Roma being within shouting distance of the Scudetto race was, even for the most ardent skeptics among us, at the very least plausible back in the fall. After all, they were returning the majority of their key players from 2016-2017’s record setting squad, and while they lost Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger, their depth was markedly improved, while their new manager was familiar with Italian football and all its lovely idiosyncrasies. But this!? Who in their right mind expected this?
Roma being top of a Champions League group that included English heavyweights Chelsea and an Atletico side that reached the semifinals in two straight seasons was probably a bridge too far for many of us late in the summer when their fates were case. Yet here we are, some six or seven weeks shy of the new year and that’s precisely where we stand: Roma gloriously perched atop Group C, one point ahead of second place Chelsea and five points ahead of third place Atletico Madrid, needing only a draw to advance.
Atletico Madrid v. Roma: November 22, 20:45 CET/2:45 EST. Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid.
However, before we discuss this match, a quick look back to the first leg at the Olimpico.
September 12: Roma 0, Atletico Madrid 0
Eusebio Di Francesco’s first Champions League match as a manager was certainly a tense affair, as Roma were deemed underdogs with the might of Atletico Madrid and their matinee idol, Antoine Griezmann, coming to town. While EDFs attack wasn’t yet at its pristine peak (only one shot on target), he received stellar turns from Alisson Becker, Kostas Manolas and (gasp) Bruno Peres. It was the first true glimpse of something to which we’ve grown accustomed in the intervening months: incredible keeper play buttressed by a well organized and calculating backline.
So, what happens tomorrow? Will it be a defensive stalemate or an end-to-end thriller?
Wednesdays With Wanda
In any other circumstance, walking into Atletico’s glimmering new arena in a must-win would be a DOA for Roma, but this isn’t your normal Roma. This Roma, thanks to a new found determinism, is actually in first place (I just had to type that again because I’m not sure I believe it) and need only a draw to advance through to the next round.
The unfortunate part of this equation is, quite simply, this is a must win for Atletico, so you can expect them to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Roma tomorrow. The problem for Atletico has been that everything hasn’t amounted to much of anything for Los Colchoneros (The Mattressers...really?) as they’ve struggled mightily in this season, drawing ten times in all competitions, including six in La Liga and three so far in the Champions League.
And while a draw would technically keep Atletico alive in the group, it’s really an all or naught proposal for the Spaniards, which means the burden may be on Roma’s defense to hold firm on the road, something they’ve done for, what, 12 consecutive matches now?
That doesn’t necessarily ensure anything, mind you, but it should once again provide some solace that this isn’t your mother’s Roma. A few calamities notwithstanding, since Luciano Spalletti took over in the winter of 2016, and now with EDF kicking it up another notch, Roma is no longer the side that wets the bed the minute the monsters crawl out from underneath.
So while they may be blinded by the Wanda and all her modern conveniences, not to mention Griezmann’s good looks, this Roma won’t wilt on the grand stage. With Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman, Kostas Manolas and Aleksandar Kolarov in tow, Roma has more than enough muscle to bleed Madrid dry for 90 minutes, coercing a draw out of what otherwise could be a five or six goal thriller.
Still, we’re Roma fans and it’s been a long time since anything came easy in the Champions League, so we can’t assume too much. But as we discussed earlier in the week, something about this season seems different. We don’t know if Roma will scale each and every mountain in their way, but at least we know they’ll die trying rather than wondering what if.