Roma seldom sets themselves up this well in European competition, but after last week’s 4-0 waxing of Villarreal on the road, the Giallorossi are seemingly on easy street. All they need to do to book passage to the next round is avoid an historic calamity. Lost amid last week’s victory was the simple fact that Roma rolled over Spain’s stingiest defense without a second thought. Led by Edin Džeko, Roma sank the yellow submarine with ease, setting up tomorrow’s all-but-a-formality second leg.
Roma v. Villarreal: February 23rd, 19:00 CET/1PM EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
So, just how foregone of a conclusion is this? Villarreal defender Jaume Costa all but conceded defeat earlier this week:
We hold on to our pride, we know the game is very difficult...They’re a good team who scored a lot of goals in the first leg. We’re starting from a very complicated result, but we have our pride and we’ll push from the first minute, believing in the comeback.
We know it’s very, very difficult - practically impossible - but if you don’t believe you can’t achieve.
Despite that coaches cliche at the end, Costa seems realistic about his side's chances of overcoming a 4-0 aggregate scoreline. They would have to duplicate that scoreline at the Olimpico tomorrow just to force extra time, and while I’m sure that’s happened at some point in the history of European competition, Roma has been impregnable at home this year, conceding only eight goals in 12 matches, while throwing up a +28 goal differential, the best mark in Serie A.
So, yeah. Roma should advance with little to no issue. However, part and parcel of his duties as a manager is to keep all possibilities on the table, something Spalletti was attuned to earlier this week:
There’s an awareness which tells us that there have been dramatic results in football...Remember Milan-Deportivo, which was 4-0 and then 4-1…
Then there are games which change from half-time to full-time, Roma ourselves have had a one like that against Genoa, so we have to approach the match in the correct manner.
We should always be wary when guaranteeing anything with this club, but I feel pretty confident in saying Roma will advance; they might even make the scoreline more lopsided.
So, if the score isn’t an issue, what’s left? The lineups of course!
Given that extreme advantage, many have assumed Spalletti will tinker with his lineup selections, if not the formation itself, something he addressed in that same press conference:
That’s right, to give those who have played less the chance to show their quality I could do that.
But if you want to call people like [Thomas] Vermaelen, Mario Rui, [Leandro] Paredes or [Francesco] Totti reserves that takes imagination.
Totti will play, Gerson has shown that he has quality but he hasn’t played much so we’ll have to see. I can’t guarantee he’ll play from the start.
Right, because he only starts against Juventus, eh, Luciano? As long as I live, I’ll never understand what he was thinking that day, but I digress. Considering the Inter-Lazio-Napoli trifecta coming up next, there are several players on this squad in dire need of rest. Džeko, Federico Fazio and Wojciech Szczęsny are each over the 2,000 minute mark already, with Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman fast approaching it as well.
Thanks to Napoli’s torrid form, Roma has little to no room for error in their quest to remain in second place, so getting key starters rest will be essential to weathering that storm. We can assume with relatively certainty that Alisson will start in a favor of Szczesny, but will Spalletti have the courage to sit Džeko and Nainggolan? Perhaps a return to the strikerless trio of Stephan El Shaarawy, Diego Perotti and Mohamed Salah is in order?
Tomorrow’s match will be an interesting one from a variety of perspectives. As we mentioned at the outset, it’s not often that Roma has such an easy row to hoe, but will they start the usual crew and just park the bus for 90 minutes? Will they press the issue, grab a goal and really put this match to bed? Or will Spalletti take it as an opportunity to tinker?
For my money, I say he mixes and matches, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Džeko starts and plays at least an hour. While you can’t blame him for riding the hot hand, if ever there were a chance to rest him without fear of consequence, this is it. Beyond that, this match seems to be screaming for Leandro Paredes, Mario Rui and Francesco Totti, three guys who could play a key role down the stretch, and three guys who need to get up to speed ASAP.
Nothing is certain with AS Roma of course, but you can probably cut your dosage in half tomorrow...probably.