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Exclusive talk w/ AS Roma’s GM, CEO; Goal is to be “best in the world”

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It’s a good time to be among i Lupi.

AS Roma is back into the UEFA Champions League with ambitions to climb to its pinnacle, with the club’s on- and off-field affairs in order under president James Pallotta, an American.

PST had the chance to talk with AS Roma’s direttore generale, Mauro Baldissoni, as well as its CEO, Italo Zanzi, on the club’s recent tour of the United States. We chatted about the club’s aim to be the world champion, the challenges in restoring its lofty stature in Italy and the status of the American game and market.

And while Roma’s lone trip to the Cup final was 1984’s loss to Liverpool in penalty kicks and the world has watched as major money has bankrolled more European title competitors than ever before, neither Zanzi nor Baldissoni played it safe in the club’s ambitions.

“The goal is to be the best in the world,” Zanzi said.

The club is backing up its words despite a multi-year absence from European competition. Roma has spent wisely to propel Rudi Garcia’s unit forward while getting its business affairs in order.

And now Roma is among three Pot IV clubs no European giant wants to see in next year’s group stage.

“Apart from the last three seasons, Roma was consistently playing Champions League,” Baldissoni said. “We think that Roma must be a Champions League team. We’ve been successful in taking the club back to the top of the championship in Italy and we think that we’ll be able to compete at the European level.

“The US ownership group took over the club in, let’s say ‘not bright financial shape.’ We are trying to complete the turnaround while investing in new players and new talents. Due to the skill and value of the management team, we think that we’ve completed the mission to remain a Champions League team.”

Zanzi stressed the club’s acumen in spending wisely.

“We’re very fortunate but also savvy to have what we consider to be the best football management team that has demonstrated its ability to find special talent at terms that make sense,” he said.

All this from an American ownership group with Pallotta that caused some consternation in Italy. Could outsiders respectfully run this club? Zanzi admits that, as an American, they had to be extra sensitive.

“When you come into a new environment, a new country — particularly a city like Rome which is so storied — you have to be mindful to sensitivities,” Zanzi said. “What we found was definitely the most passionate fan base in the world who really just want to win. When you focus on the basics, winning on the field and off the field, it makes it easier to gain people’s confidence.

“We’re very mindful of always being respectful. We’ve never come in and said the American way is the best way or the Italian way is a bad way. On the contrary, we just want to be the best.”

And as a Roman, Baldissoni spoke of the concerns at the arrival of foreign administration.

“Actually being born and raised in Rome, a unique city with a story of thousands of years, of course there was some skepticism for the new owner coming from abroad,” Zanzi said. “It was to be expected and a natural reaction. It turned out to be a way to increase the expectations. Fortunately, we think we’ve met the expectation by now. We’re planning on doing better and better every day.”

So it brings them to America again. Roma has had a good relationship with Major League Soccer, playing the role of opposition in last year’s All-Star Game, and employed American superstar Michael Bradley for a long period of time.

In the case of the latter, Baldissoni admitted he had no thought to let Bradley leave Rome when the Toronto FC opportunity arose.

source: Getty Images“Michael was a great professional and also a wonderful football player,” he said. “We were not even planning to let him go. He wanted to be back in the United States. We were happy to keep him as a player.”

Zanzi was also sad to see him go, but it was a business move.

“Michael is a consummate professional and a player that any team or coach or ownership would want to have,” he said. “He had a very positive experience in Rome and we found a situation that worked out mutually in Toronto. Only positive things to say about Michael.”

And Zanzi also admits that the club would have no qualms taking on more Americans, but that the European rules make it very difficult. This troubles him a bit, as the success of his homeland is often on his mind.

“For me it’s very close to my heart,” he said. “The US on the whole continues to produce fantastic football players that are getting more experience sooner. It’s a shame that many teams in Europe have a limitation on the amount of non-European players that creates a challenge for American players. The ones that do come are successful, the represent their country well and they add value to their clubs.

“We look at the US as a growth market, not only from an economic perspective and a marketing perspective but also as a football one.”

With a stability in tow and a brand new stadium in the works, not to mention new partnerships with Disney and Nike, Roma is confident it can take its next steps to awakening its status as a European giant. The second-place club in Italy will lure better players to its home, threaten the existing holders and give Garcia what he needs to succeed domestically and abroad.

“Given all of the attention and hard work that we have put forward, and a very hard working style, we’re finding that players want to come to Roma now,” Zanzi said. “It’s an attractive place to be.”

Champions League roundup: Roma self-destruct at home; Celtic sneak into group stage

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 23:  Felipe of FC Porto scores the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League qualifying playoff round second leg match between AS Roma and FC Porto at Stadio Olimpico on August 23, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Tuesday’s action in the UEFA Champions League qualification play-off round…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Roma 0-3 (1-4) Porto

Roma finished Tuesday’s second leg with just nine players and no chance of Champions League glory this season after Daniele De Rossi and Emerson Palmieri were shown red cards either side of halftime. Of course, the home side had already conceded to go 1-0 down on the night (2-1 on aggregate). It was a simple header by Felipe that put the Portuguese side in front, a lead they would never relinquish.

Porto put the game and the tie away with a pair of goals scored by Mexican national teamers, Miguel Layun and Jesus Corona inside the game’s final 20 minutes.

Monaco 1-0 (3-1) Villarreal

Monaco came into the second leg with a 2-1 lead — and two away goals — meaning any drawing score would put them through. For 89 minutes on Tuesday, it was a scoreless stalemate with Villarreal, but Fabinho grabbed a late goal from the penalty spot and secured the Ligue 1 side’s place in the group stage.

Hapoel Beer Sheva 2-0 (4-5) Celtic

Brendan Rodgers‘ side made it as tight and nervy as they possibly could do, but Celtic are through to the group stage after dropping the second, 2-0 in Israel. It was 1-0 after 20 minute and 2-0 after 48 minutes, but the hosts needed a third goal to win the tie on away goals, and it never came.

Elsewhere in CL play-off action

Legia Warsaw 1-1 (3-1) Dundalk
Viktoria Plzen 2-2 (2-4) Ludogorets Razgrad

Wednesday’s schedule

Borussia Monchengladbach (3) vs. (1) BSC Young Boys
Rostov (1) vs. (1) Ajax
Red Bull Salzburg (1) vs. (1) Dinamo Zagreb
APOEL (0) vs. (1) Copenhagen

Changes to Champions League format, payouts up for discussion on Thursday

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  The  UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed prior to the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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GENEVA (AP) The richest clubs and biggest leagues in Europe are set to tighten their grip on the Champions League’s future format and prize money this week.

A deal being prepared by UEFA should end threats by some elite clubs to break away and form a closed European Super League before 2021.

However, it could ensure that more guaranteed places in the 32-team group stage and bigger shares of billion-dollar prize money each season will go to teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus from the four highest-ranked national leagues.

In the hours before the group-stage draw on Thursday, a series of meetings with clubs and UEFA executive committee members in Monaco is expected to agree changes to entry slots for the 2018-2021 seasons.

UEFA and the influential European Club Association declined to comment on reports that the top leagues – in Spain, Germany, England and Italy – will each get four direct entries into the groups.

In a statement to The Associated Press, UEFA said only that it “expects to announce the evolution” of the Champions League at a news conference on Friday.

Italian clubs are looking to be the big winner. Serie A would offer four direct entries to the group stage, compared to two in the current three-season commercial cycle which expires in 2018.

Spain, England and Germany would also benefit by ending the risk of its fourth-placed club losing in the playoff round each August. Advancing through the playoffs is worth tens of millions of euros (dollars) as UEFA will share 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) among the 32 group-stage clubs this season.

Italy has a dire recent record in playoffs. Serie A sends its third-placed team to the final qualifying stage and only AC Milan in 2014 has advanced in the past six seasons.

Changing the Champions League format is possible only every three years. It must be agreed before UEFA’s retained marketing agency can sell Champions League and Europa League rights to broadcasters and sponsors for the next cycle.

The debate this year has been intense with clubs seeming to take advantage of a UEFA leadership gap since outgoing president Michel Platini was suspended by FIFA last year.

It should be resolved ahead of a Champions League draw missing recent winners Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter Milan. They all failed to qualify, but would expect to join an American-style closed European league where the likes of surprise English champion Leicester would not automatically appeal to most broadcasters.

Options favorable to the most influential clubs included more entries for the top leagues, bigger shares of the prize fund, protected places for storied clubs with a global fan base, and playing matches on Saturdays rather than midweek to appeal to Asian and American audiences. Outside Europe, viewers are judged to want more games between high-profile teams.

The deal now reportedly on UEFA’s table gives clubs some concessions, while keeping Platini’s vision for the world’s most prestigious club competition.

Platini, who played in the 1980s-era European Cup when only national champions were in a pure knockout bracket, had worked to protect entries for more teams from middle-ranking countries.

This season, Bruges, Basel and Besiktas – title winners in Belgium, Switzerland and Turkey – are among 22 teams with direct group-stage entry. It is unclear how those places could be squeezed if the big-four leagues get 16 guaranteed slots instead of 11 at present.

Basel president Bernhard Heusler declined to comment to The AP ahead of attending Thursday’s meeting of the UEFA club competitions committee.

UEFA acknowledged the next format is being agreed sooner than expected. A deadline of December’s meeting of the UEFA executive committee was set after tense meetings in Milan on May 28, ahead of the Champions League final.

The new timetable should see the tournament’s immediate future settled before the UEFA presidential vote on Sept. 14 to replace Platini.

The election front-runner, Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, has won public support from countries like Denmark and Sweden, whose title-holders regularly qualify for Champions League groups but are not seen as commercially attractive.

Some club leaders, including Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, say the Champions League is undervalued despite UEFA raising 2.24 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in annual commercial revenue for the Champions League and Europa League combined in the 2015-2018 cycle.

That gives a 12 million euro ($13.6 million) basic fee to each team in the Champions League groups. The top earner can get around 100 million euros ($113 million) from UEFA when results bonuses and TV rights shares are added.

Still, that is barely more than the English Premier League pays its last-place team from TV money, and the top European clubs want a bigger share of Champions League money from the next deal.

That deal could be struck, fittingly, on Thursday in a five-star hotel in Monte Carlo.

FOLLOW LIVE: Manchester City, Celtic, Roma aim for group stage

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, foreground, controls the ball away from Stoke City's Philipp Wollscheid, during the English Premier League soccer match between Stoke City and Manchester City, at The Bet365 Stadium, in Stoke-on-Trent, England,  Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (Nick Potts/PA via AP)
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Plenty of ties remain in the air as the UEFA Champions League playoff round winds up Tuesday and Wednesday.

One of those is not Manchester City vs. Romanian side Steaua Bucharest. City brings five road goals back to the Etihad Stadium, and is likely more concerned with Wednesday’s group stage draw.

[ MORE: U.S. teen headed to La Liga ]

Celtic is fairly comfortable as well, having put up a 5-2 score line at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in Scotland ahead of today’s match in Israel.

Notably, only two of these four clubs will advance to the group stage despite their status as competition regulars: Porto, Roma, Villarreal and Monaco.

Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League slateFOLLOW LIVE
Hapoel Be’er Sheva (2) vs. (5) Celtic
Legia Warsaw (2) vs. (0) Dundalk
Viktoria Plzen (0) vs. (2) Ludogorets Razgrad
Monaco (2) vs. (1) Villarreal
Roma (1) vs. (1) Porto
Manchester City (5) vs. (0) Steaua Bucharest

FOLLOW LIVE: 13 Premier League teams enter the EFL Cup

WATFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring their winning goal during the Premier League match between Watford and Chelsea at Vicarage Road on August 20, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images
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Everton, Chelsea, and Liverpool all begin their EFL Cup runs on Tuesday, as 13 Premier League clubs enter the fray of the competition formerly known as the League Cup.

[ MORE: U.S. teen headed to La Liga ]

Newcastle United, linked with an imminent arrival of USMNT back DeAndre Yedlin, will play Cheltenham Town, while fellow relegated side Norwich City faces Coventry City.

Tuesday’s EFL Cup scheduleFOLLOW LIVE

Crystal Palace vs. Blackpool
Blackburn Rovers vs. Crewe Alexandra
Burton Albion vs. Liverpool
Chelsea vs. Bristol Rovers
Derby County vs. Carlisle United
Everton vs. Yeovil Town
Exeter City vs. Hull City
Luton Town vs. Leeds United
Millwall vs. Nottingham Forest
Newcastle United vs. Cheltenham Town
Northampton Town vs. West Bromwich Albion
Norwich City vs. Coventry City
Oxford United vs. Brighton & Hove Albion
Peterborough United vs. Swansea City
Preston North End vs. Oldham Athletic
Queens Park Rangers vs. Rochdale
Scunthorpe United vs. Bristol City
Stevenage vs. Stoke City
Watford vs. Gillingham
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Cambridge United
Reading vs. MK Dons

Wednesday

Accrington Stanley vs. Burnley
Fulham vs. Middlesbrough
Morecambe vs. Bournemouth
Sunderland vs. Shrewsbury Town