Barça – Roma: Champions League Quarterfinal Preview

786.

307.

8.

When I think about Roma, I think about Francesco Totti. A man who played from 1992 until 2017 for the same team, making 786 total appearances, scoring 307 goals in the process. He was top scorer for the team 8 times and some of those goals were truly outrageous. He provided an immense amount of entertainment throughout his 25 (25!) years in maroon. He is, for many, the quintessential attacker, bringing speed, precision, guile, and power all at the same time. They nicknamed him The Golden Boy, The Gladiator, and, simply, The Capitan. He is a legend among the pantheon of legends, but there’s another number worth considering: 1. That is the number of Serie A titles that Totti won throughout his career.

Here’s the thing about Roma: they don’t really win titles. They’ve been around since 1927 and have just 3 scudetti to their name: 1941-42, 1982-83, and 2000-01. They are the perpetual little brothers to Juventus (33 titles), AC Milan (18 titles), and Inter Milan (18 titles), teams who have not only performed there, but in Europe as well. Roma can claim only the 1960-61 Inter Cities Fairs Cup as European silverware. That was a season that saw Birmingham City qualify for a second consecutive final and Inter Milan devastate Hannover 14-3 on aggregate in the first round. Barcelona was there too, losing 6-7 on aggregate to Hibernian in the quarterfinals. Even Lazio, that eternal intracity rival, has a Cup Winner’s Cup from 1998-99, which has to sting.

Part of this lack of success can almost assuredly be chalked up to institutional instability: Totti was managed by 19 coaches, a number that sounds so large as to be unimaginable. Had he been in Barcelona for those 25 years, he would have served from Johann Cruyff’s reign until Luis Enrique’s, a span of 13, including that 4 managers in 2 years merry-go-round that took place under Gaspart and included the return and subsequent dismissals of both Charly Rexach and Louis van Gaal, a time in which Barcelona won exactly 0 of any sort of trophy.

Going into the Champions League quarterfinals against Barcelona, Roma sits 18 points out of first and 14 points from second with just 8 matches remaining. They qualified for the quarters by losing to Shaktar Donetsk 2-1 in the Ukraine and then winning 1-0 at home through an Edin Dzeko nutmeg of the keeper. The commentators were calm and collected. The first leg’s away goal was scored by 20-year old Turkish international Cengiz Ünder, who made a move from Başakşehir over last summer. Başakşehir, you may remember, is the team that took Arda Turan off our hands. The assist came from Dzeko, who at 32 is having a fairly good year with 18 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions. He had 39 in 51 last year, including 8 in 10 in the Champions League, ending up as Serie A’s top scorer. Roma ended up 2nd, 4 points back of Juventus once again.

Last season, Roma averaged 2.4 goals per match, grabbing 90 overall. This year, they’re on pace to score just 63. They do, however, have a better defense than last year, allowing 0.80 goals per match this year against 1.00 goals per match last season. They may be a bit adrift in Serie A, but they did finish first in their group stage in the Champions League, somehow eliminating Atletico de Madrid in the process despite losing in Madrid 2-0. In theory, Roma is a tougher opponent than Chelsea, who came in second and subsequently drew a tough fate at the hands of Barcelona.

Where does all of this put Roma, a team without their legend and probably feeling like they’re looking at the short straw in the quarterfinal draw? the truth is that it probably puts them exactly where most people think it does: eliminated from the Champions League at the same stage that has always tripped them up. They haven’t made a continental semifinal since that Inter-Fairs Cup in 1961. The teams last met in 2015-16, the first meeting being a 1-1 draw in which Rafinha’s career took a turn for the worse, one he arguably has never recovered from. The second was a 6-1 drubbing at the Camp Nou, with Roma’s single goal coming in the 91st minute garbage time of a total beatdown. It was, of course, scored by Dzeko.

Unsurprisingly, there is a new manager this season for Roma: Eusebio Di Francesco. He has them in 3rd, but well out of title contention. The other major management change is one that Spanish league fans will nod knowingly to: In May 2017, Roma nabbed arguably the most important sporting director of the last decade: Monchi. A man credited with much of Sevilla’s major successes, who oversaw their rebuilding effort after their relegation in 2000*, Monchi is often treated as a magical warlock whose superpowers include finding gems everywhere on earth that turn directly into 20million euro profits. Roma, then, seems like they are looking to establish themselves as a major contender in Europe through intelligent spending. But Sevilla never reached the heights of the Champions League that they did in the Europa League and never finished above 3rd in La Liga, never advanced beyond the semifinals of the Copa del Rey, and have twice reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League (including this year, which is, of course, TBD).

*The modern fan will marvel at these facts from that year: the 3 relegated clubs were Betis, Sevilla, and Atleti! The league champion was Deportivo la Coruna! Real Madrid finished 5th!

Roma is arguably already at that level domestically, so they must be aiming for European improvement. It’s a strange one, that: Sevilla is also in the quarterfinals of this year’s Champions League, but is looked upon as a much stronger institution thanks to its tremendous Europa League successes over the last few years. Whether Roma can replicate this or not remains to be seen, but the sporting project has begun in earnest, with several young players coming in, including the aforementioned Cengiz Ünder for medium-sized fees. There are also several “project” players like Stephan El Shaarawy, whose career went off the rails at Milan, but who is still just 25 years old. The promise of his outstanding 2012-13 season is in the past, but he remains dangerous and capable. And there are the veterans, like Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolorav, signed for 5 million euros from Manchester City over the summer when he was 31.

On the other side, the Barcelona side, the game is usually dictated in midfield, but with Sergio Busquets injured, it will be important for Messi, himself coming off a slight knock that saw him sit out international friendlies (including an absolute drubbing by a Busquets-less Spain), to maintain the forward line. Sevilla, a club so easy to compare Roma to, swooped to a 2-0 lead that could easily have been larger before Messi subbed on and then Luis Suarez and Messi himself rescued a point.

This Barcelona team hasn’t felt like it was running on all cylinders for a while, even in what turned out to be a 3-0 win over Chelsea to qualify for these quarterfinal matches. And the studder in Sevilla is exactly what is to be expected after a FIFA break and with Busquets in dry dock for much needed repairs, but it somehow feels larger than that. It’s as if the team is simply not that brilliant. Obviously Dembele has not been able to get fully integrated because of his injuries, but he has shown flashes, and Coutinho can’t make an appearance in the Champions League because he’s cup tied. It’s as if the team is not that brilliant.

But it has been since January 17 since the team lost a match and that was 1-0 away to Espanyol in the Copa del Rey. Before that, it was the Supercopa de Espana on August 16. Since that January 17 loss, the team has played 17 matches, scoring 28 and conceding just 7. Only one of those matches–the most recent one against Sevilla–included allowing more than 1 goal. Only Atleti has allowed fewer goals in the league (14) than Barcelona (15) and no one has scored more goals than Barça’s “lackluster” attack (76, tied with RM). There is a certain dourness attributed to defensive prowess given the arrows slung towards all Mourinho teams labeled as “anti-football”, but clearly Valverde’s side is more fluid and attacking than anything Manchester United has put on the field for a few years now (Man U have scored 60 and allowed 23 in one more match than Barça has played).

This match, while theoretically pitting European heavyweights against each other, feels more like a minnow versus a Goliath. There is little in the way of statistics to suggest Roma has a chance, but that does not feel like a compelling argument for these upcoming matches. With the first leg at the Camp Nou, there’s something to be said for not overlooking an opponent, but again, it just doesn’t seem like Roma have the firepower or defensive stamina to overcome Barça. Maybe next year, after Monchi gets his claws fully into the team.

There are weirder ways to hype the game, of course:

https://twitter.com/FCBarcelona/status/980807297164197889

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

18 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    April 3, 2018

    Great preview! Thanks a lot. I didn’t know that about Monchi at all, and many other things. But what’s with that Twitter preview from the official account? As far as I recall, the gladiators were actually the ones inside the arena, fighting for their lives, not the ones in the stands cheering them on. So either Barca is planning to field a squad of 100.000, or the club has plans for a huge free-for-all brawl in the stands.

    For me as well, this tie doesn’t worry me too much. Rakitic has done well in filling in for Busquets in the past, and it seems Messi is fit again. Roma aren’t pushovers but I would rate them below Chelsea (who played two very good matches against us) as they don’t seem to have a player like Hazard or Willian who can change a match when he’s in the mood. Dzeko is a very good striker, but not a one-man-army.

  2. christembassykapo
    April 3, 2018

    Great preview, and rather enlightening.
    Yes indeed there is something lack luster, about this barca team, infact i would say weird. They seem like a team you can beat the next minute, but have lost only once this entire campaign. If you hadn’t said it, one would almost think they barely score goals, except for messi and suarez of course. But for me it’s crazy weird. And i wouldn’t be shocked if i see Roma getting white washed tomorrow. Crazy! Real Madrid are kind of scary on the continental brawl, i mean knocking out juggernauts juventus like that in turin mehhnnn, crazy and so is Ronaldo as a matter fact, i have come to look at him differently and with more respect after that article that compared his goals with messi’s. A stunning second goal he scored with an ever increasing tally in the champions league. Phew, waiting for the big one tomorrow.

    • georgjorge
      April 4, 2018

      C. Ronaldo, yes, he can be scary. I think his second goal yesterday would have been an absolute highlight of his career – an incredibly powerful goal, very difficult to take, in the knockout stages of the CL against a European powerhouse.

      The riddle of Valverde’s Barcelona – seemingly easy to beat yet unbeaten – for me has different aspects. One of them is that mentality plays a big role: even if the team isn’t playing pretty or playing well, they simply refuse to give up, fighting until the end, which makes them hard to beat.

      Another one is the emphasis on defense: this Barcelona team defends rather well in general, which allows for less possession without giving up goals. But having less possession makes the team look more ordinary and less dangerous, even if the “real” effect of the team passing the ball twenty times in their own half without starting an attack on one hand, sitting back to thwarten the attacks of an opponent on the other hand, are pretty equal.

  3. TITO
    April 4, 2018

    Juventus have only themselves to blame after last night debacle. RM didn’t played better, at least not until the sent off of Dybala, they actually managed only 3 shots until then, two of which went in.
    On the other hand, Juve had the fair share of chances to score, but they didn’t, it’s their fault.
    It is a knockout game, you have to be clinical, you do not know when and if the next chance will come around.
    RM just did that, and not only this game but against PSG also, and last season knockout phase as well. It’s like they are becoming specialists in this type of games, which of course is something to worry about in case we face them.

  4. Jim
    April 4, 2018

    Sitting in a Bavarian bar in Vegas watching Barça with two Guatemalans whose favourite player ever was Kenny Dalglish (!) , two Mexicans and a rabid Madrid fan who’s supporting Roma. Football’s great isn’t it ?

    Pep getting gubbed because he still doesn’t know how to defend and we’re doing okay but more worried about defence than getting bodies into the box. Messi looks on fire though.

    It’s half time, so maybe time to rile the Madrid fan with talk of La Liga 🙂

    Just hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me !

  5. TITO
    April 4, 2018

    So similar to Chelsea game, we are playing below our standard, but somehow it’s 3-0 for us.

    • georgjorge
      April 4, 2018

      It surely looked a bit like it. However, Roma actually seemed worse than Chelsea, with attacks stopped by clumsy passing and defensive errors again and again.

      But yes, the Barcelona team wasn’t at their best today. Messi achieved very little for what he tried to do, both Iniesta and Roberto were prone to error, Umtiti did some strange things. Rakitic did very very well today, and Alba created a lot of danger on his side, but none of the others were on par. A disjointed performance – and a convincing win nonetheless. I wouldn’t bet on the team with such a performance against RM or Liverpool (after their match tonight), but I am pretty sure the team can do better.

  6. Rokke
    April 4, 2018

    Decent performance, but the team seemed to lack concentration in some stretches of the game. Especially the minutes leading up to and after their goal were frustrating as we just kept making stupid errors, and we did give them a lifeline. Fortunately we scored another one to most likely bury the tie again.

    It was nice to see the Semedo-Roberto combination on the right side, but I think it was lacking. To me, we needed much more pace offensively than we had. You’d think Semedo could provide this, but so far he doesn’t seem like a constant offensive threat, like Dani Alves was or Alba is, I’m guessing that’s either a tactical decision or due to Semedo not being completely accustomed to our style yet as he certainly has the ability to provide more going forward. That said, I don’t think we really had any better options when not playing Dembele, and I’m guessing he was left out because he wants more tactical discipline in the more important games.

    Was also nice to see Denis getting a short appearance after his good time against Sevilla. I also think he did well today. The 4-4-2 should suit him well as he can play a bit wider like he did at Villarreal and Sevilla and I’d love to see him become a rotational piece if he keeps whatever he’s currently doing up.

  7. ooga aga
    April 4, 2018

    Wow. Without looking too sharp, we came out with a 4-1 win. Im hearing a lot about the own goals, but please – if de rossi didnt make contact, messi was there to stroke it home. And the second own goal — Romas goal was completely exposed due to our own good work. We get credit for having the ball in their box , creating danger, and making them panic into an own goal. Not only that, but before the 1-0 Rakitic had hit the post and Suarez had one ruled out for offsides after a nice move on our end. The scoreline does not flatter us.

    Naingollan the thug wasn’t there which hurt Roma, but frankly it’s a bit of justice after his horror tackle on Rafinha years ago made our boy lose many months of his playing career. I hope he isnt back for the return leg because he’s a punk and i dont want him hurting our boys.

  8. luisthebeast
    April 4, 2018

    Many unhappy cules but not me.
    We beat a good team that won their group with Atletiko,Chelsea.Organized team with good transition game.We could easily score 2-3 goals more if Messi had better finishing and they one more,so 6-2 would be a more fair result.
    I was frustrated by Alba at times,oh my i like the guy,but if he was better at dribbling and passing this team could be a lot dangerous now that we dont have a LW.
    Many times Iniesta looked to create something,passed the ball to Alba and just he passed the ball back.

  9. luisthebeast
    April 4, 2018

    If Valverde had lost 3-0 to a team with a MF of Henderson,Milner and Chamberlain cules will ask his head,just saying.

  10. luisthebeast
    April 4, 2018

    Reality is that with Dembele still adapting and Coutinho out of CL,team has a disadvantage in CL.
    They are the most expensive signings,one cant play the other young and still learning.
    That makes our offensive game limited and give more courage to opponents to attack or press high.

  11. PPos
    April 5, 2018

    We were kind of stiff in attack because Sergi Roberto although has some nice pace to break free from defenders he has very little end product unlike Dembele. I understand Valverde’s move here though. We were very poor defensively at the weekend with Dembele starting and he wanted to settle the team with Sergi Roberto’s passing range and Barca brain.
    Hopefully the super super fast wing of Dembele and Semedo start in Rome. I have a feeling if those two click. It will be devastating wing in attack. Although the tie is more than halfway there. One away goal and it stops being a formality at all..
    I was very impressed by Denis Suarez. It’s like he hitched a ride with Jesus coming back to life this past Easter lol. One day closer to Kyiv. Let’s keep it up.

  12. TITO
    April 5, 2018

    I thought Semedo had an almost excellent game, With only few errors throughout the game, he was great for me.
    Him there with SR in the middle in that right side, along with Dembele…it could work out quite well and be astonishing in the future.

  13. Jassper
    April 5, 2018

    The team looks tired, fatigue is beginning to take its toll on us… well I hope EV gets to rest iniesta, suarez, rakitic, and Roberto on Saturday (would have loved to see alba get a rest too but digne is out).
    overall it was a good game, messi not running to much, I guess there no real need for that anyway.. I’m really hoping to see a well rotated squad against leganes..

  14. April 5, 2018

    Semedo gives me lot of hope. Give him enough playing time and he will make the permanent gala 11.
    Otherwise, quite worried as they all look tired really. We could say that they didnt go out of second gear and so on but I dont think this team are foolish enough to take Roma for granted, especially after those initial high press from Roma. But we did took it easy after the 3-0 and that was a mistake allowed Roma to score 1. Thats the big difference between Pep s team and now. We enjoyed scoring more and more then, whereas now we are ‘lazy’ pragmatic…

  15. PPos
    April 5, 2018

    Ugh I’m tired of these comparisons to Pep’s team. That was almost ten years ago. Pep right now is suffering in the CL because his approach to football is very risky. I read an article that all of his eliminations from the CL in the past years have been because he refuses to defend in the away games and ends up giving up a lot of goals. I love Pep. I really do, but he’s the past, and he’s even said it himself that he would never coach us again. Yeah his football was pretty. yeah his football was nice, but Messi isn’t 25 anymore and Xaviniesta isn’t together anymore.

    • Víctor
      April 5, 2018

      Totally, Pep is a great coach and surely does a great job with his teams… but it seems that he forgets that he can’t take those luxuries (with both Bayern and Man City) because he doesn’t have Messi and Xavi in his team. The influence of those players were huge in his Barcelona’s era…

      I understand when people disagree with Valverde’s approach to some games, but those people should understand that this Barcelona isn’t the same Barcelona of 8 years ago… Xavi isn’t here, Iniesta isn’t anymore a player for the entire 90 minutes and we don’t have a Dani Alves on the RW… he has to adapt according the team he has at his disposal and let’s not forget that people demand titles…

      Amazing to see people still wanting to sack Valverde, even when back during August the general expectation was Barcelona fighting to be 2nd in La Liga and out of CL in QF or R16… we should give him credit for what’s happening…

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