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:
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) April 2, 2018