Group Stage Fan Preview: AS Roma

This past season saw a Spalletti-led Roma accrue the most points goals in their history as they finished second behind a historically strong Juventus. However, this second stint at Roma would not last long as Spalletti left Roma for Inter citing the pressure from the city and fans as a main reason. This wouldn’t be the Giallorossi’s only loss this summer as the team saw club legend Francesco Totti finally hang up his boots after twenty-five seasons with his childhood club while Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rüdiger, Wojciech Szczęsny and Leandro Paredes among others would leave the club for hefty fees

Not many teams Roma’s size would be able to cope with such losses but the arrival of Sevilla’s legendary sporting director Monchi has allowed the Giallorossi to remain competitive while also maintaining a profit in the transfer window. The arrivals of Cengiz Ünder, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Maxime Gonalons, Grégoire Defrel, Rick Kardsdorp, Aleksandar Kolarov, Héctor Moreno, and Patrik Schick has not only provided Roma with the quality depth they so desperately need to challenge on three fronts but have also found quality players for cheap prices.

Roma’s horrendous luck with UCL draws continues as they are drawn with Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, and Qarabağ. Being in a group with both Chelsea and Atlético Madrid will make it very difficult for Roma to advance to the next stage. The Giallorossi will have to grab all six points from Qarabağ, grab a win or draw at home and away against Chelsea and Atlético, and hope Conte’s lack of success in the Champions League will see them qualify for the next round.

The appointment of former Roma player Eusebio Di Francesco is one of the wildcards for Roma’s season having previously managed only smaller albeit impressive sides such as Sassuolo. Di Francesco is an unfamiliar figure to those outside of Italy. A disciple of Zeman’s attacking football, he rarely deviates from a 4-3-3 unless out of necessity and will look to attack from the start of the match. His central midfielders shift out wide and look to cross it into the box while his wingers shift in, acting as inside forwards during counter-attacks and most offensive movements while one full back will bomb up the flank to provide width while the other will stay with the central defenders to form a back three. Di Francesco’s electric attack will be facing some of Europe’s most stringent and well-trained defenses in Atlético Madrid and Chelsea.

Di Francesco will be familiar with Conte having played against his Juve side while he was a manager at Sassuolo; while it will still be a tough match against the reigning Premier League champions, he’ll surely have had ample time to watch the Chelsea boss and find a way to mitigate his team. Simeone’s Atlético will be the true test for the Di Francesco as their elite defense lead by Diego Godin and Jan Oblak will hope to blunt Roma’s electric attack lead by a resurgent Edin Dzeko who’s coming off an elite season having finished top of the goal scoring charts in Serie A with 29 goals.

The biggest weakness of this current Roma side would be their defense having lost Antonio Rüdiger and Wojciech Szczęsny to Chelsea and Juventus this past summer. While Alisson is a fine replacement for Szczęsny (he is after all the starting goalkeeper for an impressive Brazil side), the same cannot be said for Rüdiger’s replacement. While Héctor Moreno is a fine center back, he doesn’t offer the same athleticism and speed Rüdiger that allowed him and Manolas to form a fantastic partnership. The team is also missing breakout star leftback Emerson who tore his ACL in the ultimate game of last season; he is expected to return by October and will add more dynamism down the left flank. Kolarov should add enough quality to man the leftback spot until he returns. The rightback situation is dire as Rick Karsdorp, Bruno Peres, and Nura Abdullahi have been injured while Alessandro Florenzi is continuing his ACL rehabilitation. This situation was exploited by Inter during their 3-1 victory over Roma two weeks earlier with Di Francesco playing the left-footed Juan Jesus as a right back. The good news is that these right backs should return for the first match of the Champions League against Atlético Madrid

Roma’s biggest strength is their midfield. Lead by Radja Nainggolan (coming off of a world class season), Kevin Strootman, and Daniele De Rossi, the dynamic midfield will need to be at their best as they battle against Chelsea and Atlético Madrid’s elite midfields. Past seasons have seen these men play most of Roma’s matches due to insufficient depth, but the acquisition of the highly-talented Lorenzo Pellegrini and the experienced Maxime Gonalons will allow the starting midfield to rest and be at their best against in the fierce midfield battles against Los Colchoneros and The Blues. While the midfield can slug it out with any midfield in the world on its day, the main criticism is its lack of creativity. Fortunately, the Brazilian wonderkid Gerson who now has a season under his belt in Serie A should be able to add creativity to the midfield if needed. While he rarely played last season under Spalletti, he has been very impressive this pre-season. Expect him to get some minutes against Qarabağ as Di Francesco aims to rest his starters for the more important Champions League matches.

This season of the Champions League will be Di Francesco’s first ever as a manager and what a group he’ll be in. The realistic goal will be to finish third in the group but the optimist in the Romanisti will hope that they can manage to place second in the group and prove the world wrong. You’re never too sure which Roma you will get in Europe: the one who gets demolished by the heavyweights of Europe or the Roma who upsets them while playing exciting attacking football. As they say, La Roma non se discute, se ama.

By: Sarfraz Khan

Photo: Marco Luzzani/Getty