I’m not sure how/when/why it became custom for football teams to be escorted onto the pitch by little kids in awkwardly fitting kits, but the gravity of this match was not lost on a particularly bespectacled, mop topped kid, who didn’t know to which team he temporarily belonged, or which end of the tunnel led to the pitch. Fortunately for him, Daniele De Rossi was there to offer a gentle tussle of the hair before pointing the kid in the right direction. Innocent though he might be, this kid was everyone of us watching from home—excited, confused, nervous and desperately looking for an adult.
For many Roma fans I’m sure the order of the day was simply don’t embarrass us and keep it close, and we’ll be happy. And, quite frankly, given the club’s history against the true heavyweights in this competition, it’s not unwarranted. No one expected Roma to make it this far, and to make matters worse they were down two of their best players, Cengiz Ünder and Radja Nainggolan, so in some ways Roma were playing with house money.
But then the match started and something odd happened—Eusebio Di Francesco’s tactics were working like gangbusters. Roma’s otherwise suicidal highline was stifling Barcelona’s attack, forcing Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez to drop deeper to pick up the ball, removing them from the action and limiting Barca’s killer give and gos on the edge of the 18-yard-box.
Through the first 15 minutes or so, this was going to script—Roma were defending with aplomb, swarming Messi the minute he gathered the ball and making timely interceptions and blocks; everything they had to do to keep Barcelona at bay. Going along with that textbook defense, we opined over the weekend that Roma would, quite simply, have to get lucky to grab a goal, and, well....
#ASRoma appealed for a penalty after Dzeko went down in the box under pressure from Semedo, but nothing given. #Barça #BarçaRoma #UCL pic.twitter.com/yfzRQhXjFa— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) April 4, 2018
Pardon my French, but how is that not a fucking penalty? Dzeko’s heels were clearly clipped, he was obviously in the box, and yet no call, not even a look at VAR. Roma were jobbed thoroughly on this one—had they converted a penalty and grabbed an early 1-0 lead, there’s no telling how the remainder of this match played out.
Despite that slap in the face, Roma carried on, valiantly turning away Barcelona time and time again, but no matter how many times they parried away Messi, Rakitic or Suarez, Roma never seemed comfortable building from the back. They could stop the attacks no problem, but when tasked with counter or building from the back, Barca’s forwards were right there, pressing them into rushed passes and/or immediate turnovers, the latter of which came home to roost as the first half drew to a close.
Roma with own goal by @deRossi pic.twitter.com/BZP4MIio9X— Tamal_Uzzaman (@TamalUzzaman) April 4, 2018
As you can see, Roma had no issue stopping the initial movement from Barcelona, but, again, they just had no exit plan—with Barcelona quickly harrying them, everything was rushed. Only this time, Barca actually recouped the ball and (finally) strung together one of their patented close-quarter team movements—four passes in a matter of seconds—and yeah, you’ll find plenty of sarcastic takes on De Rossi’s own goal here, but he made the right play—he had to break up that pass—and quite frankly, Messi would have gotten to it anyway, so no harm, no foul as far as I’m concerned.
Roma held firm for the next seven minutes, ending the half down a goal, though by all rights it should have been 1-1, or they at least should have had the chance to make it level.
Well, credit them with this much, Roma came right back, with Diego Perotti nearly scoring a header seconds into the second half, but he seemed to over run it and couldn’t get a proper angle or trajectory on it as it went well wide of goal—it was perfectly set up for him to head it home on a bounce, but he completely miss-hit it and it bounced well wide of the goal. Roma would press once more, four minutes into the half, with Alessandro Florenzi pouncing on an Umtiti error, nearly pinging one in off the end line, between Ter Stegen and the post.
As the match approached the hour mark, it was clear that Roma was gassed, as the high defensive line took seemingly took its toll on the Roma resolve. The spaces that were closed down in the first half so swiftly lingered just a bit; it was, for all intents and purposes, blood in the water. Barcelona could sense Roma’s waning energy and began attacking, pressuring and hunting in packs. It wouldn’t be long before they broke through again.
As it turned out, Roma would actually commit a second own goal in the 55th minute, as Kostas Manolas had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the ball caromed off him into the goal. Moments later, Gerard Pique was gifted a tap-in off an Alisson bounce making it 3-0 and effectively ending Roma’s Champions League campaign.
Roma would actually make a few decent threats late in the second half, with Gregoire Defrel catching Ter Stegen napping, only to see the German come flying back in to make a stellar save. Moments later, Perotti ripped one at Ter Stegen, who was more than up to snuff, stretching parallel to the ground to punch it over the crossbar, but as he’s done so often over the past two seasons, Dzeko gave Roma a lifeline.
Edin Dzeko: 80th Minute
EDIN! GOOOOOOL pic.twitter.com/HAhMlrz2Tb— RomaPress (@ASRomaPress) April 4, 2018
Now where was this all match? Wonderful set of moves from Perotti to make room for himself, but this thing was just a classic number nine goal from Dzeko—excellent positioning/shielding from Dzeko to keep the defender off his back before turning and firing it past Ter Stegen. Kudos to Stephan El Shaarawy’s dummy run that drew Umtiti away from Dzeko as well.
Ultimately, Roma’s proof of life was quickly dashed when Luis Suarez added a fourth goal, putting this one mercifully to bed.
Through the first 50 minutes of this match or so, Roma proved they could hang with, or at least contain, Barcelona. The Giallorossi defense was sharp, flexible and effective; they didn’t run from the challenge, far from it, they hit it head on. And while EDF’s attack never materialized, the blueprint for success was there—choke the Barcelona attack as much as possible, keep Messi away from the goal and capitalize on any error they might happen to make.
It was simply that the second half of that equation never presented itself. Outside of the inexcusable no-call on Dzeko in the first half, Barcelona simply didn’t make any mistakes—there were no turnovers, no sloppy distributions from Ter Stegen, no poorly defended set pieces; nothing. And while Roma did create a few chances in the second half, by that point it was too little too late.
Roma have made a tremendous amount of progress lately, albeit interrupted at times, but this match proved one thing—money cures everything. Barcelona runs three deep at every position, and the gulf in class was palpable this evening. When Barca brings on Paulinho and you’re bringing on Maxime Gonalons, that kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Roma simply doesn’t have the resources to match Barcelona toe for toe, leaving them no margin for error when they meet on the pitch.
We’ll save the full post mortem till next week, but the scoreline notwithstanding, we should be proud of Roma tonight. They had the game plan right, but they just didn’t catch the breaks when they needed them.