Troubled Roma manager stays true to his vision despite discord on the pitch, in the dressing room and in the stands
Arrigo Sacchi greeted Luis Enrique with a warm smile and a stark message. "Welcome to hell," said the former Milan manager, now in charge of the national team's youth set-up, as he dropped in on Roma's training camp in mid-July. Sacchi was joking, but he was also deadly serious. He knew the scale of the task that lay before the new manager of the Giallorossi in seeking to transform not only a team, but the entire culture of a club representing a city where both change and outside interference are often met with great scepticism.
It did not take long for Luis Enrique to begin his descent into the inferno. Dante Alighieri, in The Divine Comedy, describes nine circles of hell – each associated with a different type of sin, progressing in order of wickedness from lust and gluttony all the way down to treachery in the final chamber. Enrique had already reached the sixth circle by the mid-August – accused of heresy when he left Francesco Totti on the bench in favour of the inexperienced Stefano Okaka, Gianluca Caprari and Bojan Krkic for a Europa League qualifier against Slovan Bratislava.
Roma lost the game and left the competition after only drawing the return leg, with Totti starting the latter fixture but withdrawn before the late Bratislava equaliser that saw his team crash out. Luis Enrique brought the club captain back into the fold over the coming weeks, but results remained mixed – wins over Parma, Palermo and Atalanta offset by defeats to Cagliari, Milan and, most damningly, Lazio in the Rome derby.
Nevertheless, few were prepared for a sudden arrival in Dante's seventh circle. A 2-0 defeat away to Udinese last Friday was frustrating for a team who hoped to have turned a corner with back-to-back wins over Lecce and Novara, yet a descent into violence was unexpected. As the players returned to the changing rooms at the Stadio Friuli, Daniel Pablo Osvaldo became involved in a heated exchange with Erik Lamela which ended with the striker walloping his teenage team-mate Lamela around the side of his head.
"Shut your mouth, you're no Maradona," was the phrase that apparently pushed Osvaldo over the edge, but both parties were quick to apologise and most present felt the matter had been resolved. With events having unfolded behind closed doors, the press might never even have caught wind of the story were it not for Luis Enrique's subsequent decision – announced to the team at a training session two days later – to hand the striker a fine and a one-game suspension.
So it was that Roma arrived for Sunday's game at Fiorentina without their leading goalscorer. "The easiest thing for me to do would have been to hand out a fine and then forget about it," Luis Enrique told reporters. "[But] I don't want this sort of thing to happen again, and the first step towards being a team is to have respect for everyone … Osvaldo is a very talented lad with a big heart but we need to know that doing these things will lead to punishments."
A laudable stance, perhaps, but by full-time at the Stadio Artemio Franchi Roma's travelling support were in no mood to debate points of principle. Only two weeks earlier there had been much talk of how the fans were finally buying into Luis Enrique's footballing ethos – his belief in ball retention and a patient passing game along the lines of that employed by Barcelona – with a banner held aloft during the win over Lecce that read: "Never slaves to the result". But even in Dante's vision of hell, there is no equivalent to a 3-0 defeat accompanied by three sendings off.
Fiorentina themselves had endured a deeply mediocre start to the season, winning only three of their first 12 games, yet this one was in the bag as early as the 17th minute. That was as long as it took for Juan to receive Roma's first red card, bundling Stevan Jovetic over inside the area before the Montenegrin himself slotted home the penalty. With Roma's other top two centre-backs, Nicolás Burdisso and Simon Kjaer, already out through injury, securing a result already looked a tall order.
Yet the great curiosity with Roma's performance from there was that despite being a man down (and later more than one), they continued to both dominate possession and dictate the areas of the pitch in which the game would be played. Fernando Gago was subsequently shown a second yellow card with a quarter of an hour to play, before Krkic was sent off for handling on the line in the 85th minute, yet still Roma finished with 57% of possession, and with the ball having spent considerably more time in Fiorentina's half than their own.
The only problem was, they appeared utterly incapable of turning such statistical domination into anything concrete. By full-time Roma had managed only two shots on target, both from Lamela. "Roma have transformed possession from being the means into an end in itself, from a strategy into their ultimate goal," lamented Alberto Polverosi in Corriere dello Sport.
Fiorentina themselves were not always penetrative, but could at least convert set-pieces into goals. Alessandro Gamberini headed home their second from a corner before Jovetic passed penalty-taking duties to Santiago Silva for the final spot-kick, allowing his team-mate to register his first goal for the club. Jovetic had been the closest thing to a star performer for Fiorentina, seeming to thrive in the more advanced role given to him by the new manager Delio Rossi.
Luis Enrique, deploying his 13th different lineup in as many games, could point to no such tactical triumph. Krkic had been asked to lead the line in Osvaldo's absence, but even before the handball his performance had been insipid. When he threw his shirt to the ground before heading into the tunnel, he may have been venting frustration as much at his inability to influence the game generally as at the stupidity of drawing a red card in such circumstances.
The game ended with Roma's fans rounding on Luis Enrique, with those in the stadium openly calling for his sacking for the first time. Another 30 were waiting at the train station on the team's return to Rome with a similar message. In reality the owner, Thomas DiBenedetto, has never even considered his manager's position, and nor does he have any plans to do so. The same can perhaps not be said for Luis Enrique himself.
"I understand the fans, the result was a disaster, we are coming off two ugly defeats and the fixture schedule is tough," he said at full-time. "I am the one responsible. With results like this their faith is diminishing. The team say they are behind me, but you would need to ask the players yourselves – maybe with the microphones off because otherwise it is just easier for them to say yes [that they continue to support me]. But if I feel they are not following me I will go, I will not stay here for the money."
Such words should not be misconstrued, and the manager was not so much suggesting he is about to walk as reiterating a line that he has stated from day one: that he will only hang around as long as he is wanted, and as long as the club support his plans. But with the injuries and suspensions piling up – Gago, having been sent off, also left the stadium on crutches – and a fresh storm brewing over his decision to leave Totti on the bench, life is only likely to get more painful over the coming weeks in Luis Enrique's Roman inferno.
• Next up for Roma are Juventus, who were without Andrea Pirlo against Cesena, and lost both Mirko Vucinic and Alessandro Del Piero (some way to celebrate his 500th game for Juve) to injury during the game, but still found a way to win – Claudio Marchisio popping up with a classy finish just when it seemed the visitors' parked bus might prove too great an obstacle. A questionable penalty added gloss, but it is the contribution of Marchisio that merits comment. The papers are awash with Marco Tardelli comparisons yet where he got seven Serie A goals in his most prolific season, Marchisio already has six before the winter break.
• With Samir Handanovic having saved a record-breaking six penalties in Serie A last season, few would have dared to presume that a late spot-kick for Inter against Udinese was any sort of foregone conclusion. Even so, nobody could have foreseen quite such a calamitous miss as Giampaolo Pazzini managed – losing his footing and scooping his shot way over the bar. Pazzini has now gone 71 days without a goal and more than half a year without one at home. With a third of the season gone, Inter are four points outside the relegation zone. Udinese, by contrast, remain two behind the leaders.
• Alongside them in second are Milan, though their win over Genoa was overshadowed by the decision by police to release teargas in an attempt to disperse trouble-makers outside the stadium. The gas, inevitably, drifted inside the ground, and the match had to be stopped for nine minutes amid scenes of crying children being rushed away from the stadium. At a time when the football authorities are trying to encourage families back into the stadiums, it is a deeply disheartening development.
• Italy's other remaining Champions League representatives, Napoli, also won, beating Lecce 4-2 at home and in the process sealing the fate of their opponent's manager, Eusebio Di Francesco. As much as this might have been a game the Salentini were never likely to win, the manager had already been served notice a few days earlier when the owner, Giovanni Semeraro, announced that his future "could depend on the Napoli game". It seems likely his fate had already been decided after a return of only eight points from 12 games (now 13), and Serse Cosmi was immediately installed as a replacement.
• Appreciate cheeky backheeled assists? This number from Alessandro Diamanti might be up your street. Prefer outrageous feats of dribbling and close control? Then this goal from Víctor Ibarbo against Catania should be right up your street
• Alternatively, if you prefer blank television screens, then check out this screen grab from Parma's goalless draw against Palermo on Sunday night, played in a fog so thick that even the commentators could barely make out the action for long periods of the game (thanks to @KingSi on Twitter for the grab).
Results: Bologna 1-0 Siena, Catania 0-1 Cagliari, Chievo 0-0 Atalanta, Fiorentina 3-0 Roma, Genoa 0-2 Milan, Inter 0-1 Udinese, Juventus 2-0 Cesena, Napoli 4-2 Lecce, Parma 0-0 Palermo.