MILAN: Mohamed Salah and Edin Dzeko hit second-half braces in a 5-0 rout of Palermo as Roma put the drama surrounding Francesco Totti behind them to claim their fifth con-secutive victory under Luciano Spalletti on Sunday (Monday in Manila).
The result pushed Roma up to fourth place, at the expense of Inter Milan, to sit eight points behind leaders Juventus and just two behind Fiorentina in the third and the last Champions League qualifying place.
Days after a 2-0 first leg defeat to Real Madrid severely dented their Champions League last 16 hopes, Roma welcomed Palermo hoping to boost their chances of qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition next season.
Except the build-up did not go exactly to plan, a highly publicized spat between Spalletti and Totti overshadowing what should have been a straightforward fixture against the struggling Sicilians.
Having recently recovered from a lengthy injury lay-off, Totti was scheduled to make a rare start only to be dramatically excluded on Sunday morning following criticism of Spalletti in a television interview in which he demanded “respect and clarity”.
In his 23rd and possibly last season, Totti remains a legendary figure at Roma and despite being only half-full the Olimpico resonated with songs of support for the 39-year-old as he took his seat in the stands, while several banners were dedicated to ‘Il Re di Roma’ (the King of Rome).
The fallout from the controversy has yet to settle, but Spalletti said he has now “restored order”.
“Totti had a moment of anger and that can happen in certain circumstances,” Spalletti told Sky Sport Italia.
“There are rules in place within the squad and I had to deal with Totti’s reaction. I was called upon to restore order and that’s what I’ve done. Otherwise, tomorrow everybody will do the same.”
The controversy looked to have swayed Roma’s players in a calamitous first half, in which the hosts created a series of half-chances before Dzeko compounded matters by producing the miss of the season.
Dzeko was unmarked yards from the back post when Douglas Maicon cut back from the right byline, but with the goal at his mercy the Bosnian skewed a left-footed shot wide when a small tap-in with his right would have done the trick.
He later admitted: “When I saw the first chance I missed, I can’t be happy. Thankfully I made up for it with two goals.”
Fortunately for Dzeko, he made amends in quick fashion. The Bosnian chested down a Miralem Pjanic cross and fired it through Fabrizio Alastra’s legs from 10 yards.
In his first game back in charge following his sacking in November, Palermo coach Giuseppe Iachini was forced to play 18-year-old Alastra in place of the injured Stefano Sorrentino.
It is a Serie A debut the teenager will want to forget.
Iachini, meanwhile, said it’s time to get back to work as Palermo edge ever closer to the drop zone.
“Some players looked totally different from three months ago and that’s something we have to improve if we’re going to get the points that will keep us up,” he told Rai Sport.
Although Palermo had shown little desire to score in the opening half, Roma re-emerged in determined fashion and doubled their lead seven minutes after the restart when Keita toe-poked Alessandro Florenzi’s corner into the roof of the net from 12 yards.
Salah made up for an opening half miss, when he hit the side-netting, with two quickfire goals on the hour, his second a spectacular effort that he curled from an impossibly tight angle into the net after picking up his own rebound.
Fans were given another treat when Dutchman Kevin Strootman made his comeback 13 months after a second operation on his knee when he replaced Maicon with 13 minutes remaining.
Dzeko capped a memorable night, and weekend, for the hosts when he powered a header from Diego Perotti’s cross into the roof of the net in the dying minutes.
Earlier, Fiorentina held off the threat of Champions League rivals Inter in a dramatic 3-2 win at Atalanta that saw second-half goals from Matias Fernandez, Cristian Tello and Ni-kloa Kalinic.
Fiorentina remain third at six points behind Juve, who, after a scoreless draw at Bologna on Friday, could lose top spot to Napoli if they beat AC Milan on Monday.