Roma need strongest squad to face Fiorentina in crucial clash
Roma chairman James Pallotta flew into the Italian capital this week, and as his team prepare for Friday's huge Serie A clash with Fiorentina and next week's Champions League trip to Real Madrid, among his top priorities is to sort out once and for all the unrest surrounding his unsettled club captain Francesco Totti.
The American sat down with Totti for what the Gazzetta dello Sport described as "no more than five minutes" on Tuesday, and the general feeling is that the legendary No. 10's playing contract will be extended by a year. Politically, no doubt it's the right move for Pallotta, but it could cause problems down the line for Luciano Spalletti should the coach continue to leave Totti on the bench.
Pallotta played down the Totti controversy when he landed on Monday, saying that he was "not sure what happened or why."
"Everybody is trying to mount a case against Totti but none of the speculation is true," he said. "He'll stay with Roma for a long time. I love him."
However, Totti's problem wasn't so much that he didn't have a new contract on the table (nor that he wasn't loved by his chairman), but rather that he didn't feel valued as a player. Another season as Roma captain won't mean much to him if he has to spend his final year as a professional footballer wedded to the bench.
Totti has played just 217 minutes in all competitions this season, and just 33 since Spalletti replaced Rudi Garcia in January, and there's little chance of him starting on Friday night, when Roma will be looking to protect third place and the final Champions League spot from Fiorentina.
Roma took third from the Viola with their breathless 3-1 win at Empoli on Saturday and stayed there after Paulo Sousa's side failed to turn their chances against Napoli into goals on Monday evening, contriving to draw 1-1 in a game in which they twice hit the woodwork.
That draw kept Fiorentina level with Roma on 53 points, but the Viola come into Friday's match in fourth thanks to their 2-1 home defeat to the Garcia-led Giallorossi back in October.
Given the tight race for the Champions League spots, the head-to-head record between the two teams could be crucial come the end of the season, and Sousa knows that a seventh straight win for Roma would effectively make their lead on his side four points rather than three. win for either side will also put pressure on second-place Napoli, who occupy Serie A's last automatic qualification spot and take on mid-table Chievo straight after the clash in Rome.
Napoli's form has taken a bit of a dip in recent weeks, and while they'll likely beat Chievo, cutting the five-point gap that separates Napoli from Roma and Fiorentina would definitely put some added pressure on Maurizio Sarri and his stuttering title-challengers ahead of a seemingly simple home fixture.
Spalletti thought he might have to make do without midfield stars Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan after the Belgian had to leave the field in the first half of the Empoli win with a calf injury and Pjanic picked up a problem with his knee. However, both players trained on Wednesday and should be available, meaning that Spalletti has an almost full squad at his disposal.
The coach's biggest decision is whether to start with Edin Dezko up front alongside Mohamed Salah and Diego Perotti -- who has impressed so much since arriving on loan from Genoa that Roma have already exercised their option to buy -- in behind as a playmaker, or with the Argentine as a false nine and Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy on either flank.
Being two goals down going into their second leg with Madrid means that Roma have to focus more on qualifying for next year's competition rather than prolonging their stay in this season's. That means once again Spalletti's head has to rule his heart when selecting his squad.
Will that mean a place for Totti at the Bernabeu?
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley