On the 19th of February, the Champions League pits against each other two of the most emblematic teams in European football, in the shape of Roma and Real Madrid.
Connecting the Giallorossi and the Blancos
Although there is little tradition linking these two clubs, some current personnel will have experienced the ins and outs of both teams. New England manager Fabio Capello managed both sides with a great degree of success, although his rein at both clubs ended somewhat acrimoniously. Capello walked thin ice for some time in the Italian capital, due to a stormy relationship with Roma idol Francesco Totti, whom Real Madrid have attempted to sign on numerous occasions in the past.
Another tempestuous star, Antonio Cassano, moved in the other direction, gracing the Real Madrid dressing rooms in 2006, and reuniting last season with Capello, the man who had coined the term “Cassanata” to refer to an action by a footballer that is antithetical to team spirit. After a short sojourn in which Cassano hardly left a great impression, or at least not a footballing one, Peter Pan was eventually loaned out to Sampdoria.
Both of A.S. Roma’s full-backs have donned the famous white shirt: the rejuvenated Christian Panucci playing for the club between 1997 and 1999, whilst flamboyant Brazilian Cicinho, who never really got a chance with Los Merengues, departed Madrid for Rome over the summer, and has flourished in his new surroundings.
A.S. Roma’s most recent league championship triumph came in 2001, which was the last time that Real Madrid had won the Primera Liga before Capello’s arrival.
In the last six meetings between the two clubs, Real Madrid have a clear upper hand: the Spanish colossus have won four, including the last two (3-0 away and 4-2 at home in 2004), and lost just the one, at home in 2002 by a margin of one goal to nil. Real have also had great success against Rome’s other big side, Lazio Roma — indeed, Real’s “defeat” column at the Stadio OlÃmpico is very bare indeed.
Totti vs. Raúl
Francesco Totti and González Blanco Raúl are two anachronisms of modern football: exceptionally talented footballers who have stuck with their home-town clubs for the entirety of their careers, despite lucrative and tempting transfer offers. These two icons of world football will surely go down in history for their loyalty as much as for their supreme talents.
Both players are shrouded in footballing history, and the duo have numerous accolades to their names: Raúl currently stands as the all-time leading goalscorer in the Champions League, with 59 goals, and holds the same record with his national side. With just twenty goals separating him from Alfredo di Stefano’s record as Real Madrid’s top marksman (di Stefano got 216 league goals for the club), Raúl can be counted upon to break yet another record before his illustrious career is over. This season, Raúl has 14 goals in 29 appearances, and has formed a frightening (if slightly sluggish) partnership with Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Raúl is loved not only for his abilities, but also for his passion and commitment, qualities that saw him retain his place at Real Madrid despite a couple of disappointing seasons between 2003 and 2005.
Since manager Luciano Spalletti changed his formation to make Totti the fulcrum of the A.S. Roma attack, Francesco Totti’s form has been absolutely devastating. The reigning European Golden Boot holder, with 32 goals from 56 appearances last season, Totti has scored 13 goals in 19 matches in the current campaign, and has also provided numerous assists for his team-mates. Totti is a magician with the ball at his feet, an entertainer, and possesses the strength and drive to hold off defenders in all parts of the pitch. Famous for his patented chip (cucchiaio), Iker Casillas would be well warned to keep on his line during the tie, lest Totti punish him. Not to be outdone by his Spanish counterpart, Totti is Roma’s all-time leading goalscorer, as well as the top goalscorer in Serie A amongst active players.
Both clubs go into the tie in splendid domestic form: despite the whimpering defeat to Mallorca in the Copa del Rey, and a 2-0 defeat to surprising Almeria, Real are soaring, with their 7-0 destruction of poor Valladolid on Sunday being their ninth league win in ten matches. Roma, meanwhile, have won five of six league ties, with a 3-0 defeat at struggling Siena their only blemish of the new year so far.
Line-ups and tactics
Depending on the severity on Pepe’s injury, Real Madrid’s defensive line will be adjusted accordingly. With the presence of the Portuguese monster, expect the Whites to line up with Heinze and Ramos as full-backs, leaving Cannavaro and Pepe as the central defensive tandem. Should Pepe be ruled out, a number of permutations are possible, with both Heinze and Ramos capable of moving inside to central defence, to be replaced by Marcelo and Miguel Torres respectively. Of the two potential displacements, I would imagine the latter to be more appealing in the first-leg, since Schuster will almost definitely favour a more defensive line-up, and Marcelo retains a certain inexperience that could prove costly.
I would expect Schuster to opt for Baptista instead of Guti in the centre of midfield, sacrificing the sulky Spaniard’s silken skills for the Beast’s combative qualities, especially since much of Roma’s strength is derived from their midfield generals Simone Perrotta and Daniele De Rossi, the latter being, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in European football. Roma’s “first-eleven” is not particularly easy to guess, although the hub of Doni, Panucci, Cicinho, Mexes (another former Real Madrid target), De Rossi, Vucinic and Totti (if fit), can be expected to take part.
In defence, Panucci and Cicinho are likely to play, although Ferrari can take either’s place, whilst Juan and Mexes would be my preferred central defensive partnership. In midfield, again, The Wolves have a multitude of options, with their precise midfield combinations determined by tactical necessity. Roma will know that a win is all-but necessary in order to stand a decent chance of progressing to the quarter finals: as such, we can expect the Giallorossi to pressurise Real’s defence whenever possible, working the ball to wide men Mancini and Giuly and trying to offer Totti as many balls as possible over the top.
Real will approach the first-leg with the knowledge that any decent result will set them up nicely for the return tie: Los Merengues have a 100% record in the league and Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu this season, and have conceded just 11 goals at home in these competitions. Roma, meanwhile, are unbeaten at home since their 4-1 thumping at the hands of Inter Milan back in September, including a run of seven consecutive Serie A wins.
Although Roma have been excellent this season, Real Madrid’s form has surpassed all expectations, and Bernd Schuster has his side better fired-up and organised than a Real Madrid team has been in years. I see Real Madrid taking the lead through Van Nistelrooy, before being pegged back by a late equalizer from ex-Barcelona man Ludovic Giuly, setting us up for an interesting dénouement at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Go back to the full 16-team 2007/2008 UEFA Champions League 2nd Round Preview on Soccerlens.