The last time Roma met Europe’s defending champions, things didn’t go so well. Last season, Bayern Munich cracked open the side and left the giallorossi a broken, empty shell, too humiliated to even cry. After that 7-1 loss, Roma picked up just one more point in the Champions League group stage, booking their place in the Europa League thanks only to the fact that their -6 goal difference was better than CSKA Moscow’s -7.
Even more worrying than Roma’s European capitulation was the side never again looking ready to challenge for the Serie A title. In a year that many thought Juventus would finally be dethroned, the only team prepared to make a run at the scudetto were finished by the 10th week of the season.
A year later, and Roma are once again in the title conversation. After an opening day draw with Hellas Verona, the giallorossi went on to beat Juventus, further raising expectations. Last weekend, they picked up all three points again, this time against newly promoted Frosinone.
Now, one year after that humbling from Bayern, Roma are once again set to host the holders of the Champions League trophy. Barcelona come to the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday, fresh off a win at Atlético Madrid, their third in three games. Now Roma must do whatever they can to stop the visitors, ensuring another European humiliation doesn’t derail a promising season.
Or … must they? So many clubs consider the Champions League the be-all, end-all of competitions, the tournament in which they must succeed in order to prove their worth. But as the gap between the rich and the poor widens in domestic leagues, so to does it widen within Europe. The four most valuable squads playing this season — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea — are also the sides who most recently lifted the trophy. Barcelona’s squad is worth €657.5 million to Roma’s €258.6 million, and although Daniele De Rossi may be the highest paid player in Italy, his €6.5 million salary pales in comparison to Lionel Messi’s €37 million.
The deck is stacked, and any attempt to blow down this house of cards would not only be foolish but quite possibly fatal. It could well result in yet another forfeiture of the scudetto, a trophy Roma haven’t touched since 2000-01. Rather than attempt to conquer Europe, Roma should save its best for Serie A.
Some might argue that this is a foolish approach. After all, the side’s next opponents in the league are Sampdoria, followed by newly promoted Carpi, before a Champions League visit to BATE Borisov. They’re all winnable matches, even if Rudi Garcia isn’t fielding his best team.
But the Roma manager should learn from last season’s mistakes. It wasn’t until mid-October that his side started tripping up; it took until January for the malaise to really set in. The giallorossi were left with no European progress, no domestic title, not even a Coppa Italia. And while both the faces of the squad and the competitive sides in Serie A have changed, Roma’s basic style has not.
That’s why it’s so dangerous for Roma to try and make a big splash in the Champions League. Roma are a team that can derail Juventus, not they’re in no position to challenge the rest of Europe’s elite. Even this win early this season over the bianconeri exposed weaknesses that will surely be exploited, particularly by tough opponents. Despite attempts to shore up the back line this summer, defense remains an issue, so much so that Garcia needed to use De Rossi at center back rather than midfield. And when Roma tire, their constant pressure eases off, enabling the other side to get into space and find better chances.
These flaws were even more apparent in the match against Frosinone, the league’s bottom side. A shaky defensive display was capped by an obvious handball from fullback Lucas Digne; had the penalty been given, the result may have been 1-1 rather than 2-0. And with playmaker Miralem Pjanić out for three weeks and Belgian international Radja Nainggolan on the bench, the midfield could not cope with Frosinone’s pressing and struggled to turn the match in their favor.
Nainggolan found himself a substitute thanks to two straight games with Belgium, but it’s that fatigue that makes Roma most vulnerable. Edin Džeko, too, looked out of sorts, unable to threaten, and was pulled in favor of Nainggolan shortly before the hour mark. Gervinho looks a shadow of the player that lit up Serie A when he arrived in 2013. Then there’s Francesco Totti, who turns 39 this week and is finally starting to show his age. With the captain ineffectual and Pjanić unable to step into the trequartista role, Roma are already looking less threatening.
All in all, the side Roma have assembled is one constructed to dominate Serie A, but put the likes to Edin Džeko, Mohammed Salah and Iago Falque against the likes of Barcelona and Roma are likely to be found out. While the attack has enough pace and skill to breakdown most defenses, when the tables are turned and the pressure builds on the giallorossi, the team moves slowly, looking devoid of ideas, as it did against Frosinone. Just imagine, then, that side going up against Barça, who’ll barely let them breathe. The Roma defense isn’t going to be able to hold off Barcelona all night, so they’ll be left desperately hoping for the opportunity to get in the game with a quick counterattack.
There are just two games against Barcelona, so Roma could give it their all and come away with a ticket to the Round of 16. But as the games continue, the central midfield – consisting of the aging De Rossi and Seydou Keita, as well as Kevin Strootman, who sadly may never really play the sport again — will find themselves worn down more and more, further exposing the defense. As the forewards’ pace and energy drops off, the points will drop as well. By midseason, Roma could again find themselves out of the running for the scudetto.
Everyone loves a good underdog, but the giallorossi simply haven’t set themselves up to be that sort of challenger in Europe. But with Juventus’s early season slipups and only Inter looking like they might represent a serious threat, the time is right for Roma to concentrate on a domestic trophy.
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