AS Roma's victory over Fiorentina last weekend ensured that the club will be returning to the Champions League after a four-year absence. They've not had an easy time since being humiliated by Shakhtar Donetsk in the first knockout round back in 2010, with a slew coaches hired and fired and grand projects implemented before being promptly cut short. Luis Enrique's attempt to create a Catalan tiki-taka colony failed, as did Zdeněk Zeman's efforts at building an attacking football utopia.
Instead, a coach who arrived espousing no ambitious ventures at all has succeeded in their place. "If you play well there are more chances to win the game," Rudi Garcia said in his introductory press conference. "I do not care of the past. I care about the present, I care about winning with AS Roma. Now." Such simplicity is echoed on the pitch, with his team based around an effective, versatile 4-3-3. Against the smaller teams, they can press high, dominate possession and gradually grind them down, while against better opponents they can sit back and break with pace.
It's an flexible gameplan which has ensured they're finishing the season with a flourish. They've won their last eight matches, and have only lost twice all season -- the same as league leaders Juventus. But now they've managed to qualify for the Champions League after a lengthy break, they need to ensure that they're well prepared for an arduous campaign. Garcia's immediate success will undoubtedly ensure he has a fair budget for the summer, and spending it wisely could be the difference between pushing on and rivaling Juve or stagnating.
The first priority is squad depth; ensuring they have enough players to cope with the busier schedule. Kevin Strootman's recent knee injury has left the giallorossi rather weak in midfield, though the January addition of Cagliari's Radja Nainggolan has added much-needed quantity. But they're pretty weak up top, where Garcia has occasionally had to be a little imaginative with his team selections. Francesco Totti remains a key creative force in the attack, but at 37, it's impossible to imagine him consistently playing successive midweek and weekend games.
If Totti's omitted, Roma's only other main central striker is Mattia Destro, who has had an outstanding campaign to date, chipping in with 13 goals in 18 Serie A games. But should he suffer similar injury problems next season as he has this, the giallorossi could well find themselves drafting in a youth striker or two to fill the gaps. It's something that Roma seem to be already looking to address, with both Porto's Jackson Martínez and Anderlecht wonderkid Aleksandar Mitrović linked with a move to the Olimpico. They've supposedly been tracking Hellas Verona's 19-year-old loanee Juan Iturbe too, who could be used in rotation with Totti.
But while adding depth could make a decisive difference, it's much easier to do than replacing genuinely world class players. Perhaps the biggest concern for the giallorossi will be having to replace Miralem Pjanić in the summer, with the outstanding Bosnian playmaker having been linked with several of Europe's biggest clubs. A reported buy-out clause of €30 million means they won't be forced to let him go cheap, but replacing him with a similarly able player could be nigh-on impossible if it's activated.
Pjanić has struck up an excellent midfield partnership with the energetic workhorse Strootman and the deepest of the midfield trio; tough-tackling Daniele De Rossi, in as well-balanced a midfield as you'll find anywhere. Losing Pjanić would tear the creative heart from the giallorossi, who would then lack a player able to drift forward into space and play the perfect through-ball. They may have Leandro Paredes -- once dubbed the heir to Juan Román Riquelme's throne -- returning from a loan spell at Chievo Verona, but he's yet to make a single appearance in Serie A. It's unlikely he'll be ready for domestic football, let alone the Champions League.
A big part of the reason for Juventus' dominance in Italy over the last three seasons has been their consistent ability to dominate games through the sheer power and industry of Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal -- two players they've managed to retain despite interest from stronger teams in stronger leagues. Roma are the only Serie A side at present capable of matching them. It's almost essential that they retain Pjanić if they want to compete with the bianconeri again, and turn themselves into a genuine European force as quickly as they've become scudetto contenders.
Should they hold onto their most prized asset, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to win the title next season. Some excellent business over the last couple of years has seen them build a team which is both well-balanced and in harmony with Garcia's tactical style. The benefits of adding a few more rotation players should be reaped domestically and in Europe. But more exciting than how they could fare next season is the opportunity they now have to seriously build for the future.
The potential purchases of the likes of Mitrović and Iturbe -- whose combined age is only a couple of years older than Totti's -- would not only add squad depth in the short-term, but give them players who could develop gradually over the next few years. By the time their new stadium is constructed -- which, according to president James Palotta, could be by 2016 -- they'd potentially already have the best squad in the entire league, even before they start reaping the sort of revenues Juve have since moving into their shiny new stadium in 2011.
Roma have quietly set about an excellent rebuilding programme over the last couple of years, both through the arrivals of youngsters like Destro, Pjanić and Paredes, and the steady development of Primavera stars like energetic midfielder Alessandro Florenzi and versatile defender Alessio Romagnoli. An excellent season and the Champions League money to follow has now given them a brilliant opportunity to finish the job. Rudi Garcia may not have arrived at Roma with a long-term plan, but everything is now beginning to fall into place.