After finishing runners-up with their highest ever points tally last season, Roma are bent on clinching the Serie A title this term – and not least for their captain, Francesco Totti. Set to turn 38 on 27 September, the elegant playmaker would cherish nothing more than a second Scudetto in what could prove his farewell campaign.
An iconic figure for I Giallorrossi, Totti enjoys an unparalleled standing at the capital club, and yet, for all his star quality, he remains an incredibly humble breed of legend. Tellingly, he has formed a strong bond with French coach Rudi Garcia, and that ought to serve the team well again this year, along with their fabled squad unity and a string of shrewd summer acquisitions.
Roma have dipped into the transfer market in stealthy fashion, making few waves but fulfilling their aim of luring a mix of veteran campaigners and emerging youngsters. At the more experienced end of the scale, they have picked up a trio of familiar names who were out of contract elsewhere: 33-year-old left-back Ashley Cole, capped 107 times by England; 34-year-old Malian midfielder Seydou Keita, previously of Barcelona; and 28-year-old defender Urby Emanuelson, who has made 17 appearances for the Netherlands.
Those astute signings left Roma able to splash out on 21-year-old Argentinian attacker Juan Manuel Iturbe and 27-year-old centre-back Davide Astori, capped seven times by Italy, before agreeing a loan deal with a purchase option for Salih Ucan, a 20-year-old midfielder who has contested one senior game for Turkey. They all join an accomplished set of players that Garcia has largely kept intact, with the notable exception of Mehdi Benatia. The influential Moroccan defender recently succumbed to the charms of Bayern Munich, but I Lupi have already swooped for a replacement, snapping up 23-year-old Kostas Manolas – capped 13 times by Greece – from Olympiacos.
"For someone like me or Totti, at the age we're at, we're hoping this will be our year," explained Morgan de Sanctis, who has looked rejuvenated between the posts at 37. "I don't want to play until I'm 50. This Roma side has been built to win something important, in the hope that another team doesn't do what Juventus did last season and finish with 102 points. That said, to win you need above all to have a huge amount of humility and be ready to make sacrifices. Without that, you can't accomplish anything."
Totti to be kept for big games
The Stadio Olimpico outfit will also have to match last season's standards and maintain their trademark fluidity, which is why Garcia is counting so much on his captain. "What's important is that Totti stays fit," said the coach. "If he's in good shape, he's capable of anything. He always wants to play, and my job will be to keep him in good condition. When Francesco's out there, the team enjoys itself a lot more."
Garcia has thus worked with fitness coach Vito Scala to develop a tailor-made programme for Totti, which features personalised training sessions the day after games, minimal physical and mental stress, and no long-term projects. Meanwhile, the veteran forward will be unleashed in Roma's biggest matches and used only sporadically in their other fixtures. Totti managed 1,841 minutes of football in 29 games last season – an average of 63 minutes per match – and the same approach will be applied this year.
Totti's impact on Roma's fortunes is vital, but so too is the input of the man in the dugout. Originally dubbed 'Sergeant Garcia' by the Italian press when he arrived last summer – a reference to a comedic character from the Zorro stories – the former Lille boss swiftly set about convincing the doubters. "After a half-hour interview with Rudi in New York last year, I understood straight away that he would lead Roma for a long time," recalled Roma President James Pallotta, who has extended the Frenchman's contract until 2018. "We're still only at the start of our journey."
Crucially, a number of key players have also stuck around thanks to Garcia's presence. As in-demand midfielder Miralem Pjanic explained: "I got a lot of very big offers, but I decided to stay at Roma, not just to win the Scudetto but also because I have an excellent relationship with Garcia and share the same vision of how to play the game." That philosophy is based on dominating opponents with precision passing, allied with a belief that quality will always earn reward. "I like teams to have a real identity in the way they play and to express themselves collectively on the pitch," said Garcia. "It doesn't strike me as possible to win anything over the long term without playing well. For me, the type of football that's rooted in possession and passing is the one that gets the best results."
Garcia is understandably wary of second-season syndrome, but he feels confident he can keep his charges on their toes. "A coach has to question himself all the time, just like the players," he said. "We mustn't let up, and we need to maintain our thirst for victory. When things are going well, a squad can sometimes be tempted to drift along with the current. I'll make sure there's always a bit of a storm there to keep them awake."