No matter how far removed from the Eternal City you happened to be tonight, the tension at the Stadio Olimpico was palpable. From the orchestra outside, to the jam packed stands, the feeling of importance surrounding tonight's Champions League Round of 16 match was not lost. Sensing an opportunity to catch his visitors off guard, Luciano Spalletti made a rather important tactical change prior to kickoff.
Whether he picked up a knock or simply wasn't a tactical fit against Real, Spalletti chose to leave Edin Dzeko on the bench, opting instead for a hybrid formation featuring Diego Perotti as the nominal center forward, flanked by Mohamed Salah and Stephen El Shaarawy. The mission was clear, using Perotti as a false nine; Spalletti had hoped to confuse the Madrid defense, thereby allowing Salah and El Shaarawy to get behind the Madrid defense.
Through the first half hour, it seemed to work, as Salah was frequently spotted bounding up the right flank, leaving Marcelo gasping in the wind, while El Shaarawy tried to duplicate the feat on the opposite flank with considerably less success. While Perotti made a few incisive passes in the final third, Roma's bite just wasn't there, El Shaarawy, who had arguably their best chance of the first half, was wide of the mark.
Were it not for the speed of Roma's wings, the opening 45 could have been brutal, as the Giallorossi struggled to do anything constructive with the ballâthey were living on a wing and a prayer, hoping Salah's speed could create the chance they needed to break this one open.
Madrid dominated possession as we expected, but Roma created a few decent chances but ultimately came up short.
The opening moments of the second half were actually quite Roma-centric, as Spalletti's side pushed forward and nearly had one as El Shaarawy settled a long pass and took a fantastic touch only to be dispossessed by Keylor Navas.
Roma's good luck soon ran short, however, as Ronaldo put Madrid up 1-0 in the 57th minute.
How's THAT for an away goal? @Cristiano gives Real Madrid the lead with a beauty! @HeinekenSoccer #UCL #UCLonFOX https://t.co/8WQFcNmisI— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 17, 2016
Not a whole lot Florenzi could have done to stop Ronaldo there, he kept pace with him and did a decent enough job to recover once Ronaldo changed direction, but well, he's Ronaldo, what can you do? But was he offsides? Hmm..
Spalletti's first change came past the hour mark, as he swapped off El Shaarawy for Edin Dzeko, ushering in a subtle tactical change as well. It was a good effort for SES, he got behind the Madrid defense with ease and had two of the matches best chances, but with half their horsepower gone, would the more direct Roma stand a chance at levelling this match?
Dzeko made his presence known pretty early into his shift, as he outmuscled the Madrid defense and laid one off to William Vainqueur, who nearly, and I mean, nearly, rifled one home from 20+ yards out.
Daniele De Rossi entered the fray in the 78th minute, coming on for the aforementioned Vainqueur; not a terrible idea with Madrid gunning for a second goal, but Roma needed an offensive spark of their own.
Dzeko factored into the match once again, twice actually, being denied by Navas and Varane one minute, then nearly setting up Florenzi the next. Dzeko laid off a beautiful ball to a streaking Florenzi, who was summarily taken down in the box as the ref chewed on his whistle, throwing the whole of Roma into hysterics.
No era penal? Sure looked like one, but Real escape! #UCL #UCLonFOX https://t.co/Lx9fhNpeVt— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 17, 2016
See for yourself, not sure how that one was let go.
In true Roma fashion, however, it was rendered moot as Madrid youngster Jese made it 2-0.
We mentioned during the domestic campaign, but its just as applicable in European competition: win, lose or draw, this club is in a far better position than they were two months ago. Horrible finishing aside, Roma looked incisive and dangerous in attack and resolute and committed in the defenseâthis level of commitment had all but vanished during the latter days of Garcia.
Honestly, this match was more even than the scoreline would attest. Salah had a field day with the Madrid defenders, getting behind them time and time again, while Florenzi, who its becoming abundantly clear is not a fullback, kept Cristiano Ronaldo in check for much of the match, while Kostas Manolas spent much of the evening tossing Madrid's forwards around like rag dolls.
The pieces are here, folks, it's just a matter of time before they all congeal. In the here and now, Roma were simply done in by poor finishing, which is enough to damn anyone under normal circumstances, let alone against a world class defense like Madrid.
It will take a miracle of the highest order to win the reverse fixture and advance, but at least this time around, you know they'll make you proud. Win, lose or draw.