Roma vs. Real Madrid: Luciano Spalletti takes on a familiar foe

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Roma will be aware of the stern test they face as they prepare to welcome Real Madrid to the Stadio Olimpico for their round of 16 Champions League clash this evening.

Although the Giallorossi will be coming into this fixture having won their past four Serie A fixtures, their performance in European competition to date is another story entirely. During the last few months of Rudi Garcia’s ill-fated reign, Roma managed to finish second in their group – but only just: with six points, they were the worst-performing side out of the teams to qualify for the final 16.

They picked up just one win in their six matches and whilst they managed to hold Barcelona to an impressive 1-1 draw, they were subsequently humiliated 6-1 in the return fixture at the Camp Nou. Certainly, whilst the result will have hurt, there is no shame in losing to the Blaugrana, especially considering that they do boast the best attacking trio in Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar – even their rivals Real Madrid were subjected to a 4-0 drubbing in the first Clasico of this season. But dropping five valuable points against a team like Belarusian outfit BATE Borisov, in which they were first defeated 3-2 and only managed a scoreless draw in the second leg, coupled with conceding a whopping 16 goals, did not leave fans feeling confident about their team’s chances of success in Europe’s more elite continental competition.

Roma conceded a whopping 16 goals during those six matches. To put things in perspective, Maccabi Tel-Aviv also shipped 16. Malmo shipped 21. And neither of these teams even qualified for the Europa League as they finished last in their respective quartets. Meanwhile, Real Madrid topped their group, scoring 19, conceding three, winning five, and drawing once. As such, quite a few of their fans were indeed relieved – and delighted – to be taking on the seemingly toothless Lupi, and expect them to be already looking forward to whoever they will be facing in the quarter-finals.

Still, since then, both teams have undergone managerial changes, with Garcia making way for Luciano Spalletti and  widely-disliked Rafa Benitez being sacked and former star midfielder Zinedine Zidane beginning his debut coaching career at the senior level. Yet, whilst Real Madrid are viewed as the heavy favorites to progress, Spalletti – now in his second spell with the capital club – just may be able to pull off a few old tricks hidden under his sleeve.

For starters, Roma and Real Madrid have met on eight prior occasions, with four wins for the Spanish side, three for the Italians, and the other finishing as a draw. Three of those wins, interestingly, enough, for Real Madrid have happened at the Stadio Olimpico – which does not bode well for the Giallorossi. But here’s a stat that may be somewhat encouraging: Spalletti has been responsible for two out of those three victories. This happened during the 2007/2008 season, in which he masterminded a 2-1 comeback at the Stadio Olimpico, before defeating the La Liga powerhouse by the exact same score in the away leg weeks later.

Although Roma would then be promptly dispatched by eventual winners Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, there is that saying that “once you’ve done something, you can certainly do it again”. Francesco Totti, who has now recovered from an injury, was part of that side eight seasons ago and whilst he will be celebrating his 40th birthday this September, could possibly play some sort of role over the next 180 minutes of action. The addition of players like Stephan El Shaarawy and Diego Perotti have certainly helped the team’s cause and coupled with the speediness and tricky nature of Mohamed Salah, the playmaking abilities of Miralem Pjanic, the experience of Seydou Keita, and the tenacity of Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan, Roma do pose the quality to trouble Zidane’s side if they are all on top of their game.

It certainly will not be easy to contain the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, but Roma will be coming into this match with little pressure on their shoulders; after they are the overwhelming underdogs in this two-legged tie. But if the Lupi can match Real Madrid’s bark with their own bite, and avoid a defeat at the Stadio Olimpico, then it will really be anyone’s game when they face off for the away leg in Spain next month.

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Michelle Bonsu

Freelance football journalist based in New York. Primarily support AC Milan as well as the Ghanaian and Italian NT’s, but you’ll find me watching the Bundesliga and Premier League as well–enjoy a good game, regardless of where it’s being played. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of my favourite players.