It still seems bizarre that it took 56 years for a team from the English capital to win the Champions League. In Munich in 2012 Chelsea put London on the roll of honour after defeating Bayern on penalties. Italy’s capital, Rome, still awaits similar joy.
Roma came close in 1984, losing the final at home to Liverpool on spot kicks. The Giallorossi have had some eye-catching results since ’84, including a win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in October 2002. But the men from the Eternal City have never looked like reigning over the continent. Lazio haven’t featured in the tournament since the 2015-16 qualifying round.
Wednesday night Roma’s latest quest to join the Champions League capital class stops off at Stamford Bridge. The three times scudetto winners have a new coach, Eusebio Di Francesco, who took over from Luciano Spalletti (now at Inter Milan). The Romans are in fifth place in Serie A, with five wins and two losses from seven games. In Europe they drew 0-0 at home to Atletico Madrid and beat Qarabag 2-1 in Azerbaijan.
Alessandro Florenzi and Kevin Strootman (R) lead the way as Roma train on Tuesday morning
Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco speaks to the media ahead of Wednesday’s game at Chelsea
(Back row L-R) Kostas Manolas, Alisson Becker, Bruno Peres, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Juan Jesus, Edin Dzeko, (Front row L-R) Diego Perotti, Radja Nainggolan, Daniele De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov line-up before their defeat by Napoli on Saturday
Their league defeats were a ‘smash and grab’ by Inter and a tense 1-0 reverse to Napoli on Saturday night. Di Francesco arrived from minnows Sassuolo, where he is worshipped for turning the team into Serie A regulars with a pleasing brand of football. His approach is less confrontational and combative than Spalletti.
Where Spalletti was a dictator, ‘DiFra’, as the media call him, is a philosopher who wants to coax the best out of players, not hammer it out of them. As a player he was a hard-running, sacrificial midfielder for Roma, and part of the 2001 league winning squad.
Having a happy history with the Giallorossi doesn’t guarantee unconditional support though. It’s what happens on the pitch that is fundamental. As Corriere dello Sport’s Roma expert Roberto Maida explains, things are ticking along nicely.
‘The new feature under Di Francesco is using the ball more carefully. Under Spalletti there were a lot of long balls, normally to Mohamed Salah. But now Salah has gone. So it’s more about nicking the ball in midfield,’ says Maida.
Florenzi leaps into the air to have a shot at goal ahead of the crucial Champions League clash
Strootman challenges De Rossi as Dzeko (right) prepares to return to England with Roma
The Italian continues: ‘The team is very compact and keep the ball on the ground. The tactic of playing it long to Edin Dzeko to knock down to Salah has obviously gone. And pressing is rationed. If you press all game you’ll tire quickly.’
In Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov, Roma have players who know the English game well, and that could work in their favour, according to Maida. But the loss of central defender Kostas Manolas is a huge blow. The classy Greek centre back is becoming increasingly important.
A muscle strain will keep Manolas out for at least a month. On the plus side, Brazilian goalkeeper Allison Becker is earning rave reviews. ‘Allison’s form has been a wonderful surprise,’ says Maida.
Dzeko rises to win a header against Napoli’s Raul Albiol at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday
De Rossi may be 34 but he brings plenty of experience to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday
Nainggolan has caught the eye in Roma’s midfield during the early part of the season
Midfielder Radja Nainggolan could be the man to watch, and not just for his flamboyant hairstyle. The energetic, whole-hearted Belgian has been at his flexible best this season, covering all positions in a midfield three, and Di Francesco has even pushed him up behind Dzeko in the No 10 role.
Exciting young Czech attacker Patrik Schick is not expected to be fit for another week or two, which deprives UK fans the chance of witnessing his mercurial talents. Right back Rick Karsdorp, signed in the summer from Dutch champions Feyenoord, has recovered from a knee operation but isn’t expected to feature at Chelsea.
Despite the absentees, which also include French forward Gregoire Defrel, last year’s Serie A runners-up have got enough pedigree to give Chelsea a good game. Veteran Daniele De Rossi’s legs are a little slower these days, but his know-how is second to none.
Di Francesco looks animated as he continues his preparations for Wednesday night’s big game
Goalkeeper Alisson works on his handling skills ahead of the trip to Stamford Bridge
Nainggolan (left) looks for the ball as Roma’s players are put through their paces on Tuesday
Dzeko is reborn after a slow start in Italy, and scored 39 goals in all competitions last campaign. The former Manchester City striker has seven in the league and one in Europe this term.
Blues boss Antonio Conte, who won the Champions League final as Juventus vice-captain in Rome’s Olympic Stadium in 1996, certainly won’t underestimate Di Francesco’s developing side.
The Giallorossi are nowhere near the finished article, but DiFra’s methods are already bearing fruit. Patience is the key, whatever the result in west London. After all, Roma wasn’t built in day.