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Champions League Playoff Preview: Roma v Porto

With Roma long on new faces and short on time, they will need a fast start in tomorrow's CL playoff against Porto.

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While Roma having to play a meaningful match in mid-August is far from an ideal scenario, particularly with their penchant for late summer defensive additions, given all the excitement we’ve experienced over the past week or so—the additions of Thomas Vermaelen and Bruno Peres—this match is just what we need to whet our appetite for the coming season. Oh, and there’s the little matter of €20 million on the line for reaching the Champions League group stage. No biggie.

Considering the disparate routes through which clubs reach the playoff stage, it’s not surprising that Roma were drawn against a relatively unfamiliar opponent. While we’ve all certainly heard of FC Porto—they’re one of the largest clubs in Portugal—Roma has not faced The Dragons since 1982 in the old Cup Winners Cup, during which they fell to the Portuguese side 2-0 on aggregate.

Roma v.PortoAugust 17 20:45 CET, 2:45 EDT Estadio do Dragao Porto, Portugal

So that might as well be ancient history, in the here and now Roma travels to the Estádio do Dragão to face an already in-form Porto side, one that brushed off Rio Ave in last week’s Liga NOS opener 3-1. In an ironic twist, Roma are leaving the airport just as Bruno Peres is arriving, so hopefully they’ll at least exchange pleasantries.

It goes without saying, but we will anyway: this is an absolute must win, or at least an absolute must-get-away-goals, a point certainly not lost on Spalletti:

This preliminary with Porto is crucial for us, and we’ve worked hard to prepare as well as possible. Any opponent the draw threw up would have been crucial for Roma, my team and our atmosphere

It’s difficult to get through the play-off and win the first League game well, the latter game is sandwiched in between the first leg and the return in the Champions League, but we’re structured to win big games.

Following tomorrow’s away fixture, Roma and Porto will run it back at the Olimpico on August 23rd. Sandwiched in and around those fixtures are two league matches, the opener on the 20th against Udinese and then the season’s second fixture away to Cagliari on the 28th.

While we shouldn’t overlook either of those sides—particularly not after Marco Borriello’s performance yesterday for Cagliari—if Spalletti is going to dole out the magic, he best save it for Porto. In a dream scenario, Roma will put up two away goals tomorrow and can simply park the bus for 90 minutes in the return leg, but we all know things seldom go according to plan.

So when we look at Spalletti’s 23 man squad for tomorrow’s match, it’s no surprise that he’s bringing all the heavy hitters. Francesco Totti, Diego Perotti, Mohamed Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy are all there, as are new defenders Federico Fazio, Juan "Rruan" Jesus and Thomas Vermaelen.

Interestingly enough, Alessandro Florenzi has been listed as a midfielder, and while that could simply be a bureaucratic idiosyncrasy, it might also point towards a three man Manolas-Jesus-Vermaelen defense. Of course, in a match this important and on such a short deadline, the environment isn’t exactly ripe for experimentation, so we may even see last season’s 4-3-3 reappear.

Either way, it is imperative that Roma hits the ground running, and while there’s no way the Giallorossi are already hitting on every gear in training, there’s one thing that you can’t teach and one thing that doesn’t need weeks of training to prepare: speed, and Roma has that in spades.

While I seldom make scoreline predictions in match previews, if Roma breaks this one open early, chances are it’ll come from Salah or El Shaarawy.

Get ready, folks. Real Roma action kicks off in little more than 24 hours!