Roma relying on Champions League qualification to help cut gap to Juve

ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti assesses Serie A clubs that will represent Italy in the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League.

The final stages of Champions League qualifying have been something of a graveyard for Italian teams in recent years. Since the introduction of the current qualifying system in 2009, just two Serie A clubs — Fiorentina that year and AC Milan in 2013 — have made it past the final playoff round to the group stages. Lazio, Napoli, Udinese (twice) and Sampdoria have all fallen at the final hurdle.

For a team that spent the whole of the previous campaign fighting for that place, being knocked out before the group stage starts and the competition money starts rolling in is a huge downer to start the season with. Dropping down to the tortuous Europa League, having spent nine months trying to avoid it, is the rotten cherry on a particularly stale cake.

Having just two clubs in the Champions League in three of the past four seasons has done nothing for the tumbling prestige of Serie A. Whether Roma will help boost the ailing league’s image next month or have the Europa League clogging up their fixture list will have a lot to do with who they draw in the final playoff round on Aug. 5, and as a result who makes it through this week’s third qualifying round. There’s a reason coach Luciano Spalletti said that draw was more important than Friday’s releasing of the Serie A fixture list.

The seeding for next month’s playoff is decided by UEFA coefficient rankings as of the end of last season. Spalletti’s side have the eighth highest (41.587) of the 15 teams left in the league route (for non-champions) of the Champions League qualifying draw. So Roma will have to wait on the results of the third qualifying round to see who the top five seeded teams from the 10 clubs contesting the league route playoff will be.

Of the five teams already in the pot for the draw next month, three are guaranteed to be seeded — Manchester City, Porto and Villarreal — while Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach, who are just above Roma in the rankings with 42.035 coefficient points, are crossing their fingers and hoping the teams in the third qualifying round that are ranked above them get knocked out.

For Roma that means Shakhtar Donetsk (third of the 15 with 81.976 coefficient points), Anderlecht (fifth, 59.000) and Ajax (sixth, 58.112) all need to be eliminated for the Giallorossi to make the top five. Shakhtar take on Swiss side Young Boys, Ajax face PAOK from Greece and Anderlecht tussle with Russia’s FC Rostov, so Roma had best prepare themselves for being the wrong side of the draw and the possibility of facing Pep Guardiola’s City.

Roma were impressive at the tail end of last season under Spalletti, who picked up the straggly ends left by Rudi Garcia in January and weaved them into a team, with the help of a few handy January signings like Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy. They shouldn’t fear anyone left in the draw bar City, but they have been an embarrassment in Europe since the Tuscan coach’s first spell in the Italian capital last decade, when they reached the quarterfinals two years in a row and beat Real Madrid in the 2008 round of 16 before succumbing to eventual winners Manchester United.

Miralem Pjanic left Roma for Juventus earlier this summer.

The coach has the basis of a strong team, in particular going forward, and the club has also warded off interest in midfielder Radja Nainggolan, crucial after the sale of Miralem Pjanic to Juventus. However, starting centre-back Kostas Manolas’ agent Ioannis Evengelopoulos has been touting his client around the Premier League, while the prospective loan deal for Real Madrid’s defensive all-rounder Nacho looks a lot less done than it did a week ago.

Hamstrung by their need to satisfy UEFA’s financial fair play regulations, Roma’s transfer window activities thus far have centred on buying players they had on loan last year like El Shaarawy, Perotti and Antonio Rudiger, whose €9.5 million purchase from Stuttgart looked to be a prelude to a €17m sale to Chelsea, before the German tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the leadup to Euro 2016. Other deals, like for Inter Milan’s reserve centre-back Juan Jesus or Argentine left-back Mario Rui, take the form of loan with obligation to buy.

The Champions League group stage windfall would give Roma more room to manoeuvre in the final days of the summer transfer window, and would allow them to further reinforce the squad in the hope of closing the yawning gap between Juventus and the rest.

Without it, and with Napoli mourning the likely sale of Gonzalo Higuain to all-conquering Juve, Serie A may as well hand the Old Lady their sixth straight title now. That’s why Roma will be watching this week’s games with more interest than most.

Terry Daley is based in Rome and has covered Italian football for both Reuters and AFP. He has written for Vice Sports and Mirror Football. Twitter: @T_Daley

The original version of this story which was published by ESPN can be viewed here.

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