It has been approximately 70 days since Roma played to a resolute 0-0 draw with BATE Borisov, the titans of Europe, so you'd be forgiven if you forgot that Roma had actually advanced in the Champions League. But here we are, halfway through February and the round of 16 has come to the Olimpico, bringing Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of Real Madrid with it.
While Real is currently dealing with a rash of injuries, there's no denying it, they still have more stars than Roma has questionable neck tattoos. In addition to his sterling resume and impressively and presumably waxed physique, Ronaldo is bringing along Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and James (Ha-mesh) Rodriguez to Roma's quaint little Olimpico.
So, in face of all that star power, all those titles and all that hair product, does Roma stand a chance of winning this one?
Believe it or not, despite all Madrid's fame, glory and La Decima, Roma has fared pretty well in this matchup, winning three of eight encounters (Real took four, with one draw thrown in for good measure), so let's take a trip down memory lane, back to 2007-2008 when Roma beat Real twice in this competition.
2007-2008: Roma 4, Real 2 (agg.)
I mean, just look at that video--Totti in the prime of his career, Daniele De Rossi running around like a madman, Simone Perrotta, Mirko Vucinic, Mancini, Alberto Aquilani, David Pizarro, Philippe Mexes and, wait, who's that bald man on the sidelines!?
That was truly special time. Despite having apex Totti and perhaps the best supporting cast we've seen in years, Roma was very much the underdog in these fixtures, yet managed to cull together 180 minutes for the ages, pushing aside the legendary Spaniards like they were Catania.
But a lot has changed in the ensuing years, Real has, believe it or not, become more powerful, throwing around world record transfer fees like so much confetti, while Roma remains ever the bridesmaid, coming tantalizingly close to sealing the deal, but ultimately left begging for the bouquet.
So, does history have a chance of repeating itself Wednesday or is this Madrid just too strong?
Two Capitals, Two Changes
Not only is the recent competitive history between these two sides practically non-existent, both Real and Roma have recently changed managers, so there isn't a ton of game film on either side, which could make for an interesting and potentially wide-open match.
For Real's part, the pattern is clear, give the ball to Ronaldo and Benzema and get the hell out of the way. Since New Year's Day, the pair has combined for a whopping 15 goals and six assists, more than making up for the injury woes suffered by Gareth Bale, the club's third leading domestic scorer. Benzema, in particular, has really picked his game up a notch, leading many to proclaim him as the game's best striker, or at least it's most efficient:
In 1,339 minutes this season, the Frenchman has tallied 19 goals, created 24 chances, completed 23 key passes, and boasts a 67 percent shot accuracy. Per 90 minutes, these statistic totals are the best in Europe compared to each league's most formidable strikers.
That's from our sister site, Managing Madrid, so there is some bias there, but the numbers are as clear as day, Benzema is scorching hot and should induce panic attacks among the Roma faithful.
However, what Roma's defense lacks in composure and technique, it more than makes up for with sheer, unadulterated athleticism. Between Kostas Manolas, Antonio Rüdiger, Alessandro Florenzi and Ervin Zukanovic and/or Lucas Digne, Roma has more than enough size and speed to keep pace with Madrid's bevy of attackers. Really, if Manolas and Rüdiger can make life miserable for Ronaldo or Benzema tomorrow, they might stand a chance at keeping Madrid off the score sheet. Indeed, Spalletti has come out and said as much: Florenzi will get the chance to mark Ronaldo primarily because of his speed and energy can bother the Portuguese superstar.
While Zinedine Zidane's Madrid remains a mystery and has run roughshod over La Liga lately, Roma is, due to the nature of the competition, Zizou's biggest test. And despite the names, the trophies and the hordes of fans, there is one area in which Roma holds sway in this matchup, on the sidelines.
Luciano Spalletti is, in every measure, a superior manager to Zidane, but how exactly will he flex his tactical muscles tomorrow?
While Benzema, Ronaldo and Rodriguez are bound to cause problems, Madrid's midfield and defense aren't exactly impregnable. Between Diego Perotti, Stephan El Shaarawy and Miralem Pjanic, Roma has more than enough playmaking power to unlock the Madrid defense, but make no mistake, this match is all about finishing chances.
With an incentive to gut out a deadlock, Madrid is sure to win the possession battle, but, as we mentioned, they are prone to occasional defensive breakdowns, making every chance Roma creates a matter of sheer survival.
While we were all relieved to see Dzeko score over the weekend, a reprisal of his decoy role may not be the worst case scenario in this match. Combine Dzeko's hold up play deeper in midfield and on the edge of the 18-yard-box with Perotti's ability to slip in and out of the neutral zone, and Roma should be able to manipulate the space behind Madrid's midfield, springing El Shaarawy and Mohamed Salah into dangerous attacking positions.
There's no secret to this match on either side of the ball, Roma has to mitigate one of Ronaldo or Benzema to stand a chance of keeping Madrid at bay, while Dzeko, El Shaarawy or whoever else gets a chance on goal, must make the most of it.
It isn't 2008, but the challenge is the same, but with Roma's spirits recently lifted, might the result follow historical suit?