It’s safe to say that when the Champions League groups were announced earlier this season, Roma weren’t given much of a chance by most experts and pundits.
After all, the Giallorossi were placed into a quartet that included Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. The Blues notably won the contest in 2012, and are the last English side to lift the trophy. Meanwhile, under the tutelage of Diego Simeone, Los Rojiblancos made it to the final in 2014 and 2016, only to be twice thwarted by cross-town rivals Real Madrid.
So whilst debutants Qarabag were expected to be the group’s whipping boys – and they duly delivered – Roma, most figured, would have to settle for the Europa League. Besides, the Lupi had little to show that they were truly ready to mix it up with the bigger sides in Europe. To complicate matters, this summer saw them part ways with key players like Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger to Liverpool and Chelsea respectively, and they now had a new man on the bench: Eusebio Di Francesco.
Di Francesco, of course, had worked wonders with Sassuolo, helping the Neroverdi to navigate their way through a turbulent debut season in Italian football’s top flight during the 2013/2014 campaign. Quickly proving that he was no one-season wonder, the former Roma midfielder followed that up with an impressive mid-table finish, then a Europa League berth as Sassuolo quickly became known as “giant-killers” as they began to pick up positive results against all of Italy’s big teams, including reigning champions Juventus, as well as became a bogey team for AC Milan in particular.
But despite this, he had no experience in managing a team of Roma’s caliber, and his foray into European competition with Sassuolo ended in disappointment as the Neroverdi were ill-equipped to compete on multiple fronts and crashed out at the group stage after a promising start.
However, he’s been quickly proving his doubters wrong. Roma started off their Champions League campaign on a cautious note by drawing Atletico Madrid 0-0 at home, but that would certainly have felt like a win for the hosts, or one point won, whereas for the visitors, it would have felt like two vital points dropped. That was followed up with a well-deserved 2-1 road win against Qarabag on the road, but it was really on matchday three where the Lupi began to bite back.
Chelsea really thought they were in cruise control for that game. After all, the Blues were playing at home, and again, the pundits were all in favor of the English side to cruise to a comfortable win, and after 37 or so minutes, it seemed very much like it. 2-0 to the good, and the London giants were all set for three points.
How wrong they were. Although Eden Hazard managed to salvage a draw in the 75th minute, Roma had scored three goals sans reply to turn the tie on its head and silence the Stamford Bridge faithful. It was certainly a sign of things to come in the return fixture, where Roma again scored three goals – but truly sans reply as Chelsea were dealt another bitter blow on Italian soil. It was somewhat reminiscent of their humiliating result when the then-reigning Champions League holders traveled to Turin and were dealt a knockout blow by Juventus in the group stages, thus making them the first reigning champion to fail to get out of their group.
Although Roma did suffer their first loss as Atleti trounced them 2-0, they showed great fortitude to grind out a tough 1-0 result against a gritty Qarabag side who had nothing but pride to play for, thus pushing Chelsea into second and sending Los Rojiblancos into the Europa League.
Against all odds, Roma had managed to do the unthinkable: not only had they qualified for the round of 16 in arguably a group that was heavily stacked against them due to the quality of two of their opponents, but they did so by topping their quartet.
So do they finally deserve some kind of respect in Europe? Veteran midfielder Daniele De Rossi couldn’t contain his enthusiasm at seeing the Giallorossi seal their spot, and was quoted as saying that this result “cleaned up Roma’s image in Europe a bit”.
The answer is quite obvious – they certainly do, but they shouldn’t get too ahead of themselves, as the hard work has only just begun.
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