'United v Roma feels like a two-legged final!'

Thursday 29 April 2021 09:00

AS Roma have more than a few links with Manchester United, including six famous meetings in 2007-08 and two former Reds in their current squad.

Ahead of what promises to be a momentous UEFA Europa League semi-final – which begins at Old Trafford tonight (kick-off 20:00 BST) – we caught up with Italian football specialist James Horncastle for a deep dive into Paulo Fonseca's side...

How are things going at Roma this season and what kind of challenge should United expect?
“Everything is riding on the Europa League for them, because it looks increasingly unlikely they’ll be in the top four. So they need to win this to qualify for the Champions League. The team plays good football. That’s the surprising thing, given the pressure on them. They play a 3-4-2-1 and, between the lines, with [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan, [Lorenzo] Pellegrini and Pedro, Roma have players that could do some damage, and United will have to pay close attention to them.”

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You mentioned some names there, including ex-Red Mkhitaryan. And then there is former Manchester City man Edin Dzeko...
Dzeko has scored 30 goals in Europe for Roma, and was part of the team that reached the Champions League semi-final three years ago. Mkhitaryan has really returned to form. He’s been one of Serie A’s best players this season. I know from speaking to [manager] Paulo Fonseca that he really admires Mkhitaryan for his intelligence. He thinks he’s a very clever player. In Italy, he’s recovered some of the reputation he earned in Germany when he was Bundesliga Player of the Year at Borussia Dortmund.

Chris Smalling has had an injury-hit season – how is his Roma career perceived?
“Chris is a popular figure with the supporters and has been since he joined. Fonseca really pushed for him to sign on a permanent basis. He’s been unlucky with injuries this year and Roma do have some very good centre-backs – [Gianluca] Mancini, [Roger] Ibanez and [Marash] Kumbulla – but in his absence, they’ve often used midfielder Bryan Cristante in central defence, because he’s able to play out from the back.

Are there emerging talents we should look out for?
[Riccardo] Calafiori is one. Leonardo Spinazzola, the left wing-back, is quick, a very good dribbler, who can play with two feet. The player I’d pick out, though, is their deep-lying playmaker Gonzalo Villar. He’s very comfortable on the ball, very silky, and has really emerged over the last year. Not much was known about him, because he came from the Spanish second division, but gradually he’s nailed down a starting position.

What was the verdict in Italy when it became clear Roma would be playing United?
“That they had to do it the hard way! They’ve picked up a lot of wins; I think they’ve got the highest points-per-game total in this season’s tournament. Fonseca’s had to knock out Braga, Shakhtar Donetsk – two clubs he’s worked with – and then Ajax, who were in the Champions League semi-final only a couple of years ago. Roma knew if they got through it was likely they’d play United and obviously it brings back quite a few memories. Everyone remembers the 7-1. Roma go in as underdogs, but there’s a feeling that if they were to overcome United, there would be no stopping them. So it almost feels like a two-legged final.

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You mentioned the 7-1. Does that still loom large in the collective memory of Roma fans?
“Roma played well in the first leg! They were going great in the league, as well: they’d set or matched a record for consecutive games won, and [Luciano] Spalletti was playing this very innovative, avant-garde style. If you watch the game back it doesn’t feel like a 7-1. United were the better side, but sometimes these games can get away from you very quickly. We saw it with the Barcelona-PSG ‘remontada’. Brazil-Germany in the 2014 World Cup. And there have been other [big defeats] for Roma, against Bayern Munich and Barcelona. If that United game was in splendid isolation, maybe it would figure more, but there’s an acceptance that every now and then Roma do have a big defeat in them. It’s just a strange quirk in their recent history.”

Are the latter stages of European competitions a bit of a mental hurdle?
“I don’t think so. Roma have only won the league title three times since they were founded in 1927. More often, their seasons have been defined by results in the derby against Lazio. They do have a disproportionate amount of expectation and pressure around them, though. Their fans think they should be competing for the league title, competing in Europe, but their history and resources mean that’s very difficult. Someone at the club said to me: ‘Playing for Roma is like doing the 100 metres with 100kg on your back and being expected to win.’ Outside, people don’t know how much pressure comes with pulling on that shirt.”
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Do you think the absence of fans at the Olimpico will be important?
“The Curva Sud, where the ultras stand, is one of the most colourful, loud curva in Italy. Some of the best choreography as well. When everything’s going well, it’s Roma’s 12th man – no cliché. But, on the other hand, it brings pressure. It would be very interesting to see how the fans would be reacting to the results Roma are getting at the moment, because they’ve been inconsistent in Serie A. But obviously, with a semi-final in Europe, you could guarantee a very noisy atmosphere.”

Finally, what’s your prediction?

“There’s a feeling in Italy that United’s plan A is very good but that, tactically, other teams have more layers. Fonseca is a very good coach, who will probably be working in the Premier League next year. Judging from history, I think United will go through, just because we haven’t seen a Serie A team win this competition – which they used to dominate – since 1999.”