Will Late Transfers Upset AS Roma's Title Hopes Ahead of New Serie A Season?

Colin O'Brien@@ColliOBrienContributor IAugust 22, 2014

ROME, ITALY - MAY 11: Giorgio Chiellini(L) and Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus competes for the ball with Mehdi Benatia(C) of AS Roma during the Serie A match between AS Roma and Juventus at Stadio Olimpico on May 11, 2014 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

What a difference a year makes. Going into the 2013-14 season, most pundits had Milan and Napoli as Juventus' main challengers, possibly with Fiorentina nipping at their heels. Roma were nowhere.

The Lupi had suffered catastrophe, collapsing under the physical demands and the single-mindedness of Zdenek Zeman's idiosyncratic brand of football before firing the Czech and finishing sixth.

If that weren't enough, they lost Marquinhos and Erik Lamela, the only two bright lights in an otherwise dreary season, to big-money transfers.

Things looked bleak. 

The Rossoneri, on the other hand, had picked up more points than anyone after the Christmas break.

And with a summer to work on Mario Balotelli's double-act up front with Stephan El Shaarawy, there was plenty of cause for optimism on the red and black side of Milan. 

We all know how those predictions panned out.

But having surprised everyone last year by finishing second in Serie A, setting a number of club and league records while entertaining the masses along the way, Rudi Garcia's Roma are now under the microscope, and big questions are being asked. 

Some have misgivings about their ability to compete in Europe and in Serie A at the same time.

Others question if they've done enough to close the gap between themselves and Juve—even though the Bianconeri could well have done a lot of the work for them by parting ways with Antonio Conte, the coach who was, perhaps more than any other individual, so integral to their success.

And there have been plenty of people willing to fan the flames under one of the summer's hottest transfer stories: Mehdi Benatia's apparent unhappiness at the club. 

Never mind the fact that agents will always use hype from a good season and the media frenzy around the summer transfer market as a bargaining tool to get their client a better contract. Or the fact that the player himself, if the numerous selfies he's been posting on Twitter are anything to go by, looks perfectly settled in Rome.

Benatia's departure from the Olimpico fits the popular narrative of "Player must want to leave medium-sized club in favour of [Insert mega-rich club's name here]". So everyone's run with it. 

All of which isn't to say it won't happen. The Moroccan international is a professional, and if he gets a much better financial package from another club, and that club can pay the fee required by Roma to terminate his contract, there's no reason to think a deal won't be made.

Football's a business, and despite what some might like to believe, the majority of footballers aren't in the business for simply the glory, any more than any of us do our jobs out of the goodness of our hearts or in the hunt for praise. It's nice to be applauded and to achieve something, obviously, but we want to get paid. 

No Roma fan—or any decent Serie A fan, for that matter, because they'll want the best players to stay in the league—will want to see Benatia leave, but if he does, they should have some faith in Walter Sabatini's ability to replace him.

The Giallorossi's director of football has an uncanny knack for unearthing quality and value in the transfer market, and it shouldn't be forgotten that only 12 months ago it was Benatia who was brought in as a more economical alternative to the Paris-bound Marquinhos. 

The defender is under contract until 2018, and the club don't need to sell. Having seen Chelsea earn £50 million for David Luiz earlier in the summer, if Sabatini gives the green light for Benatia's departure, you can be sure that the 59-year-old Umbrian will get a fair valuation—and he will probably already know where he's spending the money next. 

Davide Astori has arrived already, bringing plenty of Serie A experience and a desire to figure in Conte's plans for the Italian national team.

And several outlets, including the Corriere dello Sport in Italy and the Mirror in the UK, are linking Roma with a move for Tottenham's Romanian centre-back, Vlad Chiriches.

Perhaps they're not at Benatia's current level, but then, neither was he a year ago. 

The persistent rumours surrounding Mattia Destro's future at the club are more puzzling, because unless he's replaced, it would leave Roma without a recognised centre-forward.

That said, since James Pallotta's takeover of the club, Roma has been run in a sensible and focused manner. They might not have identified a target publicly yet, but you can bet on Garcia and Sabatini having a few irons in the fire, ready to strike if the 23-year-old does want to leave Italy. 

As for their ability to compete in Europe and Italy at the same time, there's little doubt in Rome as to the primary objective. Three Scudetti in an 87-year history is a haul too small for a club as big as Roma, and after 13 years—first as nearly-men and then in the wilderness—Romanisti want the league title. 

The signings they've made have strengthened the squad considerably, too.

Ashley Cole needs time to settle, but he's an improvement at left-back and brings plenty of experience. Seydou Keita will be cover, but with two Champions League medals to his name, he knows how to win and will be a reliable asset to Garcia.

And Juan Iturbe, the exciting, big-money signing from Verona, wasn't only a boost because he'll add technique, pace and goals to their attack.

He's also important because they signed him out from under the noses of their rivals. The Argentine was very close to joining Juve, but in the uncertainty surrounding Conte's departure, Roma beat them to it and landed the first psychological blow of the new season. 

On the pitch so far, there have been mixed signs. It's tempting to point to the fact that in their pre-season friendlies, they let in 10 goals—the same total conceded in their first 18 league games last year.

Tempting, maybe, but pretty pointless. Pre-season friendlies are just training exercises, and for the most part the games didn't feature Garcia's strongest XI. In their most recent game, the 3-3 thriller with Fenerbahce, Astori played alongside Leandro Castan for the first time, before the Brazilian limped off with a problem after 11 minutes to be replaced by the promising, but raw, Alessio Romagnoli. 

What Garcia will have taken from those games is that he now has plenty of options. Most managers would relish the thought of picking a midfield trio from Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic, Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan.

On top of that, he has the newly-arrived pair of Keita and Salih Ucan to deputise, and even Alessandro Florenzi can play a deeper role if required. 

Up front, to the enduring brilliance of Francesco Totti, they've added more pace and frenetic energy to an attack already boasting the dynamism of Gervinho and Florenzi.

All eyes will be on Iturbe, but there's hope too for 18-year-old Antonio Sanabria—another new signing, who comes to Rome from Barcelona.

They finished 17 points off the top last term because of a mid-season stumble brought on by injuries, two defeats to Juve and some inexplicable errors in the final few games, when the title had slipped away anyway. It was an overly deceptive differential. 

A new manager with so many new players was always going to involve a few kinks. By now, however, those should have been ironed out. And it's unlikely that Max Allegri's first season in Turin will go as flawlessly as Conte's third, and final, masterpiece.

Juve will be in the running, because they still have an incredible squad and whatever his shortcomings, Allegri's a good enough manager to make use of it. And Napoli will present some problems. The Milan clubs could surprise everyone, and if Fiorentina can keep Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez fit, they could have a say.

But even with all that, only the foolish would think that—given what they achieved last season—this stronger, more experienced version of Roma isn't the Scudetto front-runner.  



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