x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The two faces of talismanic Totti

Claudio Ranieri also knows that the job of Roma head coach entails sensitive and careful management of a player who towers above all others.

Francesco Totti listened to the advice of his head coach and nodded. Claudio Ranieri told his captain ahead of Roma's last appearance of the season in front of their home fans: "Go out there and get yourself talked about because you've entertained the crowd." As both men knew, the previous three days had been filled with chatter about Totti, and not all of it was eulogy.

Ranieri says he and Totti have a special line of communication. The fact they both come from the Italian capital helps, Ranieri reckons. They can both slip into the strong Roman dialect and share idioms that other Italians sometimes struggle to comprehend. Ranieri also knows that the job of Roma head coach entails sensitive and careful management of a player who towers above all others for his status at the only club he has ever represented.

Ranieri knows, too, that Totti, 33, is at a crossroads. He has been hampered by more and more of the injuries that suggest he may not go on too much longer as a galvanising footballer and he has wrestled with the dilemma of whether to undo his 2007 decision to retire from international football with a World Cup ahead. He must also wonder if 2009/10 represents the closest he will come to winning the second scudetto of his career.

Totti listened to Ranieri just before kick-off in the penultimate game of the season against Cagliari and heard the reminders that Roma, two points behind Inter Milan in the table, still had a chance to finish top. Within five minutes, the Roma captain had rapped a shot against a post. By half-time, his passes had set up good opportunities for his colleagues, Luca Toni and Jeremy Menez. At half-time Roma's players learned that at San Siro, Inter were beating Chievo 3-1.

Roma were meanwhile drawing 0-0. When Cagliari took the lead, Roma's season looked finished, wheezing to an end on successive losses at the Olimpico, where Inter had won the Coppa Italia four days earlier, with Totti dismissed close to the end for an ugly swipe of his right leg at Mario Balotelli. What followed would keep the Roma captain in the eye of the storm. Criticism for his rash, childish act came from as high up as the office of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister. Balotelli's agent accused Totti of racially abusing Balotelli, an allegation Totti denied. He was yesterday banned for four Coppa Italia matches for the incident.

What the petulant kick at Balotelli also did was to remind Italians of an aspect of Totti's character that has let him down more than once, a loss of temper, a misjudgement on the big occasion. Most notably, those have occurred with the national team. Totti has twice been in trouble for the Azzurri at major tournaments. In South Korea in 2002, Totti was sent off for simulation during the shock 2-1 defeat to the home side that put Italy out. Two summers later, a worse offence followed, when Uefa banned Totti for spitting at Denmark's Christian Poulsen during a group stage match at the European Championships in Portugal.

So Marcello Lippi, the Italy coach, will know there are two Tottis to consider when he decides whether or not to ask the Roman to ride back into the national squad. Lippi would need to feel sure the ice-cool Totti, capable of converting a late, decisive penalty, as he did to put Italy into the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup, is more likely to turn up than the hot-tempered one. On Sunday, it was the galvanising, masterly Totti who kept Roma's hopes alive into the last weekend of the season. One-nil down against Cagliari became 2-1 in the last 11 minutes, thanks to a neat turn and shot and then his conversion of an 83rd-minute penalty. He had given people something other than his short fuse to talk about.