Setting the tone for a European match can be somewhat difficult under normal circumstances. It's one thing to provide insight into Real Madrid, PSG or Manchester United, but what about clubs like BSC Young Boys, Cluj, or tomorrow's opponents CSKA Sofia? For us humble internet scribes, that's one of the downsides of covering the Europa League; there just isn't a lot of viable information available on some of these smaller clubs.
But, as it turns out, CSKA Sofia isn't as foreign as they may seem. Indeed, Roma and Sofia have played four times over the past 35 years, squaring off in the Europa League as recently as December 2009 when Roma were 3-0 winners thanks to a brace from Alessio Cerci (yes, seriously) and an 89th minute strike from someone named Filippo Scardina.
Roma vs. CSKA Sofia: October 29th. 21:00 CET/4:00 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
All told, Roma are 4-0 against their Bulgarian counterparts, but what do we know about the current version of CSKA Sofia?
Sofia Fact File
Well, let's start with the obvious: what the hell does CSKA mean? Loosely translated, that acronym means Central Sports Club of the Army. CSKA Sofia, much like Roma, is the result of smaller clubs merging under one roof, officially joining forces in 1948 to found the club in the Bulgarian capital. The club officially became PFC CSKA Sofia in 2016 following a changer in owner and some legal/IP issues.
CSKA Sofia have been Bulgarian champions a record 31 times but have been runners up to Ludogrets each of the past two seasons, to whom they also lost the league cup on penalties last season.
CSKA's bad luck has carried over into the new season, as The Reds have dropped seven consecutive matches, leading to the dismissal of manager Stamen Belchev this past week, who hasn’t officially been replaced yet, though speculation is that his top assistant, Brazilian Daniel Morales, will take over.
CSKA Sofia currently sit fifth in the 14 team Bulgarian First League and sport a +2 goal differential. Given the yet to be completed managerial change, making any tactical predictions is a bit foolhardy, but CSKA seem to be a pretty balanced albeit punch-less squad: four players are tied for the club lead with only two goals through 10 matches.
Among the club's leading goal scorers is 19-year-old Valentin Antov, a center back and defensive midfielder who became club captain at 14-years-old! 14! That's crazy! What were you doing when you were 14?
CSKA also feature former Liverpool forward Jerome Sinclair and former Juventus youth product Stefano Beltrame, who made one appearance for the Old Lady in 2012 before stints with Bari, Modena and Pro Vercelli in Serie B.
While you never want to dismiss an opponent, Sofia are inarguably the inferior side here and when you couple in the pending managerial change, I'm not sure even CSKA Sofia diehards know what to expect from the Bulgarian side.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at the Roma headlines heading into this fixture.
Keep An Eye On
The First 15 Minutes
In each of their past three matches—Benevento, Young Boys and AC Milan—Roma not only fell behind first, they fell behind early, conceding goals in the 5th, 14th and 2nd minutes, respectively. We have to credit the club's attitude and spirit as they went on to win two of those three matches, but why not make things easier for yourself?
While there is no definitive pattern to Roma's early match struggles—the Benevento goal was deflected, Young Boys was a PK and Milan was, well, Zlatan—it is nevertheless something to watch in the opening moments tomorrow.
Give a small team early life and you'll live to regret it.
The New Faces
Earlier today, Paulo Fonseca confirmed what we expected: there will be plenty of turnover as Roma welcomes Sofia to the Olimpico. Fonseca confirmed that Chris Smalling will make his first start of the season, and his first start as an official, full-time Roma player. The Pau Patrol (Gianluca Mancini, Max Kumbulla and Roger Ibañez) have done a bang-up job thus far, but Smalling needs to get his feet wet while Fonseca needs to keep those young legs fresh for the long haul.
Fonseca also confirmed that Borja Mayoral, Roma's 23-year-old forward on loan from Real Madrid, will make his second start in a Giallorossi shirt. Mayoral struggled on the wet synthetic pitch in Bern against Young Boys, but Fonseca was adamant that his young striker needs game time.
Mayoral's performance against Young Boys was emblematic of the struggles of Roma's second unit as a whole last week. Wet pitch aside, Fonseca's understudies looked more complacent and confused then they did prepared and ready to pounce. Mayoral in particular seemed out of sorts, taking only 30 touches while turning the ball over 12 times.
When you consider how important Edin Dzeko is to Roma's plans, Mayoral was perhaps Roma's most important signing of the summer for no other reason than he'll afford the Bosnian rest from time to time. But if Fonseca can't count on Mayoral to be effective, or at the very least not detrimental to his club, then Roma are in a world of trouble.
Tomorrow is a BIG opportunity for Mayoral to show everyone what he can do.
Typically, European play is where clubs debut their third/alternate shirts, but Roma went with their normal white away look in Bern last week because Young Boys were decked out in their black kits. Roma then made an odd sartorial choice against Milan on Monday: white away shirt, red away shorts and the lollipop home socks, which feature a slightly different shade of red than the away shorts; it was an odd combo.
The club have been highlighting the new black and orange training line that corresponds with the third kids a lot lately, so don't be shocked if we finally get a look at those new shirts in the flesh tomorrow.