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Roma Host HJK Helsinki Looking to Turn Around Europa League Campaign

Will home turf help the Giallorossi turn the page after an embarrassing loss to Ludogorets last week?

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

If Romanisti have learned anything from the past season and a half, it’s that they should never underestimate any small side they face in European competition. Between the Bodø/Glimt debacle (both on and off the pitch) and the Giallorossi’s recent loss to Ludogorets away, all of Roma’s recent success in Europe has come despite some dreadful showings against sides I Lupi should be able to beat 5-0. That’s why I’m hesitant to say tomorrow’s match against HJK Helsinki will be an easy win. By all accounts, it should be an easy win; Helsinki’s squad is valued at €9.2 million while Roma is valued at a cool €402 million, and I had never heard of HJK Helsinki before learning they would be in Roma’s Europa League group. Still, should and will are two very different concepts in the universe of A.S. Roma.

The good news for Roma’s hopes against Helsinki are concentrated in two areas. First, the Giallorossi will be playing on a quality pitch, as opposed to the fungus-infected pitch they played on in Razgrad last week. Second, José Mourinho will have access to several players that weren’t available to him against Ludogorets; Tammy Abraham is back, as is Nicolò Zaniolo, and even if neither of them start against Helsinki, they provide Mourinho with a far deeper bench than he had against Ludogorets. The Giallorossi’s win against Empoli was encouraging because it made sure that Roma’s two-loss streak ended, even if it didn’t end in the prettiest fashion. An emphatic win against Helsinki tomorrow could re-energize the squad as it approaches a critical match against Atalanta this weekend; anything other than a win will doom the Giallorossi to even more drama and a far more restricted path to the Europa League knockout stages.

What To Watch For

Zaniolo’s Back!

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

Although Nicolo Zaniolo was included in the squad for this weekend’s match against Empoli, the only time he saw the pitch was when he ran to congratulate Paulo Dybala after his sensational goal. Given that, it’s no surprise that when it became clear that Zaniolo was likely to finally return to the pitch against Helsinki, he was given the chance to talk to the media in the pre-match presser. Here’s what he had to say about his time out due to his dislocated shoulder:

“It is never nice to be out of action, I tend to experience it as an injustice. With the shoulder you can train, you can do everything but fall.”

“The coach asked me for my availability on Monday, and I felt like going to Empoli. I was ready to enter the match.”

It’s certainly encouraging that Zaniolo is raring to go after his time on the sidelines, because the Giallorossi haven’t looked like the same club without The Kid on the pitch. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that many of the struggles Roma has endured over the past few weeks can be traced back to Zaniolo’s absence from the squad. I love Lorenzo Pellegrini, but placing him with Paulo Dybala and Tammy Abraham in a more attacking role hasn’t clicked so far this season. By contrast, the Giallorossi were firing on all cylinders when Zaniolo, Pellegrini, Abraham, and Dybala were all on the pitch. When combined with the failings of the Cristante-Matić double pivot, it’s clear that with Gini Wijnaldum out, the best spot for Roma’s captain is the midfield, at least until either Edoardo Bove or Mady Camara are ready to provide the necessary balance.

Can Leonardo Spinazzola Go the Full Ninety?

Empoli FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Because of Nicola Zalewski’s hip abductor injury that he picked up against Ludogorets, José Mourinho essentially has no choice but to start Leonardo Spinazzola in every match until the international break. While I would have no issue with this if we were talking about a fully healthy Spinazzola, it’s been clear to anyone watching Roma games this season that Spinny is still a ways away from full fitness.

Mourinho doesn’t have many other options at the left-wing-back position beyond Spinazzola with Zalewski out; it’s incredibly telling that despite Spinny looking exhausted by the end of the Empoli match, Matias Viña was only subbed on for the Italian international in the last minute of stoppage time. I’m not going to suggest that Helsinki will be the most challenging opponent Spinazzola could face on tired legs, but facing anyone on tired legs can be a challenge. Romanisti need to hope that Spinny’s fitness will continue to improve as the season progresses; despite the promise of Nicola Zalewski, Roma won’t be able to juggle the Europa League, Serie A, and the Coppa Italia with an easily-tired Spinazzola.