We may have waited more than three months for this day, but the moment is finally here: Roma is hosting all-mighty Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League Quarterfinals at the Stadio Olimpico. Yes, you read that correctly. Elisa Bartoli and the rest of the Giallorosse are trading the quaint surroundings of the Stadio Tre Fontane for the 60,000-seat Stadio Olimpico, the first time the women of Rome have ever played in Italy's national stadium.
While the match isn't quite a sell-out, with a reported 35,000 fans expected to attend, the Giallorosse should be greeted by a typically raucous Roma crowd, one fitting the pomp and circumstance of the Champions League. And Roma will need all the support they can muster as they face the seven-time Spanish champions and 2020-2021 Champions League winners.
The simple fact that Roma is hosting Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico says it all. Still, if it isn't abundantly clear, let me state the obvious: this is a watershed moment in the club's brief history, speaking to Roma's rapid ascent up the European football ladder. Remember, this club didn't even exist five years ago, and now they're hosting one of the giants of the sport in the country's national stadium.
But more to the point, this is the product of an incredibly long and arduous Champions League campaign that began back in August on the banks of the River Clyde and has taken Roma everywhere from the Prague Plateau to the shores of the North Sea.
It wasn't always smooth sailing, but whether they were clawing their way back from a two-goal deficit against St. Pölten in Matchday 1, gutting out a one-one draw against Wolfsburg the very next week, or hanging five goals on St. Pölten in the reverse fixture, Roma has won in virtually every conceivable fashion.
Speaking on his club's journey, Spugna pointed to the 1-1 draw against Wolfsburg as the team's inflection point:
"We've always taken things one game at a time. Clearly the match against Wolfsburg made us realise we could achieve something because we performed really well against one of the best teams in the tournament, a side put together to challenge for the final. The day after that game, we said to ourselves that if we could play like that we should try and see how far we can go."
Club captain Elisa Bartoli echoed those sentiments, speaking to the lessons her squad learned—and the confidence they gained—throughout their Champions League campaign:
"It's a dream come true for us to be here. We didn't expect to reach the quarterfinals; we just hoped to do well in the group stage. This year has taught us that we can come this far, have our say, and want to do it again in the future."
Bartoli then detailed the give and take between dreams, expectations, and reality:
"We went to Glasgow knowing we could be knocked out. That was quite a feeling. We realised how good we were when we best Paris on penalties. That was a really difficult game as they were a great team too. Our journey took a turn there and we've kept on taking turns. Every obstacle was different but we kept moving forward one step at a time, overcoming all the obstacles. We never looked further ahead, only focused on the present.
"Tomorrow we'll be playing at the Olimpico, which was an enormous dream we had. The feeling is incredible. I hope to make it but I just don't know. Fingers crossed. We must enjoy all the feelings tomorrow – that's what I said to the girls. We have to enjoy ourselves and be calm. We're playing Barcelona, one of the best sides out there, and that's what we're in it for. We train to go up against the best. What more could you wish for as a footballer than to play in games like this? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The Champions League is an experience and a dream. We mustn't feel the pressure; we have to feel calm about it."
While that's all well and good, Spugna and Bartoli remain realistic about the challenge ahead of them. Bartoli, once again, pointed towards the Wolfsburg fixtures, saying, "I always say nothing is impossible. There's always hope, otherwise there would no point even trying. Just as we did against Wolfsburg, we'll set out to play our game and bring our quality to the fore."
Spugna wrapped up his pre-match presser by delving further into the challenge ahead of his squad:
"As I said before, they're an incredible team but every team will give you some chances - as they have in some of their games. We have to make sure we go out there totally determined, stick to our game plan and make the most of whatever chances they give us. They've always conceded on the road – that much is a fact. But we have to focus on our own game and our own qualities..."
"We'll have to try to keep the ball as much as possible because in doing so we'll make it tough for them too. We mustn't be afraid of playing one of the best teams in Europe but we must remember that we're playing one of the best teams in Europe. The two things are different."
"I've seen lots of Barcelona games since the draw and before then too because they're a team I enjoy watching and learning from. And the more I watched them, the more I struggled to find any weaknesses. Having said that, you will get chances against them. Looking at those numbers, you can't deny they give away very few chances, but as I said we have to try to play our own game and see what happens. It's an opportunity for us to see where we're at and what we're capable of doing in a match as difficult as this."
Roma won't have to face Ballon d'Or winner Alexias Putellas, who remains sidelined with a torn ACL, but with 98 goals in 22 league matches and a 10-point lead at the top of the Liga F table, Barcelona isn't lacking firepower.
The Blaugrana features eight players that have tallied double-digit goals + assists, including Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala, who has bagged 19 goals and two assists, while Spanish midfielder Claudia Pina has racked up 10 goals and eight assists in approximately 1,200 minutes.
No matter how you slice it, Roma has their work cut out for them today, but with 35,000 strong backing them and a track record of exceeding expectations in Europe, the Giallorosse might be able to shock the world today.
— AS Roma Women (@ASRomaWomen) March 21, 2023
Here’s how we line up for our #UWCL quarter-final tie against @FCBfemeni #ASRomaWomen #RomaBarca pic.twitter.com/BWPNur6Wpu
1️⃣1️⃣ inicial a Roma pic.twitter.com/qT1NcEdyCF— FC Barcelona Femení (@FCBfemeni) March 21, 2023