With a 15-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, including a Supercoppa triumph over Juventus last month, the Giallorosse are one of the hottest teams in Italy, if not all of Europe. After surviving the qualification rounds in Scotland late in the summer and toppling Sparta Praha in the next qualification stage, Roma was eager to prove their continental credentials against some of the top clubs in Europe.
And with an unbeaten start to the group stage, including a 1-1 draw against two-time Champions League winners Wolfsburg in late November, the Giallorosse are proving they're not merely a flash in the pan. Admittedly, we're not huge on moral victories around here, but considering Wolfsburg's accomplishments in the Champions League and the fact that they play in a superior domestic league, they were arguably the best team Roma has ever faced.
Not only did Roma hold Wolfsburg in check, they looked like legitimate equals to the defending German champions, limiting them to one goal, a feat no opponent had achieved since last December. That result, naturally, has imbued the club with new-found confidence, one the club is wearing with trademark cautious optimism.
In his pre-match press conference, Roma manager Alessandro Spugna expertly toed the line between expectations and reality.
"We are a very ambitious club and we want to try and win as many titles as possible. We know that to do this we have to improve. We have already managed to get a trophy this season, the Super Cup, to which we attach great importance. We are doing very well in the Italian league... as far as the Champions League is concerned, this is a dream. We want to keep dreaming. It's very tough but it allows you to improve because you have to measure yourself against very big teams. There has been a lot of work since the foundation of this club. Every year, we've added bits. This is a club made up of ambitious people with a great desire to improve."
"It meant a lot to us. Not only for the final score, but also for the performance. We were brave on the pitch. Not only did we defend the result, but we tried to win the match."
After rushing out to a lead in only the third minute, one they nearly doubled some 10 minutes later when Bendetta Glionna was denied on the doorstep, Roma felt primed to upset Wolfsburg, but you can only keep a champion down for so long.
Just when it seemed like the Giallorosse were poised to head into the dressing room up 1-0, Wolfsburg's star striker Ewa Pajor put on a show, dribbling around defender Elena Linari before burying the ball in the back of the net.
Still, Roma did well to weather the storm and came excruciatingly close to taking all three points when a Manuela Giugliano curler was parried away at the last possible second by Wolfsburg keeper Merle Frohms.
While it's impossible to predict a match like this, one gets the feeling that—to reverse the old proverb—she who laughs first, laughs best. Playing on their home ground and presumably eager to prove last time out was a fluke, you can bet your bottom euro that Wolfsburg will come out firing early and often. If, however, Valentina Giacinti can pull another rabbit from her hat early in the match, then all bets are off—Roma could win this match.
Spugna, ever the pragmatist, spoke directly to these points yesterday:
"At home, Wolfsburg make aggression and physical strength their quality. They will try to attack us immediately, we have to play our game and put our qualities on the field. It's a new opportunity to see where we are."
"It would be a very nice and important thing, it would mean that we are not far from the top clubs. It would also be important for qualifying, something unexpected in July."
Unexpected indeed. After qualifying for the Champions League by finishing in second place last season, Roma ran a brutal gauntlet that took them from Glasgow to Prague; two far-flung corners of the world for a club that had set up shop exclusively in the Italian peninsula for the prior four years, though they did travel to San Marino last season, which I suppose is technically international.
And now they are on the virtual precipice of advancing to the knockout rounds. A win today (or another draw) would put Roma on the path to the quarterfinals. Even with Wolfsburg on points but trailing on goal differential, a positive result would keep Roma, at minimum, two points ahead of St Pölten (presuming they defeat Slavia Praha) with two matches to play—far from guaranteed but eminently doable.
Thanks to their scorching run of form, their entertaining style of play, and a cast of loveable characters, the Giallorosse are quickly becoming international media darlings. No matter the result today, Roma is a team on the rise, and it won’t be long before they're the predator rather than the prey.
Kickoff is at 12:45 pm!