Roma fans, and I would presume Roma employees as well, have a strange relationship with the Champions League. We spend so much time wringing our hands over qualifying for next season's competition that we almost, you know, forgot that we're still in the damn thing this year. By virtue of finishing second to Real Madrid in Group G, Roma advanced to the knockout stages of this season's competition, where they'll have the pleasure of facing reigning Portuguese champions, FC Porto.
If you're new to the sport, you may not recognize that name, but even the most ardent fans of the beautiful game have a tendency to overlook Porto, who are always ready, willing, and able to make life miserable for larger European clubs. However, given their comparative domestic records, I'm not sure Roma fans can really claim they're following the "larger club.”
Roma vs. Porto: February 12th. 21:00 CET/3:00 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
Not only are Porto the defending Liga NOS champs (and winners of five in the past decade), they're currently setting the pace on the table, albeit in a close contest with second place Benfica, over whom they hold a four point lead. Despite that slim cushion, Porto have been pretty dominant domestically, holding a +30 goal differential through 21 matches, which has propelled them to an impressive 51 points.
Holding court in Liga NOS is one thing, but Europe is a different beast altogether—one that Porto has managed to subdue in short order. Cast into Group D with Schalke 04, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow, Porto made quick work of that trio. In six group stage matches, Porto outscored their opponents 15-6. While this wasn't exactly the toughest group in the Champions League, Porto essentially had this thing cinched up after two matches and wound up with a competition-best 16 points after the group stages were wrapped up.
Despite the stark differences in their recent domestic records, Roma and Porto do have some slight similarities this season, most notably an incredible spread of goal scorers. Between the two clubs, a full 31 men have scored league goals through 44 combined matches. I'm not sure what exactly this says about the clubs—is this lack of a number one option a strength or a weakness—but that is an incredibly odd statistic to have in common, isn't it?
Speaking of statistics, Porto is good at them
Through 21 matches, Porto has absolutely choked the life out of their opponents in the defensive end, conceding the fewest shots per match while also averaging 15 interceptions per match (best in the league) and 16.5 tackles per match (tied for fifth). That's no small feat when you consider they're second in the league in time of possession and thus don't have much time to pile up defensive stats. In essence, when Porto is on the pitch you a) don't get the ball much, b) if you do have it, chances are they're taking it away rather quickly, and c) if you somehow avoid a and b, you're still not going to manage many attempts on goal.
Porto's dominance isn't strictly limited to defense either, as they rank in the top three in a host of offensive categories in Liga NOS, including goals, shots per match, shots on target per match, possession, aerials won, and even dribbles per match, where they're averaging over 10 per game.
Strong in defense and efficient in attack, this Porto side is about as tough as they come, and should present quite the challenge for the suddenly sore Giallorossi.
With Robin Olsen missing last week's Chievo match due to a strained calf, Antonio Mirante stepped in and pitched a shutout against the lowly Flying Donkeys, and if the initial reports prove true, the 35-year-old may be pressed into service once more, as Olsen's calf issues seem to be lingering. Making matters worse, the suddenly surging Patrik Schick may be left in the stands as well if his apparent hamstring issue proves too tough to overcome by Tuesday.
While the squad lists have not yet been published (at least while I'm writing this), we can safely assume that Eusebio Di Francesco will have to do some tinkering ahead of Tuesday's match. However, if we use the Chievo match as a guidepost—both in what he did and didn't do—we can safely assume a return to the 4-2-3-1 is in the cards, for no other reason than necessity.
With injuries to Schick and Cengiz Ünder, not to mention Justin Kluivert's temporary shunning, EDF may have no choice other than an Edin Dzeko-led 4-2-3-1. However, it's not all bad news, as the restricted minutes and/or all out rest granted to Kostas Manolas and Daniele De Rossi should ensure they're primed and ready for Tuesday, and when you factor in Dzeko's European scoring record, Roma should have enough manpower to make a match of this.
We'll save the lineup speculation for tomorrow morning, but suffice it to say, Di Francesco can't get too cute on Tuesday. Porto is simply too good, too well rounded and too efficient to be trifled with, and given how critical away goals proved this time last year, battening down the hatches and gutting out a 1-0 victory may be their best bet.
However EDF rolls the dice, Roma has precious little room for error. He has to get this one absolutely right. If not, then the Champions League will continue to be a future concern rather than a current goal.