The timing was right. Reflecting on his future after five years at Lille and sensing that they were scaling back their ambition, Garcia felt a new challenge might be in order. He at least wanted to explore his options. So Garcia accepted the invitation.
On his arrival at the hotel where the meeting had been arranged, he was told in no uncertain terms by Roma’s director of sport Walter Sabatini that he shouldn’t expect to get the position. “I’ll hear you out, but you’re not the one we’ll choose,” he said.
Garcia wasn’t Roma’s first choice. Max Allegri was. He wasn’t even their second choice. That was Walter Mazzarri. “Why waste my time then?” Garcia could be excused for thinking. Many coaches, their pride wounded, might have ended the meeting there and then on a point of principle.
But Garcia didn’t. Instead he explained his vision and left Sabatini to think things over. In the meantime, Milan opted not to sack Allegri, who decided to stay too despite the treatment he’d received from Silvio Berlusconi. And Mazzarri? Well, he didn’t appreciate Roma talking to Allegri, and for other reasons, most notably prestige, decided to take the post at Inter.
So Sabatini had to make a volte face. From being told “you’re not the one we’ll choose,” Garcia was informed, quite the contrary, he’d be Roma’s next coach. In hindsight, things couldn’t have played out better.
Roma, as everyone is now well aware, have made their best start to a season ever and by some way too. They matched the achievements of Alfredo Foni’s 1960-61 side with four straight wins by beating Lazio, of all teams, in the Derby della Capitale, avenging at least to some extent last season’s painful defeat to their rivals in the Coppa Italia final. Roma didn’t stop there either. Saturday night’s 3-0 victory against Inter at San Siro was their seventh in a row.
Of the teams to have started a season like this throughout Serie A history - Juventus have done it four times, Milan twice and Inter once - just one - Inter in 1966-67 - have failed to win the Scudetto. Fans stood in the Curva Sud are beginning to dream.
“But Juventus and Napoli are still the favourites!” Garcia counters. “Here, everyone gets heated very quickly and talks to you about the title after just four matches. It’s not rational. We can’t trick the supporters… The objective is still to get back into Europe next season.”
It is early. Way too early to talk about the title. Scudetti are won in May not by October. Next Friday’s encounter with Napoli, coached by Garcia’s former mentor Rafa Benitez who are as yet unbeaten in Serie A, will be another acid test. But the signs are encouraging. To put Roma’s start into context: there are other ‘perfect’ teams around Europe. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have won eight out of eight in Spain. But where Roma have distinguished themselves up until now, even in this company, is in how they have defended under Garcia.
So far they have conceded just the one goal, a feat Inter also managed over the opening seven games of the 1966-67 campaign, as did Napoli in 1970-71 and Udinese the season before last.
No team in Europe's top 5 leagues have as good a record at the back as Roma, conceding just 0.14 goals per game. After the Serie A leaders come Southampton [0.29], Bayern [0.38], Lille [0.44] and PSG and Monaco [0.56]. It’s a remarkable turnaround when you consider the following: Roma let in 56 goals last season under Zdenek Zeman [hardly a surprise there] and caretaker Aurelio Andreazzoli.
Of the shots Roma have conceded this season, only 3.8% have been classed as clear cut chances. That’s lower than anyone else, including Livorno [4.9%], Napoli [5.5%], Juventus [5.7%] and Inter [6.8%]. Unable to play through Roma, teams are resorting to attempts from distance. At 69.6% the percentage of shots they have conceded from outside the penalty area is higher than any other side in Serie A. Goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctishas had little to do. Forced into 1.86 saves per game, he’s the least worked shot stopper in the league this season.
You can focus on individuals: the acquisition this summer of Mehdi Benatia, for instance, one of Serie A’s best centre-backs in recent years, and the screen that Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman provide in front of the back four. But Roma’s impregnability is down to how they defend as a team, as is their efficacy in attack too.
Nine different players have got on the scoresheet for them. The speed of their transition play has hurt many teams. Lulled into coming onto Roma, they leave a lot of space in behind: comfortable in both phases, De Rossi and in particular Strootman [who has four assists] can turn defence into attack in an instant. Francesco Totti or Miralem Pjanic can provide the killer pass [nine assists between them] while Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi have the legs to really stretch the play.
Is it any wonder, Roma have scored five goals on the counter-attack, more than any other in Serie A this season? For reference, see their second goal against Bologna and third against Inter.
It’s the balance about Roma that’s most impressive. Of the teams in Serie A history that have won their first seven games of the season, Juventus in 1930-31 and Milan in 1954-55 and 1992-93 all scored more goals, but they also let in more too. No side has ever had the goal difference Roma [+19] have in the same circumstances.
Overcome Napoli next Friday and they’ll match the start of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus in 1985-86 [eight wins] and also have a shot at equalling the all-time record set by Fabio Capello’s side in 2005-06 [nine wins], though after Calciopoli that achievement has an asterisk alongside it. Can Roma keep the streak going? Well, Totti and De Rossi were members of the side that won 11 games in a row under Luciano Spalletti between December 2005 and March 2006, a league record at the time. You can argue Roma haven’t played as well since.
Not being in Europe helps. There’s more time to recover and work on the finer details. In Garcia, they have a coach who knows how to develop a winning mentality among players too. He led Lille to their first league title since 1954 two years ago. The question is: can he guide Roma to their first Scudetto since 2001? Spalletti and Claudio Ranieri came close in 2008 and 2010 respectively, agonisingly so too. Only Alfred Schaffer, Nils Liedholm and Fabio Capello have ever gone all the way. While qualifying for Europe might be Garcia’s stated aim, adding his name alongside theirs must be a [forbidden] dream of his. It’s one Roma fans share and dearly hope will come true.