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.”

PL Sunday Preview: Leicester travel to Burnley; Liverpool put perfect record on the line against Man Utd

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With eight Premier League fixtures on Saturday, two more remain in Matchweek 23.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley v. Leicester City  — 9 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Burnley are free falling and there doesn’t seem to be a safety net in sight.

The Clarets, who are two points removed from the relegation zone, head into a tough three-match window without striker Ashley Barnes. Recuperating from a hernia surgery, the 30-year-old is set to miss bouts against Leicester, Manchester United and Arsenal – to name some.

But quite possibly more alarming than that is the team’s recent form. Losing seven out of their last nine, just two points divide Burnley from the drop zone. Sean Dyche‘s team are clueless in the box, scoring one goal in four league bouts. Trouble looms over Turf Moor.

But even then, Dyche, who has made Burnley a force to be reckoned with in the past, believes his side are still a threat.

“They are a good side,” Dyche said about Leicester. “We are on a tough run of form, but I don’t think they are naive enough to think it is turn up and get the business done. We are not a million miles away.”

Can Burnley pull a Southampton and stun a top-four bound Leicester?

“We weren’t at our best [against Southampton] and we didn’t have the energy and intensity that we would have liked,” Brendan Rodgers said ahead of Sunday’s early match.

“We work twice as hard and that’s what we’ve done after every setback. We still have a lot to improve on.”

The Foxes had a rare full week to train, so one can bet that Rodgers is serious about his word.

INJURIES: Burnley —  OUT: Barnes (hernia), Gudmundsson (hamstring) | Leicester City — OUT: Ndidi (knee), Amartey (ankle), James (match fitness)

Liverpool v. Manchester United — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Manchester United are a part of the exclusive anti-Liverpool club for more than the obvious reason.

Yes, the North West Derby is one of the league’s most heated rivalries, with countless flashbacks in its 203 meetings during its over 100 years of history.

But these two, star-studded squads led by Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, respectively, also have a permeating rivalry of their own. The Reds, who have yet to taste defeat this season, have dropped points to only United.

It can be argued that Sunday’s bout may be Liverpool’s most complicated and least favorable, despite maintaining an immaculate record at home. This is the “big one” that many didn’t particularly circle on the calendar.

“It’s a very, very important football game,” Klopp said. “Very important. We have to learn how to deal with games like this in the right manner. We haven’t done bad in the past but we can still improve.

“Old Trafford [a 1-1 draw in October] was a good example, [we were] not at our best because of their quality. We have to make it more likely we’re at our best.”

Solskjaer had his tactics in place last time around; a small injection of final quality and the team would have crushed Liverpool’s aspirations of matching the Iinvincibles or Manchester City’s points record.

“The last two performances [against Liverpool] at Old Trafford we have drawn twice and been close to winning both games, so we’ve got some games to look back at and that will give us loads of belief… if we perform to our best we have a chance to win,” Solskjaer said.

Sunday presents itself as the final chance for United to pull the upset, and reaffirm why they’re a part of the exclusive club to begin with. But Liverpool are slowing becoming invincible themselves.

INJURIES: Liverpool —  OUT: Lovren (hamstring), Clyne (knee), Keïta (groin), Milner (hamstring) | Manchester United  — OUT: Tuanzebe (hamstring), McTominay (knee), Pogba (ankle)

Serie A roundup: Immobile nets hat-trick, Lazio runs over Sampdoria (video)

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Lazio’s record-extending 11th straight Serie A win highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 5-1 Sampdoria  

Like Lazio’s season, Ciro Immobile continues to make strides with each passing day.

The 29-year-old’s hat-trick powered Simone Inzaghi’s side past Sampdoria 5-1, extending his goal count to 23, nine more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaka.

 

Lazio, who are three points behind top-of-the-table Juventus and one behind second-place Inter Milan, were up three goals by the 20-minute mark. By the 65th minute, Immobile reached the three goal mark, converting from the spot.

“We would need too much time to count his records,” coach Simone Inzaghi said on Immobile’s magnificent run of form. “We are talking about an extraordinary team player. He has shown that so many times. Immobile has been doing extraordinary things for four years, I’m not surprised.”

Full of confidence, Lazio turn one of the most challenging corners of the season, as they take on rivals AS Roma defend the Italian Cup against Napoli.

“We’ll enjoy this 11th win but we have to already be thinking about the next matches,” Inzaghi said. “We know what a derby means but I can’t allow myself to think about Roma.

“We play Napoli on Tuesday, we know what the Italian Cup means for us, what it meant last year, we have it on our shirts and we will fight for it again.”

When it comes to Sampdoria, things are going from bad to ugly, quick.

“Tonight I’ll add salt and pepper and I’ll eat them alive,” Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri said of his players.

“Lazio was too good for us, you could clearly see the difference between the two teams, but it was without doubt the worst Samp performance since I’ve been here.”

Elsewhere

Sassuolo 2-1 Torino

Napoli 0-2 Fiorentina

La Liga roundup: Casemiro’s brace earns injury-riddled Real Madrid win (video)

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Casemiro’s heroic performance against Sevilla highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Madrid 2-1 Sevilla

Real Madrid’s goalscoring hero on Saturday wasn’t Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, or even Sergio Ramos.

With two crucial goals in the second half, Casemiro single-handedly earned three points at the Santiago Bernabeu, days removed from cathartic Spanish Super Cup win against arch rivals Atletico Madrid.

With Bale, Hazard, Ramos injured, Benzema on the bench far from match-fit, and Federico Valverde suspended, Los Blancos were in dire need of someone to lead the way, and place pressure on struggling co-leaders Barcelona, who are now under Quique Setien’s tutelage.

By the time the first 45 minutes came to a close, the overall impression was that it would take a miracle for the home side to earn much-needed three points.

That all quickly changed in the second half as the Brazilian midfielder chipped Tomas Vaclik after a picture-perfect backheel from Luka Jovic. Madrid were edging Julen Lopetegui’s side, and Casemiro foreshadowed what was to come.

With the score level, the Brazilian leaped inside the box and headed home a lofting ball from the right flank, catching Sevilla’s defense completely off guard.

Casemiro’s brace came just five minutes after Luuk De Jong‘s left-footed goal in the 64th minute.

League leaders with 43 points, Madrid prepares for their Copa del Rey bout against third-division side Unionistas midweek. Sevilla, on the other hand, host Levante in the same tournament.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Atletico Madrid

Osasuna 0-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-1 Alaves

16-year-old Cherki scores 2 as Lyon advances in French Cup

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PARIS (AP) Two goals and two assists from 16-year-old forward Rayan Cherki helped Lyon win 4-3 at Nantes and reach the last 16 of the French Cup on Saturday.

But the run of Reunion Islanders JS Saint-Pierroise ended with a 1-0 loss away to Epinal, which scored deep into extra time.

Cherki put Lyon ahead in the first minute, deftly rounding goalkeeper Alban Lafont and then clipping the ball beyond a defender. He made it 2-0 in the ninth, slotting the ball through Lafont’s legs after being set up by right winger Bertrand Traore.

New signing Renaud Emond headed in Moses Simon’s cross from the left to pull a goal back for Nantes in the 16th. Cherki then showed great awareness to release forward Martin Terrier with a fine pass from midfield in the 37th for 3-1.

Cherki shaved the crossbar with a shot in the 60th and won a penalty in the 67th after robbing the ball off Thomas Basila. He generously allowed striker Moussa Dembele to take it, but Lafont saved Dembele’s attempt.

Two minuter later, Cherki threaded the ball down the right to Dembele, who slotted in, and the irrepressible Cherki set up another chance for Terrier.

Lyon’s defense remains vulnerable and Simon set up Imran Louza’s goal before heading in late on to ensure a tense finish.

Saint-Pierroise had caused an upset in the previous round by knocking out second-division Niort and the players again traveled 6,000 miles (around 9,700 kilometers) from the small island in the Indian Ocean, located off the east coast of Africa.

Saint-Pierroise, the former club of France midfielder Dimitri Payet, was looking to become the first club from the Reunion Islands to reach the last 16 and almost forced a penalty shootout, despite having forward Jean-Michel Fontaine sent off in the 15th minute.

But substitute Adel Berkane rifled home a half-volley for fourth-tier Epinal with two minutes left in extra time.

Also, there were wins for first-division sides Nice, Lille, Saint-Etienne and Strasbourg.

Lille won 2-0 at fifth-division Gonfreville thanks to goals from forwards Loic Remy and Victor Osimhen, while coach Patrick Vieira’s Nice side held on to beat third-tier Red Star 2-1.

Saint-Etienne won 3-2 at Paris FC, a team fighting relegation in the second division.

Paris FC led 2-1 with goals from former Paris Saint-Germain forward Jeremy Menez and ex-Rennes winger Jonathan Pitroipa. Teen forward Charles Abi equalized for Saint-Etienne with 20 minutes left before veteran right back Mathieu Debuchy netted the winner.

Strasbourg won 5-1 at fourth-tier Angouleme.

On Sunday, Rennes plays at fifth-tier Athletico Marseille and PSG travels to face second division league leader Lorient.

Rennes beats PSG in last year’s final.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports