ROME, March 12 (Reuters) - AS Roma coach Rudi Garcia says they are now fighting just to qualify for next season’s Champions League after a run of eight draws in nine games left their Serie A title hopes in tatters.
Roma were one point behind leaders Juventus in December, but are now 11 adrift and looking anxiously over their shoulders at Lazio and Napoli as the scrap hots up for a top three finish and a place among Europe’s elite.
Roma, who host Sampdoria on Monday, are four points clear of the chasing pair and can afford few slip-ups in their final 12 games of the campaign.
“Our main goal is to qualify for next season’s Champions League,” Garcia told reporters on the eve of their Europa League last-16 tie against Italian rivals Fiorentina on Thursday.
Roma have struggled to win games since the Christmas break and have found goals increasingly scarce.
In the opening 13 league games, they found the net 25 times at an average of almost two per game. In the last 13, they have averaged only one goal every 90 minutes.
Garcia’s main attacking strategy relied on pacey wingers Gervinho and Manuel Iturbe being serviced by talisman Francesco Totti’s precise passes.
In the last three months, however, teams have changed tack against Roma and frequently sit deep and patiently wait to launch counter attacks.
As a result, Roma have become increasingly one-dimensional and directionless in possession and resemble more closely Luis Enrique’s team that finished the 2011-12 season in seventh place.
Losing playmaking defenders Mehdi Benatia, who joined Bayern Munich in the close season, and Leandro Castan to injury, has caused problems with Roma struggling to get the ball out from the back when pressed high up the pitch.
Benatia’s leadership and heading ability have also been missed at set pieces at both ends of the pitch.
Roma’s advantage over Napoli and Lazio could be cut to one point by the time they go in search of their first home win since late November against fifth-placed Sampdoria (2000 GMT).
Napoli visit Verona on Sunday (1700), while Lazio travel to Torino (1800) searching for a fifth consecutive win.
Juventus, who have 61 points from 26 games, are at Palermo on Saturday (1700).
Zdenek Zeman returns to the Cagliari bench as coach, after replacing Gianfranco Zola this week, with the relegation-threatened side hosting Empoli on Saturday (1945). (Editing by Toby Davis)