"Garcia? Who's he? We'd be better off with Zorro," declared a Roma fan at the start of the season, his summer blighted by memories of Lazio lifting the Coppa Italia. While the comparisons with the fictional Sergeant Garcia may have been harsh, it would be fair to say that Rudi Garcia was not a popular appointment as coach, but a few weeks into the season and the Frenchman is the toast of Testaccio, the working-class hive of dyed-in-the-wool Romanistas.
His team have posted eight wins from eight games, including a 2-0 derby triumph, and possess both the best attack (20 goals) and most miserly defence (one conceded). In the Italian capital, men have been crowned emperor for much less.
When he signed up for duty in the summer, Garcia knew he was far from being the club's first choice, but he quickly began living up to the role. He made a strong impression from his very first press conference, in fact, expressing himself in recently learned but remarkably elaborate Italian.
"I did that out of respect for the fans – every detail is important," says Garcia, who was surprised to find such a negative atmosphere surrounding the club when he arrived. "I didn't like that. On the contrary, we needed confidence. I don't like people criticising a player or my team. If I have something to say, I say it, but I don't wash dirty linen in public."
He then set about communicating his message, winning the trust of the dressing room and explaining his vision of attacking football based on a 4-3-3 formation. "They quickly went along with it," he says. "They're intelligent players who have a fairly extraordinary work ethic. They were quick to understand what I expected from them."
At the same time, Garcia forged a bond with his captain, Francesco Totti, the soul of the team and a player who cannot raise an eyebrow without it being interpreted up and down the land. "Francesco is a legend, and a legend that's still being written," explains the 49-year-old.
He's the greatest player I've ever had at my disposal.
"He's a player who hasn't missed a single training session since I've been here. He doesn't ask for any special favours, and he's a player of great humility, like the true greats often are. He's the greatest player I've ever had at my disposal."
The third prong of Garcia's approach after taking the reins was to recruit the right players during the summer transfer window. With Maarten Stekelenburg, Pablo Osvaldo, Erik Lamela and Marquinhos all heading out of the club, their departures helped fund swoops for proven performers such as Mehdi Benatia, Maicon, Morgan De Sanctis, Gervinho – who has rediscovered the form he showed under Garcia at Lille – and, above all, new Dutch phenomenon, Kevin Strootman.
"Lots of big clubs were interested in me, but when Garcia called me I liked what he had to say," recalls the box-to-box player, one member of a high-calibre midfield alongside Miralem Pjanic and Daniele de Rossi.
De Rossi's presence has proved crucial too, Garcia pulling off a coup by convincing the Rome native to resist the lure of the English Premier League. "This year, the team knows where it's going because the coach prepares games right down to the smallest details," De Rossi has said, the Italy international once again earning plaudits for his tireless work in midfield.
The team knows where it's going because the coach prepares games right down to the smallest details.
Aiming for Europe
Nevertheless, perhaps Garcia's most telling impact has been in reminding his team of certain basic football truths, such as how to "defend together in every corner of the pitch to avoid conceding goals". And with a pair of central defenders like Benatia and Leandro Castan, Roma have no reason to envy any of the bigger name duos at rival clubs.
After two seasons toiling away in mid-table, Roma's recent exploits have struck some as close to a miracle, but Garcia simply smiles and says he has "put the church back in the middle of the village". I Giallorossi may have equalled the record start made by Juventus during the Michel Platini era, yet their goal remains to secure a place in Europe for next season.
"The favourites for the Scudetto are still Juventus and Napoli," explains Garcia, who won a league and cup double with Lille in 2011. Even he has been a little swept up by the reigning euphoria, however, adding: "We can perhaps hope to be involved in the final sprint with those teams."
Roma will look to win their ninth straight game away against Udinese on Sunday, but they will have to do it without their veteran gladiator Totti, who misses out through injury. Despite his absence, the capital side will travel in rude health, and led by a Sergeant Garcia now starting to look comfortable in an emperor's robes.