Roma a force to be reckoned with under Di Francesco
Manager will likely devise a tailored plan to counter Mohamed Salah
Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco’s decision to switch to an untested 3-4-1-2 formation in the second leg against Barcelona caught the leaders of La Liga off guard. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
It is 34 years since Roma reached a European Cup semi-final. And only one month less than that since Liverpool beat them on penalties in the final. Older fans still wince at the memory, hardly surprising when you consider it took place at their very own Stadio Olimpico.
Times change, though, and this two-leg tie has a very different context. Roma, bluntly, did not expect to come this far. When they were drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16, their captain, Daniele De Rossi, said 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”.
Such self-doubt might finally have been blown away by a sensational quarter-final win over Barcelona. Yet Roma hardly put a foot wrong in this year’s competition until their first-leg defeat at the Camp Nou. They finished top of a group featuring Atlético Madrid and Chelsea, and still have not conceded a goal at home.
Caught off guard
Their manager, Eusebio Di Francesco, 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 expect to see the same thing. Roma have played most of this season in a 4-3-3, the same formation that Di Francesco used for most of his career. “It only has one problem,” he once said. “You struggle to mark your opponent’s playmaker.”
Hence the change against Barcelona, for whom Lionel Messi thrived in the first leg but not the second. Will Di Francesco develop a similarly tailored plan to counter Mohamed Salah? Many of his Roma players may have their own opinions on how to deal with their former team-mate. The manager is less familiar, having taken over only in the summer.
Di Francesco’s first term has been mixed: success in Europe distracting from an up-and-down season domestically. Although Roma are joint third, they trail the league leaders Juventus by 21 points. The lack of a viable alternative to Edin Dzeko at centre-forward has been glaring at times, with Patrik Schick, acquired to great fanfare from Sampdoria in the summer, scoring only in the Coppa Italia.
That said, Roma have goals elsewhere: Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy are capable of cutting in to score from the flanks, as is the 20-year-old Cengiz Ünder, who has been in scintillating form since February. The Giallorossi are solid at the back, too, where Aleksandar Kolarov has proved a brilliant signing.
They can also rely on an excellent goalkeeper in Alisson. Brazil’s number one was back-up to Wojciech Szczesny last season but has emerged as one of Serie A’s best, a true sweeper-keeper mopping up problems behind his defence and launching attacks with his feet, not to mention leaving more than one attacker sprawling in the dirt with a feint or dummy.