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Francesco Totti will play Champions League soccer for the first time since 2010-11.
After three years dithering about just below the European qualifying spots, Roma's rebuilding project finally took hold last year. A few key signings, the revitalisation of Francesco Totti and the arrival of coach Rudi Garcia saw the club put in its best season ever—and one that would have been good enough to win Serie A in six of the last eight years.
The only thing between them and the Scudetto was the buzz saw that was Juventus, who dominated all en route to the Serie A points record.
Last season was superb, but it, like Juve's unbeaten run three years ago and Liverpool's impressive Premier League run last term, came without the burdens of European competition. The last time Roma played in Europe was the 2011-12 Europa League, when they were stunned in the playoff round by Slovan Bratislava. The tie was headed for extra time when the Slovakian outfit equalized in the second leg eight minutes from time and won the aggregate 2-1.
The first thing Roma had to do to get ready for the Champions League was beef up the roster. This they have done, signing Juan Manuel Iturbe from Hellas Verona and pipping city rivals Lazio for defender Davide Astori. Urby Emanuelson, Seydou Keita and Ashley Cole have also arrived to deepen the Giallorossi roster.
Coupled with the signing of midfielder Radja Nainggolan in the January transfer window, it's arguable that Roma has had the best 2014 mercato.
Now comes the problem of playing the games. Garcia will almost certainly deploy the team in the 4-3-3 that he favored for all but two matches last year, per WhoScored.com. A reborn Gervinho will man the left flank. Iturbe, Alessandro Florenzi and Adem Ljajic will battle for time on the right. Totti will likely anchor the center, with breakout star Mattia Destro supporting him.
The midfield of Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi will be a strength, even more so when Dutch international Kevin Strootman returns from a nasty knee injury. Florenzi adds depth here as well.
The defense could turn out to be an excellent group. Mehdi Benatia was easily the best center-back in the league last year and is a candidate for signing of the season. Leandro Castan will fight with Astori for playing time beside him.
The flanks may be weaker, with old hands Maicon and Cole holding down the fort. Some depth may come on the left if Federico Balzaretti ever gets healthy again. Florenzi was recently played at right-back during the International Champions Cup, adding even more depth to the lineup.
The mercato has been great and the squad is strong, but there are obstacles for Roma.
The first will be the draw. Thanks to their two-year absence from Europe—and a three-year absence from the group stages of such competitions—Roma is likely destined for Pot 4 in the group-stage draw. There are a few upsets in the remaining qualifying and playoff rounds that could keep them in Pot 3, but it's unlikely. They are second-to-last in coefficient among the confirmed group-stage teams, and there are still 10 teams alive in the playoff round that score higher than the Giallorossi.
In all likelihood, Roma will be in the bottom pot, putting them at major risk of a horror draw. Coming out of Pot 4 could, for instance, see the club line up against Real Madrid, PSG and Liverpool.
The second hurdle is a mental one.
Over the last few years Roma have shown an alarming propensity for psychological breakdowns. Last season may have been their best ever, but they certainly didn't show up for their biggest game.
Arriving at the Juventus Stadium in January with first place in striking distance, the Giallorossi started the game with the lion's share of possession but ended it with their tails between their legs. Arturo Vidal ripped them in two on the counter 17 minutes in, and Leonardo Bonucci scored moments after the opening whistle of the second half.
It got worse from there, as De Rossi and Castan were sent off within 60 seconds of each other—the former for a horrible challenge from behind and the latter for handling the ball on the goal line. Former Roma man Mirko Vucinic scored the resulting penalty, and Roma played out the last minutes of the 3-0 thrashing with nine men.
As the season progressed and Juventus pulled further and further ahead, the team seemed to lose interest, even though they were still mathematically in the race. After Juve pulled themselves to within one game of the title in early May, Roma capitulated in the most embarrassing way possible with a 4-1 loss to bottom side Catania. That was followed by two more losses to end the season on a sour note.
Roma has a great-looking side on paper, and Rudi Garcia is a great coach. They are, however, mostly inexperienced at the Champions League level and remain questionable between the ears. The strain of the Continent's highest competition isn't the only thing they'll have to deal with. The domestic season will come with the pressure of being the prime challenger to an apparently vulnerable Juventus.
It's going to be a lot to deal with at one time. Only time will tell if they can.
So much of Roma's chances to get through the group stage depend on whether they can avoid a Group of Death draw. If they manage to get an open group, they're as good a bet as any to get through. If not, they'll likely be battling for third. Regardless, they're going to be this year's version of that team that no one wants to face.