Radja Nainggolan was a man on a mission.
Moments after Edin Dzeko had collapsed under the challenge of Gerard Piqué, the Belgian picked up the ball before striding to the penalty spot.
Chest puffed out with his tattooed-arms bulging, it looked for all the world like he was about to take the spot kick that could send Roma through to the Champions League semi-finals.
Then Daniele De Rossi stepped up. Of course it was going to be him: the glowering consigliere of the Francesco Totti dynasty. De Rossi, whose own goal had started the rout at the Camp Nou a week before, set his cold eyes to the task.
A piercing side-foot finish evaded Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s glove. He rushed into the net to retrieve the ball, repossessing it like he had throughout his storied, stormy career.
The comeback was on.
Roma through and through
Tuesday night will linger long in the memories of Romanisti. Kostas Manolas might have guided a deft headed winner on 83 minutes but the night belonged to one man only.
At first glance, De Rossi’s story seems pre-ordained. His father Alberto had been a footballer, too, before embarking on a long spell as a youth team coach at Roma.
Alberto’s son, however, struggled to decide between following in his footsteps or pursuing his talents at volleyball and basketball. When his aunt sewed ‘Voller’ and the number 9 into his replica Roma jersey, however, his fate was sealed.
De Rossi glided through the Primavera ranks, before filling the Pep Guardiola-shaped hole at Roma on his senior debut in 2003.
It feels like he hasn’t left Stadio Olimpico since, a footballing gargoyle keeping watch over Rome’s most precious footballing cathedral.
On top of the world
Three years after his debut, De Rossi was named club captain for the first time.
He was willing but often too able, with his shaven head and rugged jaw earning a burly reputation. The midfielder was prodigious enough, however, to be included in Marcello Lippi’s squad for the 2006 World Cup.
An elbow on Brian McBride in the second group game solidified his reputation. The USA striker needed several stitches, whilst De Rossi was banned for four games. His tournament should have been over.
Italy, however, managed to will themselves into the final against fellow surprise package France. De Rossi, chastened and feeling himself to be an outcast, was called on from the substitutes bench in the second half.
He’d already made the headlines once at the showpiece, so he could have been forgiven if he deigned from taking a penalty in the shoot-out.
A man of his character couldn’t reconcile himself with that, though. De Rossi watched David Trezeguet miss, before bearing down on Fabien Barthez with the knowledge that he could give Gli Azzurri the advantage. We all know the outcome.
In the shadow of another
For Roma, De Rossi continued to be crucial. Twice, under Luciano Spalletti and Claudio Ranieri, he was integral in impressive second-place finishes.
Even when he was less integral under Zdenek Zeman, however, he was stoic. The choruses of ‘Where is Daniele?’ from the Giallorossi fans were rabid enough in their criticism of the cavalier Czech.
Luis Enrique restored him to his rightful place but nobody was more aware of his supplicant status than De Rossi himself. Totti was the unchallengeable emperor and the two were bound by an omertà that put the team first.
Of course, it helped that they played entirely different positions and were never a threat to the others place but for two decades they gave an Ostian chassis to a side that was otherwise cosmopolitan.
Loyalty to the end
It would be wrong, however, to say that De Rossi has seen himself in red and gold only. Honest to a fault, he has stated several times on the record about his desire to play elsewhere.
He could have joined Manchester City in 2012; he could have joined Inter at the end of last season too. On both occasions, his city and his love for it pulled him back.
“Rome bewitches you,” he said in an interview with La Repubblica. “It is almost impossible to leave. The fans love you, they follow you. If you fail, they wait for your redemption”.
His loyalty to his teammates is equally legendary. When Alessandro Florenzi tore his cruciate ligament in a 3-1 win over Sassuolo in 2016, De Rossi stayed with him in the hospital until 4am for the results of the scan.
The prince who would be king
For a man who won the World Cup at 22, Serie A has never seemed more remote. Juventus are too big and too far ahead to be caught.
De Rossi is 34 now, with his legs looking tired even as he prowled the midfield against Barcelona with crumbling majesty.
He might never win it but it doesn’t matter. Kings don’t need crowning achievements.
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