The 2004/05 season was one of the most difficult in AS Roma's history, both in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League, but with the dark clouds having cleared, the Giallorossi are set for a new European adventure hosting Aris Thessaloniki FC in the UEFA Cup first round on Thursday.
Roma coach Luciano Spalletti has asked his players to start on the right foot at the Stadio Olimpico. "My players must know that everything will become very difficult if the tie ends up being decided in Greece. Greek sides are very good at home, that's why we have to take the first leg very seriously."
The home team will be without Antonio Cassano, who has a thigh injury, but his absence is nothing compared with the problems Roma faced last term. It all started with the summer 2004 departure of Fabio Capello, the coach who had brought the Scudetto back to Roma, followed by key players Emerson and Walter Samuel. Cesare Prandelli, Capello's successor, was then forced to resign ahead of the campaign due to his wife's poor health.
Rudi Völler, Luigi Del Neri and Bruno Conti all subsequently took the helm, but the capital club failed to advance from the Champions League group stage and were involved in a relegation scrap until the final day of the Italian season.
Their saving grace was the Coppa Italia. Roma qualified for the UEFA Cup despite losing the final against FC Internazionale Milano. Unsurprisingly, their first step of the 2005/06 campaign was to choose a new coach, Spalletti, the man behind Udinese Calcio's historic Champions League qualification.
"Spalletti is working very well," said captain Francesco Totti. "We haven't worked so hard since the days of Zdenek Zeman. You can already see the results. The squad is getting better by the day. Everything has changed in a matter of months - in the dressing room, on the field and probably in our heads too."
The summer was not all good news for Roma though. First, FIFA banned the club from buying players for a year as a result of their deal to sign AJ Auxerre defender Philippe Mexes in 2004. Then, Cassano's troubles started with the 23-year-old refusing to renew his contract which expires next summer.
Roma, however, solved both problems. The FIFA suspension was withdrawn temporarily, allowing the Giallorossi to register the acquisitions of AC Siena midfielder Rodrigo Taddei, Ghanaian defender Samuel Kuffour, striker Shabani Nonda and defender Cesare Bovo. Latterly, they reached an agreement with Cassano to prolong his stay at the Olimpico, even though the player has yet to sign the new deal.
Spalletti's men began the season with a convincing 3-0 win at Reggina Calcio but then lost at home to Udinese. Nonetheless, Roma played well against the coach's former team, creating several scoring chances before conceding an unfortunate own goal.
That result has certainly not dampened Spalletti's spirits as he looks forward to European competition. "Taking part in the UEFA Cup with Roma will give me the same thrill I would have had leading Udinese in the Champions League," he said. "The UEFA Cup is very important for Roma, maybe even more than our domestic league."
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