If there’s going to be one place where hope always springs eternal, then it surely must be the Eternal City.
And so it proved on Tuesday night as Roma defied all expectations to overturn a three-goal first leg deficit and dump Barcelona out of the Champions League.
Only once before in the history of the competition had a side successfully come back from a three-goal margin to progress – Deportivo La Coruna against Milan in the 2003-04 quarter-finals.
Roma pulled off a sensational comeback to send Barcelona crashing out of the Champions League. Trailing 4-1 from the first leg, they won 3-0 at home to advance on away goals
Konstantinos Manolas (centre) scored in the 82nd minute to put Roma 3-0 ahead on the night
Centre back Manolas completed the remarkable turnaround by flicking home a header
But neither the dearth of positive historical omens, nor the firepower in the Barcelona ranks or the mountain they had to climb, could faze Roma on a glorious night inside the Stadio Olimpico.
Goals from Edin Dzeko, Daniele de Rossi and Kostas Manolas levelled the aggregate score, meaning Roma advanced to the semi-finals on away goals thanks to Dzeko’s goal in the Nou Camp last week.
Roma finished second to Juventus in Serie A last season, but they have certainly made strides this season under coach Eusebio Di Francesco, with this representing unprecedented progress in the Champions League.
We take a closer look at Barcelona’s Roman conquerors and what makes them tick.
The Roma fans create a colourful scene during the second leg of their quarter-final tie
A red flare lights up the Roma Ultras as they celebrate a famous result against Barcelona
The manager: Eusebio Di Francesco
Eusebio’s eureka moment came at five o’clock on Sunday morning. Unable to sleep after Roma’s home defeat by Fiorentina, Di Francesco found himself jotting down different ways in which he could stop Barcelona.
‘I couldn’t sleep, plus I’m a bit insane, so I got out of bed and drew up possible schemes for the Barcelona game, different looks that would put them under pressure in different ways,’ he said after Tuesday’s game.
‘And this came to me. Had it not worked, you would have killed me.’
His insomniac’s brainwave involved ditching the usual 4-3-3 formation to play a 3-5-2 with the 6ft 1in Czech Patrik Schick playing off 6ft 4in beanpole Edin Dzeko in attack, aided by the dynamic Radja Nainggolan behind them.
The result was that Barcelona were pressurized from the first whistle, while the back three of Federico Fazio, Manolas and Juan Jesus coped admirably with all Barcelona could throw at them.
Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco’s improvised game plan worked to perfection
The Spanish league leaders only had three shots on target in the entire match, which is about as toothless as they ever get.
Most impressive about Di Francesco is the way he coached a completely new game plan to his players in just two training sessions.
‘We had a long way to go after the first leg but all credit to the coach because he invented this formation two days ago, he drilled it into our heads and it worked wonders,’ said midfielder De Rossi.
‘I have never seen Barcelona struggle so much, we pressed them throughout the game from the first minute. It was the first time we played with three at the back and we did great.’
Di Francesco’s high stakes gamble to adopt a high line against a side containing the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez paid off handsomely and the 48-year-old Italian’s stock continues to rise.
A former midfielder, he was part of the Roma side that last won the Scudetto back in 2001.
Di Francesco was animated on the sidelines at the Stadio Olimpico as Roma claimed victory
Roma are currently in the fourth Champions League position in Serie A, but Inter are close
He was the man who guided Sassuolo into Serie A, keeping them there against all expectations and leading them to an oustanding sixth-place in 2015-16 and qualification for the Europa League.
This attracted the attention of bigger names and Roma moved to appoint him when Luciano Spaletti left for Inter last summer.
Spaletti had taken Roma to a second-place finish last season, just four points behind Scudetto winners Juventus, so Di Francesco had a high bar to clear.
At the moment, they sit fourth in the table, on course for Champions League qualification next season, but Spaletti’s Inter are breathing down their neck, just one point behind.
But their place in the Champions League semi-finals signifies real progress and who knows what could happen from here.
Di Francesco also had no problem taking the credit for Roma’s famous win. ‘I take the blame for defeats so I might as well take the credit for the win,’ he said.
A video showed Di Francesco stood at the door of the changing room post-match, embracing each member of his squad in turn as they came in. It signified a close bond that could take them far.
Roma’s players celebrate together after their stunning victory against Barcelona on Tuesday
Juan Jesus (right) posted this photo on Twitter of the celebrations inside the dressing room
(L-R) Kevin Strootman, Stephan El Shaarawy, Patrik Schick, Federico Fazio and Jesus
The owner: James Pallotta
The Romans love their fountains and club co-owner James Pallotta ended up taking a dip in one after this famous result.
Egged on by cheering fans, the 60-year-old American removed his blazer and tie before somersaulting backwards into the water.
A video of the moment, which went viral on social media, then shows Pallotta being swept away by the jubilant crowds.
‘I’ve never seen Roma play such a dominant 95 minutes,’ he said on television after the match. ‘What happened today was incredible.’
Pallotta is one of America’s most successful hedge-fund managers and head of the $9billion Raptor fund.
It was back in 2011 that Pallotta, along with three other American investors, took an 82 per cent stake in Roma – the first foreign majority owners in the club’s history.
Pallotta, who hails from Massachusetts, is also a director of the Boston Celtics NBA team and is a prominent philanthropist, donating millions to charity.
He backed Di Francesco in the transfer market last summer, with the Turkish wonderkid Cengiz Under brought in from Istanbul Basaksehir for around £11.7m.
Under replaced Schick with 17 minutes to play and that proved a masterstroke as he delivered the cross for Manolas to score the winner, another landmark in a superb debut season for the 20-year-old.
Schick, signed on loan from Sampdoria, has endured an injury-plagued season but delivered when it mattered against Barcelona.
Youngster Cengiz Under, who came on as a substitute, was at the centre of the celebrations
Turkish wonderkid Under came off the bench and set up the decisive goal for Manolas
A Roma flag is held aloft by fans outside the stadium as celebrations are taken to the streets
Supporters then lined the streets outside Stadio Olimpico after watching their team win
The in-demand goalkeeper: Alisson
Speaking before the game, Pallotta was once again adamant that Roma’s Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson won’t be leaving the Stadio Olimpico this summer.
‘Why should he leave? He will stay – he has a contract,’ said the owner. ‘I love him and I have never wanted to sell him. I thought he was great and now he’s showing how good he is.’
This kind of discussion has been cropping up regularly this season, with Real Madrid and Liverpool among the elite clubs interested in Alisson.
Roma goalkeeper Alisson celebrates following their Champions League win over Barcelona
Capped 25 times for Brazil, the 25-year-old stopped has emerged as one of the best in Europe during the present campaign.
Despite Pallotta’s comments, the reality is that Roma have been forced to sell star assets in recent times. Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger, Leandro Paredes and Emerson Palmieri departed last summer, while it was Miralem Pjanic the year before.
Trouble is, Roma remain under pressure from UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, imposed on them back in 2015, and this, exacerbated by a few seasons outside the Champions League, has led to the asset-stripping.
And it could well still mean that one of Alisson or Nainggolan leaves this summer.
Alisson makes an important save from Lionel Messi during Roma’s 3-0 win over Barcelona
It’s fair to say Pallotta isn’t the biggest fan of Financial Fair Play despite his numerous efforts to get the club back on the straight and narrow.
‘UEFA, in terms of Financial Fair Play, has been a complete s***-show for us,’ he told Sirius XM FC in his homeland last year.
‘We should be the poster boy for turning things around from the previous ownership.’
This run in the Champions League, and the associated financial rewards, will at least ease the situation.
Goalkeeper Alisson celebrates with Roma icon Francesco Totti after win over Barcelona
The goal-getter: Edin Dzeko
In the end, it was Edin Dzeko’s late consolation in the Nou Camp last week that proved the crucial away goal that carried Roma through.
The Bosnian was also the man who opened the scoring at the Stadio Olimpico six minutes in, setting the wheels in motion for an unforgettable night.
Dzeko, now 32, is well known to an English audience after his five successful seasons with Manchester City, in which he scored 72 goals in 189 appearances.
It was a spell that saw him win the Premier League twice, as well as the FA Cup and the League Cup.
Dzeko has been even more prolific since joining Roma in 2015 and has almost matched his overall City goal return in under three seasons.
Edin Dzeko retrieves the ball after opening the scoring six minutes into the second leg
Counting his goal on Tuesday night, he has 69 in 131 games for Roma, including 20 this season of which six have been in the Champions League.
It’s little wonder Dzeko was being linked to Chelsea in January as the Blues desperately searched for any kind of striker that might give them a physical presence. Dzeko is 6ft 4in, so certainly offers that.
Their progress to the semi-finals has certainly vindicated Dzeko’s decision to turn down the riches of the Premier League.
‘Now I can play in the semi-final too,’ he told Mediaset after the game. ‘I’m not interested in money. It was not easy, but I stayed here for this kind of game. I’m happy and I think the club are too.’
Goalscorer Edin Dzeko brought his son into the dressing room to celebrate the famous win
The warrior: Daniele De Rossi
There was an outpouring of social media love for Daniele De Rossi’s reaction after converting the penalty that put Roma two goals ahead against Barca.
It wasn’t quite the full Stuart Pearce from Euro ’96 but it wasn’t far off. With his tattoo sleeves, thick beard and untamed hair, De Rossi was the embodiment of the warrior spirit that dragged Roma through.
It was also a redemptive moment for the 34-year-old defensive midfielder, whose calamitous own goal set Barcelona on their way last week.
Daniele De Rossi celebrates at full-time after Roma made it through to the last four
The former Italy international is a one-club man and absolutely adored at Roma. And even though he should be entering the twilight of his career, he remains as integral as ever.
Tuesday night was his 588th competitive match for the club he joined as a 17-year-old in 2000.
He has been in and out of the side at times this season, but generally plays in the Champions League and the experience of almost 100 European matches shone through.
De Rossi, a one-club man, will always be a favourite of the Roma faithful
‘This is also very important for me too as I am 34 years old. This win is one of the best I have ever experienced since joining Roma,’ he said afterwards.
Those comments were revealing. De Rossi, a World Cup winner in 2006, must have turned down attractive offers to remain with his beloved Roma and sacrificed the chance to win trophies in so doing.
He doesn’t have a league or European winners medal in his collection, but will forever be a legend for the Giallorossi.
Roma captain Daniele De Rossi believes his side can go beyond the semi-finals stage
The legend: Francesco Totti
De Rossi may have some way to go to match Francesco Totti in the hierarchy of supporter adoration, however.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez this week revealed that Totti turned them down 12 years ago to remain with his one and only club.
Totti, who hung up his boots last year after 25 years with Roma, now serves as a club director and he looked elated as he offered his personal congratulations to each of the players in the dressing room post-match.
Roma never achieved anything of this magnitude on the European stage during his playing career but, as a fan, he will be absolutely elated.
Club legend turned director Francesco Totti watched on from the posh seats on Tuesday
The future: New stadium
There are more stirring sights in world football that the Stadio Olimpico in full cry, but the old place, Roma’s home ground since 1953, is starting to show its age.
However, fans should make the most of it because the club was recently granted permission to move to a new 52,000-capacity Stadio della Roma in time for the 2020-21 season.
They will be switching from the north-west to the south-west of the city in the area of Tor di Valle and the plans for the new stadium certainly look magnificent.
Roma have unveiled plans for a brand new stadium that is set to open in 2020
The 52,000-capacity stadium will mean Roma no longer have to ground-share with Lazio
Roma will also have a home of their own at last – they have ground-shared with Lazio, their bitter local rivals, since the place opened.
‘I’m delighted because I know what this decision could mean for Rome itself, for our club’s future and for our fans – and we want to give them the home they deserve,’ Pallotta has said.
Given the estimated cost of the project is £260m, all this Champions League cash will prove handy indeed.