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Roma's Slim Champions League Hopes Depend on Defeating Atalanta

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Gonzalo Villar could loom large as Roma looks to upend Atalanta for the first time since 2017. Their slim Champions League hopes may rest on his slim shoulders.

Ajax v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Quarter Final: Leg One Photo by DeFodi Images via Getty Images

With the European Super League essentially dead on arrival, the awkward scenario that would have seen Roma backdoor their way into next season's Champions League is about as lame as the Super League logo itself; two flimsy technicolor dreams that quickly faded into a monochromatic nightmare.

The past several days have been unlike anything modern football has seen since the advent of the Premiership nearly 30 years ago but it has underscored one crucial element of Roma's business model: Champions League revenue remains vital to the Friedkin Group's ambitions plans for the capital club.


Roma vs. Atalanta: April 22nd. 18:30 CET/12:30 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.


With normality somewhat restored across the continent, we turn our attention back to the story of 2021: Roma's dogged and floundering pursuit of a place in Serie A's top four, which would guarantee them a place in next season's Champions League.

This week's opponents, Gian Piero Gasperini's impressive Atalanta side, themselves a Champions League competitor over the past few seasons, have ripped off five consecutive league wins, including a 1-0 blanking of Juventus last weekend, and have defeated Paulo Fonseca at every turn turning his two years in Rome.

Roma has seven matches remaining to close an eight-point gap behind fourth-place Juventus but with fixtures remaining against Atalanta, Inter (who may have the title wrapped up by the time they play in round 36), and Lazio, the Giallorossi will have multiple chances to score points off their direct rivals.

Hope isn't lost, but it’s clinging to life support. However, before we dive into Thursday's match against Atalanta, let's take a quick look back at the last fixture.

Last Match

December 20, 2020: Atalanta 4, Roma 1

Oh god, you remember this match, don't you? Roma, who hadn't defeated Atalanta since August 2017 (and still haven't), rushed out to a lead in the third minute thanks to a great low cross and tap-in between Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Edin Dzeko and clung to that slim lead for the first hour of the match but they would quickly lose their grip. Once Gasperini brought Josip Ilicic into the match, the momentum completely swung as the 33-year-old attacking midfielder set up two goals in the span of 11 minutes to give Atalanta the lead.

The Goddesses would add two more goals, including one from Ilicic, giving Roma a nice early holiday gift: a resounding 4-1 beatdown.

Paulo Fonseca has insisted that Roma's league hopes remain alive and well and scoring his first-ever win over Atalanta would provide a tremendous boost to that argument, so let's take a look at a couple of the key storylines in this Round 32 fixture.

Keep An Eye On

Who's Going to Score the Goals?

Torino FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

On March 11th, Roma hosted Shakhtar Donetsk in the Europa League and blew their Ukrainian opponents off the pitch in a dominant 3-0 victory. Fueled by goals from Lorenzo Pellegrini, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Gianluca Mancini, Roma left little doubt as to which club was the stronger side that night.

We didn't know it at the time, but that was the last sure-fire, no doubt victory Fonseca would conjure up in 2021. Since that mid-March evening, Roma has won three, lost three, and drawn two matches. However, more troubling than that uneven record has been the complete disappearance of Fonseca's once-vaunted attack.

Over that eight-match span, Roma has been blanked by Parma and Napoli and fell to Torino in a shocking 3-1 defeat last weekend but even their victories have been underwhelming. Roma hasn't managed more than a one-goal margin of victory since that 3-0 win over Shakhtar in March.

A win is a win, of course, but when you're living on a razor's edge like Roma, you have zero room for error. If you can't count on your attack to overwhelm an opponent that heaps further pressure on your defense and keeper, which, for Roma, can be an uncomfortable proposition at times.

If Roma wants to notch their first win over Atalanta in three-and-a-half years, they have to—to borrow a phrase from Irish sports commentator Tommy Smyth—budge the old onion net more than once tomorrow.

Duvan Zapata

Atalanta BC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

I suppose it's somewhat fitting that amidst all the Super League controversy this week, we lost sight of an interesting transfer rumor: Duvan Zapata to Roma. Zapata, a 30-year-old Colombian striker, has been a thorn in the Giallorossi's side throughout his time in Italy. In 11 career matches against Roma, Zapata has scored four goals, including three strikes in the past four matches.

When you look at Zapata's 2020-2021 shot chart, one thing becomes clear: you have to keep this dude on the edges of the area. If he's allowed free reign in the middle of the area, damage ensues.

Keeping Zapata hemmed in will fall squarely on the slim shoulders of Gonzalo Villar, who will likely get the start in defensive midfield with Amadou Diawara suspended for this match. Defending is a team effort of course, but Villar has to do whatever he can to take the pressure off the back three.

We'll leave it there. Roma is still mathematically alive in Serie A's top-four race, but with the Europa League route no sure thing, Paulo Fonseca and Roma must ace this test—his future in Roma depends on it.