Roma host Porto in the Champions League Round of 16, and everyone in the Capital must be feeling fairly apprehensive. As always, this has been a season of slumps and surges for the Giallorossi, but the troughs have outnumbered the peaks by some margin, and the team's record so far deters the would-be forecaster.
Faced with the heavy-hitters of the Italian league, the Lupi have gritted their teeth, withstood every hook and uppercut, and laboured their adversaries to honourable draws (1-1 against both Napoli and Milan, 2-2 with Inter).
At the same time, when going up against the stragglers of Serie A, Eusebio Di Francesco's men have revealed a worrying propensity to get lost in their own courtyard, which is how they were defeated by Bologna, SPAL and Udinese – teams well below the level of quality one has to deal with in the Champions League.
That Roma are a difficult team to predict seems to be one of very few certainties that emerge from their fickle and turbulent season. Their home form on the international stage remains very good (Viktoria Plzen were eviscerated 5-0, CSKA Moscow demolished 3-0), but their attack can just as easily frustrate their opponents as Roma's own fans, while their precarious defence represents the team's most obvious weakness.
The midfield is excellent on paper, but akin to a snowflake in that it never adopts the same structure twice. Last week's odd decision to start Alessandro Florenzi on the left wing against Milan is but the most recent example of this chronic hunt for a convincing tactical form.
There is also the fact that Coach DiFra is fond of surprises. Once every four games or so he will do something that no rational person could possibly expect. Against Genoa he switched to a perplexing 3-4-3 formation, against Bologna he deployed central defender Ivan Marcano as a left-back, against Real Madrid he gave teenager Nicolò Zaniolo his debut. Thinking outside the box is a virtue, but these moves will either pay off in spectacular fashion or they will backfire, and there's no telling which.
Finally, the individual players also raise questions. Goalkeeper Antonio Mirante will be swimming in unfamiliar waters as he replaces injured Robin Olsen, while Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini are recovering from injury. Edin Dzeko is usually a monster in the Champions League, but his domestic form this season left a lot to be desired. Stephan El Shaarawy has been ruthlessly efficient for the past few matches, but he has a long history of being inconsistent. And that's just the top of the list.
All in all, and at the cost of risking a slight and unintended insult to the work of DiFra and his boys, I feel like Roma-Porto might be characterised as a coin-toss. That’s not to say the result is unpredictable, but that its turning point is indeterminate: is the outcome of a toss decided when the coin leaves the hand, or when the hand catches it? Is it decided on the exact minute, on the day, or perhaps years ago, when the person throwing the coin broke their wrist?
It is a natural habit, when the curtains close and the dust settles and the last chair has been turned over in the dark and empty bar, to look for reasons and accidents. Four months from now, everyone in Rome will hold the Giallorossi season in their hands and draw out in debates the genealogy of its success and failure, the champions and culprits that made things happen as they did.
Yet it is only the coin-toss of this match-up that will determine the worth of Di Francesco's work. Beating Porto and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals for a second year in a row would show Italy and the world that Roma are a regular at football's most exclusive table-for-eight. This is a privilege that even Juventus can't take for granted.
Winning would make a seasonal drop from third to fourth in Serie A acceptable, and it would transform the 7-1 loss to Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia from an ignominy into an anomaly (and a forgettable one, at that). It would unify and galvanise the fans, it would vindicate Di Francesco, sporting director Monchi and President James Pallotta.
The morale of the players would sky-rocket, which is fundamental to reaching a top four finish in Serie A, and their respective market value would rise, which alongside the prize money would make a huge, tangible difference once the transfer window opens. In brief, and with not a single ounce of hyperbole, the tie with Porto will define Roma's entire season.
Nobody expects DiFra to reach another semi-final, but there is a line between taking a step forward and one back, between a campaign going down as memorable or as much ado about nothing, and in Roma's case that line is right in front of them, guarded by Porto's combative XI. It is impossible to say what will decide the outcome of this game, which is another way of saying that the outcome, like that of any coin-toss, has already been decided.
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