Eusebio Di Francesco’s come under fire on numerous occasions in his first season at the helm of Roma, but as shown Tuesday evening in the miracle victory over Barcelona, the 48-year old has the wherewithal to adjust in order to get the desired results.
“Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” Russell Crowe, Gladiator (2000).
Roma entered the second leg against Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome Tuesday evening needing to overturn what seemed to be an insurmountable 4-1 deficit if they were to keep their UEFA Champions League dream alive.
This was a hole most felt the Giallorossi had little to no chance of climbing out of. According to pre-match odds, the Italians held a <5% chance of pulling off the historic comeback against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and the Catalan club. If Roma were to pull off the inevitable and send the Spanish giants packing in stunning fashion, it was going to take something truly special; a gladiator-like effort from all involved to stun the football world and make history.
In the first leg at Camp Nou, Eusebio Di Francesco’s men turned in a more respectable effort than the scoreline indicated. The heart, passion and fighting spirit were all there, but Roma were both unlucky to concede two own goals and have two penalty appeals waived off by the officiating crew. Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona had a stronghold on the tie despite being less than sharp, and not nearly as decisive or stellar in possession, but few gave the hosts a fighter’s chance to advance.
If Roma somehow managed to tighten the screws, play a more polished game and bring the same competitive attitude, the Capital club could author one of the best ever comeback stories this tournament has ever witnessed.
Coming into the return leg, Di Francesco and President James Pallotta firmly believed this tie was not done and dusted; and they were right.
The former Sassuolo tactician ran out a different setup than the 4-5-1 with an overload in the midfield. That formation lacked the key element, the driving force, and engine to force Barcelona out of their comfort zone; his name Radja Nainggolan.
Last night, Di Francesco deployed a balanced, more stable 3-4-1-2/3-5-2 hybrid shape that freed up the Belgian to execute marauding, charging runs forward towards the Barcelona backline – provided that ball arrived from either Kevin Strootman or Daniele De Rossi from deeper positions.
Nainggolan taking advantage of the huge amount of space between Barcelona's midfield and defensive lines. A simple pass puts Roma in a 5 v 4 with a bunch of players running at the Barça backline. pic.twitter.com/RA3FOBxDOc
— Tiago Estêvão (@TiagoEstv) April 11, 2018
Nainggolan’s physicality and forceful runs caused fits for Valverde throughout, and helped Roma initiate a perfect press with Edin Dzeko and Patrik Schick. Barcelona were pressured into playing a regular brand, shifting away from their tried and true tactical approach.
Few, if any, have been able to force Barcelona’s hand and take them off their game. Often times, it’s the Spaniards dictating everything and strong-arming the opposition into reacting to their mesmeric style of play. However, Di Francesco engineered the perfect game plan that stifled Barcelona and functioned tremendously well to the point where they played away from what makes them a potent side on the front foot, and instead pinning them back to defend for their lives. That is simply not the Barcelona way, as they are typically the ones invoking fear. But Di Francesco’s band of underdogs rallied together, and demonstrated that same level of intensity and belief from the first affair – only this time were much more clinical and fearless.
Dzeko’s first to bring them back in the tie, a cool and composed finish past Marc-Ándre ter Stegen, came from an inch-perfect ball over the top from DeRossi. From there, Roma believed and so did those in the Giallorossi’s corner around the world. Once Gerard Pique dragged the Bosnian down in the box, and the Roman captain De Rossi buried his penalty take with ice water in his veins, Barcelona were clinging to anything that could slow the momentum.
The underdogs in a prize fight with odds stacked against them, Roma dug deep inside, mustered up every bit of life they had, and used it as fuel for an upset. Barcelona never recuperated out of the second half tunnel, while Roma stuck to their mental, tactical and physical approach and eventually found the Hollywood ending they were searching for through Kostas Manolas.
Credit where it’s due. Di Francesco, as he lamented in his post-match interview, has been scrutinized on numerous occasions throughout the season for questionable tactics and personnel decisions. However, as he showed last night, he can adjust and administer the right mental approach when up against big opponents to get results.
“I take the blame for defeats and some ungrateful words on social media, so I may as well take the credit for a win,” he explained to Mediaset Premium afterwards.
“The truth is that I made the choice to create more width, allow more counter-attacks and bring rapidity, but what really changed was the philosophy of the side and we have to continue like this now.”
Spot on. Di Francesco’s Roma played without restraint, without fear and without any hint of doubt they could overthrow Barcelona. Tactics aside, that seemed to be the difference in why they are heading into the Champions League semi-final, and Barcelona are heading home.
So, we ask you again: Are you not entertained?