As winter slowly but surely turns to spring, the Europa League schedule rolls on, and the start of the knockout rounds means that a competition often derided as second-rate to the Champions League becomes interesting fast. Even before the official start of the Round of 16, Manchester United played Barcelona in the most interesting Knockout Playoff I’ve ever seen, and even though Roma looked solid in both matches against Red Bull Salzburg, that tie took work to become a success for the Giallorossi.
There’s no rest for the weary, however, as the draw for the Round of 16 was announced this morning, less than 24 hours after I Lupi dispatched Salzburg. While seeding assured Romanisti that they would not draw the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, or Sevilla until the quarterfinals, Premier League leaders Arsenal likely haunted quite a few Giallorossi dreams last night. Fortunately, we’ll have to wait an Arsenal-Roma tie for at least one more round, as Roma’s next opponent in the Europa League will be Spanish side Real Sociedad de Fútbol, S.A.D.:
Real Sociedad currently sit in third place in La Liga, backed up by strong performances from Norwegian striker Alexander Sørloth, former Real Madrid man Takefusa Kubo, and Spanish midfielders Mikel Merino and Martín Zubimendi. That good standing in the league belies the bevy of injuries that La Real have suffered this season. Former Roma man Umar Sadiq and captain Mikel Oyarzabal both suffered ACL tears, and David Silve, Andoni Gorosabel, and Aritz Elustondo have all been in and out of the lineup. All Romanisti can relate to having injury issues of that scale, but it certainly doesn’t hurt Roma’s chances of advancing to the quarterfinals that Real Sociedad are without serious depth at several positions heading into this tie.
For my money, the most interesting tie of the Round of 16 is going to be Arsenal versus Sporting; the Portuguese side is one of the few in the unseeded pool besides Roma that I could see knocking off Mikel Arteta’s men, and many of the other big sides left in the Europa League have rather easy paths to the quarterfinals. Roma’s path to the quarterfinals isn’t as easy as Union Berlin or Bayer Leverkusen, but if I were a betting man, I’d say the Giallorossi representatives will be back in Nyon for the next draw in mid-March.
With Roma’s schedule now set for March 9th and 16th, José Mourinho can shift his focus back to Serie A, where his men will be facing U.S. Cremonese and Juventus before the first leg of the Round of 16. The schedule is pretty spread out before the Giallorossi head to San Sebastián, but I’d still expect some starting eleven rotation for the Cremonese match on February 28th. Roma won’t treat Cremonese lightly; this is the side that knocked them out of the Coppa Italia. Still, with Ola Solbakken ineligible for Europa League play and several key Roma players in need of some rest, look for players like Edoardo Bove, Marash Kumbulla, and Andrea Belotti to get some serious playtime in the next two weeks. If Roma wants to have a deep run in the Europa League, the club’s depth will have to show its mettle.