As returns from a long-term absence go, Mattia Destro’s could not have been more timely. With AS Roma and Fiorentina approaching the hour mark and deadlocked at 1-1 in what had been the best tactical and technical encounter of the season so far, Rudi Garcia was in need of some inspiration to avoid seeing the Romans fall further behind Juventus at the top of the table.
Looking along the bench, the coach had Francesco Totti available but a long way from match fitness having been sidelined for a month-and-a-half with a hamstring problem. Alongside the captain was Marco Borriello who had overcome an ankle injury and was keen to reclaim his place in attack, but the Frenchman instead turned to a player who had not kicked a ball in a high-profile competitive game since making a fleeting appearance for Italy at the Under-21 European Championship in June.
Eight minutes later Destro was putting nine months of pain and despair behind him, wheeling away after slotting home from close range for what would ultimately turn out to be the winner.
An indication of how long the striker had been away from duty was evident from his shirt-removing celebration – an act that even the most fervent goal celebrators have consigned to the bin along with badge kissing and thumb pointing to the back of their shirts – to receive the inevitable booking.
There had been a lot of speculation, rumours and half-truths surrounding the knee injury that had turned Destro into the forgotten man of Italian football. Until Sunday his last club outing had been in the Italian Cup final in May, before he headed off with the young Azzurri looking to put behind him the disappointment of losing to Lazio.
However, before then we need to backtrack 11 months to January at the Stadio Olimpico, when the then-21-year-old limped off after scoring the winning goal in the first leg of the Italian Cup semi-final against his old club Inter.
Tests showed that he had suffered a tear to the lateral meniscus in his left knee, which would require routine arthroscopic surgery and anything from a month onwards in recovery time. He would end up spending three on the sidelines before being slowly introduced back into the squad, but the young striker didn't actually make it on to the pitch until early April when he came on as a substitute in the Rome derby.
When he did start a few weeks later it produced a headline-grabbing performance in the return leg of the Coppa Italia, where he netted a brace at the San Siro to set up an all-capital final. It seemed that the injury setback was behind him as he played five more matches in the league and started in the ill-fated final.
A leading figure in Devis Mangia’s star-studded U21s, Destro looked set to further fulfill his growing potential. But it was in Israel, where the Azzurrini lost in the final to Spain, where events took a turn for the worst. Failing to make an impact coming off the bench in the first two group games, he was a subdued figure until the final outing when he was finally given a start, but did not feature in the semi-final against the Netherlands, or in the final.
The surgeon who performed the operation claimed Destro should not have gone to the Euros but instead remain with his club to continue a complete rehabilitation without the stresses of competitive football.
The Italian Football Federation hit back that the player had been fitter by the end of the tournament than when he had arrived, but ultimately Roma were left with €15m worth of talent unable to train throughout the summer and in need of three months' personal conditioning.
Destro grabs the winning goal for Roma against Fiorentina
The rumour mill went into overdrive in the meantime, with photos published depicting a bloated-looking Destro along with claims that he had suffered an injury relapse following a run-out for the youth side. It all proved to be untrue, however, and Roma protected the player from any media intrusion until they were certain he was fit to return.
Garcia was certainly in need of some strike power after four consecutive draws and only three goals scored, but his side were only one game away from setting a new club record of 15 league games undefeated. Back in the 2003/04 season, Fabio Capello’s team had produced a run of 11 wins – seven straight in November – and three draws, before falling to eventual champions Milan at the turn of the year.
Stage is set
Roma's French boss had called on his players to attack Fiorentina like a pack of hungry wolves, to which opposite number Vincenzo Montella retorted that he had the fire to keep the prey at bay. And so the stage was set for a match to delight the purists; the pace of Gervinho against that of Juan Cuadrado, the grace of Miralem Pjanic and Borja Valero, the duel between Giuseppe Rossi and Medi Benatia, and all directed by two of the best-prepared tacticians in Serie A.
Roma started in ravenous fashion. Douglas Maicon’s goal on seven minutes from Gervinho’s pull-back was nearly added to soon after when Daniele De Rossi had a point-blank header pushed over the bar by Viola goalkeeper Neto.
Fiorentina settled into their unhurried and fluid style, and did match fire with fire. Where Gervinho had tormented the visiting defence at one end with darting runs to the byline, Cuadrado and Juan Vargas replied in similar fashion. It was the latter who scored the equaliser just before the half-hour mark.
Either side could have taken the initiative early in the second half. Roma's Kevin Strootman hit the outside of the post, while at the other end Alberto Aquilani scuffed a close-range chance. Destro, however, was not going to pass up the opportunity to leave his mark. Once again it was a Gervinho dragback from the byline that did the damage as Destro arrived in the perfect position to fire home on the edge of the six-yard area.
All on the bench celebrated with relief on a personal and collective level. Destro had announced his return, while Roma demonstrated they have the hunger to keep up the chase behind Juventus.