Roma's epic comeback against Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the 2017-2018 Champions League is already the stuff of legend. Down three goals on aggregate against Lionel Messi and the rest of a star-studded Barcelona squad, you had to either be incredibly foolish or incredibly brave to predict a Roma comeback. After all, erasing a three-goal deficit is difficult under normal circumstances, let alone in the knockout stages of the biggest sporting tournament on the planet against the greatest player to ever set foot on a pitch.
But, rather than licking their wounds and saving their energy for the looming derby against Lazio, Eusebio Di Francesco and Roma dug deep, scratching and clawing their way out of that hole before Kostas Manolas’ miraculous header won the match at the death.
Roma vs. Ajax: April 15th. 21:00 CET/15:00 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
Roma's fairytale ended that night, as they weren't able to repeat the feat against Liverpool in the semifinals, but that night—which was quickly dubbed the Romantada, from the Spanish remontada meaning “comeback”—was instantly etched into club lore.
The Giallorossi will find themselves on the other end of the equation tomorrow when they host Ajax in the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Granted, the stakes and the score line aren't quite as intense this time around, but coughing up an aggregate lead—one in which they maintain an away-goal advantage to boot—won't sit well with the fanbase, so Roma has to guard against a Romantada of their own. Or, since this is Ajax we're talking about, a terugkomen..tada??
Before we map out how Roma can avoid disaster, let's take a quick look back at last week's match in Amsterdam.
The First Leg
April 8th: Ajax 1, Roma 2
An odd match in many ways, Roma were under Ajax's foot for most of the match (statistically speaking, at least) but thanks to some stellar goalkeeping from Pau Lopez, a bit of luck off a Lorenzo Pellegrini free-kick—which Ajax keeper Kjell Scherpen actually saved but then dropped—and an emphatic volley from Roger Ibañez late in the match, Roma not only won the game but bagged two precious away goals in the process.
So, what must Roma do in order to avoid the ignominy of defeat tomorrow against Ajax?
Keep An Eye On
I know, I know. Our preview last week was entirely spun around Ajax's Serbian playmaker, but we're not just being lazy. With 14 goals and 13 assists in league play, Tadic has been Ajax's runaway MVP this season, so you'd ignore him at your own peril.
Despite flubbing on a penalty attempt against Pau Lopez, Tadic was a nuisance all evening last week in Amsterdam. In 90 minutes, Tadic was arguably the best player on the pitch, ripping off four shots, four key passes and two dribbles, while also drawing four fouls and chipping in one assist. He also whipped in 11 crosses and completed 2-3 long ball passes. Any way you slice it, Tadic was instrumental for Ajax and had he converted that penalty, this is an entirely different preview.
Tadic has only scored one goal since the end of March, but in that span he's still dished out six assists for club and country, proving that he can impact a match in any number of ways. If Roma want to avert disaster, they have to find a way to bottle him up.
In the first leg, when both clubs had a clean slate, Ajax took the more ball-dominant approach. Last week at the Johan Cruijff Arena, Ajax held 65% possession, while out-passing Roma in gross terms (649 vs. 342) and precision (85% to 75%), they also out-shot Roma 15 to 7.
And if that weren't bad enough, check out their comparative attempts on goal:
Roma (blue) were forced to settle for a wide range of far-flung attempts, while Ajax (orange) unleashed a barrage of attempts at Lopez's goal from high percentage areas: right within the breadth of the goal mouth.
Paulo Fonseca has found some recent micro-successes playing with a new, Laissez-Faire approach to possession football, but if he cedes the initiative to Ajax like this, it could spell disaster. Roma has to strike a middle ground between defending in numbers and keeping Ajax honest at the other end.
Set-Pieces & Assorted Chicanery
Even if Paulo Fonseca has it in his mind to play with more fervor in possession, Ajax has nothing to lose. Facing a 2-1 deficit (with two away goals at that), Ajax will throw everything but the kitchen sink at Roma tomorrow, so they'll likely win the possession and shot battle no matter Roma's tactical approach.
But, even if they decide to defend at all costs, Roma has to present some sort of threat at the other end of the pitch; it can't be all Ajax all the time. If the first match was any indication, Ajax will likely outshoot Roma by a 2:1 margin, so Roma's best hope of keeping the Lancers honest may come through set-pieces or via some crazy twist of fate: a deflection, a glancing shot off the post, etc.
Roma did precisely this last time out, scoring both goals via set-pieces, with Lorenzo Pellegrini scoring off a free-kick just shy of the hour mark before setting up Roger Ibañez's match winner off an 87th minute corner.
There's no way to predict or plan such an approach, but given the state of the fixture, Ajax are sure to be the more aggressive side, meaning Roma's only viable counter-threat might be set-pieces; something they've been okay at this year—their eight set-piece goals ranks 6th in Serie A.
These are just a few ways Roma can avoid disaster, but how exactly can they advance to the semifinals?
Roma Will Advance If...
- They win by any margin
- A draw of any sort
- Ajax wins this match 1-0
Ajax Will Advance If...
- They win by a specific one-goal margin, e.g. 3-2, 4-3
- They win by two goals or more
The Match Goes to Extra Time If...
- Ajax is leading 2-1 after 90 minutes
This poll is closed
Roma wins and advances full stop
Ajax wins and advances full stop
Roma wins in Extra Time
Ajax wins in Extra Time
Roma advances via PKs
Ajax advances via PKs
They threaten to eat poison berries like Katniss and Peeta, forcing UEFA to declare multiple winners.