Recent progress has Roma supporters dreaming of Champions League crown
On Sunday morning, Roma fans woke up with the special glow that only a derby victory against Lazio can bring. Their team has made huge strides in the past two months, and with their local rivals swept away with a display of power and maturity, Romanisti are wondering just how far this team can go.
Roma's euphoric win against Lazio -- who are having a record-breaking season of their own -- was built as much on the renewed solidity of their defence as it was the quick-fire second half goals from Diego Perotti and Radja Nainggolan. Under pressure for 20 minutes after Kostas Manolas clumsily handled an innocuous Nani cross and allowed Ciro Immobile to lash home his 15th league goal of the season from the penalty spot, Roma shut up shop and didn't allow free-scoring Lazio another chance at goal. It's that sort of defending that gives the 3,000 travelling fans confidence ahead of Wednesday night.
"We were compact and they didn't have the chance to draw or win the match besides the penalty," said Federico Fazio, one of the weekend's standout performers.
The progress Roma have made can be seen in the way Eusebio Di Francesco's side have performed in the Champions League. Drawn with Premier League champions Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, runner-up in two of the past four finals, no one gave the Italians a prayer of even making it out of the Group C, let alone topping the group. But with Wednesday's match at the Wanda Metropolitano looming, that's exactly where they are, unbeaten and ahead of the Blues and Los Colchoneros on eight points, needing only a draw to qualify for the knockout stages and condemn Atleti -- one of Europe's preeminent sides -- to the Europa League.
How different it all looked in September, when Di Francesco celebrated wildly after Roma's opening goal-less draw with Atleti, secured thanks to superb goalkeeping from Alisson and the woodwork at the Curva Sud end of the Stadio Olimpico. That display, which featured just one shot on target from the home side, didn't bode well for the two clashes with Chelsea, but Roma got their act together just in time to see off hated Juventino Antonio Conte and put one foot in the Round of 16. Roma's position is so strong that even a defeat on Wednesday wouldn't be a disaster, as a win in their final match against Qarabag in Rome would see them through.
Roma's eight-point tally is one more than Chelsea, who travel to Qarabag, the team Roma have to thank for their chance to qualify with a match to spare. After their 6-0 hammering at the hands of Chelsea and defeat to Roma in Baku, nothing to show for against Atletico was all anyone was expecting. Instead the Azerbaijani's two draws with the Spanish giants have left Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann on three points and the edge of elimination.
Giving Roma further heart are Atleti's problems in front of goal and their underwhelming record at their new stadium, where they haven't won since late September. In that time they've lost to Chelsea and followed that up with four consecutive draws with Barcelona, Villarreal, Qarabag and Real Madrid, and though Atleti are still unbeaten in La Liga, they are 10 points behind leaders Barca and struggling for goals -- just 18 in 16 matches in all competitions. Fallen star Griezmann has netted just three times and was booed off in the Madrid derby at the weekend, and the way Roma are defending a 10th clean sheet of the season must surely be the objective.
That aim has been complicated by the absence of Alessandro Florenzi, who will miss the trip to Spain with an inflamed knee, but in any case Di Francesco will make at least four changes to the team that beat Lazio. Beyond Bruno Peres replacing Florenzi, Lorenzo Pellegrini will step in for one of Nainggolan or Kevin Strootman, and Maxime Gonalons could also line up in midfield alongside the young Italian in place of Daniele De Rossi.
Juan Jesus, who has played every single minute of the group stage, will start with Fazio in defence instead of Manolas, and in attack Gerson will reprise the right-wing role he performed so well at Chelsea and Fiorentina, leaving Stephan El Shaarawy on the bench. The use of Gerson on the flank will make Roma less all-out in attack against a team that have conceded even fewer than Roma this season -- just nine -- but will allow Di Francesco to create a defensive midfield block designed to frustrate goal-shy Atleti and gain the single Roma point need to book their place where it counts.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley