Manchester United (founded in 1878) and Associazione Sportiva Roma (founded in 1927) have nearly 250 years of combined experience in the football business but never actually shared a pitch until April 4, 2007. On that spring evening in the Eternal City, Rodrigo Taddei and Mirko Vucinic delivered a victory for the Giallorossi in the first leg of the Champions League Quarterfinals. While conceding an away goal to Wayne Rooney took a bit of shine off that win, it wouldn't matter, you know what happened next; you can still feel it in your bones—the infamous 7-1 beatdown at Old Trafford.
With goals from Michael Carrick, some guy named Alan Smith, Wayne Rooney, and Cristiano Ronaldo, United ran out to a 4-0 lead before the half-time whistle. Ronaldo, Carrick, and Patrice Evra would compound Roma’s misery before the evening was through, with a 69th-minute goal from Daniele De Rossi standing as the only positive for Roma on the evening.
Manchester United vs. Roma: April 29th. 21:00 CET/15:00 EDT. Old Trafford, Manchester
Roma first trip to Old Trafford wasn't a pleasant one but the two clubs wasted little time reheating this “rivalry”, meeting in the Champions League group stage the very next season, with United defending their ground in a 1-0 win in the fall before drawing Roma 1-1 at the Olimpico in December of 2017. And they'd meet again in the knockout round, with United breezing past Roma with a 3-0 aggregate scoreline.
So, while Roma's first taste of United went well enough, they've caught the short end of the stick in every meeting since then. Will tomorrow be any different? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this current United side? Are they back among Europe's elite?
To answer those questions, we reached out to our colleague Brent Maximin of The Busby Babe, our resident Manchester United experts.
Before we get into the specifics of this match, United seems set for a second-place finish, something they’ve only managed one other time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, so can we say that United is back where they belong? Do you see Manchester returning to the days of being a perennial contender in England and Europe? What’s it been like as a fan to go through this down period?
Brent Maximin: I’d say we’re on the way back to where we belong, but not there yet. United finished second once before (post-SAF) under Mourinho, but this is the first time since 2013 where it feels like we’re building towards something coherent. If the club backs the manager and seriously strengthens the team this summer, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be fully in the title race next season.
For fans of my generation, this has been the first time in our lives that United haven’t been the dominant force in England. For over two decades, winning was an expectation. The farce of the Moyes year, the dull pointlessness of the van Gaal years, and the misery of the Mourinho era - these were all a rude awakening. But those failures also help put the years under Solskjaer into perspective. Ole’s isn’t perfect, and may not even be *the* long term answer, but he’s definitely the best manager we’ve had since 2013.
The Super League fiasco brought to light the growing financial inequities in European football, but tell us a bit about the current power dynamics in the Premiership. Can United keep pace year-to-year with the likes of City, Chelsea, and Liverpool? Has the extreme wealth of Chelsea and City ruined the competitive balance in the league?
BM: United are in a better financial position than Liverpool, by a decent distance. They’re also more profitable than both City and Chelsea. In theory, United can spend just as much as those two—and they almost have, but badly. The problem is that United’s owners have largely used the club to enrich themselves, and while the Glazers haven’t exactly been cheap, they haven’t turned their maximization of United’s profitability (we have an official sponsor for everything you can think of) into maximizing their investment in the team.
Going along with that, have you sensed an internal shift at the club that would see the big purchases of the past give way to a focus on growing and developing talent? If so, who are some of United’s marquee young players?
BM: United have always developed young talent. We’ve had an academy graduate in every matchday squad going back 80 years, and half the current first-choice team - Henderson, McTominay, Pogba (yes, he counts), Rashford, Greenwood - have come through the youth ranks. United have spent big relative to their domestic rivals in the Premier League era, but the real big money purchases - Angel di Maria, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Maguire - are a relatively recent phenomenon. United will probably consistently make marquee signings every couple of years going forward, but they’ve also recently reinvested in the academy after “losing” a generation of youth graduates because of underinvestment and complacency. As a result, there are some exciting young talents that may break through to the first team in the next couple of years - attacking midfielder Hannibal Mejbri, right-back Ethan Laird, central midfielder James Garner and wide attacker Shola Shoretire may all be in the first-team picture next season.
For the semi-final though, don’t expect to see any surprise names. Mason Greenwood is only 19 still, but he’s likely to start both legs. Amad Diallo is still being eased into the first-team picture, but he’ll be on the bench at least as well.
Okay, onto the Europa League. With United relatively comfortable in England’s top four and likely to qualify for the Champions League anyway, what’s the mood in the room at the moment? Do you sense that United fans are eager to advance and win the Europa League or is it just a distraction from the Premiership schedule?
BM: Most fans are desperate to end the season with a trophy. Second place in the league is fine, and it’s an improvement, but adding a trophy to that would be really meaningful and would feel like a good reward after a brutally long season.
United have already eclipsed their points totals from the past two seasons, so what’s been the biggest reason for their rise, and has their approach varied at all between the league and Europe? Are there any lessons you think Solskjær can apply from facing Milan in the earlier rounds that might give them an edge over Roma?
BM: There’s probably no big secret to the overall improvement from last year to this - individual players have gotten better, we had good luck with injuries until Pogba went down, and Bruno has been here for a full season instead of just half of one. When given time to prepare for a specific opponent, Solskjaer and his staff usually do well tactically, so I’m sure he’ll have something up his sleeve for Thursday.
Roma isn’t in great form at the moment, but are there any glaring weaknesses or shortcomings in Solskjær’s approach that we might be able to exploit over these two legs?
BM: Midfield is a worry. Solskjaer has tended to go with a double pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay in these matches - two players who are severely limited on the ball. We’ve seen multiple times this season that when teams shut down the actual creators in our team (Bruno Fernandes, Pogba, Luke Shaw), that midfield seriously struggles to pick up the creative slack.
Lastly, give us a prediction for this first match.
BM: 1-2 United
Huge thanks to Brent for this time and insight. For all your Manchester United curiosities and needs, head over to The Busby Babe. They do great work!