Edin Dzeko aims to send Roma into quarterfinals as he nears club record
On a balmy early evening in November 1988, Roma took to the Stadio Olimpico pitch facing elimination from the UEFA Cup. A 4-2 beating at the hands of Partizan Belgrade in what was then still Yugoslavia left Nils Liedholm needing to win by at least two clear goals; at a pulsating building site of a ground, a thumping Rudi Voller strike and an ice-cold penalty from Roma's other legendary local No. 10, Giuseppe Giannini, put paid to Partizan. Can Luciano Spalletti's contemporary Roma, led by modern day goal-scoring hero Edin Dzeko, repeat that feat against Lyon on Thursday night?
Dzeko will lead the line against Lyon knowing that he has the chance not just to shoot Roma into the quarterfinals of the Europa League, but to enter into Giallorosso history when doing so. On Sunday night, the Bosnian become just the third-ever Roma player to reach 30 goals in a single season, coming off the bench at Palermo to end a four-game mini-drought and seal a crucial three points in the race for the Champions League.
Now Dzeko is just four strikes away from the club's all-time single season record of 34, set way back in 1960-61 by Pietro Manfredini, and two away from Francesco Totti's best season total. His strangely lacklustre performance in the first leg was one of his season's lowest moments and an improved display from the striker will be crucial not just to tap his own scoring potential, but to unleash the pace of Mohamed Salah and likely "surprise" selection, Stephan El Shaarawy.
The former Manchester City man knows all about dramatic comebacks and is confident they can overcome the talented but fragile Ligue 1 side.
"When I was at City, we won our first title in 44 years in the final four minutes of the season," he said on Wednesday. "We were losing in the 90th minute and then I and Aguero scored to win the league. I always believe."
That win against Dzeko's former compatriots three decades ago was played out in front of a stadium that positively throbbed from the fans' raucous support. The Curva Sud, the home of Roma's most passionate fans, had been knocked down as part of the Stadio Olimpico's redevelopment for Italia '90, but the fans amassed at the other end of the ground roared their team across the line. Roma will not be getting that same shove from fans on Thursday.
The most optimistic estimates suggest no more than 30,000 fans will be rattling around the huge Olimpico for the match that makes or breaks Roma's season. Just 14,000 tickets were sold as of Tuesday evening thanks in large part to a long-running dispute over barriers erected over the Curva Sud in the summer of 2015, a protest that has seen Roma's hardcore fans abandon home matches and led to a drastic drop in attendance numbers at the Olimpico.
The embarrassing prospect of one of Italy's two remaining European representatives led to Sky Sport striking a deal with Roma to offer people who have had a subscription with them for more than a year 50 percent off tickets in the Olimpico's Tevere and Monte Mario side stands.
Coach Spalletti's plea for fans to return -- "I don't understand why that in order to spite the institutions they damage the club they love" -- has fallen on deaf ears. Prominent Romanista and fan lawyer Lorenzo Contucci outlined that it's not just the barriers that are keeping people away, but also draconian security measures like police stripping supporters of scarves with the message "May God strike you down" and fines being dished out to fans who don't sit in their assigned seat.
"I'm not sure how Spalletti would take it if his child had to pay a €167 fine just for supporting their team," he said to the Corriere Dello Sport. "Unfortunately this is only a problem in Rome. A few of days ago everyone went mad for the spectacle we saw at the Genoa derby, but at the Marassi fans were allowed to bring in smoke bombs and flares, which is a crime. In Rome that would be completely impossible."
Shorn of that extra push a crowd can give a team, Spalletti's team is going to have to go at it alone. They can expect Lyon to come to Rome and attack; if the first half of last week's first leg highlighted the French team's abundant defensive frailties, the second showed just how much power and skill they have up top.
"We're not going to Italy to defend our lead, because playing defensively isn't in our DNA," said Lyon's Euro 2016-winning goalkeeper Anthony Lopes in Wednesday's Corriere Dello Sport. "We'll try to play aggressively like we did in the first leg. Our attacking power means that we'll try to score as many goals as possible."
Corentin Tolisso, Nabil Fekir, Mathieu Valbuena and Alexandre Lacazette flayed Roma in the first leg, and how Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman deal with Tolisso will be Thursday's pivotal battle. With that in mind Roma will likely switch their back three to a four, with the aim of choking Lyon and hitting them with their own powerful attack, led by a man intent on repeating the feat of Voller and Co. and carving out a space in Roma history.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley