Roma in good heart ahead of daunting Real Madrid showdown
It's a measure of the optimism around Roma at the moment that Friday night's impressive 4-1 beating of Fiorentina had fans hoping they might spring the surprise of the season at Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 second leg on Tuesday.
That drubbing was their seventh straight league win, and while Roma are purring under Luciano Spalletti, Madrid had looked on the verge of a full-blown crisis. The Cristiano Ronaldo-led seven goal humiliation of Celta Vigo the next day put the dream and reality in stark relief.
Roma were unlucky to lose the first leg of the first leg against Madrid 2-0 at the Stadio Olimpico, and with Zinedine Zidane's side drawing at Malaga and losing the Madrid derby in the 10 days after that defeat -- while Roma swatted Palermo and Empoli -- it looked as though the 10-time European champions were on the brink of meltdown.
However 10 goals in four days, against Levante and Celta Vigo, have stabilised Madrid and with Gareth Bale back in action after two months out with a calf injury, Roma go to the Spanish capital hoping to put up more of a fight than they did in their 6-1 group stage mauling at the hands of Barcelona.
To do this they'll have to balance their focus between Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale, who had scored 13 in 17 games before his injury. Unfortunately for Spalletti, those two will be attacking full-backs Alessandro Florenzi and Lucas Digne, undoubtedly his side's defensive weak spots.
Spalletti is also hit by the loss of Antonio Rudiger, who has been left out of the 21-man squad travelling to Spain due to a thigh injury that will keep him out of action for two weeks. The German has improved hugely with the change of management and will be a big miss.
Luckily, Roma have solid back-up in Ervin Zukanovic, who can happily slip in alongside Kostas Manolas on the left side of central defence, while William Vainqueur looks set to step in alongside Miralem Pjanic and former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita, with Radja Nainggolan suffering from a groin strain.
Daniele De Rossi is also sitting the clash out thanks to his troublesome calf muscles, but given Keita's recent form that has, if anything, made Spalletti's selection process easier. With the Francesco Totti issue still bubbling away it's better to have one unsettled fan favourite than two.
Despite the futility of the task -- no team has ever overcome a two-goal first-leg home deficit in the modern Champions League -- Spalletti looks set to pick his first choice XI. That means his preferred front line, with both Totti and Edin Dzeko on the bench.
The reasoning is simple -- Mohamed Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy have been on fire in recent weeks, and they seem most at ease alongside False No.9 Diego Perotti, who will have the chance to exorcise some ghosts at the Bernabeu after leaving Sevilla as an injury-ravaged wreck in 2013.
The Argentine was once a rising star Spain but was struck by a series of hamstring injuries that left him contemplating retirement at just 25.
That he seems to have overcome his troubles has been a boon for Roma. Perotti has scored two goals and provided four assists in seven appearances, and if anything the two Pharaohs have been even hotter.
El Shaarawy's five goals and two assists have shot him back into the Euro 2016 reckoning while Mohamed Salah has bagged six goals in six games and is Roma's current top scorer with 11.
No wonder centre-forward Dzeko -- who has just eight to his name despite being signed in the summer to solve Roma's flakiness in front of goal -- and 39-year-old Totti have been pushed to the sidelines.
Totti appears to be seriously thinking about quitting at the end of the season. Roma Chairman James Pallotta said on Saturday that the No. 10 was the one who had to decide on his future.
The club appear happy to offer him a one-year contract extension but with Spalletti giving him minimal game time he needs to figure out whether he wants to risk another year on the bench, move upstairs, or even take his talents elsewhere -- although no-one wants to say that out loud, least of all the man himself.
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