Row aside, AS Roma’s Francesco Totti does have point to make about sustainability and legacy

For all their potential firepower in Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale, Real Madrid are up against Jan Oblak, an unbeatable obelisk in Atletico Madrid's goal on Saturday, Ian Hawkey writes in his weekly Around Europe piece.

AS Roma's Francesco Totti shown during a Champions League match against Real Madrid earlier this month. Filippo Monteforte / AFP / February 17, 2016
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The chief of Italy’s Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, launched a conference last week. “Rome, Planning for Sustainability and Legacies,” was its title.

The Italian capital wants to host the Olympic Games in eight years’ time, by which time, presumably, the sporting issue that has preoccupied Rome most over the last eight days, the sustainability and legacy of one Francesco Totti, will have been resolved.

Totti is 39 years old, still Roma's captain, still king of the Stadio Olimpico for a majority of fans. But he was last weekend dropped from the matchday squad for Roma's Serie A fixture against Palermo by manager Luciano Spalletti.

Read more: AS Roma great Francesco Totti slams coach Luciano Spalletti: 'I would hope to be treated with more respect'

This was after Totti had apparently been told he could expect to start the fixture, but then gave a television interview that seemed to be critical of Spalletti. The story dominated the Italian media.

“In 2016,” commented Malago, one of the hundreds of figures asked for their opinion, “small problems tend to be blown out of proportion. Francesco is a strong character, who I have a lot of affection for.”

So do millions of Romans, and many of them demonstrated as much last Sunday at the Olimpico, where, with Totti sitting in the crowd, supporters held up replica Roma shirts with his name above the No 10, and banners lauding the club captain, who made his debut for his hometown club in 1993 and, it has long been assumed, would never play anywhere else.

But in his controversial interview with Rai, the national broadcaster, aired last Saturday, he hinted that was no longer a given. “I am in good shape, my contract expires in June and I will weigh up whatever comes to me,” he said.

He also left it very to open to deduction that he was considering other options because of a breach with Spalletti, who returned for a second spell as Roma coach last month.

“Sometimes I’d like to hear things from him face to face rather than read them in the press,” Totti told Rai. The touchpaper had been lit.

By the middle of the following week, the Totti affair was top of the agenda, even being cited as a metaphor for Italy’s social and political ills. “The Totti case shows we are a nation that clings stubbornly to former glories,” one newspaper pontificated.

Totti’s former glories are considerable. Three hundred goals for Roma in a career of almost quarter of a century of activity, the inspiration behind the club’s 2001 title triumph; top goalscorer in Serie A under Spalletti in 2006/07, when the innovative coach deployed him as a so-called “false nine” in a daring formation.

Later, after Spalletti had been dismissed by Roma and found success with Zenit St Petersburg, there had been a suggestion that Totti had been a false friend, the manager hinting in a 2010 interview that his captain might have more supportive of him when his first stint at the club hit trouble and ended with his being sacked.

Spalletti’s posture since his return has been that Totti, for all his status, will be treated “like any other player.”

He is to be selected, or otherwise, on form and fitness. Both have been found wanting: He has played just a few minutes as a substitute, across three matches, under Spalletti this year.

That may well change on Saturday, when the strong indication is that Totti will have a bigger role, probably from kick off, away at Empoli. And if anybody is inclined to think that, if he is in the XI, Spalletti has bowed to public pressure, they should ask whether the pressure would weigh rather more heavily on the recalled skipper, needing to make a point about his sustainability and legacy.

Roma, apart from a 2-0 setback against Real Madrid in the first, home leg of their Uefa Champions League last-16 tie, have been thriving with Spalletti back at the helm and Totti marginal.

They have 15 points from their last five Serie A matches, and a momentum nobody would want to be seen to be slowing down. As Totti watched among the many thousands of romanisti serenading him last Sunday, his colleagues efficiently set about demolishing Palermo 5-0.


Player of the week Jan Oblak

The best forward line in the world? Not too much doubt right now Barcelona, Primera Liga’s leaders, have it, though at Real Madrid they argue that, when all three of their best strikers are available, Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale can stand comparison with Messi, Suarez and Neymar. On Saturday, a test: Real’s attack come up against the best defence in the Spanish league, Atletico Madrid’s.

The destiny of La Liga’s title may look more certain by the end of on Saturday, if the Madrid derby, between third-placed Real and second-placed Atletico, nine and eight points respectively behind favourites Barcelona, ends in a draw, and Barcelona extend their 33-match unbeaten run on Sunday. For all their potential firepower, Real are up against Jan Oblak, an unbeatable obelisk in Atleti’s goal.

La Liga has a special trophy for each season’s leading goalkeeper, named after Ricardo Zamora, who had a 20-year career in the first half of the 20th century. Oblak is way ahead in the 2015-16 Zamora chase: 25 league games, and he’s let in just 11 goals. Atletico may have scored less than half as many times as Real this season, but you don’t need took far for why they are above their city rivals in the table. It’s their meanness in defence.

Oblak, 23, joined Atletico in the summer of 2014 from Benfica. Thibaut Courtois, the tall Belgian had just left Atletico after three years on loan from Chelsea, and though Slovenian Oblak, who had impressed at Benfica, his previous club, was not identified as Courtois’ immediate successor – Atleti signed Miguel Angel Moya from Getafe as first choice - one night thrust him to prominence. Last March, he came on as a substitute for the injured Moya in a Champions League quarter-final against Bayer Leverkusen. He was heroic, through normal time, extra time and in a penalty shoot-out.

Since then, Oblak has been Atleti coach Diego Simeone’s number one, a keeper of sharp reflexes, good judgement and useful distribution in a team that like to counter-attack. He kept his fifth clean sheet in seven Champions League outings this season away at PSV Eindhoven, in the first leg of the last-16 tie, on Wednesday. Three nights earlier, he kept the scoreline blank against Villarreal. He has done so in almost two-third of his Liga matches since joining Atletico. This month, logically, Atletico extend his contract to 2021. They inserted a buyout clause of Euros100m.


Match of the week PSG v Lyon

Paris Saint-Germain can provide further proof of the growing gulf in class between the champions elect and the rest of Ligue 1 when they travel to last year’s runners-up Lyon tomorrow.

A fourth straight French league crown is well within sight for PSG, who could conceivably wrap up the championship next weekend, while Lyon’s turbulent campaign has rendered last year’s title challenge a distant memory.

Laurent Blanc’s runaway leaders are unbeaten in 36 matches in Ligue 1 dating back to last March, whereas Lyon have suffered 10 defeats – three more than all of last season – and find themselves embroiled in a congested scrap for Europe.

PSG have beaten Lyon three times already this term, a crushing 5-1 win at the Parc des Princes in December was followed up by further triumphs in both domestic cup competitions, but Lyon will hope to maintain an unbeaten record in their new 60,000-seater fortress. Since moving into the Parc OL in January, Bruno Genesio’s side have registered three wins out of four at home, with their lone dropped points coming in a 1-1 draw with Marseille.

However, last Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Lille not only snapped a run of three successive victories but also left Lyon without midfielder Clement Grenier and former PSG defender Christophe Jallet for this weekend’s clash after the pair were sent off to compound a miserable evening up north.

“We had the chance to go third and not only did we fail to do that, we also lost two players who will be suspended against Paris so we’re paying a heavy price,” said Genesio, whose side trail PSG by a staggering 34 points.

“That handicaps us even more against Paris, when that was the last thing we needed.”

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