A notification flashed up on Romelu Lukaku’s phone. It was a message from an existing contact. A certain Jose Mourinho “saying I should expect something epic upon my arrival.”
Five thousand fans gathered outside Ciampino airport to welcome Lukaku to Roma. Then on Friday night, a sell-out crowd clunked through the turnstiles nice and early at the Stadio Olimpico. Lukaku lurked in the tunnel, waiting for his cue. There was an hour before kick-off against AC Milan and his unveiling was the pre-match entertainment. “This is your colosseum,” the announcer’s voice reverberated. “We will be your people. Come and see for yourself, Romelu.”
The 30-year-old emerged in full kit from a corner of the stadium just as the team news dropped and confirmed the rumours that Roma’s new No 90 was on the bench. A banner in front of the Curva Sud bid him ‘benvenuto’ and the ultras lit some flares. Red and yellow smoke twirled into the sunset, every wisp carried away just as the fans were by their new signing. A loan signing, that is, and one without an option to make Lukaku’s stay permanent.
— AS Roma (@OfficialASRoma) September 1, 2023
Roma’s former sporting director Walter Sabatini used to advise fans not to get too attached to players in the modern game. The days when a kid growing up in the Porta Metronia neighbourhood of the Eternal City could start and finish his career at Roma, as Francesco Totti did, are over. “Selling Erik Lamela killed me,” Sabatini said. Because he was his player. Roma’s player. Lukaku is not. He is still Chelsea’s player and hasn’t exactly been loyal to the parent clubs who have shown him love in the past.
The affection Sabatini warned against is explained, at least in Lukaku’s case, by a summer-long search for a striker and the hope he represents. Roma’s owners, the Friedkins, called Lukaku during negotiations with Chelsea to explain how central he is to their vision to get the club back into the top four. “I listened and now it’s time to get serious,” Lukaku said. He admired “the ambitions they have for the club and for the fans.”
But the team lacked ambition early on against Milan.
Once again, the team’s enforcer Gianluca Mancini acted as Roma’s playmaker. The centre-back played as an emergency midfielder during an injury crisis under Paulo Fonseca and famously crossed for Nicolo Zaniolo’s winner in the 2022 Conference League final. But hoofing the ball long for Andrea Belotti is not playmaking.
The midfield put together by Roma’s general manager Tiago Pinto was bypassed as the ball flew over Leandro Paredes and Houssem Aouar’s heads. The injured Renato Sanches sat next to the injured Tammy Abraham in the stands. Both watched as Aouar hobbled off injured after half an hour. Paulo Dybala was not in the squad either, after signalling for a change in Verona last week. But the presence of Paredes and Aouar’s replacement, captain Lorenzo Pellegrini on the pitch was still enough to make us expect more in the way of quality from Roma.
When Bryan Cristante fizzed a pass backwards to his centre-backs instead of forwards to his strikers and Diego Llorente hit one to nobody after a hesitant Nicolas Zalewski did not follow his encouragement to push up, it left you wondering how much impact could Lukaku have on a team that is so limited. Milan had heard on the vines draping Rome’s decadent palazzi that, despite missing pre-season, Lukaku had 20 minutes in his legs. Boy did Roma need him.
The reductiveness of Roma’s initial route-one approach contrasted with the rich geometry of Milan’s play. Full-backs Theo Hernandez and Davide Ca-LAHM-bria swapped positions with midfielder Rade Krunic in a fluid series of build-up variations. “We want to build with our goalkeeper Mike (Maignan) and five players,” coach Stefano Pioli said. “It can be a 4+1, a 3+2 or a 2+3. By now my players know how to read the spaces and how our opponents set up against the ball. These are the mechanisms we’re working on.”
Milan are evolving. Pioli has moved away from playing a No 10 to a midfield trio with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders pushing up in support of Milan’s forwards.
While Christian Pulisic has stolen the early headlines, the real tactical novelty is the propulsion and connectivity of Milan’s No 8s. Reijnders’ back post run set up Olivier Giroud’s opening goal in Bologna. Loftus-Cheek’s carry and cut-back against Torino allowed Pulisic to score in back-to-back games. In Rome, Loftus-Cheek won an early penalty by driving into the area following a now-familiar one-two with Giroud. Elements of the Milan project feel like a remake of Made in Chelsea just with talented footballers instead of vapid social climbers. Talented footballers like Loftus-Cheek.
Pulisic has had the bigger moments but Loftus-Cheek has quietly been the most consistent of Milan’s new signings.
The foul he drew in the area was another blunder from Roma goalkeeper Rui Patricio to follow on from his costly flap in last weekend’s defeat to Verona. Flippantly, some Roma fans believe the club should have signed a replacement for him rather than Lukaku although there was precious little Patricio could do about Rafael Leao’s stunning clincher, a scissor-kick hit as he reclined into Zeki Celik as if he were using the Roma wing-back like a sofa.
Sit back and watch this bicycle kick from Milan’s Rafael Leão 🇵🇹🚲 pic.twitter.com/f4yvbxr3Wb
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) September 1, 2023
Perfect for an hour, but for the away fans shouting “vaffanculo” in unison when the Curva Sud paid homage to Antonio De Falchi, the 18-year-old Roma ultra who died of heart failure after Milan ultras set upon him outside San Siro in 1989, Milan were as dominant as they had been against Torino. Ivan Juric said there was a “huge gulf” between the two sides a week ago. We do not know if Mourinho felt the same as, much to the disappointment of the local press pack, he resolved it was best not to speak afterwards. But Milan enjoyed 69 per cent possession until Fikayo Tomori’s second yellow card on the hour mark. Pioli should have replaced him at half-time as Tomori could have gone earlier. He kept sweeping Belotti’s legs out from under him.
The red card presented Mourinho with an opportunity to get back into a game that seemed over. All of a sudden, Lukaku appeared on the sideline ready to come on. While he waited beside Leonardo Spinazzola for a break in play, Lukaku gestured to Roma to push up and attack. He shouted instructions and offered encouragement as if he had been at the club for years. Other than the Milan ultras whistling his name and chanting “uomo di merda” (“you’re a shit”) because of his association with rivals Inter, no one knew quite what to expect.
“His last game was two months ago,” Mourinho said before kick-off. “And he has yet to train with the team. He isn’t in bad condition but he isn’t in good nick either.”
Within seconds, however, Lukaku latched onto a loose ball and fired a shot over the bar. It lifted the mood within the Olimpico and Lukaku tried to pick on Malick Thiaw, the 22-year-old at the heart of Milan’s defence. Thiaw has established himself in the team this season and was up to the challenge. While Lukaku pointed to his new team-mates where to attack, Thiaw stayed touch tight and denied him a debut goal.
Still, there was a nervy finish for Milan when Spinazzola’s shot deflected past Mike Maignan in stoppage time. It brought back memories of last season when Milan threw away a 2-0 lead at the death, drew 2-2 and plunged into crisis. In Rome, they rode this one out and go into the international break top of the table on maximum points ahead of the Derby della Madonnina. Roma are winless, with a single point from nine.
It gives the Friedkins something to think about as Mourinho is now in the final year of his contract. Playing in the Champions League for the first time in five years is their goal. But Roma should aspire to more. Milan’s winning cycle started from a much lower base. They went eight years without Champions League football and even finished 10th one season. It was a long road back. It should not be for Roma. Not with Mourinho. Not with a net spend of more than €100m in his first summer. Not after winning the Conference League and reaching a Europa League final.
For context, Abraham cost more than any of the buys made under Elliott and RedBird. Giroud, the top scorer in Serie A with four goals in three games, signed for Milan on a permanent basis for half what Roma are paying Chelsea to loan Lukaku. The Belgian would be the highest earner at Milan. Other examples leap out like Mancini costing Roma more than Theo Hernandez did Milan or the fee Roma paid for a 33-year-old Patricio which is in the same ballpark as what Milan invested in a 26-year-old Maignan. Better choices could have been made and would have made for a better, deeper team, a contender even.
Milan serve as an example in more ways than one. When Lukaku read Mourinho’s message telling him to expect the “epic”, one imagines being in Serie A’s bottom three in his first weekend as a Roma player probably wasn’t what he had a mind. These are still early days, particularly so for Lukaku, and while Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rom should be pushing Roma for a Scudetto, especially in this, year three of Mourinho.
(Photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)