Teams simply don’t come back from a 4-1 first leg defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Champions League quarter finals. It just doesn’t happen. Yet facing this scoreline, AS Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco had faith, even if no-one else did.
“I think we should choose our strongest line-up tomorrow, it’s important and we must believe,” the former Sassuolo boss told the Roma official website ahead of the second leg. “Let’s perform with great heart and passion. We have to honour and respect our club colours, so we’ll give it our all and we deserve the chance to achieve something huge.
“Why not believe until the end and hope we can achieve something unprecedented? We’re trailing by three goals, so it’s a really tough ask, but we have the duty to try.”
In the end, his side did achieve something extraordinary that night, a 3-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico having shocked and excited the world of football in equal measure.
They would of course, secure a semi-final clash with Liverpool as a result of that incredible achievement, but they find themselves facing a large deficit once again as they suffered a 5-2 defeat at Anfield.
Roma were unlucky to have lost by such a heavy margin versus Barcelona in the previous round, but were thoroughly outplayed by Liverpool at Anfield and are only in with the smallest chance of a comeback thanks to two away goals scored late on in that match.
However, another 3-0 win would see the Giallorossi through to the final and their boss still has that evergreen faith that they can pull it off.
“I came here to launch a message,” said the boss on Italian TV channel RAI on Sunday. “This team has had a great journey and we don’t want to stop now. We want to believe in this comeback, because that is my attitude to life.
“I am an optimist by nature, football is joy and it must be lived as such. What pushes me on is passion and giving joy to people. I like to leave the celebrating to others at the final whistle, because that’s part of the job.”
Optimism is clearly important when facing such a deficit, but Di Francesco will have to come up with a different tactical approach in the second leg versus the Reds, after his first attempt so spectacularly failed.
The coach revealed that he had stayed up all night to conceive a 3-4-1-2 system that would undo Barcelona, but using the same blueprint versus Liverpool was naive at best and suicidal at worst.
The back three was repeatedly left completely exposed by the pace and dynamism of the home side’s attacking trident of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and ex-Roma winger Mohamed Salah.
What’s worse is that Di Francesco should’ve known just how lethal the latter could be, the Egyptian having spent two and a half seasons on the peninsula before his move to Merseyside this summer.
Make no mistake, the window of opportunity for a comeback is miniscule here and to pose any credible threat of doing so, the coach must deploy another tactical shift.
It is somewhat ironic that Di Francesco was criticised earlier this term for an over-reliance of his favoured 4-3-3 system, yet a back four would’ve given his side at least half a chance of containing Liverpool in that fateful first leg.
The shift to back three worked brilliantly against Barcelona, but Roma are now expected to revert back to the tactic that their boss knows so well. Centre-back Kostas Manolas was rested at the weekend as the capital club defeated Chievo 4-1 but a four-man defence was restored, the side having triumphed despite a sending off for defender Juan Jesus.
Bruno Peres was brought in for Alessandro Florenzi at right-back in that encounter, and the Brazilian thinks that Liverpool will see a different side in the second leg:
“The team all chipped in, but we didn’t expect them to start so strongly and it surprised us,” admitted Peres to Sky Italia. “Now we know how they play, we have to do more and our Coach is preparing this game well, so we’re ready to make another miracle happen.”
The fact that the fullback revealed it is only now that they know how Liverpool play is a little worrying, but at least this side are now in full possession of the facts after having been so ferociously undone.
Perhaps Di Francesco wanted to avoid taking on Liverpool man-for-man by avoiding matching up with Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3, but this is now his only chance to reach the final.
Roma must hope that by starting on an even keel in terms of formation, their effort, desire and belief in making another comeback will shine through.
Almost nobody will believe they can do it, but their coach did against Barça and he will do again on Tuesday evening back on home soil again in Italy’s capital city.