Tonight the verdict is due, and it could change the course of the season. Joining the ranks of Europe’s best clubs isn’t just a matter of prestige, but it’s decisive for Roma’s immediate future in cementing themselves at the top of the Italian game. Getting past this stage is worth between €25m-30m. The Giallorossi have 90 minutes (if extra time and penalties aren’t needed) to remain a great side.
They will do so coming off a 1-1 draw in Oporto, and while on the one hand they will regret not being able to win a game that they were in control of, on the other hand they will have the conviction that they have already shown their superiority – at least in their style of play – in the Portuguese side’s own stadium. Spalletti will start again from there, without trying to be clever and without thinking that a 0-0 draw would be enough.
Roma have been working and preparing for this Champions League playoff since July 1 – for more than 6 weeks in Pinzolo, in Boston and finally at Trigoria. The players know how much qualification would mean to the club, and they already did a huge amount last season to give themselves this opportunity. The fans know it as well. Around 100 fans spurred the team on before their final training session, another 35,000 will be at the Olimpico tonight. More than were at the opening game of the season against Udinese, and not a bad attendance given that Ferragosto was just 8 days ago and that the protests regarding the Curva are still continuing.
Spalletti has given a lot of attention to his players’ tactical training, partly as a result of the errors made a week ago. Roma can force the Portuguese side to their knees with their style of play, after terrifying them in the opening half an hour in the Dragao. The Giallorossi will try and score quickly, even if they don’t need to go all out to win.
The result from the first leg will allow them to feel more comfortable when they go out on the pitch, but there are a few issues in defence that will need to be sorted out and it’s there where Spalletti has his one real choice to make: does Juan Jesus play centre back with Manolas or at left back? If the former, Emerson Palmieri will start at left back after his good performance against Udinese.
A week ago, Roma dropped back too much after they went down to 10 men, playing into the hands of Espirito Santo’s attacking midfielders and forwards. Roma’s maximum attention will be needed if they are to avoid allowing the Portuguese side to play to their strengths. Spalletti can count on the players he has in defence: 5 have been named in the squad, 4 will play. Only Fazio will be on the bench, though he may come on during the game if Porto do the same as they did in the first leg and pile men in and around Roma’s penalty area.
Roma are going for their third Champions League group stage in a row, and it would be the crowning glory to their magnificent recovery last season when Spalletti led the team from fifth to third place, surpassing Inter and Fiorentina. Joining Juventus and Napoli in Europe’s top club competition would also be a statement of intent for the league (following on from their positive start against Udinese) and to their two direct rivals for the title.
Roma are thinking big and Spalletti isn’t hiding from it. Porto were a tricky adversary in the first leg, even if they showed their limitations, especially in defence. They have a great tradition in the Champions League, and they didn’t make the most of this advantage in front of their own fans. Roma have the greater quality, and showed that during that splendid first half hour in the opening game.
This article is a translation – the original was written by Guido D’Ubaldo for Il Corriere dello Sport.