Villarreal are preparing for the visit of AS Roma to El Madrigal—er, Estadio de la Cerámica—in the Round of 32 of the Europa League. I suppose there could have been worse draws, Celta Vigo didn’t have much luck either since they drew Shaktar Donetsk, but Roma have to be about as difficult an opponent as we have had at this stage.
Consider: Roma have lost exactly three matches since October (away to Atalanta, Sampdoria, and Juventus), all by one goal; they defeated Fiorentina 4-0 at home two weeks ago. And while people still tend to view Italian football as defensively minded, that hasn’t been true for a while; there are eight clubs in Serie A averaging more than 1.5 goals per match, and three (including Roma) averaging more than 2 goals.
Roma have scored 50, allowed only 21. Of those 50, the key man is obviously Edin Džeko, who has tallied 18 times and looks to be on his way to his best season since 2008, when he scored 26 for Wolfsburg. (If he scores against us, it won’t be the first time; he did so for the German side against us at this stage of the 2009-10 competition). And, of course, we have to mention Francesco Totti, who, at age 40, is now more of a super-sub than anything else. The Gladiator is winding down his career—25 years in the Roma first team. Like our Bruno Soriano, he is that rarity in the modern age, a kid who has played for his hometown team, and no other.
But, I digress. Roma typically play a 3-4-2-1, and Džeko gets plenty of attacking support from the two behind him, usually Radja Nainggolan and Mohamed Salah. It’s an interesting system, and Villarreal is going to have an interesting time trying to figure out how to counter it, if Roma indeed line up that way. On the road in a tie like this, they could go to more of a 4-3-3 if their concern is playing for a draw and then going on attack at home.
Roma’s only injury concern is Alessandro Florenzi, who is out.
Roma squad to face Villarreal: Alisson, Lobont, Szczesny, Manolas, Palmieri, Mario Rui, Fazio, Vermaelen, Bruno Peres, Juan Jesus, Rüdiger, Gerson, De Rossi, Perotti, Strootman, Paredes, Nainggolan, Salah, El Shaarawy, Totti, Dzeko
Villarreal: Apart from Roberto Soldado, who just got medical clearance but hasn’t been on the pitch since August, everyone is available. The mood is upbeat in Vila-real—there is a belief that if we play our best over two legs, we can advance—but coach Escribá admitted the obvious, Roma is one of 3 or 4 teams we had hoped to avoid at this stage. We have to be strong on set pieces, we have to stop their offense (especially on the wings) and, we’ll need a little luck—and probably two goals—to have any chance of advancing. This would be a good time for Cedric Bakambu to play like he did last season; if he and Sansone can create trouble up front for Roma, that would be good.
History: These two clubs met in March 2004 in the round of 16 of the UEFA Cup (as it was then), though the order of the legs was reversed. Roma took a 2-0 lead at the Stadio Olimpico before Sonny Anderson pulled one back, and that turned out to be critical as Villarreal scored two first-half goals (Anderson again, and José Mari) and held on for a 3-2 aggregate win. That Roma team finished second in Serie A that year, so were no slackers!
Prediction: On the face of it, Roma has to be favored; they are in form, Villarreal is not. But European nights in the town of Vila-real tend to produce some magical moments.
The first 20-30 minutes are going to be important, I think; if we can put the visitors under pressure and even take the lead, we can win this; on the other hand, if Roma score early, they’re going to look for a second away goal which could effectively kill off the tie, I think. This could be like the Liverpool semi last year, though, where Roma basically figure if they can get a draw, or even if they lose 1-0, their chances of moving on are pretty good.
Realistically, I’d say a 1-1 draw is the most likely. Endavant!!