By Tom Kington
When AS Roma were 1-0 down at home to FC Dynamo Kyiv, things were not going well. When Phillippe Mexes was dismissed just before half-time, they got worse. But it was what happened next that threw Roma's UEFA Champions League hopes into jeopardy - and it was still only Matchday 1.
Earlier this week UEFA awarded Dynamo a 3-0 forfeit win in the match, abandoned after referee Andreas Frisk was struck by a missile thrown from the stands. Roma must also play their two remaining group stage home games against Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Real Madrid CF behind closed doors, and if that was not enough, they subsequently fell to a 4-3 Serie A defeat at FC Messina Peloro and yesterday were held 2-2 by visitors US Lecce.
It was a far cry from the sentiments voiced just over three weeks ago when ex-player Rudi Völler confessed that the chance to return to coach Roma was "an offer he could not refuse". After all, he was able to call on the likes of Italian internationals Francesco Totti and Antonio Cassano, and they pipped Juventus FC to second place last season.
But the shadow that currently hangs over the club dates back longer than last week. The club was fined in March 2002 after a touchline brawl between Roma and Galatasaray SK players following a Champions League game. And in a bizarre incident last season, Roma fans invaded the pitch during a derby with S.S. Lazio and successfully pressured players and officials to call off the game because of false reports that police had run over a child outside the stadium.
There are problems on the pitch too. When Roma won the Scudetto in 2000/01, €28.5m signing Cassano was widely tipped as the player who would keep the club among the élite. But the boy from AS Bari has proved a temperamental star, and was red-carded for shoving in Roma's first game of this season, before being excluded by Völler from the squad to play Dynamo, reportedly after a training ground tantrum.
Totti was said to be a stabilising influence on Cassano, but the captain showed his own rash side at UEFA EURO 2004™, spitting at Denmark's Christian Poulsen. In an age of mercenary players, local lad Totti is considered a saint by the fans, and forgiven for his bouts of petulance on the pitch, often prompted when man-marked. But as the side's talisman, Totti's rowing with referees over fouls, real and imagined, pushes team-mates and fans to lose their cool.
Meanwhile, not only was Mexes dismissed against Dynamo - the catalyst for the disorder that followed - but he and fellow summer signing Matteo Ferrari have not gelled since being thrown in together by the departure of Walter Samuel and injuries to Cristian Chivu and Traianos Dellas.
The defenders claim that they have not had time to practise together, and that has been a general worry after a summer that saw coach Fabio Capello leave for Juventus and his immediate replacement Cesare Prandelli step down on the eve of the season due to family illness. In came Völler, leaving players wondering where they would fit into his new 4-4-2 system.
There is a bright spark with the return from injury of striker Vincenzo Montella, scorer of a hat-trick at Messina. Perhaps the other consolation for Roma is that in their next Champions League game on Tuesday they visit Madrid, another club in crisis and on to their third coach is as many months.
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