FC Barcelona are heavy favorites for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against AS Roma. Not only do Roma have a less stellar reputation, but the match will take place at Camp Nou.
Many say they prefer playing the second leg at home, but statistical analysis have shown that that is not really a meaningful advantage. (If it is an advantage, it must be small enough for it not to be noticeable in statistical analysis.)
Ernesto Valverde will likely field his team in a 4-4-2, and perhaps it’s fair to say the team picks itself. In fact, I’d expect a repeat of the team that beat Chelsea in the past round 3-0: Marc-André ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba; Ousmane Dembélé, Ivan Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta; Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez.
For Roma, it’s slightly more complicated. Cengiz Ünder has been ruled out, and while he was not a sure starter, he probably would have played a role. Radja Nainggolan’s fitness is in question, though it looks like he will play. That would be a boon to Eusebio Di Francesco, as Nainggolan is one of the team’s key players.
Di Francesco is sure to persist with a 4-3-3 formation in any case, with Edin Džeko as his focal point in attack. Alisson Becker will be the goalkeeper, as he continues having a fantastic season. He is undoubtedly one of Roma’s key men.
Roma have carried the reputation for many years of being more expansive than the average Serie A side, which is seen as more committed to defense on average. To be fair, they have had some moments in the Champions League where they have looked like the team always looking to score one more, no matter how many they concede - when they drew 3-3 against Chelsea and when they beat Chelsea 3-0. They did defeat Napoli 4-2 recently as well. But looking at their league form in general, they actually don’t score that many - they’re fifth in Serie A in that regard, while they are third in the table.
However, they take the most shots per game (Džeko being the main contributor in this regard) and second-most possession in the league (albeit tied with Juventus, so this is relative, since this is Serie A we are talking about.)
Roma’s midfield is made up of all-arounders - Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman, and Nainggolan, if he is fit. All three can defend and are capable of picking out a pass. De Rossi sits furthest back, while Strootman is the most balanced. Nainggolan is the most attack-minded and he’s one of Roma’s key men in creating chances. The Belgian’s fitness could be in question, however.
Flanking Džeko will be Diego Perrotti, and with Ünder out, Stephan El Shaarawy could take the other spot. In defense, we should expect to see their most-used back four: Alessandro Florenzi, Kostas Manolas, Federico Fazio, and Aleksandar Kolarov.
Against Barcelona’s 4-4-2, we could see Roma’s two wingers operate more as wide midfielders, essentially making the formation 4-5-1. Roma’s midfielders will attempt to press Busquets when he has the ball, and cover his passing options going forward. The Catalan is returning from a foot injury, but his ability to pick a pass will be crucial - assuming he is fully fit. I don’t think Roma will press as high as the opposition box, but I can see them trying to deny Barcelona players time on the ball once they get to about midfield.
Barcelona’s shape will be asymmetrical, with Alba on the left pushing up more than Roberto on the right, but Dembélé on the right getting further forward than Iniesta on the left. Then you have Messi on the right willing to drop into a trequartista space on the right, with Suárez staying further forward.
Barcelona’s wide players could be left isolated against Roma’s fullbacks as the Italian club will attempt to remain narrow and deny Messi and co. the space to create from the middle. Dembélé is starting to gain more prominence in the squad, and his skills when one-on-one will be very important. There’s also Alba’s famed connection with Messi as a source of dangerous chances that Roma will have to think about.
In attack, Roma will try to get their wingers the ball to run at Barcelona on the counter, and Džeko’s role will be to finish off chances - be they in the air or otherwise - or hold up play long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Interestingly, Chelsea nearly signed Džeko before getting Olivier Giroud from Arsenal. Barcelona marshaled Giroud effectively, and they are similar players. With Piqué and Umtiti, Barça have two forces in the air, and they’ll be able to double up on him. However, Džeko is still clearly the dangerman. He sometimes gets stereotyped as purely a targetman, but he’s actually good with the ball at his feet. His goal against Shakhtar Donetsk that put Roma in the next round was him running in behind and finishing, and in the first leg, he assisted their sole goal via a through ball to Ünder.
Roma blow hot and cold, and often it comes down to whether their wingers are in form or not. Unfortunately for them, they have let Mohamed Salah go before he reached peak form, and they have not been able to replace his creativity once he departed to Liverpool. They are missing Ünder, but their other wingers do have talent. Can they be matchwinners in a game of this magnitude though?
Di Francesco has let his central midfielders roam forward - particularly Nainggolan - but I suspect he will ask them to be more disciplined for this match. Their fullbacks will break forward only rarely. They may be playing for the 0-0, and with their keeper in terrific form. they’ll feel they have a chance for it.
The pressure will be on Barcelona to get a result, doubly so at home. Sevilla showed they can be vulnerable at times even against teams that are not favorites for the UCL, although to be fair, it was right after the international break. Still, with only a few days’ rest, will Barça be up for it physically? Of course, the Messi factor cannot be underestimated, either. He has pulled Barcelona through on the big matches so far in the Champions League, scoring or assisting a majority of Barcelona’s Champions League goals on the big ocassions. What happens if he has a day off? It could happen. Will Suárez and the rest pick up the slack?
Barcelona will need to score in any case, because, though their form has improved under Valverde, they are one of the teams with the biggest differences between home results and away results. That is to say, if they do not secure a good home result, their chances of progressing plummet - even more than the average side’s when they disappoint at home.