“I am happy to be here!” beamed Gervinho upon exiting Fiumicino airport in early August. It is safe to say the Ivorian winger has not stopped smiling ever since he landing in the Italian capital after extensive negotiations over a move to Roma ultimately concluded with Arsenal agreeing on a £6.9m deal. The transfer also meant he has been reunited with the former manager at Lille in Rudi Garcia - with whom he established himself and won Ligue 1 in 2011.
On Friday night the Giallorossi secured their eighth successive victory of the season and consolidated their position at the top of Serie A by confidently dispatching second placed Napoli 2-0. The former Gunner and the evergreen Francesco Totti both pulled up with muscular injuries on the night. However, the match was decided in the second half when Paolo Cannavaro’s red card allowed Miralem Pjanić to secure his brace from the penalty spot and wrap up the victory. The fixture had been built up as an epic blockbuster by the Italian media, but in the end Garcia’s men were simply more decisive.
Fresh from playing a crucial role in qualifying Bosnia and Herzegovina for Brazil 2014 in midweek, Pjanić was in fine form as he put in yet another match-winning performance as a mobile deep-lying playmaker. Daniele De Rossi was back to his best alongside him in a congested middle of the park. Yet above all the impressive performers, the principal part of Roma’s recent surge has been their impeccable defence. In their eight matches to date domestically they have only conceded a single goal.
Morgan De Sanctis has definitively guaranteed the team a reliable and experienced pair of hands in between the posts since arriving from Napoli. Fellow recent arrival Mehdi Benatia was arguably the bargain of the summer in Serie A at £11m from Udinese. The Moroccan has been exceptional in replacing Marquinhos – who was sold to Paris Saint-Germain for £30m. His centre back partner, Leandro Castán, has improved significantly since last season. Brazilian full-back pairing Dodô and Maicon, meanwhile, were both excellent on Friday - the latter signed off the back of an uninspiring stint at Manchester City.
Roma is renowned as being a ‘piazza calda’ – a popular phrase used predominantly within Italian footballing circles signifying the club has an intense, pressurised atmosphere. Bringing in a relatively unknown coach in Garcia in June following two years of transitional uncertainty was a gamble by the American owners. They dropped from the European places under Luis Enrique and subsequently Zdeněk Zeman, and while their respective styles were both entertaining, it was time the club started to achieve results in the league.
If signing Garcia was seen as a risk, then selling Marquinhos, Erik Lamela and Pablo Osvaldo over the course of the summer after his arrival was frankly suicidal. Confidence within the Stadio Olimpico outfit had hit an all-time low after bitter city rivals Lazio defeated them in the Coppa Italian final in May. Lamela’s transfer to Tottenham Hotspur was particularly hard to stomach given he was the promising scarlet of the team. The task of replacing the Argentine was handed to Gervinho and Adem Ljajić - bought from Fiorentina.
Ljajić had a proven track record in Italy having been a driving force in attack for Vincenzo Montella’s men as they finished fourth last season. The Serbian was signed for a relative pittance at an initial £9m despite being heavily courted by AC Milan. Gervinho on the other hand was deemed a failure before he had even played a game by sections of the media as he was bought for a heftier fee than Ljajić and his reputation in Europe had declined considerably during his unremarkable two-year stay in London.
Ljajić netted on his debut against Hellas Verona and slotted home a penalty in the derby with Lazio, but by far and away the greatest surprise of Roma’s altogether shocking start to the campaign was how Gervinho instantly adapted and rediscovered his form under Garcia. The 26-year-old was influential in his early displays, but then in the space of ten days he grabbed headlines across the peninsula by scoring against Sampdoria, getting a brace at home to Bologna and finally putting in a man of the match performance in a 3-0 win against Internazionale at the San Siro.
Gervinho instantly went from a perceived benchwarmer to a huge cult hero among Roma’s passionate ultras – with his nickname of the “African Messi” becoming increasingly popular in terrace chants. Totti has received deserved plaudits for his consistently outstanding displays this term, and the main man at the club has been exploiting the direct running and pace of his new teammate.
Roma director of sport Walter Sabatini has since admitted he was less than enthusiastic about signing Gervinho in August. “I would not have signed him for any other manager,” disclosed Sabatini to Sky Sports Italia. “If a tactician requests a player for a certain role or position, then that is different, but Garcia specifically requested that I get him Gervinho. It was not an easy negotiation process, either.”
No Italian club has ever won their first eight matches and not gone on to win the Scudetto. The last team to have conceded only a single goal over the same stage of the season was the Milan of 1993-94. Expectations are high in the capital. It is a prolonged campaign, but Garcia’s Roma have certainly exceeding expectations so far. It remains to be seen if Gervinho will be smiling come May, however.
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