When prompted to describe the disparity between Roma’s domestic and European campaigns, the standard, knee-jerk response is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While this comparison is certainly understandable, I have to be honest, I have no idea who those two are—full ignorance exposed. I mean, I assume it’s an old literary reference that was, at some point, turned into a film, but I haven’t seen it, have you? Maybe we can update it a bit, like, Cady in Mean Girls before and after she meets the plastics?
But I digress...
What I have seen, however, is AS Roma play football. Like, a lot. Probably too much If I’m being honest, and what I’ve seen defies figurative language anyway. So, with apologies to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, literary references simply don’t do this club justice. Why they can dominate in Europe one minute and struggle so mightily domestically is anyone’s guess, but it’s a pattern that has shown no signs of abating over the past 18 months.
CSKA Moscow v. Roma: November 7th. 18:55 CET/12:55 EST. Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
While I’m sure the relative familiarity of European opponents vs. Italian opponents is a factor—that is to say, Italian clubs can read Roma from a mile away—something about that falls short. Clubs have weeks of advanced prep and scouting ahead of Champions League fixtures, so it’s not as if they’re going into these fixtures blindly.
So, what is it? Do EDF’s motivational tactics fall on deaf ears ahead of a SPAL fixture but cut right to the core when we’re playing Chelsea? We’ll probably never find an answer to those questions, but if nothing else, it makes for interesting viewing.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks, which is an odd idiom that probably originated in the day of Jekyll and Hyde, right?
Sorry, I’ll stop.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Pretty, It Just Has to Work
This is always the most interesting turn in the group stage of the Champions League, the home-and-home fixtures played between the third and fourth matchdays. Typically, teams go several weeks, if not months, between Champions League encounters, so trading punches a mere 14 days apart makes for some tense and chaotic football, and despite what one might think, the results can vary wildly.
Take last season for instance. On matchday three at Stamford Bridge, Roma and Chelsea played to a thrilling 3-3 draw. For Roma, the result was gangbusters—scoring three away goals and grabbing a point on the road against mighty Chelsea? Yeah, sign us up for that.
So, what happened when they ran it back 13 days later at the Olimpico? A taut 1-1 draw? Nope, Roma waxed their English counterparts 3-0. Two matches, thirteen days apart, nine goals. I’m not sure what that says about the nature of familiarity between the two clubs, it could have simply been that Roma were brimming with confidence, playing with house money, and pulled no punches, running Chelsea off the pitch and effectively out of the competition.
Speaking of three-nilers, that was the score line when Roma welcome CSKA Moscow to the Olimpico on October 23rd. Led by Edin Dzeko, the Giallorossi utterly dominated their Russian friends, firing 20 shots on goal, 60% of which found the target, and completing 85% of their passes. In a word, Roma had a plan and they executed it flawlessly. And yes, it definitely helped that Igor Akinfeev was out suspended—he probably would have made saves with his eyelashes and somehow scored three goals himself.
No such luck this time around, as Akinfeev will assume his usual spot between the CSKA sticks. Of course, CSKA is more than just Akinfeev—they’ve been getting solid seasons from Fedor Chalov, Nikola Vlasic and Kristijan Bistrovic, among others—but, much like Roma, they are reeling right now.
Since getting embarrased by Roma on the 23rd of October, CSKA has been in free fall, dropping points in successive matches, a 2-1 loss to Krasnodar and a scoreless draw against Dinamo Moscow. All told, CSKA has dropped points in five of their past six matches, a span that includes four losses. Ouch. Maybe things with Roma aren’t that bad after all?
While the “Fire EDF” brigade has calmed down a bit lately, this match is no less important for his future employment prospects, particularly if he can’t steer Roma into next season’s competition.
As you can see, Di Francesco has nearly a full squad at his disposal with one notable exception: captain Daniele De Rossi (no one really cares about Diego Perotti or Rick Karsdorp at this point). In his absence, Alessandro Florenzi will don the armband, but who takes his spot in midfield alongside Steven Nzonzi?
If the Fiorentina draw from the weekend was any indication, it may very well be a slightly out of position Lorenzo Pellegrini, who dropped back from his more advanced role to support Nzonzi in the double pivot, which, in turn, pushed Nicolo Zaniolo to the supporting line behind Dzeko.
However, with Zaniolo struggling somewhat as the match wore on, Di Francesco brought on the increasingly maligned Bryan Cristante to shore up the defense, which may give us a peek into his approach on Wednesday . As it stands now, EDF has three options: a) repeat last week’s formation, b) start Cristante next to Nzonzi and leave Pellegrini in the hole, or c) drop Pellegrini back and put Javier Pastore in the playmaking role.
However, the lineup that might best suit this match is the one that stifles CSKA the most. With the Muscovites hot on their heels (only two points behind), escaping the Russian capital with a lone point might be the order of the day. And if that is indeed the case, look for option b from above—Cristante managed two successful tackles in only 24 minutes against Fiorentina and is, if nothing else, more than capable of doing the dirty work behind the ball.
While it’s nothing to get excited about, a dirty match is really all Roma need to muster up here; 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, doesn’t matter. Roma just need a point from this one to remain in second place in Group G.
Then again, this is Di Francesco in the Champions League we’re talking about here, they might score 10.