Preview: Soccer - Spalletti faces early return to Rome
By Brian Homewood
MILAN (Reuters) - AS Roma will get an idea of how much they are going to miss former coach Luciano Spalletti when they host his new club Inter Milan at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday in the first major Serie A clash of the season.
Spalletti parted company with Roma two days after the end of last season, despite leading them to second place with a club record 87 points.
He has now taken on the challenge of trying to get the best out of a chronically under-performing Inter Milan side who are enduring their sixth successive season without Champions League football.
The five teams considered to be serious title contenders - Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma and Napoli - all made winning starts to the campaign last weekend, strengthening the impression this could be the most open race for years.
Of those five, Roma are the only team who appear to be weaker than last season, having lost not only Spalletti but also winger Mohamed Salah, sold to Liverpool, and defender Antonio Ruediger, to Chelsea.
For the first time in 25 seasons, they are also without Francesco Totti after the talismanic playmaker finally called it a day at the age of 40.
Spalletti's place at Roma has been taken by Eusebio Di Francesco, who led modest Sassuolo into Serie A for the first time and then established them in the top flight.
Although widely respected, Di Francesco has not coached a big club before and will have his hands full at Roma with its notoriously demanding media.
On the other hand, they began the season well by grinding out a 1-0 win at Atalanta. "I saw a team that wanted to do well. It is an ugly win and this team can only grow," said Di Francesco.
After beating both Bayern Munich and Chelsea in pre-season matches, Inter got off to a flying start in Serie A with a 3-0 win over Fiorentina last Sunday but their fans have seen too many false dawns to get excited.
Two seasons ago under Roberto Mancini, they won their first five games but lost momentum and limped home in fourth place - 13 points adrift of the Champions League places.
They had a run of seven wins in a row at one point last season yet finished in seventh place and missed out on European competition altogether, employing three coaches in the process.
Inter's four main close season signings - defender Milan Skriniar, left back Dalbert and midfielders Matias Vecino and Borja Valero - have put the finishing touches to what is already considered a strong but underachieving squad.
Despite Sunday's impressive scoreline, Inter showed the same tendency to lose concentration that dogged them last season and Saturday will provide them with their first stiff test.
"It’s good to start with what really matters," said Spalletti. "We shouldn’t have dipped for half an hour, we need to improve on that, but the team is strong."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)