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A Quick Start and Sharper Finishing Could Propel Roma to Conference League Quarterfinals

The Derby della Capitale looms on the weekend, but the Giallorossi have business to finish against Vitesse first. A hot start and some better shooting could see Roma advance in the UECL.

UEFA Europa Conference League round of 16”Vitesse Arnhem v AS Rome” Photo by ANP via Getty Images

Last week, Roma traveled to the Gelredome in the first leg to square off against Vitesse. The Giallorossi understandably entered as favorites against a side that isn’t among the Erdivisie’s elite. However, Mourinho’s side found the sledding tough and was thoroughly outplayed by the black and yellow-clad Dutch side.

The First Leg

March 10: Vitesse 0, Roma 1

The Giallorossi managed just 38% possession and put three of six shots on target. In the process, Roma completed a measly 64% of its passes. In spite of that though, the Giallorossi pulled out a hard-fought 1-0 victory thanks to a first-half stoppage-time goal from Sergio Oliveira—who was later red-carded in the 78th minute.

As evidenced by the “highlights”, it wasn’t the prettiest win for Mourinho’s side, but sometimes winning ugly is necessary and nobody will be complaining about a 1-0 road win to open the tie.

What to Watch For

RomWill Roma Be Sharp and Score First?

AS Roma Press Conference Photo by Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

As mentioned in the summary of the first leg, Roma really lacked the necessary sharpness and intensity in Holland and was fortunate to pull out the 1-0 victory. Had Vitesse been more clinical in front of goal, we may have had another Bodø/Glimt type of disaster on our hands. That’s something this squad can’t afford for a variety of reasons.

The 64% passing percentage and just three shots on target in the first leg were the complete antitheses of being sharp. This is the type of match that with a large crowd at the Olimpico, Roma could put away early if it comes in with the required cutting edge. Nonetheless, just like we saw in Udine, Roma has conceded first (and early) in matches too often this season.

Conceding first would level the tie and put the pressure on the Lupi and likely allow Vitesse to play more fearlessly. Conversely, an early goal would do wonders for the Giallorossi’s confidence and put them in the driver’s seat to victory in the tie. If Roma gets out to the early lead, Vitesse would need to get at least two goals in front of what should be a raucous Olimpico crowd. A tall task for an underdog side.

Will Mkhitaryan Be Key?

After Roma’s victory over Atalanta two weekends ago, we lauded the Armenian for his superb performance in the middle of the park. Mkhi played a makeshift DM role as part of Roma’s double pivot and made huge contributions on both sides of the ball.

Vitesse v AS Roma: Round of 16 Leg One - UEFA Europa Conference League Photo by NESImages/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

He was superb at breaking up opposing attacks, but also provided plenty of incisive passes to break Atalanta’s defensive lines. That passing was something Roma sorely missed on Sunday in Udine as the Giallorossi struggled to create quality chances despite holding two-thirds of possession.

Once thought to be out the door after this year, talks are underway for Mkhi to remain in the capital past this season. Despite being a natural attacking player, his ability to fill in across multiple central midfield roles, including defensive midfielder like he did against La Dea, is a big reason the club is considering extending his stay.

If we get the Atalanta version of Mkhi then Roma should be favored to come out on top and perhaps run out to a comfortable victory. Mourinho spoke of his importance during his presser.

“All our players are different. All of you know our squad. You are all very fierce critics. You can even be critical about a boy who joined the club as an eight-year-old and was starting his first game in Serie A. You are the ones who like to criticise.

“Yes, Mkhitaryan is important for us. I don’t want to say that we didn’t win the game in Udine because he wasn’t there - but nevertheless he is an important player for us.”

Probable Formations: Expect Little Turnover

Just a few years ago, former Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco was faced with a similar conundrum as current Roma boss José Mourinho. With the Derby della Capitale looming on the weekend, Roma faced a do-or-die match in European competition just a few days prior. Considering his midweek match was a Champions League quarterfinal against the almighty Barcelona following a 3-1 drubbing at the Camp Nou, EDF's matches carried a bit more weight; not to mention the club were in a top-four battle in the league. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s Roma is in the Europa Conference League Round of 16 and fighting for a Europa League place in the league table.

However, considering the state of the club over the last few seasons, a UECL title and fifth-place finish would be viewed by most as a success in The Special One’s first season as Roma manager. The biggest decision both managers faced heading into their respective European fixtures is line-up turnover: do they field their best lineups in both matches and risk fatigue in the weekend derby, or save all their stars and risk the European tie with less than their best XI?

Well all remember what decision EDF mad and how history was written. What is less memorable, however, was the derby draw that followed— a small price to pay for Roma’s first-ever UCL semi-final appearance. And by all indications, it seems Mourinho will go a similar route.

“The only game we are interested in right now is the Vitesse game tomorrow. If we win, if we draw, then we are into the quarter-finals. If we lose then we are out. Lazio don’t come into it, it’s not Sunday or Sunday’s game. The only game I’m interested in is this one now.”

It’s become more clear that Roma’s lack of depth has led to some less than stellar results in both the league and Conference League during multiple-match weeks. Nevertheless, Mourinho was brought here to win trophies and he’s not likely to risk progression by playing less than his best eleven on Thursday after a subpar performance last week in Holland.

Of note are the suspensions of Gianluca Mancini and Oliveira for this one. Other than that Mourinho indicated no other changes from the Udinese match, but Stephan El Shaarawy could replace Zalewski at LWB.

ROMA (3-4-1-2): Patricio; Ibanez, Smalling, Kumbulla; El Shaarawy, Cristante, Mkhitaryan, Karsdorp; Pellegrini; Zaniolo, Abraham

Match Details