How Roma’s women turned the season from despair to a double

After five years of Juventus dominance, AS Roma broke their stranglehold on the women’s Italian Serie A title last year and were seen as favourites to claim a second consecutive title before this season started.

However, a string of six losses and one draw through 10 games in December and January had Roma spiralling in all competitions. But, just when all was starting to look bleak for Le Giallorosse, the team pulled itself out of the tailspin to seal a domestic double. This is the story of how they did it.

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A rapid rise under Spugna

Established in 1968, the women’s Serie A was brought in house by the FIGC (Italian Football Federation) for the 2018-19 season with a view to making the league more professional and encouraging traditional men’s teams across the country to take more interest in their women’s sides. Roma, who took over the Serie A license of Res Roma, had been something of an also ran, finishing fourth or fifth in the years before manager Alessandro Spugna arrived to replace Betty Bavagnoli in 2021.

The 50-year-old had cut his coaching teeth over two decades in the men’s youth systems of Torino and Juventus, before taking charge of Empoli Women in 2020 and then landing the Roma job a year later. The club’s success hasn’t come overnight, but its improvement under him has been clear.

Instilling a flowing attacking style that has become the envy of the top clubs in Europe, Spugna won the Coppa Italia in his first season and ensured a second-place finish in Serie A, five points behind champions Juventus — a clear step forward from the previous campaign, when Roma were 29 points adrift.

That strong finish saw Roma make their debut in the UEFA Women’s Champions League (UWCL) and, while they were on their way to that first league title in 2022-23, they had to balance playing domestic and European football. But they coped admirably and impressed on their way to the UWCL quarterfinals before an eventual loss to champions Barcelona.

By the time the Scudetto was in the bag, heads had been turned. But that success raised the bar. Roma could no longer fly under the radar; the pressure was on. They hit the ground running with 14 wins from their first 15 games in all competitions (and a 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich), but over a congested winter schedule the new favourites for the 2023-24 Serie A title began to buckle.

Winter woes

In December 2023, Roma lost to Paris Saint-Germain in their third Champions League group game. In a tough group that pitted them against Ajax, PSG and Bayern Munich, they knew any mistakes would be costly and, unable to take their first-half chances, they suffered a 2-1 defeat in Paris. Then, after a wobbly 3-2 win in Serie A over Como, Roma put in an even less cohesive performance in the return game against PSG at the Stadio Tre Fontane to lose 3-1 on Dec. 20.

A two-week break over the festive period was much needed, but 2024 failed to bring about an improvement in fortunes for Roma as they fell 2-1 to familiar foes Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana despite having 63% of possession.

And the hits kept coming as a shock 2-0 loss to relegation-threatened Napoli in the first leg of their Coppa Italia quarterfinal was swiftly followed by their first league loss of the season, 2-0, to an improved Inter Milan side after a red card for Elisa Bartoli. The frustrations for Roma had been palpable across January and, between the two games, the experienced defender had spoken about the need for “more grit and determination” as well as apologising for the performances being “unacceptable.”

Roma’s second UWCL meeting with Bayen saw a thrilling 2-2 draw, as the Germans came back twice with two late goals from Lea Schüller to salvage a point after Manuela Giugliano’s 93rd-minute strike looked likely to settle the tie. And that left Group C finely poised, with all four teams still able to qualify for the knockouts.

Ahead of Roma’s last group game against Ajax, Spugna told ESPN that he blamed the tough schedule for the club’s decline in form as his players were suffering mentally and physically.

“It was physiological things because of the two seasons in which the team played every three days, it’s tough to be on that level, match after the match, it was physiological,” he said. “Recovery was most important, because we were a little bit tired in that period because it was just after the holidays. And so, we just had to try to find the good mental way to recover everything, both from the physical to the mental part. And in the Bayern match, you can see, we try to recollect every strength and restart.”

Despite taking the lead in the first half through Bartoli, the visitors sagged under the pressure and ultimately lost 2-1 as a late own goal from Zara Kramzar saw them knocked out. It was their sixth defeat in 10 games.

“Of course, we know that we have a lot of games, so it’s not also helpful to play every three days with the trips to move and everything,” Roma’s ever-present defender Elena Linari told ESPN after the game. “It’s hard mentally and physically. Now the league is improving so this [UWCL] group means a lot because we have tough games every three days.

“It’s a shame, but that’s what we have to accept; it’s football sometimes. Last season it was very, very good; this season we have maybe some regrets. But we have to start from this to improve a little bit, to rewatch the games, to see the mistakes and to be there for the next season.

“I think that Italian football is improving a lot. And I think also we changed a lot of players last year, Carina Wenninger [returned to Bayern on loan], Andressa Alves [signed for Houston Dash], we lost good players that had also the right experience. If you think that today enter Kramzar, who is 18, maybe it’s different if it’s Andressa. But everybody has to make the good experience. Ajax is the right example that young players can make the difference, so what we have to do is just to improve with these players.”

Of course, Roma have only been around in their current form for a handful or years, and in European competition for two. Everyone is still learning how to balance the increased load that comes with games every three days and having to adapt to a diverse mix of opposition, as well as integrating new players into the fold. Even during the lowest ebbs of the season, the team stayed resolute; there was no disharmony in the dressing room, nor a loss of faith in the way they play. Surely things had to change.

The turnaround

Little did Linari know that improvement was just around the corner. With only a short time for Roma to lick their wounds after the Ajax game, a potentially season-defining clash against Juventus awaited in Italy just four days later. The players would have to recover and reset, mentally as well as physically.

“It’s what you have to do; you can think on the game until tomorrow morning, making the trip back to Roma, have training there, disconnect, and then restart,” Linari said. “It’s not easy, but that’s what you have to do to be a great to be a football player.”

With January behind them, Roma thrashed their rivals 3-1 and then overturned their Coppa Italia deficit with a 3-0 win over Napoli to see them through unscathed. Momentum was building as they won their next five games — finishing up the Serie A regular season and winning a two-legged Coppa Italia semifinal against AC Milan 7-2 on aggregate to set up a final against Fiorentina — before heading into the new Championship playoff format in full control.

Spugna did not change too much tactically, all he and his staff did was to give the players more freedom of expression and support, without overloading them with new information to process.

On April 15, Roma beat Juventus 2-1 thanks to a goal from Evelyne Viens. It was a statement of intent and the title was nearly in their grasp again.

“I think we have learned,” Viens told ESPN after the game. “We have some ups and downs and I think everyone saw when we could not just really get the momentum going in December and January, that we were able to turn it around, come together, and find other ways to win.”

It would have been fitting if that win over Juventus, in front of their own fans at the Tre Fontane, had been the one to seal the title. But by the time the two met again for the final time in the middle of May, Roma had been crowned champions.

The Coppa trophy followed, with a 4-3 win on penalties over Fiorentina on Friday, but even that needed some grit as Roma were 3-1 down in the 75th-minute of normal time before goals from Moeka Minami and Viens tied things up. It showed how, from delighting last year with their fluid attacking style, Roma had to grind through with some ugly wins to get over the line this season.

“It’s so important. I’m Canadian and in the national team sometimes we don’t win with the best football, sometimes we do, but that’s how you win,” Viens said. “And I think the biggest hurdle this year is that you need to win every game to be able to be on the top and you cannot slip some points away because the competition is so tight. So yeah, I think it’s a big learning experience this year and I think that’s a difference between great team and good team — being able to perform week in and week out.”

Spugna has turned this Roma team into one of the best in Europe, and while they have had to scrap more than they might have expected, the experience of overcoming their midseason issues will surely hold them in good stead going forward.