Champions Roma face test of Real-politik

All along the road that leads from Rome's ring road out to AS Roma's training ground in the leafy surrounds of Trigoria, in the…

All along the road that leads from Rome's ring road out to AS Roma's training ground in the leafy surrounds of Trigoria, in the countryside south of the city, flags and bunting were still proudly flying yesterday. Nearly three months later, Roma fans are still celebrating their Serie A title win.

For them, and indeed for the club, the celebrations may end when the newly crowned Italian champions line out at the Olympic Stadium in Rome tonight in a fascinating Champions League clash with the mighty Real Madrid. Footballing "Real-politik" could mean that Roma come back down to earth with a bang.

Whatever the result, this should be a game for those with a delicate palate. Among the mouthwatering dishes on offer are comparisons-cum-clashes between such as Figo and Totti, Raul and Batistuta, Morientes and Montella, Hierro and Samuel and Roberto Carlos and Cafu.

Adding extra spice to the tie is not only the fact that this represents a first-ever Champions League experience for the new Italian champions, but also the consideration that it sees Capello come up against one of his old clubs. During one brilliant season with the Spanish champions, "Don Fabio" coached Real Madrid to a league title success in 1997.


Looking relaxed and at ease yesterday in a news conference held in Spanish and Italian, Don Fabio admitted to being keen to get back into Champions League action. Remember, Capello has already won the competition, with AC Milan in 1994.

"I believe that the Champions League represents a big emotion for everyone, a sort of bench mark. I'm back in it and I hope and believe we can do well. I'm certainly back, hungrier and more determined than ever," he said.

Even if Capello tonight comes up against his former club, he points out that much has changed since his days in Madrid, adding that the side coached by Vicente Del Bosque bears little resemblance to his Real.

"Apart from Raul and Hierro and a few others, I don't know the players anymore at Real, but I do know the club spirit. In terms of personality and track record, Real are the obvious number one in Europe, and I know myself from experience how difficult it is to come away from the Bernabeu with points.

"However, leaving aside the fact that Real obviously have a lot more international experience than us, I consider my Roma side on a par with them."

Capello will be without two suspended midfielders in Uruguyan Gianni Guigou and Damiano Tommasi, while striker Marco Delvecchio is ruled out by injury. However, the Roma coach concedes that Real, too, are obviously weakened by the suspension of newly acquired French star Zinedine Zidane.

Real and Roma have made poor starts in their domestic leagues; Roma was held to draws by Verona and Udinese, and Real opened with a defeat by Valencia, followed by a draw with Malaga.

Asked if he would prefer to have opened his Champions League campaign with a less imposing tie, Capello suggested that now was as good a time as any to meet Real.

"The first game in a competition like this is always very important, and I suppose it might have been better for us to have had an easier first tie. Yet, given that we are both at the same state of fitness and preparation, then this is probably as good a moment as any to meet them."

Capello has always been a remarkably self-assured customer, yet even he was probably guilty of a little old-fashioned PR when feigning a lack of concern about meeting Real. In truth, a poor performance tonight would immediately put the Roma coach under pressure.

The summer of celebration, that relatively poor seasonal start and a recent unseemly row about bonuses owed to the players for their August Italian SuperCup win against Fiorentina all suggest that some serious tensions lie just under the Roma surface. A win tonight might just banish such tensions.

On the other hand, defeat tonight could see all sorts of problems come to the surface. Defeat might also persuade the Roma fans that it is time to take down the bunting from last June's celebrations.