Di Francesco’s side have a knack of defying the odds
April 1984 was the date; a European Cup semi-final was the occasion. Victory in the tie set up the final in Rome against Liverpool the following month. Since then, AS Roma have only dreamt of such heady nights… until now. The chance to right that wrong has arrived. The humiliation of losing a European Cup final on home turf has long lingered, older fans still wince at the memory whilst the young have been told and reminded time and time again.
That was 34 years ago, though, and this two-leg tie has a very different context. Roma, bluntly, did not expect to come this far. Daniele De Rossi – Roma’s captain since the retirement of club legend Francesco Totti last summer – said prior to their round of 16 match against Shakhtar Donetsk that there were “two or three teams in this season’s Champions League against whom, in all probability, we would already be beaten before kick-off”.
The quarter-final against Barcelona cast some doubt over De Rossi’s claim.
The self-doubt, however, that De Rossi hinted at has always been there. It always will. Of all the major capital cities in Europe – London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon – Rome is the least successful when it comes to football, especially in European competition. The relationship between the city and the game is different to that in most others. Despite the self-doubt, thought, there has been triumph. Along with the remarkable comeback against Barcelona, Roma did finish top of their group that also featured Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, and still have not conceded a goal at the Olimpico in this seasons Champions League.
Their manager, Eusebio Di Francesco – only appointed in the summer after a spell with Sassuolo where he led them from Serie B into the Europa League – has shown a knack for drawing the best out of his teams on the big occasions. His switch to an untested 3-4-1-2 formation in the second leg against Barcelona caught the leaders of La Liga off guard and allowed Roma to swamp the midfield, privileging the natural physicality of De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman.
Liverpool should not necessarily anticipate the same formula. Roma have played most of this campaign in a 4-3-3 – the trusted formation of Di Francesco. “It only has one problem,” he once said. “You struggle to mark your opponent’s playmaker.” Hence, the change against Barcelona, for who Leo Messi thrived in the first leg but not the second.
Di Francesco sensed a change of approach was needed, whether he truly believed that it would have such success is another question. Does the Roma manager judge Mohamed Salah worthy of such treatment? Only time will tell. But his players – Salah’s former teammates – will certainly have their own opinions on how to deal with him.
There will be another familiar character lingering around this semi-final. The sight of Monchi may well bring back bad memories to Liverpool fans. The former Sevilla Director of Football also arrived in Rome last summer, having spent a decade in Andalucia helping to bring about the most successful period in the clubs history. His knowledge and expertise transformed Sevilla and led them to countless Europa League finals.
His approach involved buying young talent and developing them to sell on whilst in the meantime giving them a chance to shine on the big stage. Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic are just some of his graduates. The very fact that Roma have reached the semi-final stage in Monchi’s first season is no coincidence.
This season in the capital, however, has been mixed: success in Europe distracting from an up-and-down season domestically. ‘Inconsistent’ would sum it up nicely. Although Roma are joint third, they trail the league leaders Juventus by 18 points. The lack of a viable alternative to Edin Dzeko at centre-forward has been glaring at times. The man tasked with providing the plan B, Patrick Schick, has only scored in the Coppa Italia, although there are signs that there is still more to come from the promising Czech.
That said, Roma have goals elsewhere: Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy are capable of cutting in from wide to score, as is the 20-year-old Cengiz Under – another Monchi steal –, who has been in scintillating form since February. The Giallorossi are solid at the back, too, where Aleksander Kolarov has proved a brilliant signing.
They can rely on an excellent goalkeeper in Alisson. His should be a name well known to Liverpool supporters, as the Brazilian No 1 has been linked with a move to Merseyside but such rumours have cooled in recent weeks. During the two-legs, it will become apparent to those not accustomed with Serie A’s best keeper that he is one of the best around. A true sweeper-keeper mopping up problems behind his defenders and launching attacks with his feet, not to mention leaving more than one attacker sprawling in the dirt with a feint of a dummy.
What awaits Liverpool against Roma is a task as well as an occasion. The sides have met five times previously, and it’s currently in the balance – both winning two apiece along with one draw. Roma have only scored 15 in the Champions League this season compared to Liverpool’s 33. Liverpool are well equipped to break through Roma’s tough defensive barrier. In the first-leg at Anfield, however, Liverpool should count a goalless draw as desirable, thus putting the pressure on Roma in the second-leg where a draw would do the visitors.
As for the Romans, this is an opportunity. An unexpected opportunity. To say that Roma have stumbled into the semi-finals would not be fair but having only just scraped past Shakhtar Donetsk and then coming from three goals behind against Barcelona, it was certainly unforeseen.
However, from day one Di Francesco has hailed the importance of belief at a football club – a notion that was the bedrock of his success at Sassuolo. His predecessor at Roma, Luciano Spaletti, was a very capable tactician but there were questions as to whether he truly instilled the confidence into the players to enable their ability to shine. Di Francesco’s belief has already led them to defy expectations.