Roma’s manager Eusebio Di Francesco has been making all the right noises ahead of his side’s visit to Barcelona next Wednesday in the last eight of the Champions League. Roma will not be parking the bus; They won’t be sitting back waiting for Barca to overwhelm them; They won’t be waiting for what almost everyone believes to be the inevitable.
Speaking to Sky Sport Italia last week, the 48-year-old insisted that it’s just not in his makeup or that of his team.
I think we must not lose our own identity and not sit back much. My idea is not to play a game in which we just wait for them. We’ve got to play this game with great respect for our opponents, but without any fear – that is something we need to keep at a distance.
Perhaps its bravado, perhaps its folly, maybe it’s just talk. On the face of things, the conventional wisdom would suggest that having a crack at Barca is likely to end badly.
Unbeaten in La Liga and in Europe this season, it’s easy to feel that the Catalans are getting close to the brilliance we grew so accustomed to five or six seasons ago. Indeed, when it comes to how they should be tackled, the talk is still of staying compact, staying in the game and taking whatever chances come your way.
Chelsea took that approach in the first leg of their last 16 tie with Ernesto Valverde’s men. But the ‘Pensioners’, who are having an indifferent season, were beaten before they even kicked a ball.
Given the players he had available, Antonio Conte could have approached Barca in much more aggressive fashion. If anything, they gave Messi and co far too much respect in the first leg.
There’s something about the current Barca vintage. For all they seem unbeatable, they don’t really feel unbeatable. In Spain, with their main rivals out of sorts and out of form for much of the season, they’ve had it rather easy.
In the Champions League, they’ve rarely had to go through the gears.
We know their quality. But we also know that the wonderful Iniesta’s legs are tiring. That the spaces around Sergio Busquets can be worked a little more these days. That they give you chances. And that they are more than a little reliant on Lionel Messi.
In Europe, that reliance has been pronounced. Of Barca’s 13 goals in the competition this season, Digne, Dembele, Rakitic and Alcacer have one each, there have been three own goals – and Messi has the rest. As if to underline his importance, the Argentine scored three of the four goals that ousted Chelsea.
But over reliant or not, if Messi plays and performs, it probably won’t matter what Roma do. But what if for some reason, he’s not at his best? Roma must believe, and they must go after their August opponents with intent and aggression. What have they to lose?
After all, for the Giallorossi, who are appearing in the last eight for the first time in a decade, there really is little pressure. No one expects them to win, and just getting back into the competition next season has to be their priority.
They currently sit third in Serie A with Inter Milan and Lazio breathing down their necks. Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Bologna may have dented their hopes a little, but Di Francesco would surely have taken their current position and their extended run in the Champions League if he were offered them back in June when he took up his role at the club.
Domestically, with Inter and AC Milan flexing financial muscles that Roma cannot or will not try to match, being in the hunt for a Champions League spot with eight games to go is a more than satisfactory return.
The more so when you consider the enforced sales of Mo Salah, Toni Rudiger and Leandro Paredes last summer that were designed to balance the Financial Fair Play books.
In Europe, no one fancied them to emerge from a group containing Atletico Madrid and Chelsea. But emerge they did, and as group winners to boot. That fact alone would suggest that Barcelona can’t take the Giallorossi lightly.
And it should give some weight to Di Francesco’s belief that they shouldn’t be going into the last eight of the Champions League just to make up the numbers.