x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Roma came so tantalisingly close

For some 18 minutes of Sunday's live action in Serie A, Roma were the Italian champions.

For some 18 minutes of Sunday's live action in Serie A, Roma were the Italian champions. Count the period of half time, and Roma were on top of the table for more than half an hour. A goal ahead away at Chievo, thanks to Mirko Vucinic's powerful strike from distance in the 39th minute, Roma could nourish one last time the idea that what had become an engrossing title race might hold one last twist in their favour.

When Daniele De Rossi then put the Romans 2-0 up just before the interval, they returned to the dressing room knowing at least they had fulfilled their obligations in maintaining the chase. Arriving there, the Roma players heard the encouraging news that Siena-Inter Milan was goalless at the break. Had matters finished thus, Roma would have been something more than the "moral victors" at the climax of the 2009/10 campaign. But once Diego Milito had registered his 22nd goal in the competition to put Inter 1-0 up in Tuscany, 57 minutes in, the die was cast. Inter do have a tradition of wobbling as they close in on trophies, but it is a habit that has been sufficiently eroded under their last two coaches, Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho.

The only significant deja vu was the one that took their minds two years back, when Inter won the third of what is now five scudettos on the trot on the last day, although for 54 minutes of that afternoon had been trailing Roma by a point. Inter had let it run alarming close, Jose Mourinho, their head coach, acknowledged by shedding a few tears afterwards and telling reporters: "It would have been preferable to win it with four or five matches to spare." The Portuguese then added that his own high standards accustomed him to not letting these triumphs go down to the wire. "It's the first time I've won a championship like this."

It is the sixth national league title of Mourinho's career: two in Portugal with Porto, two in England with Chelsea; now a second, and perhaps last for the time being in Italy, with Inter. Mourinho remains coy about his future. He says will make a decision only after Saturday's Champions League final against Bayern Munich. He also took up a theme he has rehearsed time and again over the past four months: "I don't feel at home in Italy, only with Inter."

Inter's home is very much on the top floor of the Italian hierarchy. The previous evening had seen their customary rivals engaged in a one-sided contest with very little at stake. Milan beat Juventus 3-0 in what television schedulers might, back in August, have anticipated would be a bonanza of a spectacle for the 38th match day. In the event, it was emptied of telling significance. Milan will qualify, as third-place finishers in the table, for the group stage of the Champions League; by then they will have a new manager.

The win over Juve, in front of a crowd who expressed their disappointment with the season in banners, was Leonardo's farewell. For Juve, the defeat was enough to provoke the club captain and icon, Alessandro Del Piero, to sum up the season in one word: 'Disaster.' When Claudio Ranieri described Roma's second-placed finish as a 'moral victory', much of Italy sympathised. Roma's remarkable run of 23 consecutive wins after a stumbling autumn had last month taken them to the top of the table for a fortnight, a joyous two weeks replicated in those 18 minutes on Sunday. Whether Roma can sustain that momentum into the next year remains to be seen.

Ranieri has given them a buoyancy, but he is dealing with resources that are constrained compared to those of Inter and the faded Milan and Juve. Ranieri must anticipate major changes at each of the so-called Big Three. It looks likely that the entire trio will be coached by new men next season. Roma, so often the caricatures of volatility, have begun to look almost like models of stability next their old rivals.