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How Can Roma Neutralize Barcelona?

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Not an easy question to ask or answer for that matter.

Sevilla v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Can you feel the CL fever yet? “These are the Champions…The Champions…”!

As Roma prepares for its Quarter Final Champion’s League appearance against FC Barcelona on Wednesday, their last humiliating defeat against the Barcelona boys in 2015 (6-1) must no doubt be hovering over Trigoria.

When getting ready for the away game against the Blaugrana, Eusebio Di Francesco will have to deal with two challenges: how to neutralize the Tiki-Taka masters? And how to avoid yet another CL figura di m…. that would put away Roma’s potential sponsors and depress its fan base?

In tactical terms, the precise task that Roma has in front of itself is obviously to look for ways to cancel out Barcelona’s attacking game. With 76 goals scored this season so far, Barcelona boasts the Liga’s highest scoring attacking team. Messi—26 goals, 12 assists and Suarez 22 goals, 6 assists—lead the Liga’s top strikers ranking.

The good news? Coutinho cannot play the Champions League. This is the only good news to report at this stage because Messi’s light injury seems to be behind him. The bad news? Ousmane Dembelé is back on the campo and up and running. And we know how versatile and fast the 20 year old Frenchman can be in the last third of the pitch. Another set of bad news comes from Roma’s infirmary. Ninja might not be able to make it. Ünder and Pellegrini are at risk too (both weren’t capped for the game against Bologna). {Editor’s note: Radja Nainggolan has been training and should make the trip at least}

Given the above and knowing Barcelona’s notoriously fluid and creative midfield, EDF would be foolish to offer a standard version of its beloved 4-3-3 against the Blaugrana. And moving Ninja up the pitch in a 4-2-3-1 will not make things better either.

What can they do then? In my view Roma needs to adopt a 3-5-2 module to neutralize the Blaugrana. Why? Because Roma will need to man-mark Barça’s playmakers, Messi and Iniesta, while keeping Suarez and Dembelé in check if they want to have a chance of an away draw.

An additional source of danger is that Dembelé can play both on the left and on the right wing. He is as close as it gets to being ambidextrous, although his natural foot is his left foot. Assuming that Messi and Dembelé will change positions during the game, Messi is therefore very likely to join the crowd of attacking players trying to find their way through Roma’s right flank.

And we know that this flank is Roma’s Achilles heel. If someone could put up the statistics of the last two games against Shaktar Donesk, that should suffice to illustrate that the rest of the world has understood that weakness too. We can hence assume that Valverde and Messi will exploit it too and will pound Roma’s right flank.

Bottom line: Alé Florenzi will need Manolas’ support on that side. He cannot be left on his own. This is why Juan Jesus will be highly needed in this game and appears as the magic solution to the Barça challenge. With a back three defense (JJ, Fazio, Manolas) and a wide middle-field made up of five players (Kolarov, Strootman, De Rossi, Nainggolan/Gerson, and Florenzi), Roma would have a shot at armouring its wings while having a higher density at midfield.

This would of course come at the cost of a less dynamic attack, being formally down to two men. Yet, with Dzeko’s ability to hold up play and El Sharaawy’s speed and skill to play counter-attacks, Roma’s attacking game would not be totally undermined with this formation. Depending on how the game evolves, EDF could sub in Perotti for Kolarov, Schick for Ninja/Gerson and if the game is still sufficiently open to allow another bold move, moving Florenzi up the pitch to gear up its attack.

What do you think? Is a 3-5-2 the answer to hold Barça in check?