‘What could have been’ is a phrase that seems to resonate with Roma more than most clubs. On March 6 last year, the plug was pulled on the Monchi project at the Olimpico as the Lupi crashed out of the Champions League last 16, going out to an extra-time penalty against Porto. Just two days later, the sporting director parted company with Roma and ultimately sought home comforts, returning to Sevilla the following month.
The Spaniard was widely considered a failure for his transfer business between the summer of 2017 and January 2019, notably splashing out big-money flops Steven N’Zonzi and Patrik Schick with the cash generated from selling Alisson and Mohamed Salah to Liverpool, while passing up Ajax’s man-of-the-moment Hakim Ziyech for an injury-prone busted flush in Javier Pastore, at a cost of almost €25m.
On the other hand, there were some resounding successes. Aleksandar Kolarov - a €5m buy from Manchester City - remains Roma’s first-choice left-back, whereas Nicolo Zaniolo was brought in as part of the deal that took Radja Nainggolan to Inter in 2018. The 20-year-old’s stock has risen so quickly that, despite his season-ending injury, he is arguably the most prized Italian player in circulation.
It is also thanks to the director that the Giallorossi possess two of Europe’s most explosive wide men in Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Under. Yet it is in equal part down to Monchi that their squad is sorely lacking character, having convinced James Pallotta’s board to cash in on Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman after Francesco Totti retired.
Monchi oversaw several generational shifts during his initial 16-year tenure as Sevilla’s transfer chief, but never the loss of three elder statesmen – one of whom as iconic and influential as Totti - in such quick succession. How much his hands were tied remains up for debate, but the lasting impact of his legacy continues to overshadow Roma’s rebuild.
As fate would have it, his past and current employers will do battle over the next week for a place in the Europa League quarter-finals. Like at Roma, Monchi has been forced to contend with sales of key personnel in Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben Yedder on his return, but with one major difference – their release clauses were activated. Thus, Sevilla were powerless to keep them.
Monchi’s recruitment policy has changed somewhat, from banking on potential to also bringing in players with points to prove, such as ex-Milan men Lucas Ocampos and Suso. It is paying off so far as Julen Lopetegui’s side sit third in La Liga, above Atletico Madrid, and are in with a shout of adding a record sixth UEFA Cup/Europa League to their trophy cabinet.
The similarities between Sevilla and Roma go beyond the Monchi connection, with both teams purveyors of the possession-heavy, high-press style that is currently in vogue, resulting in plenty of goals being scored but almost as many going in at the other end. For the 51-year-old, the tie will offer some closure as to whether the capital club were right to “kick him out” last year or whether he had unfinished business in the Eternal City.