September 19, 2019: International Talk Like a Pirate Day, the weather in Rome was a balmy 81 degrees Fahrenheit and the city's favorite football team had been under the stewardship of Portuguese manager Paulo Fonseca for less than a month. With two draws and one victory under his belt at that point, Fonseca's first steps in Serie A were solid, albeit a bit wild—Roma had outscored their first three opponents eight to six.
But on this particular Thursday evening he was facing another series of firsts: not only was this his first European match on Roma's bench, but it marked the first time Roma had faced Istanbul Basaksehir, the club that gave us Cengiz Ünder. With his squad still adapting to his tactics, Fonseca faced the difficult task of preparing for an opponent his club had never before faced in their 93 year existence.
Given all that, predictions were a foolhardy business, and while their Turkish opponents put up a good fight for the first half hour or so, Roma caught a huge break in the 42nd minute thanks to Junior Calcara's own goal. Fonseca's crew would pile on three more goals in a 4-0 romp, establishing themselves as the team to beat in Group J.
If only it were that easy...
Group Stage Recap
In addition to Istanbul Basaksehir, Roma were cast into a lot with Wolfsberger AC and Borussia MGB. Three relatively unfamiliar foes, but Roma seemed like favorites to win the group, especially after waxing Istanbul Basaksehir 4-0 on matchday one.
I wish we could say that the rest of the group stage was a breeze, but following that opening victory, Roma dropped points in three straight matches, including a pair of ugly and controversial fixtures against Borussia MGB. You may recall the first match from October, when Chris Smalling was cited for a handball in the 95th minute (even though it actually hit him dead in the face), allowing MGB to snatch a point from the match. The 95th minute would prove pivotal in the return leg in early November as well, when Gladbach stuck a match winner at the death.
With another cleansheet victory over Istanbul in late November and a 2-2 draw against Wolfsberger on December 12th, Roma escaped the group stages by the skin of their teeth, clinging to second place by one single point.
It was harder than expected, but Roma advanced to the knockout stages where a strangely familiar foe awaited them.
Knockout Round Recap
After escaping Group J, Roma were drawn against Belgian side Gent, or as our resident Belgian dubbed them “The most Roma team in Belgium.” With a similar good but not great standing and a fan base just as desperate for success, the parallels between the two clubs were almost too numerous to count. And that lack of division found it's way to the pitch too, as the two clubs played an incredibly tight two-legged fixture back in February.
The First Leg
February 20, 2020: Roma 1, Gent 0
Carles Pérez, who had been with Roma for barely a month at this point, scored his first goal for the club in the 13th minute. Little did we know it at the time, but that strike would stand as the match winner, as the two sides were engaged in a rather tight affair. Roma held the lion's share of possession yet were out-shot, out-dribbled and out-tackled by the visitors.
It was closer than you'd like, but Roma won the match without conceding the always precious away goal, setting up an anxious return leg in Belgium a week later.
The Return Leg
February 27, 2020: Gent 1, Roma 1
With Gent needing at least a one-goal victory (one of many possible advancement permutations), they threw everything at Roma on this cold February evening. With 23 total shots and nearly 500 passes, Gent were pulling out all the stops to advance to the Round of 16.
And after Jonathan David gave Gent the lead in the 25th minute, the pressure immediately shifted to Roma. While his fortunes have varied since then, Justin Kluivert turned in a man of the match performance, using his speed and athleticism to put pressure on the Gent back-line all evening.
And then, only four minutes after David's strike, Kluivert teamed up with Henrikh Mkhitaryan on a beautiful overlapping run to level the match at one apiece with 60 minutes remaining. Roma would survive a second half onslaught in which Gent fired 13 shots at their goal but thanks to Kluivert's goal, which was worth its weight in gold, Roma survived and advanced to face Sevilla in the Round of 16; a match that was originally slated for Mid-March.
But then the world changed and life went on pause for three months. With most European leagues weathering the Corona storm and completing their leagues within the past several days, the Europa and Champions Leagues are set to resume this week.
An Awkward and Unbalanced Round of 16
While the Round of 16 was set by the time the pandemic really took hold in Europe, with Italy serving as an early hotspot for the virus, both Roma and Inter Milan saw their Round of 16 fixtures against Sevilla and Getafe, respectively, postponed indefinitely. The remaining six fixtures played their first legs before the sport completely shutdown in late March, putting UEFA in a bit of a pickle.
To sort out this logistical nightmare, the sport's European governing body decided that Roma vs. Sevilla and Inter vs Getafe would be contested as one-off fixtures played at neutral grounds (Duisburg for Roma vs Sevilla and Gelsenkirchen for Inter vs. Getafe) while the remaining six fixtures will resume where they left off—with the second leg.
So, while it looks a bit different and is five months later than we expected, Roma and Sevilla will finally square off on Thursday, August 6th at the DSV Arena in Duisburg, Germany for the right to advance to the Quarterfinals.
Should Roma advance, they would face the winner of the Olympiacos vs. Wolves fixture in the Quarterfinals on August 11th. If they win that match, they will face the winner of Quarterfinal Match Two in the Semifinals—which could be Manchester United, Istanabul Basaksehir, Copenhagen or LASK—on August 17th.
If Roma make it all the way to the end, they'll contest the final on August 20th in Cologne, Germany.
What's at Stake?
Well, two things of varying importance and lasting impact. In the most immediate sense, Roma breezing past Sevilla and going on a miracle run to win the Europa League would give the Giallorossi it's first trophy since they hoisted their last Coppa Italia title way back in the spring of 2008. For a young team learning the ropes under a new manager, and coming off a strange and unprecedented season, winning the Europa League could give Roma's latest project the boost it so desperately needs.
While that's all well and good, the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is qualification for the Champions League. Since the 2014-2015 season, the winners of Europe's junior varsity tournament gain direct qualification to the big show the following season. Winning a trophy and then joining the ranks of Europe's best clubs in the Champions League in one fell swoop would be a tremendous windfall for Roma at this point in their developmental curve.
None of us wanted the Europa League, but the enthusiasm with which this trophy pursuit has been greeted by the fans and club alike is quite encouraging to see. If you're in it, you might as well win it. And after finishing their domestic season on an eight match unbeaten streak, Roma have as good a shot as any club at hoisting the Europa League trophy.
And it all starts Thursday against Sevilla. Stay tuned for our match previews, lineups and more over the next two days.