So it's come to this. An inconsistent, at times frankly dreary season comes to an unexpectedly thrilling climax, a trip to one of the citadels of European football and a chance to avenge perhaps the most painful night in Roma's history -- one that many say contributed to the tragic end of one of the club's greatest heroes.
On May 30, 1994, Agostino Di Bartolomei, not yet 40, was found dead at his home in the southern town of Castellabate in southern Italy, lying in a pool of blood after a gunshot to the heart with his Smith & Wesson that woke his dozing wife, Marisa. It was 10 years to the day that Roma captain Di Bartolomei had taken to the Stadio Olimpico pitch in front of a frenzied crowd of 70,000, a Serie A champion one step away from winning his boyhood side's first-ever European Cup.
Born and raised in the working-class district of Tor Marancia in South Rome, an area that has long stood in the shadow of its more ornate, tourist-friendly neighbour Garbatella, and which had once been the site of a post-war shanty town so dangerous it was called "Shanghai", Di Bartolomei wasn't just captain of Roma, he was the fans' -- and in particular the Curva Suds' -- presence on the pitch. Today, the housing estates that dominate his home area are covered in impressive if somewhat bourgeois "street art", but among them you can still find murals dedicated to the one they called "Ago".
He, alongside Bruno Conti, Falcao and Roberto Pruzzo, was one of the stars of probably the most loved Roma team, the winners of the 1983 league title and three Coppa Italias. He scored the penalty that saw Roma come back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to win the semifinal 3-2 on aggregate, a tie that was subsequently mired in scandal after accusations of second-leg referee Michel Vautrot being bribed £50,000 by Roma, something that then-chairman Dino Viola's son Riccardo said was true in 2011.
Roma lost the final, of course, the capital city of the land of pasta foxed by Bruce Grobbelar's spaghetti legs and beaten on penalties by Liverpool. That summer, Di Bartolomei left Roma after being ditched by incoming coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and soon after went from hero to villain, celebrating wildly after scoring against his old team for AC Milan.
Afterwards, he slipped down the leagues and into obscurity. No one from Roma ever called to offer him a role at the club and after finishing his career he moved south, running a football school that slowly ran out of money until he decided to take his own life. Later, Marisa found a note written by her husband that read: "I feel shut in a hole."
That defeat, and its dark epilogue, adds another layer of significance to this semifinal with Liverpool. Arriving at the 1984 final was the last -- the only -- time that Roma had ever really made an impact on Europe's biggest stage, and the thought of drawing the Reds gave fans of a certain vintage flashbacks to that fateful day.
One, who now works for the club in a semi-official capacity, had barely digested the incredible victory over Barcelona when this writer suggested Liverpool might be the best draw for the semis.
"Don't ... My heart."
Roma go into their biggest game in 34 years with a full squad and high spirits, having built on the battering of Barca by maintaining their leading spot in the race for next season's Champions League. Leading the charge will be Daniele De Rossi, outstanding against the Catalans at the Olimpico alongside Edin Dzeko, who is looking to establish a club record European Cup goals total after equalling the six Pruzzo scored in 1983-84 with his opener a fortnight ago.
De Rossi, the latest in a line of captains that goes Di Bartolomei, Conti and Francesco Totti, has always said that his greatest regret would be not to win the league title with Roma. At 34 years old, he's too young to have seen the '83 Scudetto and was still a youth team player when Totti fired them to the title in 2001.
What if, as his career heads towards what looks like its final year, he was to go one better than the kings of Rome that came before him?