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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Around Europe: Attention on Roma’s title hopes diverted by row over Totti’s playing time

To stay in the race, they need to beat Juventus at the Olimpico, a triumph that would reduce the gap between second-placed Roma and the leaders to four points.
Roma forward Francesco Totti controls the ball during the Italian TIM Cup first-leg semifinal football match on March 1, 2017 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. Filippo Monteforte / AFP
Roma forward Francesco Totti controls the ball during the Italian TIM Cup first-leg semifinal football match on March 1, 2017 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. Filippo Monteforte / AFP

The stampede for tickets for Roma’s last home match of this season, in two Sundays time, has been spectacular.

Forty thousand shifted within half a day of their going on sale. The visitors will be Genoa. It is not a fixture that usually provokes such interest.

Do Romans really imagine that at the end of this month, they might be celebrating a Serie A title?

A handful of wild optimists might, although most hope only that they can continue this Sunday night the mathematical possibility of a first scudetto since 2001.

It is merely mathematical. To stay in the race, they need to beat Juventus at the Olimpico, a triumph that would reduce the gap between second-placed Roma and the leaders to four points, with two games left of the campaign, and at least postpone Juve’s march to a sixth successive Italian title.

No, far-fetched possibilities are not what drove Roma fans to clear their diaries for the Genoa game on May 28.

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It is something more emotional, and as the shape of the Italian top-flight is sorted out amid tension and some chaos at several major clubs, it is the elephant in the room as far as Roma coach, Luciano Spalletti is concerned.

The issue is Francesco Totti, and the awkward arrangements around his farewell to a unique playing career.

Roma made it known earlier this month they expect Totti, who turns 41 in September, to accept their long-standing invitation to take up some sort of managerial post at the club he has been with since childhood and retire as a player come the summer.

The club’s enduring captain seemed to have approved the plan. He has plenty of evidence that even his late-career role as impact substitute is deemed less and less valuable.

Totti has played 90 minutes just once in Serie A this season. He scored his last, 250th league goal in September.

How do you dignify the swansong of a figure of such vast influence, pay the right tribute to career that reaches back more than 24 years since Tott, at the age of 16, made his Roma debut.

He has made over 700 appearances. The captain’s armband is as good as stitched in to his No 10 jersey.

Spalletti — whose two spells at Roma coach have included periods of brilliant cooperation and understanding with Totti and, lately, of prickly animosity — stands squarely accused, by fans, of snubbing Captain Fantastic’s long goodbye.

When Roma won 4-1 at AC Milan last weekend, Spalletti did not invite his skipper to come on as a late substitute, to have one last run out at San Siro, where even Milan fans would have applauded him as a national treasure.

Given that Roma were winning the match comfortably, not putting Totti on seemed perverse.

Spalletti explained his substitutions were based on the need to secure three points, three points that Napoli are only point behind Roma in the table and if Roma drop to third they will have to enter a play-off to be in next season’s Uefa Champions League group phase.

This, the coach implied, was not a time for sentiment. And Spalletti’s irritation with the issue is plain.

“My job is not about managing Totti’s legacy,” he said. “If I could make my choices again, I wouldn’t have come back to coach Roma.”

Chances are he will have choices again soon, with the latest vacancy at Inter Milan, who fired Stefano Pioli last week, a possible opening.

Certainly, the idea of Spalletti as Roma coach next season, with Totti in an executive role, and with a new sporting director, the admired Spaniard Monchi, set to start, looks unworkable.

So will Totti get a run out from the bench today, against Juventus, the club who have thwarted so many possible titles in his quarter-century playing for Roma? It looks unlikely.

Nor, Totti mischievously suggested as the controversy bubbled, is his farewell date written in stone.

“Will May 28th be my last match?” Totti remarked, mischievously, a few days after the snub at San Siro. “I don’t know.”

Player of the week: Naby Keita (RB Leipzig)

• A year ago, RB Leipzig were hearing for the first time their new, official club song, the work of a well-known local songwriter, composed to celebrate their promotion to the Bundesliga’s top flight for the first time in history. Last week, the players prepared for action by listening to the Uefa Champions League anthem, anticipating their debut there in September, when they will accompany today’s opponents, German champions Bayern Munich.

Midfield motor

• There is competition for the outstanding contributor to the last chapter in Leipzig’s remarkable rise, from runners-up in the second division to, they hope, Bundesliga silver-medallists behind Bayern, in the space of 12 months. Many would choose Naby Keita.

Creator and enforcer

• Keita’s eight goals and eight assists, often from a deeper midfield position than he regards as his natural one, endorse the influence he has had on a Leipzig squad that has taken on Germany’s heavyweights with few established stars. Keita, 22, was the most costly new arrival, at a little over €15 million (Dh59.9m) to RB Salzburg, the Austrian club who share with Leipzig the financial backing of the Red Bull group.

Iniesta inspiration

• Keita, 1,72m tall, developed his nimble skills on the ball, as he tells it, playing in the streets of Conakry, capital of his native Guinea in West Africa, using car tyres as goalposts and his quick reflexes to master the bounce of makeshift balls made of uneven plastic. The glimpses he caught of European football via television encouraged an admiration for Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta, whom he still studies for lessons in how to master the requirements of a modern midfielder.

Dynamic debuts

• He joined the leading Conakry club, Horoya, before his teens and by the age of 18 was in France, where Istres of Ligue 2 offered him a contract. He scored a goal and set up another on his debut and within seven months was poached by Salzburg. He won two Austrian titles there, and, on joining Leipzig, made an inspect impact, coming off the bench to score on his Bundesliga bow in a resonant win over Borussia Dortmund.

All-round game

• Ralf Rangnick, technical director at Leipzig and formerly at Salzburg, encouraged the Guinea international to work on the defensive side of his game and has been thrilled at the application Keita showed. “He is hard-working and respectful, with no attitude problems at all,” says Rangnick. Tough, too. Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann criticised Keita for his aggression earlier this season.

Premier predators

• The mix of imagination going forward and snappy retrieval work has made several clubs in England look acquisitively at Keita, who was in contact with Arsenal last year. Liverpool and Manchester City are said to be keen on recruiting him. Ditto Paris Saint-Germain. Leipzig want him to stay at least one more season, to hear the Champions League anthem serenade them into Europe’s elite.

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