Roma head into season with flaws and dampened expectations

An underwhelming preseason and transfer window means Roma are starting a new season with the lowest expectations since Rudi Garcia had to fend off protesting fans outside the Trigoria training ground back in 2013.

Their recent trip to Spain, which highlighted some obvious flaws in both the first XI and the second string, has dampened enthusiasm for Roma's chances of challenging for the Serie A title ahead of Sunday evening's opening trip to last season's surprise package Atalanta, with AC Milan and Napoli in particular looking closer to a Juventus and readier for the new campaign.

But more than the spotty preseason, it's the fact Roma come into the new campaign with a weaker first choice XI than the one that beat Napoli to the Champions League group stages with practically the last kick of the final game of last season, when Diego Perotti stopped Francesco Totti's emotional farewell from turning spectacularly sour.

Big departures Antonio Rudiger and Mohamed Salah have not been replaced, with Roma's halfhearted chase for Riyad Mahrez never even coming close to bringing the Algerian to Italy and plugging the gap on the right of Roma's attack.

Leicester have been very clear about the inadequate offers coming from the Italian capital and have little interest in selling for less than a figure that Roma don't appear prepared to pay. They will start the new season with Gregoire Defrel, who was initially bought as cover for overused striker Edin Dzeko in Salah's former position on right flank, and a back line that isn't settled neither in terms of performance nor personnel.

Added to that is the fact the team have struggled to implement Eusebio Di Francesco's high-intensity, high-pressing 4-3-3, with Radja Nainggolan in particular looking lost coming back to a more conventional midfield role, having spent last campaign operating almost as a No.10 behind top scorer Dzeko.

Roma's high-octane start, which after Atalanta will see former coach Luciano Spalletti return to Rome with his new, pumped-up looking Inter Milan side, is also helping to calm any runaway hopes of winning their first league title since 2001.

They simply don't look as ready for the new season as their rivals for the top four, which this year includes Spalletti's Inter and maybe even Lazio, who were hugely impressive in their last-ditch 3-2 victory over Juve in last weekend's Super Cup.

Di Francesco will need to decide who will play alongside former want-away centre-back Kostas Manolas in the heart of the defence, which has been the coach's problem position all summer. Federico Fazio has looked half the player he was as sweeper in Spalletti's back three last season, while new signing Hector Moreno has failed to convince -- so much that he might not beat Juan Jesus to a starting place in Bergamo.

Happily for Roma, the Atalanta side they will face on Sunday is not the one that took four points off them last season. Roberto Gagliardini left for Inter in January while Franck Kessie -- a player who looked destined for Giallorosso -- was snapped up by Milan in the summer. That pair dominated Roma's highly prized midfield in the second half of last season's encounter in Bergamo, while Kessie was a standout in the frustrating 1-1 draw between the two at the Stadio Olimpico.

Gian Piero Gasperini has also had to deal with recalcitrant winger Leonardo Spinazzola trying to force Atalanta to let him move back to Juventus. He will also be without defender Mattia Caldara thanks to the Italian's late return from the Under-21 European Championships and new midfielder Marten De Roon, although the Dutchman could make his Serie A debut from the bench. Roma's midfield three of Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman (who was one the best performers in the close season) and Daniele De Rossi should have less resistance than last year, giving them more chance of not being run over like they were last year.

Atalanta's little-and-large front line of Andrea Petagna and Papu Gomez will be ready and waiting for Roma's wobbling defence, and that's where Gasperini will likely focus his team's tactics.

How Roma's struggling back line deal with those two will offer an idea of how the team have adjusted to the new regime and what we can expect from the coming season.