UEFA's newest international competition, the awkwardly titled UEFA Europa Conference League (though it's better than the original name: Europa League 2, which sounds like a sequel to a movie where a team of superhero fights crime on the moons of Jupiter), has been in the works since 2015. Ostensibly designed to bring the pleasures and pain of European competition to lower-ranked UEFA member leagues, the ECL still feels like it will favor the down on their luck clubs from Europe's bigger leagues; clubs like Tottenham, Feyenoord, and yes, Roma.
As long as UEFA allows teams from Europe's major leagues into this competition, that will likely always be the case but the concept behind this competition remains sound; putting the spotlight on lesser-known clubs, players and managers only serve to strengthen the sport. The only drawback, from our vantage point, is the complete lack of familiarity with Roma's group stage opponents.
While we can't pretend to be experts on any of these clubs, let's run through a quick get-to-know-you exercise with Roma's three opponents in Group C.
First up, Roma's opponent on Thursday—and a club we've seen quite recently—CSKA Sofia.
Location: Sofia, Bulgaria | Home Ground: Bulgarian Army Stadium
Matches: September 16th (Roma), December 9th (Sofia)
Well, since Roma and CSKA Sofia met in last season's Europa League, you can forget everything we just said about facing unfamiliar opponents...for now. After squaring off in last season's Europa League, which Sofia won by a 3-1 aggregate scoreline, the Reds went on to finish third in the Bulgarian First League, amassing 50 points and a +19 goal differential.
With three wins and one draw in their first four domestic league matches, Sofia and new manager Stoycho Mladenov—though this is his fourth stint as the club's manager— have picked up where they left off last season and seem primed to fight for a place in the Bulgarian First League's top four places. Mladenov, much like José Mourinho, favors the 4-2-3-1 formation, and through the early stages of the domestic season, his side is averaging two goals per 90 minutes, the second-best mark in the league thus far.
Despite their domestic successes, Sofia has struggled in the Conference League qualification rounds, running out to a 2-1-3 (W-D-L) record, while scoring 1.3 goals per game against 0.8 goals allowed per game.
Mourinho’s defense will want to pay special attention to Ecuadorian forward Jordy Caicedo, who has scored three goals in as many matches and seems poised to eclipse the six he scored last term. With last season's leading scorer Ali Sowe plying his trade with Rostov in the Russian Premier League, Caicedo could inherit Sowe's minutes and touches this season.
CSKA Sofia is at once the most familiar and toughest opponent Roma is likely to face in the Conference League group stages, so a convincing victory on Thursday will serve the Giallorossi well as they look to seize early control of Group C.
FC Zorya Luhansk
Location: Luhansk, Ukraine | Home Ground: Slavutych Arena
Matches: September 30th (Luhansk), November 25th (Roma)
Now we're getting into the nitty-gritty; a team Roma has never faced. Led by manager Viktor Skrypnyk, the Men (yes, that's their unofficial nickname) finished third in the Ukrainian Premier League last season, trailing Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk; the only two Ukrainian clubs Roma has faced. The Ukrainian league is a bit further along than most other European leagues at this point in the season, but The Men have stumbled out the gate, amassing only 11 points through seven matches.
Skrypnyk relies on the tried and true 4-4-2 formation, which maintained an impressive +22 goal differential last season. With a pretty balanced attack—they had six players score five or more goals last season—it's a bit hard to pick out one danger man from...um...The Men, but leading scorer Oleksandr Hladkyy (nine goals last season) is back for a second season with Zorya and has scored one goal and provided one assist in six matches. With Hladkyy slow to start the new season, fellow Ukrainian forward Vladyslav Kocherin (three goals) has picked up the slack.
We have a couple of weeks before we have to worry about Zorya, but on paper, they don't seem like they'll give Roma fits, but one never knows how trips to eastern Europe will unfold.
Location: Bodø, Norway | Home Ground: Aspmyra Stadium
Matches: October 21st (Bodø), November 4th (Roma)
First things first: No, Erling Haaland doesn't play for Bodø, but his Norwegian national teammate Erik Botheim, who has nine goals this season, leads the charge for Bodø, who currently sits second in the Eliteserien. The other important thing to note is that, since the Norwegian league runs from March to late November/early December, Bodø is in mid-season form already.
Manager Kjetil Knutsen, who has led the club since 2018, has steered Bodø to 11th, 2nd, and 1st place finishes during his three seasons in charge. Knutsen's 4-3-3 scored an astounding 103 goals in 30 matches last season while conceding a paltry 32; both of which led the league. Unfortunately for Bodø and Knutsen, the club has seen all three of their top scorers leave the club since then, with forward Kasper Junker (27 G, 8 A) trading the Norwegian league for a place with the Urawa Reds in the Japanese league, forward Philip Zinckernagel (19 G, 18 A) moving to Watford and then Nottingham Forest and Jens Petter Hauge shifting off to Milan before signing with Eintracht Frankfurt this summer.
Bodø may not have the historical cache of Roma, and the Norwegian league can't hold a candle to Serie A, but we should be wary of a club that can score like they can—anything can happen in these midweek group stage matches, after all.
The UEFA Europa Conference League isn't where any of us imagined Roma this season, but, at least on paper, the Giallorossi should be considered early favorites (along with Tottenham on name recognition alone) to take home the first-ever ECL trophy. This new competition should also afford Mourinho the opportunity to rotate his squad and give significant minutes to players like Gonzalo Villar, Marash Kumbulla and Riccardo Calafiori, among others.
Look for our CSKA Sofia match preview later this week, as well as all our typical matchday coverage.
Until then, if you have any insider information on any of these clubs, please share!