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Roma Travels to Spain Looking to Finish Real Sociedad & Advance in the Europa League

With a two-goal lead in hand, Roma should be favored in the second leg of tomorrow's Europa League Round of 16. But how will they sit back and wait or take it to Sociedad again?

Football, UEFA Europa League: AS Roma Vs Real Sociedad Photo by Elianto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

As those of us who have been following the club long enough can attest to, just when it seems like things are starting to go right for the Giallorossi and we start to believe, the rug almost always gets pulled out from under our feet. And this past weekend was no different. With Roma coming off a huge league win over Juventus last Sunday and an impressive 2-0 first-leg victory over Real Sociedad in the Europa League Round of 16 at the Olimpico, things were trending in the right direction. The top four was feeling pretty good, and progression into the Europa League quarterfinals was on track.

However, with this being Roma, a match against 13th-place Sassuolo got complicated in a hurry. With key players Paulo Dybala and Gianluca Mancini starting from the bench, Bryan Cristante suspended, plus Lorenzo Pellegrini, Andrea Belotti, and Ola Solbakken out injured, a heavily rotated Roma line-up was punched in the gut by the Neroverdi not once, but twice within 20 minutes. Throw in a Marash Kumbulla red card before halftime, and the Giallorossi’s perfect league record at the Olimpico in 2023 was done and dusted.

Additionally, with Inter, Lazio, and Atalanta all dropping points prior to kick-off, what looked like a golden opportunity to solidify a top-four place quickly became a wasted opportunity. And luckily for the Giallorossi, Milan also dropped two points on Monday, making this the weekend Roma dodged a bullet.

Real Sociedad vs Roma: March 16th. 21:00 CET/4:00 PM EST. Reale Arena, San Sebastian

However, with the schedule being as busy as it is before the international break, there will be no time for the Giallorossi to dwell on Sunday’s shocking loss. That’s because the Giallorossi have a trip to San Sebastian, Spain, for the second leg of their Europa League match-up with Sociedad on Thursday.

The quick turnaround could be just what the doctor ordered, as Roma will have to right the ship quickly or risk seeing the season objectives go sliding off the rails. So, let’s take a look at what to watch for on Thursday.

Last Match

March 9th, 2023: Roma 2, Real Sociedad 0

Here’s a quick recap from our highlights piece of last week’s first leg at the Olimpico.

With the first leg of their Europa League Round of 16 clash against Real Sociedad on the docket today, the Giallorossi hoped to make quick work of a formidable opponent. And with a 17th-minute Stephan El Shaarawy goal effectively sealing the deal—one precipitated by a charging Paulo Dybala run and an incredibly clever dummy/turn from Tammy Abraham—they did just that.

Roma would add another goal for good measure when Marash Kumbulla converted a Dybala corner kick in the 87th minute, giving the capital club a two-goal cushion ahead of next week’s trip to Spain.

What To Watch For

Park the Bus or Go for the Jugular?

AS Roma v Real Sociedad: Round of 16 Leg One - UEFA Europa League Photo by Luciano Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Last season, en route to winning the Europa Conference League, Roma had the luxury of playing the second leg at home in all three rounds prior to the final. And only once, in the Round of 16 against Vitesse, did Roma win a match on the road, allowing themselves to play with an advantage in the second leg.

In each fixture, when Roma needed to win the second leg in order to advance, Mourinho’s men managed a clean-sheet victory at the Olimpico. Meanwhile, the only time they didn’t need a win to advance (Vitesse), the Giallorossi were rescued by a 90th-minute Tammy Abraham goal, securing progression after falling behind in the 62nd minute.

In all those cases, Roma had the home crowd behind it. That won't be the case tomorrow, but Roma does have that two-goal advantage in its favor. So, it begs the question, will Mourinho park the bus or go for the jugular?

As we’ve seen so often this season from the Giallorossi, Mourinho’s teams tend to be very comfortable in defense, especially when Mourinho has his preferred players fit and available.

What we need to keep an eye on is just how conservative Mourinho will approach this match, given the advantage. There’s no doubt that Roma will cede the lion’s share of possession to the home side, they’ve conceded possession to their opposition in every knockout fixture (and many league matches) under Mourinho so far—don’t expect that to change.

However, there’s a difference between playing aggressive defense, trying to force mistakes from the opposition that lead to chances on the counter for the Giallorossi, and sitting back passively, constantly absorbing pressure while parking the bus. If Roma sits back in enemy territory for 90 minutes, it could be asking for trouble. One goal from Sociedad early in the match, and the pressure will be on.

On the contrary, if Roma aggressively counterattacks and draws first blood, that could be all she wrote for Sociedad’s hopes of a comeback. Mourinho has been in this position plenty of times and should have his team more than prepared.

Now, we just have to wait and see what the Special One has in store for the Spaniards.

A False Nine Redux?

AS Roma v Real Sociedad: Round of 16 Leg One - UEFA Europa League Photo by Carlo Hermann/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

There is good news heading into this match: player availability. It’s being reported that both Belotti (wrist surgery) and Pellegrini (30 stitches) will be back after being injured in the first leg. Pellegrini will likely wear a helmet to protect his stitches but should be otherwise unimpeded. Meanwhile, Roger Ibañez returns from the suspension that saw him miss out on the first-leg victory at the Olimpico.

Additionally, Cristante and Mancini should be a bit fresher than usual after not playing on the weekend. And Dybala had an abbreviated appearance on Sunday after only playing the second half. All of those three will return to the starting XI alongside Pellegrini.

With the back three in order, Cristante rejoining Matic in the center of the park, and Pellegrini in the attacking mid, there are only a few positions in question. There has been some talk of Dybala playing the false-nine role as he did against Juve. That would be an interesting wrinkle and could mean a start for Georginio Wijnaldum or Stephan El Shaarawy, with Tammy Abraham excluded. Otherwise, if Abraham starts, then Wijnaldum and El Shaarawy would sit.

The only other positions where we could see a shake-up are the wing-back positions, with Leo Spinazzola and Nicola Zalewski trying to fend off Rick Karsdorp and Zeki Celik in the starting roles.

Probable Formation

ROMA (3-4-2-1): Patricio; Ibañez, Smalling, Mancini; Spinazzola, Matic, Cristante, Zalewski; Pellegrini, Dybala; Abraham