De Rossi carries Roma past Empoli in front of subdued Stadio Olimpico
It was the perfect night for Daniele De Rossi. Back in his natural position of central midfield after a stint at centre-back, he glanced in his 52nd Giallorosso goal an hour into his 500th Roma match to put his hometown team two goals up and the game beyond a combative, well-drilled Empoli.
Now just a point behind Serie A table-toppers Fiorentina thanks to Saturday's 3-1 win, Roma are in the Scudetto race and are slowly starting to look like the title challengers they promised to be.
De Rossi can be particularly satisfied with his night's work, his 102nd appearance as Roma captain. With Francesco Totti out injured and a fixture on the bench even when fit, De Rossi has moved on from being capitano futuro to the Roman heart of this team, and he looks hungry to win the trophy that has eluded him his entire career.
"If you win it's always the perfect night, especially if you score a goal, which doesn't happen to me very often," De Rossi said. It might be the captain who steals all the headlines, but it was his midfield companion Miralem Pjanic who really won this game for Roma. His third goal from a free kick this season -- from a nearly identical place as his previous two against Juventus and Carpi -- 11 minutes after the break was quickly followed up by the exquisite corner from which De Rossi capped his big day.
The Bosnian now has four goals and four assists from Roma's opening eight games, and he is the club's go-to guy if a tight game needs opening up from a set piece. Ten of his 21 Serie A goals have come from free kicks; it's no wonder Roma tweeted, "Right now it's almost like having a penalty."
Added De Rossi: "Miralem can take a free kick any way from anywhere on the pitch. We know at the start of any match that he is an extra weapon, that little bit extra that takes us over the top."
Having someone who can create something out of nothing helped Roma on Saturday, as up until Pjanic's strike, Empoli didn't look in much trouble at all. The Tuscans started the night in 16th place, but for 56 minutes they looked like a much better team than their league position suggests, comfortably keeping Roma at bay despite missing a host of players, including former Juventus target Riccardo Saponara.
"Up until the Pjanic free kick we were in the game, it was an equal contest and we had our own chances to score," Empoli coach Marco Giampaolo said. "We did what we'd planned to do, which was to keep Roma away from our goal by playing in their half. We managed that for about 80 minutes, but you can only do so much against that quality."
With Roma up 3-0 thanks to a Mohamed Salah tap-in, Marcel Buchel gave Giampaolo's side a consolation goal with 15 minutes left via a stinging strike that squeezed under Roma keeper Wojciech Szczesny's left hand. The Arsenal loanee should have done better, even if the shot did flash past a series of outstretched legs, but it was scant reward for an impressive, disciplined team performance from the visitors. If Empoli play like that every week, they'll climb up the table soon enough.
What's worrisome for Roma, though, is their complete inability to keep a clean sheet, even when playing well at the back. It certainly doesn't help that there's a period in every game in which their concentration wanes, and with the run of games coming up over the next three weeks, that's something that needs to stop.
If Empoli let Roma off the hook when the host's intensity dropped, you can bet that Fiorentina, Inter and Bayer Leverkusen won't. Roma travel to Germany on Tuesday for a huge Champions League clash and then have to take on the league-leading Viola next week in Florence, then Udinese at home and Inter away before hosting Leverkusen in Rome.
If manager Rudi Garcia wants his side to still be in the Champions League come the new year, he needs at least four points from the two games with Leverkusen.
"It's a shame that we conceded again," Garcia said. "It would be a good idea if starting on Tuesday we stopped letting in goals. In the last five minutes I lost my voice in trying to motivate the players. We can only relax at the final whistle and not before."
They certainly would have be able to hear him. Once again the Stadio Olimpico was missing its vocal heart, with the fans in the Curva Sud almost all continuing their boycott over the split of their beloved end forced on them by the city's civil protection authorities.
It seems that by sticking to their guns, the stay-away fans have forced the club to react. On Thursday, club president James Pallotta tried to convince sceptical fans that he was working to find a compromise with the police and local authorities, and Saturday's Corriere Dello Sport blasted the decision to punish thousands of ordinary supporters for the actions of a few, writing that it was "like closing the motorway to everyone just because a couple of people were speeding."
It was certainly a shame that the ground wasn't rocking like it once would have been had Roma established themselves in the title race, and especially on such an important day for one of their heroes.
"I would've preferred them to be here close to us during the game," De Rossi said. "I hope that common sense prevails and there can be a middle ground [the club and police] can meet on, because we really need our fans.
"We often talk about it in the dressing room. We really miss them."
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley