AS Roma were down 4-1 on aggregate entering Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg. In order to advance, they would have to beat FC Barcelona by three goals. Barcelona had only been scored on three times in their previous nine Champions League matches. Further, Barcelona had wrapped up La Liga in dominating fashion and it seemed as if they were destined to advance in this tournament. Sportsbooks in Vegas refused to take bets on the match because the odds were too long. Roma would need a miracle to win. So what happened?
AS Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco had a monumental decision on his hands in regards to selecting his squad. Roma has an important fixture with Lazio over the weekend. That match will likely determine who will qualify for next season’s Champions League, and who will be resigned to the Europa League. Rest players for the weekend derby or put up a fight against mighty Barcelona? He chose the latter and he chose to do it with an unconventional formation. Di Francesco installed a 3-5-2 formation. This allowed Roma’s midfielders to press higher up the pitch, and a second striker created more freedom in Barcelona’s box.
Goalkeeper – Starting goalkeeper Alisson had little to deal with all evening as Barcelona were unable to get anything going offensively.
Defenders – This match was the first time AS Roma had utilized a three-at-the-back formation and they performed admirably. Juan Jesus and Federico Fazio completely shackled the brilliant Lionel Messi and the clinical Luis Suarez. The third member of the Roma defensive triumvirate was the hero, Kostas Manolas. He was terrific in defense and headed home the game-clinching goal.
Midfielders: Roma’s midfield is what swung the tie in their favor. The wide midfielders, or attacking fullbacks, Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksander Kolarov, were outstanding. They put pressure on the Barcelona defense by whipping in cross after cross into the box, forcing their fullbacks to stay and defend instead of making overlapping runs in the attack. Kevin Strootman controlled the midfield with composure and precise passing; while Radja Nainggolan made lung-busting, box-to-box runs. The captain, Daniele De Rossi, put in a truly remarkable performance. He assisted the opening goal with a beautiful lobbed pass, and followed that up with a perfectly struck penalty.
Forwards: Edin Dzeko wrecked havoc. The lone Roma goalscorer from the first leg, found the back of the net once again to open the scoring and continued to work tirelessly as he bullied defenders Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti. Young Czech forward Patrik Schick was handed his Champions League debut in the biggest match of his career. It was an up-and-down performance overall; but he was instrumental in freeing up space for Dzeko to roam.
People want to focus on the collapse of Barcelona. But Roma outclassed them, plain and simple. The fans and players rejoiced in jubilation after witnessing the greatest moment in European Competition in the club’s illustrious history. The President of the club jumped in and broke a fountain in celebration of the upset. They may not have what it takes to win the whole tournament, but on this night, they are champions.
Photo Credit: Tony Gentile | Reuters