WATCH: Uefa Champions League semi-finals - Astute Monchi working his magic behind the scenes at Roma
A year ago today, Roma welcomed a new director of football to the club. It looked like a fine snatch. Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, better known as "Monchi", had been admired for many years for his work at Sevilla, home of expert scouting and spotting of talent, big profit-yields in the transfer market and a knack of reaching European finals. They won three Europa Leagues on the trot in the years up to 2016.
Monchi had some pressing tasks as soon as he reached Rome. He had to agree with Francesco Totti, club legend, that it was in the club’s best interests if the legend and captain called time on his long playing career with Roma, and, at the age of almost 41, joined Monchi in a upstairs executive role. Monchi then oversaw a change of manager and the deals of the summer transfer window, where some hefty, irresistible offers came in from the Premier League for players like defender Antonio Rudiger. Oh, and for Mohamed Salah, who meets his old teammates on Wednesday at Anfield in a Uefa Champions League semi-final on the crest of a wave.
There was not much Monchi could have done to keep Salah from a move he wanted last July, but the fee, which Monchi calculates at around €50 million (Dh225m) with bonuses, now looks modest given what the Egyptian, freshly voted as English football’s Player of the Year by his peers, has achieved in the last nine months.
Regrets over Salah’s departure will recede dramatically if Roma can overcome Liverpool over the next 180 minutes. They might vanish entirely should Roma etch a new name on the European Cup by the end of next month. And there is already a growing argument that, of the ins and outs of Monchi’s first year designing strategy in Italy, the most important was not Salah’s exit but the arrival as manager of Eusebio di Francesco, replacing Luciano Spalletti.
Roma may not have been as convincing in the league this season as they were in 2016/17, when they finished second, four points behind Juventus, but they have found a new dimension in Europe. Reaching the quarter-finals, having topped a group that included Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, meant going further than they had in the Champions League in the previous nine years. The overcoming of Barcelona in the last-eight stage that truly endorsed Di Francesco’s reputation as a bold, clear-sighted tactician, with the authority to convince his players they could defy the most daunting odds.
A reminder: Roma left Camp Nou at the end of the first leg of their quarter-final 4-1 in arrears. When Kostas Manolas headed in their third goal, eight minutes from full time in the 3-0 comeback at the Stadio Olimpico, the watching Monchi says he experienced “for the first time something I had been told about, which is how they celebrate success in Rome. Roma fans can be very demanding, but when they enjoy themselves they really turn up the heat.”
Di Francesco had switched to a back three, unusual for his Roma, to enable the unlikely reverse of fortune against Barcelona, and there is a temptation to go the same way against Liverpool, with a stocked, aggressive midfield to cut off the supply to Salah and company.
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Champions League talking points: Roma to face a new Salah
Against the so-called "Fab Three" of Liverpool’s front line – Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino - Roma hope to have their own Tigerish Trio, dictating terms, the midfielders Daniele de Rossi, Totti’s successor and emblematic, homegrown captain; the galvanising Kevin Strootman, and the dynamic Radja Nainggolan, whose energy Monchi was pleased to keep as part of the Roma project last summer despite interest in the Belgian from clubs elsewhere.
Edin Dzeko will lead the line, and if he would acknowledge that he has missed Salah a little this season – the Egyptian’s passes helped him to top the goalscorers’ chart in Serie A last season; this term he has not yet hit half as many goals as the 29 he struck with Salah positioned to his right – Dezko has been a totem in the Champions League. He scored twice in the 3-3 draw against Chelsea in London, the goal that decided a tight tie against Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16 and registered in both legs against Barcelona.
There should also be a part to play for the young Turkish international, Cengiz Under, alongside Dzeko. Under, 20 years old and signed from Basaksehir last summer, may turn out as the latest of Monchi’s shrewd, stellar discoveries, as the likes of Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic were while he was hiring players at Sevilla. Roma hope there will be many more such gems in the years ahead, and that the club will be that much more alluring to potential recruits because they have established a real European pedigree.