Despite their undressing at the hands of Neymar and Lionel Messi during their August exhibition match, Roma's record in actual competitive affairs against Barcelona isn't terrible, mostly because they've only met twice. Roma and Barca were drawn into the same Champions League group 14 years ago where the Giallorossi actually bested their Catalan counterparts 4-1 on aggregate over two group stage matches.
Of course, things have changed over the past decade and a half for both clubs, and even by their lofty standards, Barcelona has been especially dominant the past several seasons. Led by Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, Barcelona scores goals like the US Mint prints money, which should certainly give Roma's still developing defense fits.
Okay, but we already knew Roma were up against it in this match, but in front of a sold out Olimpico, do the Giallorossi stand any chance at an upset?
How Will They Lineup?
Facing the prospect of life sans Miralem Pjanic for a couple weeks, Rudi Garcia opted for a total change in tactics in Saturday's victory over Frosinone. Rather than slotting Salih Uçan into Pjanic's usual midfield role in the 4-3-3, Garcia went to the seldom seen 4-2-3-1, with Francesco Totti, Iago Falque and Gervinho supporting Edin Dzeko, while Daniele De Rossi and Seydou Keita manned the double pivot behind them.
The results were pretty boring, pretty ugly and pretty ineffective, though we'll attribute some of that to the rust accumulated during the international break. Whatever the root cause truly was, Roma's build up play was dreadfully slow and their passing was imprecise in the final third, resulting in some incredibly frustrating play; the verve and excitement from the Juventus victory had completely vanished.
So, the question we have to ask, then, is what gamble is Garcia more comfortable taking? Using a more experienced lineup in a less familiar formation (the 4-2-3-1), or sticking with their customary 4-3-3 featuring an inexperienced player (Uçan) in a crucial role--though Uçan's battle with the flu may have rendered this debate moot.
How Can They Win?
Well, it certainly won't be easy, don't get that twisted—particularly since Messi only played 30 minutes or so over the weekend—but it isn't impossible.
The key to defeating Barca, if indeed one does exist, is controlling the midfield, or at least containing theirs. In that light, a healthy Kevin Strootman would be fantastic right about now, but De Rossi, Keita and Radja Nainggolan are all athletic and bruising enough to make life miserable for Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta.
The key within that key is controlled aggression. The minute Roma's midfielders get frustrated and over pursue or over commit to any of their Barca counterparts, Iniesta and friends will be quick to exploit any inch of space created by that aggression, which could spell doom for Roma. However, if they can set up a shell in which they allow Barcelona to laterally pass to their hearts content but prevent any incisive forward passing, they might stand a chance and containing the threat.
In terms of Roma's attack, they simply have to make the most of what are sure to be slim scoring chances. However, with Salah's speed and Dzeko's size and touch up front, you have to like their chances much more than had this fixture occurred a year ago. Barcelona is by no means impregnable, they can be exploited and they can be beaten, but you have to be damn sure you have a chance to score when you rip off a shot; opportunities must not be wasted.
The skeptic in all of us has probably already written off the two matches against the defending champions, opting instead to make their money against Leverkusen and BATE, but if Roma is focused, precise and hitting on all cylinders, a win certainly isn't out of the question, while a draw would be more than just a moral victory.
Point being, it's all about points. Any shred of an edge Roma can get on Barcelona on matchday one will make their lives infinitely easier as they attempt to advance to the knockout stages. As we discussed earlier in the week, Rudi Garcia absolutely needs peak performances from Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Seydou Keita, who are tasked with hemming in Barca's midfield, while Kostas Manolas and Antonio Rüdiger must...MUST...turn in the performance of their lives against Messi, Neymar and Suarez.
It won't be easy, and it may not be likely, but Roma can corral the Catalans tomorrow.