When Roma got drawn against Real Madrid in the Champions League last December, the consensus was that it was basically a walkover for the Spanish side. It’s a mark of how far Roma have come under Luciano Spalletti already that when the Giallorossi qualified for the last 16 they were jeered off by the fans, but after tonight’s 0-2 defeat against Real Madrid they were applauded off. For 90 minutes, Roma were their old selves: full of energy, tactical discipline and pride in the shirt – all instilled and restored under Spalletti’s charge.
In defence, Alessandro Florenzi, Antonio Rudiger and Kostas Manolas were outstanding throughout, with some fine help from William Vainqueur and Miralem Pjanic shielding them from midfield and denying Real Madrid space in which Cristiano Ronaldo and co could operate. At the other end, Roma’s attacks were largely restricted to Mohamed Salah’s kick and rushes past Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, partly due to a lack of invention from Pjanic’s boot and a lack of quality on the ball from Vainqueur at this most high of levels, but partly because there was no focal point in the box for the forwards to cross to. Diego Perotti worked hard and Stephan El Shaarawy occasionally had a glimpse of a half chance, but there was very little for the forwards to go on.
Roma also suffered from two poor decisions from the Czech referee and his linesmen; an offside call on Cristiano Ronaldo as he broke down the left before scoring the game’s first goal, and a penalty for a challenge by Dani Carvajal on Florenzi. If the first was a marginal call, the second was a blatant infringement and Roma can justly feel hard done by. Had it been given and Roma taken a 1-1 draw to the Bernabeu, the tie would have been incredibly finely poised. As it is, at 2-0 down, Roma face a monumental task to try and progress to the quarter finals.
Ultimately though qualification to the next round isn’t the be all and end all, and that’s not just because Roma are facing Real Madrid. Roma are still very much a work in progress – Spalletti’s tactics are yet to take full shape, and while he prepared his team perfectly for this game it will take time to hone. Tonight, Roma were defensively compact and hard to break down while keeping options open for a counter-attack, and while the second half shift (to a central striker and moving Radja Nainggolan deeper to allow Florenzi to play in the 3 behind Edin Dzeko) was effective in an offensive sense, defensively it made Roma more vulnerable. Roma were of course chasing the game at this point, but Salah didn’t provide cover for either Florenzi or Rudiger at right back, while Perotti largely disappeared from the game after being moved to the left wing (after playing superbly up until that point as a false 9).
Looking at the big picture though, Roma can be proud of their performance. It is often so hard for coaches to come in and have an impact in the middle of a season, particularly when games are coming as thick and fast as they are now meaning less time spent on the training ground, but Spalletti has not only had an impact but an immediate one. Few can have expected Roma to beat Real Madrid over two legs – the real priority is making sure that this level of performance is carried through into Serie A to ensure that Roma are playing on nights like this again next season.