Francesco Totti decision time for Spalletti at Roma ahead of Empoli clash
Totti or not Totti; that is the question for coach Luciano Spalletti as he returns to old club Empoli on Saturday evening, searching for Roma's sixth straight win.
After quite expertly dealing with the No.10's public tantrum about not getting game time or being guaranteed an extension to his contract, Spalletti now has to decide whether it's worth changing a winning formula and bringing Totti back.
While Spalletti doesn't want to sacrifice results to satisfy the ego of an idolised but fading legend, club chairman James Pallotta -- who sided with Spalletti in the row -- will not want to be the man who let Totti leave the club he symbolises.
Spalletti said after Sunday's 5-0 swatting of Palermo that he was ready to support Totti in whatever he wants to do next season, but while it might be a smart move politically to play him ahead of next week's contract talks with Pallotta, there's not much of a case for his inclusion at the moment.
Roma have scored 15 goals in this five-match streak in which the Roma captain has played just 30 minutes -- contributing with an assist for Miralem Pjanic in last month's 3-1 defeat of Frosinone -- and are gaining in confidence with each passing week. The battering of an admittedly shameful Palermo side was dished out with the languid ease of a team hitting its stride, and now they sit poised to move back into the Champions League places.
Around 4,000 enthusiastic Romanisti are expected to travel to Tuscany as Roma look to wipe out the two-point gap between themselves and Fiorentina, who are currently third and host stuttering title challengers Napoli on Monday night. With fifth-placed Inter Milan contesting the Derby d'Italia at hated rivals Juventus, a win on Saturday would leave Spalletti in a perfect position to enjoy the rest of the weekend.
Should Roma beat Empoli, anything but a Fiorentina victory on Monday would see Roma stay in third, and while Paulo Sousa's side winning would shunt Roma back into fourth it would also mean that the gap between them and second-placed Napoli -- and automatic Champions League qualification -- would be cut to just four points.
Meanwhile, a win for leaders Juve over out-of-form Inter would create a five-point buffer between Roma and the Nerazzurri, with an improbable triumph for under-fire Roberto Mancini putting Roma just five behind the champions, something that would have been not just unlikely, but inconceivable only a month ago.
That Roma can even dream of closing the gap on Juve is thanks to the 16 points that Roma have collected in the seven matches Spalletti has taken charge of, the same as Napoli and just three points fewer than Juve. Even more importantly, it's double what they picked up in their previous seven under previous coach Rudi Garcia.
Totti was set to start against Palermo before venting his frustrations in an interview with state broadcaster Rai, so Spalletti could decide to give him a run out, but with showdowns with both Fiorentina and Inter at the Stadio Olimpico and the Rome derby coming in March (as well as the dead-rubber second leg of their Champions League tie with Real Madrid) Roma really must win on Saturday to put pressure on their rivals.
At one point Empoli looked like they could threaten the Europa League positions but have dropped back into midtable after winning only once since the start of the year and are now 14 points behind Inter. However, while they might be in a horrendous run of form, they're not Palermo, who are already on their fifth manager of the season.
Apart from injured Daniele De Rossi and Nobert Gyomber, the latter of which has played a grand total of 93 league minutes this season, Spalletti has a full squad at his disposal. Kevin Strootman is slowly working towards match fitness after an emotional 13-minute return to action on Sunday, meaning that Spalletti has a host of options that includes moving Pjanic in behind Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah, just as he did against Palermo.
Spalletti has shown himself not to be one for sentiment since returning to Rome, and with the impressive Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy also both ahead of Totti in the pecking order, why should he change his tune now?
Terry Daley is based in Rome and has covered Italian football for both Reuters and AFP. He has written for Vice Sports and Mirror Football. Twitter: @T_Daley