix the passing of the man he replaced with the defensive legwork of the other midfielders.
There was one last finishing touch to be made: Vincenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio had combined to score 30 league goals the season before, but there was room for improvement. Montella was the clever poacher and Delvecchio was the hard-working target man â€“ Capello wanted a striker that mixed these attributes.
Director of Football Franco Baldini looked to have found a suitable man: Fiorentinaâ€™s Gabriel Batistuta. The problem facing them now was getting him. â€œBatigolâ€ was fiercely loyal to the Florentine club and had made it clear he didnâ€™t want a move away, however, with Fiorentinaâ€™s precarious financial situation, there was a chance that he could be convinced to leave if it was clear we would be helping the club by leaving. The issue soon became convincing Sensi to spend a large enough sum on the 31 year-old to convince Fiorentina to let him go, especially difficult since he had spent a lot on Montella the summer before.
Teaming up with Mario Sconcerti, editor of the flagging Corriere dello Sport, they hatched a plan to pressure Sensi into opening his chequebook. Baldini revealed their plans for Batistuta and Sconcerti ran the story; the situation was mutually beneficial â€“ Roma would get Batistuta, Corriere would get more readers wanting to find out about the story. Initially, Sensi became more popular, however with each day that went without Batistuta showing up in the capital, the pressure began to mount. Sensi gave in and signed the Argentinian for Â£23.5 million.
With his shiny new striker, things were looking rosy for Capello, but a fresh problem would soon arise. Everyone had expected fan favourite Montella to start alongside Batistuta, but it soon became clear that Capello planned to use Delvecchio in place of Montella. Both Montella and Batistuta were penalty box players and playing two of this kind of player together seems a bit foolish. Aside from the obvious defensive issues, it would also cause attacking problems too; with both Montella and Batistuta in front of him, Totti had less space to work in – it being occupied by two players doing the same thing. If you have a player that all but guarentees a goal if you create a chance for him, is it worthwhile having another player that offers the same thing when you could have another player to help create these chances and defend?
With Delvecchio in the team, Cafu were under less pressure to provide width and defend, Totti had more space to work in and the team had a tall frontman to use as an outlet. Montella was understandably frustrated at all the time he spent on the bench despite his incredible form as a super-sub, claiming he was â€œbitter and angryâ€. Eventually, Montellaâ€™s feats became too much for him to be left on the bench and he was named ahead of Delvecchio, however it should be remembered that it was the unfashionable forward that made the system work initially.
Things fell into place perfectly for Roma that season. Emerson was injured right at the start, yet Zanetti managed to remain injury-free for the season to provide the all-round quality his fragility has so often stopped him from being able to show, and the combative Tommasi had the season of his career next to him. By the time Emerson was fit, the midfield wasn’t the thin mess it had been the season before, although his presence was still welcomed.
Fan favourite Aldair was injured too but, at 35, it was about time he stepped aside. Zago was able to fill in the middle of defence, and Samuel was his typical brutal self, protecting the decent albeit unspectacular Francesco Antonioli in goal. Zebina had a tricky start to life in Serie A, although he wasn’t as bad as some of his critics portrayed him. Out wide, Cafu doesn’t really need to be discussed: he was quite possibly the finest right-back in history, with such incredible stamina he was able to play the roles of a full-back and winger at the same time without breaking a sweat. On the left, Candela wasn’t up to Cafu’s standard, but stepped up to offer magnificent performances.
With a solid base and the full-backs providing width, Totti, one of the most talented players of his generation, was left to create chances for the strikers. A new spine and some luck with injuries led Roma to only their third scudetto, sneaking ahead of the Turinese Palazzo, Juventus, and their local rivals, Lazio.
Looking ahead to the following season, Capello and Baldini decided take advantage of the wave of enthusiasm the scudetto had brought to Rome, getting Sensi to break out his chequebook. First on the list was a new goalkeeper, as Antonioli had done okay but could definitely be upgraded and the fans had started to jump on every mistake he made. Parma’s Gianluigi Buffon was the top target and Sensi had agreed to beat the Â£8 million record for a goalkeeper, however Juventus, having offloaded scapegoat Edwin van der Sar, were also on the lookout for a keeper. Sensi was willing to pay as much as Â£20 million; Juve went up to Â£32 milion. Second choice was 6 ft. 5 Ivan Pelizzoli, who had emerged at Atalanta the year before, impressing with his athletism and stout character. He was expensive at Â£10 million, but at 21 he could be Roma’s keeper for years to come.
Next on the list was a defender. Aldair was almost 36, Zago didn’t look comfortable on the ball and Zebina had a shaky debut season – their answer was Parma’s Fabio Cannavaro. Again, they wanted more than Sesni was willing to pay and Baldini had to negotiate until they pulled out at the last minute. Having already lost, Buffon and Lilian Thuram, they couldn’t afford to lose any more of their defence, and so Baldini turned his attention to Christian Panucci, who had won titles with Capello at Milan and Real Madrid but had fallen away after a disastrous move to Inter. Roma fans were upset after they expected Cannavaro, nevertheless the Â£6 million they paid for Panucci was easier to justify to Sensi than the Â£30 million Parma were requesting for Cannavaro.
In midfield, they lost the fragile Zanetti to Inter, who bought Roma’s half in their co-ownership deal for Â£5 million, and replaced him with the hard-working Fransisco Lima of Brescia. Capello was a big fan of Zanetti, but he had Tommasi and Emerson to fill in and Assuncao was a popular figure, plus Zanetti’s appearances were often few and far between due to injuries.
In March, they had arranged an Â£18 million deal for the exciting teenage attacker Antonio Cassano from Bari. Cassano was short-tempered and childish, yet had a talent worthy of Capello’s patience. Still extremely raw, he was mainly used as a substitute.
This season Capello was more cautious. With Montella out injured, he often reverted to a 3-5-2, pushing Totti a bit higher and throwing another player into the midfield. This didn’t suit everyone – at 33, Batistuta was slowing down, and often struggled without the running of Delvecchio next to him, forced into leading the line by himself. Roma were getting more defensive, but still topped the table at the half-way stage and only missed out on the scudetto by one point. They should have won though – they were the best team in the division, and it had been draws against small teams that had lost them the title.
In the summer of 2002, after the disappointment of the season before, there was no enthusiasm of which Capello and Baldini could take advantage; Sensi wasn’t willing to flaunt his wealth. Assuncao and Zago left, bringing in some cash, but only Traianos Dellas arrived. With Parma’s financial situation precarious, they were more willing to negotiate over Fabio Cannavaro this time round – the lack of spending meant he went to Inter instead. Edgar Davids had fallen out with Marcello Lippi, but spats between Capello and Luciano Moggi the previous season meant the Juventus managing director vetoed any move.
That season, Capello became even more defensive, alternating between the 3-4-1-2, 3-5-2 and now a 4-4-2, where Candela and Cafu were wide midfielders. The obviously declining Batistuta went on loan to Inter for the remaining six months of his contract, with Olivier Dacourt coming in on loan from Leeds United. A striker outgoing, a defensive midfielder incoming – perhaps not fair to the situation, but fair to use as an illustration of Capello’s increasingly cagey approach. Roma’s form remained mixed as they slumped to an eighth-placed finish and an embarrassing loss in the Coppa Italia final to a Milan side resting players for the Champions League.
Capello’s relationship with Roma became even more strained and with Sensi’s health and financial empire waning, it didn’t look like he would be reinforcing the squad much either. Luckily he had one of the best director of football’s around in Baldini. The old Aldair and Cafu were let go to ease the wage bill, as was now back-up keeper Antonioli, while Dacourt’s loan was made permanent. There were three other arrivals: John Carew was brought in from Valencia to provide both an aerial threat and mobility up front; Amantino Mancini, an attacking full-back (who would become an outstanding winger at Roma) who they had bought in January then loaned him out for an unsuccessful spell in Serie B with Venezia, whose coach described him as a “circus act”; and Christian Chivu, a ball-playing Romanian defender from Ajax.
Back in the 3-4-1-2, Roma looked close to the team that had won the scudetto, finishing second. However, Capello had grown tired of Rome – the capital club had the attitude of a provincial side and attempts to create a winning culture was difficult, especially when Sensi’s money was running out, worries about bankruptcy looming. His decision was to move to Juve and join up with Moggi, who had been the enemy to Roma before and throughout Capello’s tenure. It was simply a betrayal that came out of nowhere, tarnishing what had been a bumpy albeit ultimately positive five years in charge.