Roma were always going to be perennial challengers for the Scudetto this season – and Juventus’ stumbles of late only make the title race that more enthralling. But things are a little different in Europe.
This time last year, they were gearing up for a Europa League group stage game against Viktoria Plzen, having faltered in the Champions League play-offs against Porto. Now they top a Champions League Group containing Atletico Madrid and Chelsea with two games to go and are still unbeaten.
Their utter humiliation of the Premier League champions was in particular a high point. More than anything, the Giallorossi have shown they can compete in Europe this season. How well can they balance their domestic and European commitments is the question.
Roma have every right to be ambitious. Their 2-1 win over Lazio in the Derby Della Capitale was their sixth victory in a row, as they keep pace with Serie A’s top teams. And though there are two games left, the Rome club are in the best position to advance to the knock-out stages, and with that comes the possibility of their first Champions League quarter-finals in 10 years.
There is still a lot of football to be played, though. Threats lie in both competition and Wednesday’s match optimises that sentiment like no other, as Roma seek to balance a fiery Rome Derby with a trip to Madrid, made easier only by the fact that Atletico themselves were embroiled in a cross-town rivalry this weekend. And, as home and away draws against Atletico Madrid have shown, Qarabag can bag a result against top opposition.
In the league, Juventus have the quality in their ranks to turn things around, while Napoli could just as easily run away with the league, as their UCL hopes hang in the balance. Having lost to Inter and Napoli already this season, the matches against Chelsea and Lazio in particular were great in showing they can perform against the best.
A huge benefit Roma may enjoy in the midst of their two last group stage games are two relatively comfortable matches against Genoa and SPAL, who are both in the midst of a relegation dogfight.
Coach Eusebio Di Francesco knows the travails of backing up European ambition with solid league showings. After he guided Sassuolo to the Europa League in 2016, their performances stuttered both domestically and in Europe, as they finished bottom of their group and remained in the bottom five before results picked up after the winter break.
How Roma approach this season will be indicative of how much he has learned since. It is worth noting he is better equipped this time around. For a start he has not only a better squad, but a deeper one, too. The loss of Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger may have left some questioning how well Roma could compete. But with Edin Dzeko, anything is possible.
Moreover, outside the starting XI, Di Francesco can rely on the experienced duo of Maxim Gonalons and Juan Jesus, as well as the youthful exuberance the likes of Gerson and Lorenzo Pellegrini bring. Once they get Patrik Schick fit and firing, it will be another huge bonus. A lack of goals from those in reserve could derail Roma should Dzeko burn out or pick up an injury. Though it seems little can halt the hype train the supporters are riding.
“The most difficult thing was to get into the players heads,” said Di Francesco after the Rome Derby win. He has convinced them they can push beyond their limits, and there is little reason for them to think otherwise.