When Roma travel to Camp Nou for tonight's Champions League quarter-final clash with Barcelona, it will be the biggest match of coach Eusebio Di Francesco’s career to date.
The 48-year-old former Giallorossi midfielder replaced Luciano Spalletti in the capital this summer as American owner James Pallotta oversaw big changes on and off the pitch.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Roma captain Francesco Totti retired at the end of 2016/17, the legendary captain moving upstairs into a backroom role after a glittering career that had begun way back in 1992.
Pallotta also pulled off an incredible coup as by snaring famed former Sevilla sporting director Monchi, the Spaniard credited with a major part in the Rojiblancos' European success in recent years thanks to his transfer wizardry.
Spalletti – now at Internazionale – had not fared too badly domestically but crashed out of the Champions League in a playoff with Porto and only reached the round of 16 after they dropped into the Europa League. Therefore, bringing in a new boss to accompany the off-field changes made perfect sense as the club attempted to move forward.
Di Francesco seemed to be a perfect fit for the owner’s vision too. Young and forward thinking, he had taken minnows Sassuolo from Serie B to the Europa League in just four seasons and had a clear tactical vision. In Reggio Emilia the coach was wedded to his preferred 4-3-3 formation, playing attractive, positive football with Simone Zaza, Domenico Berardi and Nicola Sansone in the Neroverdi attacking trident.
Not only that, but as a former Roma player he would have been used to the vociferous critics in the city; fans and journalists alike all ready to state their opinion of how the side is performing. A thick skin an essential part of a resumé for any potential Roma coach. Di Francesco played under Zdeněk Zeman at the Stadio Olimpico, a man who admits helped shape his love for the 4-3-3.
“Zeman's 4-3-3 cannot be bettered, as in terms of attacking football he is beyond reach,” Di Francesco said upon his appointment at Lecce back in 2011. “I learned so much from him, such as sporting fairness and the culture of using action rather than words.”
Yet in the current campaign, Di Francesco has quickly learned he cannot be so reliant on the same setup in a top job. Results for Roma having fluctuated somewhat as he has come to terms with this.
The Giallorossi have notched up 18 wins, six draws and six losses in this Serie A campaign but could lose third place to Inter before they play Barcelona on Wednesday should the San Siro outfit triumph in the Milan derby with kick-off at 5.30pm.
From December 23 until the end of January, Roma only claimed three points in six domestic matches, failing to win throughout that period. It was then the coach decided upon a change in formation, moving away from 4-3-3 to utilise a 4-2-3-1 system that had been deployed at Roma by previous boss Spalletti.
“With the 4-2-3-1, Radja Nainggolan is closer to me and we have two midfielders behind us. We’re getting results, so evidently something has changed,” Edin Džeko told Roma's matchday programme after his side had pulled off three wins from three following that tactical shift.
“I can’t say we were playing badly with the 4-3-3, but there was a wobbly period and that required some changes.”
This has proved the intelligence and flexibility of a boss who has taken Roma to a Champions League quarter-final for the first time since the 2007/08 season in his first foray into the competition.
However, there can be no underestimating the task at hand against Barcelona and the Giallorossi will have to be at their very best to stand any chance at all of competing with the Catalan giants.
Despite success with the 4-2-3-1 in the league, it is unlikely Di Francesco will go with such an attacking formation on Wednesday evening at Camp Nou. The 4-3-3 that the boss knows so well will serve his side better, in order that Roma avoid being overrun by Barça’s midfield.
Their best hope remains soaking up pressure created by inevitable possession from the La Liga outfit and hitting them on the counter. Defending from these situations is one of very few chinks in Barcelona's armour this term.
Roma know only too well how important it is to keep things tight in this first leg away from home. In November 2015 Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi both scored braces as the Catalan giants thumped Roma 6-1 in the Champions League group.
This term Ernesto Valverde’s men are unbeaten at home, meaning the Lupi would do well to keep the scores even before they return to the Stadio Olimpico next week.
Roma need only cast their minds back to Sevilla's draw with Barça on Saturday to remember they cannot afford to be complacent for a second. Vincenzo Montella’s side were pegged back to a 2-2 draw last weekend with goals from Suárez and Messi in the final three minutes.
Di Francesco is well aware, therefore, he and his side will have to be at their absolute best to even stand a chance of competing versus the five-time Champions League winners.