Roma’s title challenge has given way to a bunch of Garcia’s excuses

After the final whistle blew, Roma players hung their heads in shame. No, they hadn’t just been beaten 7-1 by Bayern Munich. It was almost worse. Roma had surrendered a lead at Hellas Verona, leaving it with just a point from one of Serie A’s lower-half sides. The draw, Roma’s sixth in seven league games, cast the club nine points back of league-leading Juventus, a mere three in front of third-placed Napoli.

The burden of expectation looks to be weighing down the giallorossi players. After last season, the first with Rudi Garcia at helm, brought such terrific results and a surprise challenge for the title, this side was meant to give Juve a real scare at the top of the table. Roma had even been tipped by some to make it out of its Champions League group, despite being drawing into one of the tournament’s most difficult. Instead, with 14 games remaining, Roma already looks defeated.

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When Garcia was appointed in the summer of 2013, Roma fans were skeptical. While the past decade had been kind to the giallorossi, kicking off with a scudetto victory and concluding with six second-place finishes in 10 years, the progress promised when James Pallotta took over as president had yet to arrive. Luis Enrique’s short project saw Roma fail to make the group stages of the Europa League, then fail to get into European play at all. In his wake, Zdeněk Zeman’s side may have been a blast, but it was never going to last, and while Aurelio Andreazzoli stemmed the bleeding, he did little to impress during his short spell on the bench.

No wonder supporters had little reason to believe in the promise of another savior, who’s only real experience had been in France. Sure, he took Lille to both the Ligue 1 title and a Coupe de France victory, but the tactical demands in Serie A require more than a mere attacking philosophy. Amid that skepticism, imagine the surprise when Roma started the Garcia era on a 10-game winning streak, combining the Frenchman’s attractive play with the results fans were so desperate to see.

Yet while Garcia’s new side was able to thrill with its flair, control with possession and punish with its counters, the new manager emphasized balance above all else. Defense might not be a sexy, but Roma’s cohesive backline was a major factor in its second-place finish last season. This time around, the side is both scoring less and conceding more, a combination that has it teetering on the brink of disaster.

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Many have blamed the decline on this season’s spate of injuries. In a tragic twist of fate, Leandro Castán, so integral to Roma’s defense, required brain surgery, and hasn’t played since September. Kevin Strootman, protector of the backline, has played all of 316 minutes this season. Daniele De Rossi, Juan Manuel Iturbe, Davide Astori … it’s almost quicker to count who hasn’t spent time on the physio table this season. Garcia is certainly willing to shift the blame, asking, “Can you tell me another team that has been affected by serious injuries in the same way Roma have?”

Interestingly enough, Garcia made the opposite point in an interview given less than a month earlier, insisting Roma’s deep squad meant the side hadn’t been too affected by the rash of injuries. But with Roma sliding, Garcia’s grasping for reasons — reasons that don’t showcase his weaknesses. “Unlucky,” is another excuse he’s given, explaining that, had the woodwork not denied Adem Ljajić at Verona, his team would’ve won. Others might think that Ljajić should’ve hit the back of the net, instead.

Garcia’s excuses are exactly that. While Roma didn’t break the bank to bring in players when the new manager came on board, the club was willing to spend a net $28 million on new signings this summer, reinforcing the squad to prepare for Champions League play. Then Seydou Doumbia and Victor Ibarbo were brought in in January, only to discover neither was adequately fit.

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Meanwhile, Roma let Mattia Destro go on loan to Milan, despite the fact that the young forward had 13 goals in 20 league appearances last season. He’s a true target man who could well be converting a few of these draws into wins, yet it seemed he needed “breathing space.” Considering Garcia is renowned for his love of psychology, and received rave reviews for the way he both altered the negative atmosphere in the Roma dressing room and brought Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi onside, it’s hard to believe the manager couldn’t find a way to work with Destro.

And so, in recent weeks, Roma has turned to 18-year-old Daniele Verde. The team has been lauded for its ‘youth movement,’ but in fact, Garcia simply inherited one of the best youth systems in Serie A. While the Frenchman is perfectly happy to introduce a Barcelona-type model at the club, instilling a “philosophy” and ensuring the youth teams play in the same manner as the senior squad, the reality is that when it comes to the first team, Garcia is unwilling to take many risks on young players. Even Verde, who so impressed against Cagliari on Feb. 8, has not been handed a start since.

Perhaps sporting director Walter Sabbatini summed it up best when, asked about the team’s inability to win, he said, “Because some things don’t work the way they used to.” Garcia persists with his belief that Roma should always play the game “their way,” despite other sides having figured it out. But rather than acknowledge that some fault may lie in this stubbornness, he blames injuries, or bad luck, or Juventus (in Serie A, you always blame Juventus).

All the while, Roma continue to underperform. The only reason the giallorossi has yet to be truly caught out is that the rest of the league has its own troubles. But should Roma lose to Juve on Monday, it will stay within reach of Napoli. And Garcia’s going to discover his excuses have run very, very thin.