This is it, ladies and gents. In what is definitively Roma’s most important match of the season to date, the Giallorossi will be hosting Leicester City at the Stadio Olimpico for the second leg of the Europa Conference League semi-final. I won’t lie, I’m more than a little nervous; not to jinx anything, but this is the first time since I started seriously following Roma that anything close to a trophy felt on the line, and with Leicester and Roma clearly being the last two big names left standing in the Europa Conference League, this semi-final almost feels like the final match itself.
Roma got the minimum acceptable result against Leicester City in the first half of this tie, scoring an away goal and keeping their home fixture as the crucial one to see who can book a ticket to the final in Albania. That draw also extended Roma’s months-long unbeaten streak, and although the cynic in me knows that any streak has to break eventually, I have hope that that streak won’t die tomorrow.
April 28th: Leicester City 1, Roma 1
Roma’s first-ever match against Leicester City was an entertaining if frustrating match to watch; a goal from Lorenzo Pellegrini and an own goal from Gianluca Mancini are what got us to a 1-1 draw, though you can’t really blame Mancini for a deflection going off his shin. Nicola Zalewski once again proved himself to be a key part of Roma’s long-term future, setting up Pellegrini near-perfectly for his early goal, making me salivate at the idea of him returning to his natural forward position once Leonardo Spinazzola returns to full health.
What To Watch For
Do Mourinho’s Words Prove Accurate?
In the previous match preview for Roma-Leicester, I noted that both the Giallorossi and Leicester City have strong incentives to want to win the inaugural Europa Conference League. For Roma, it’s their most assured way of reaching the Europa League next season; for Leicester, it’s their only way. In Roma’s pre-match presser, a journalist pressed Mourinho on a similar subject, asking if Leicester’s rotations for Premier League matches will have an impact on tomorrow’s game. Here was his response:
“I hope it won’t have any. But the analysis you have made is obvious. I have found myself in the same situation before and, whenever you don’t have the chance to reach your targets in the league any more, then the focus becomes on European competition. Even if this is not ‘their’ competition, because they started in the Europa League, it’s the route they have into European competition again next season. So, that’s why it’s logical that they will rotate like they have done – resting players to be ready for this game.
“We have not been able to do that: we are still able to qualify for Europe through the league and we can’t just disregard that opportunity, we need to do everything we can to achieve it. But I hope tomorrow that the emotion of the occasion will really fire my players up – and that it will help them to go out and win the game.”
I agree that if Roma is going to win tomorrow, it will be on the back of emotion, both within the squad and from the supporters at the Olimpico. I would also point out that one disadvantage to the heavy rotation Leicester has done in the Premier League is that it makes it much harder for the starting eleven to be fully gelled from minute one. This Roma squad has often pounced on defensive lapses early on in matches to score goals mere seconds in; could Leicester’s decision to rotate give Roma yet another early goal, or will the rested legs be a difference-maker for the Foxes?
How Much Will The Absence of Mkhitaryan Hurt?
When José Mourinho first signed on as Roma’s manager, many thought it would be the death knell of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s time in giallo e rosso. The Armenian didn’t get along too well with Mourinho while they were both at Manchester United, and so the logic went that even if Mkhitaryan stuck around for a little while under Mourinho, he’d be gone sooner rather than later. That logic has imploded when faced with reality, though, as not only has Mkhitaryan become a critical player in José Mourinho’s starting eleven, he is reportedly in line for yet another contract renewal as soon as the season wraps.
Unfortunately, it appears that Mkhitaryan’s ironman status for the Giallorossi this season will be slightly tainted tomorrow, as he looks to be missing the match due to a hamstring injury. Considering Mkhitaryan’s ability, form, and versatility (I’m still impressed he has played well in the double-pivot midfield), that’s a huge loss, and raises questions over who will take his place in what is arguably Roma’s most crucial match of the season. Here’s what José Mourinho had to say about Mkhitaryan’s absence today:
“We don’t have another player like Mkhitaryan and I think that’s fairly obvious. So we can’t play the same way with different players. We will have to do things a bit differently but the target does not change: we want to reach the final, we want to give absolutely everything we have to give.
“I will never get tired of repeating that tomorrow will be our 14th game in the Conference League. We started the competition in Turkey and the most recent game was in England – we haven’t stopped, we’ve played Thursday and then Sunday for months with all the difficulties and problems which that brings.
“But we are here now and we are here as a team. Mkhitaryan won’t be there but others will be. We will go into the team as a group and fight to go through.”
Now, Mourinho didn’t give us a real answer when it comes to who will be replacing Mkhitaryan in the starting lineup, but the confidence he has in the select players he has chosen to roll with this season is evident. I’d bet on seeing a Cristante-Oliveira double pivot to start, with Jordan Veretout potentially coming on to provide an offensive spark off the bench. Most importantly, Romanisti should remember that cup competitions are won with the players you have available, not the players you wish you had available. If Roma truly deserves a spot in the ECL Final, they’ll prove it by winning without Mkhitaryan, no matter how important the Armenian has been for Roma this season.