Spalletti makes clear his future isn't tied to Roma or Francesco Totti
"If I don't win anything, I'll leave." When the Italian press picked up Luciano Spalletti's interview with France Football just before Christmas, Romanisti didn't know how to take it. Was it supposed to be a threat to his players ahead of their match at Juventus, or a warning to the club to not sell their star assets in January? With his contract up in the summer, was he gambling on a trophy in May before departing for pastures new?
Since then the Tuscan has done little to calm supporters' nerves, repeatedly dodging the issue of his contract renewal just as he looks to have built the best Roma side since, well, since the one he built a decade ago. The team will surely be in last 16 of the Europa League barring an unprecedented meltdown against Villarreal, who Roma lead 4-0 after the first leg, on Thursday night. His bizarre threat to leave if Francesco Totti retires at the end of the season, after the weekend's 4-1 walloping of Torino, as well as his complete refusal to talk about his contract has only added to the impression that Spalletti is trying to keep the exit door ajar.
Using Totti as his shield is particularly sneaky. When he first arrived, one of his first acts was to make it known that he was in charge of the team, dropping Totti after his captain's childish whining to state broadcaster Rai about not getting what he considered enough playing time. Since then, he has made sparing use of the legendary No. 10.
Spalletti has given Totti just 281 league minutes this season, a third of that time taken up by the 90 minutes afforded him against relegation certainties Crotone in September. He has used him primarily as part of his Europa League second string, a role that he'll play once again on Thursday. His frankly offensive claim that the man they call Er Pupone was the Mohamed Ali of football aside, in what way is Spalletti's or Roma's future tied to Totti? It was the coach who relegated him to the role of bit-part player, and no wonder -- he'll be 41 in September.
Spalletti's evasiveness is all the more suspicious given that the club have made it perfectly clear that they want to keep him on board, delighted with both the way he saved last season after replacing Rudi Garcia in January and how he's drilled this season's squad into a proper, united team, getting far more than anyone expected out of Edin Dzeko and striking a long-missing defensive balance.
"We're ready to sit down with him whenever he wants", said Roma CEO Umberto Gandini in December. Nothing has changed since then, and general manager Mauro Baldissoni's platitudes about "working together with the coach" aren't particularly reassuring. With Massimiliano Allegri tipped to leave Juve at the end of the season, and Spalletti on record that he would happily work there, many fans are expecting the worst.
Regardless of how this season finishes, real progress has been made, and that's in large part down to Spalletti. The flaky streak that to some extent defines Roma means that no fan would ever rule out throwing the tie with Villarreal away, but four away goals to the good and on a record-breaking run of home form that has seen them win 15 games on the bounce at the Stadio Olimpico, Spalletti's Roma now look a totally different proposition to teams past.
Roma have kept 10 clean sheets in their last 15 matches, starting with December's Rome derby win, and after ram-rodding La Liga's best defence -- just 15 goals conceded in 23 matches -- last week, Spalletti can afford to bring in Totti and other players that are either coming back from injury like Diego Perotti and Mario Rui or who are behind in the pecking order, like Thomas Vermaelen, Leandro Paredes and goalkeeper Alisson. With a trip to Internazionale, Lazio in the Coppa Italia semifinals and then the visit of Napoli all coming up in the next 10 days, hopefully the big players will be able to put their feet up.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley