Having started their UEFA Champions League campaign with an emphatic win, a "mentally and physically stronger" AS Roma are top of Serie A.
By half-time of Roma's return to the UEFA Champions League on Matchday 1, fans of the Italian side were experiencing a stomach-churning sense of déjà vu. The Roma attack was breaking up against a well-marshalled FC Shakhtar Donetsk outfit which looked capable of striking on the break at any second. As nerves frayed, Giallorossi supporters recalled the accident-prone team which had bowed out of the 2004/05 group stage with one point. However, by full time, it was Shakhtar who were shell-shocked, as Roma's summer signing David Pizarro scored from long range to cap a 4-0 victory.
'A serious team'
In the second instalment of this game of two halves, Roma showed a possible glimpse of things to come in Europe this season: a combination of slick skills and solid temperament which owes much to Luciano Spalletti, the softly-spoken coach who has stayed the course after the club saw four managers come and go following the 2004 departure of Fabio Capello. "Roma are now mentally and physically stronger," defender Cristian Panucci told uefa.com. "We didn't collapse and we didn't lose our calm against Shakhtar - this time we showed Roma are a serious team."
Alongside Panucci, centre-back Matteo Ferrari delivered a solid display after a year on loan at Everton FC. Bought by Roma in 2004, Ferrari was promptly dispatched to the English Premiership after a shaky first term at the Stadio Olimpico. "I feel much calmer here this time round," he told uefa.com. "Roma are playing with more patience."
Roma had revealed their unhappy knack of surrendering leads under pressure when they lost a 3-0 lead in the Italian Super Cup to go down 4-3 to FC Internazionale Milano. Against Shakhtar, it was an ex-Inter man helping Roma rediscover their resolve - Chile playmaker Pizarro, who had propelled Udinese Calcio to a UEFA Champions League spot two years ago when the northeast team were managed by Spalletti.
Yet Pizarro's Roma debut three days earlier could not have been worse. Substituted after a lacklustre performance against AS Livorno Calcio, the 27-year-old stormed off the pitch, raising fears that another hot-tempered player had arrived in Rome, a city known for pampering rather than controlling egos. Nonetheless, in a break with tradition, Pizarro apologised and duly made amends against Shakhtar, coming off the bench to set up Roma's third and score the fourth.
He struck again in Sunday's 3-1 victory at AC Siena, taking Roma's goal tally to nine in eight days including two league matches and the UEFA Champions League outing. Pizarro will nevertheless have to fight for his place in a well-oiled midfield built on the holding roles of Daniele De Rossi and Alberto Aquilani and fronted by Brazilians Taddei and Mancini and Italian FIFA World Cup winner Simone Perrotta. Counterattacking at pace with quick-fire passing, that midfield drove Roma to a record eleven straight wins in Serie A last term, good enough for fifth position and an eventual UEFA Champions League entry after punishments to Juventus, ACF Fiorentina and AC Milan. After a flying start to 2006/07, the hope is it can reap even greater rewards.
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