Roma's Daniele De Rossi gets chance at redemption in clash with Qarabag
While the few fans who bothered to show up for Roma's 3-1 stroll against 10-man SPAL on Friday enjoyed watching their team dismantle their lowly opposition, the hardcore supporters gathered in the Stadio Olimpico's Curva Sud pulled up a banner in support of local boy done good Daniele De Rossi, absent after his inexplicable and damaging behaviour against Genoa the previous weekend.
"Roman blood... DDR our captain"
A Roman-born Romanista from the tough seaside town of Ostia, De Rossi's lifetime of support for (and career with) the Giallorossi allows him the sort of leeway with the fans that most other players wouldn't be permitted. De Rossi wasn't on the pitch on Friday thanks to his daft red card at Genoa, and the banner was raised as a blind show of faith in someone whose behaviour cost the team he was supposed to be leading a crucial three points. You're our representative out there -- we back you, was the message.
Suspended for both Friday's match and the trip to Chievo on Sunday after lashing out at Gianluca Lapadula and giving away a penalty that allowed struggling Genoa to draw 1-1 and end Roma's Serie A record run of consecutive away wins, the former Italy midfielder has a chance to redeem himself in Tuesday's do-or-die Champions League clash with Group C minnows Qarabag. Not just for last week's suspension of judgement but for the last time Roma needed a result to move forward in the competition.
In August last year, with Roma trailing 2-1 on aggregate 39 minutes into the second leg of their playoff with Porto, De Rossi launched into a disgraceful tackle on Maxi Pereira that got him another straight red card and effectively ended his team's chances of progressing to the group stages -- as well as leaving Pereira needing surgery.
Later reduced to nine men thanks to another reckless challenge from left-back Emerson Palmieri, Roma lost 3-0 on the night after drawing the first leg 1-1 and missed out on the Champions League's financial bonanza. The reduced funds led to Roma having to sell Antonio Rudiger to Chelsea in the summer, as well as Mohamed Salah (who asked to leave and would probably have left anyway) to Liverpool.
De Rossi's side have one aim on Tuesday: win. Roma are second in Group C, two points behind leaders Chelsea and a further two ahead of Atletico Madrid in third, and a win over Qarabag will guarantee a place in the knockout stages. However, with Antonio Conte's Blues hosting Atleti, Roma have a great chance to not just qualify for the last 16 but to also top the group.
Diego Simeone's side have found some form in La Liga in recent weeks and have played themselves back into title contention, while Chelsea have won five of their last six games in all competitions since being turned over at the Stadio Olimpico. With both sides in good shape and tough to break down, a draw at Stamford Bridge (which would also qualify Roma regardless of their result) is well within the realm of possibility, and that would be enough for Roma to move level with Chelsea on points and take top spot at the death thanks to their superior head-to-head record.
Making Roma's task easier is the raft of absences that Qarabag manager Gurban Gurbanov has to deal with. The Azerbaijani coach has three starting defenders out for their trip to Rome, with centre-back Badavi Huseynov and Albanian left-back Ansi Agolli both injured and Huseynov's central defensive partner, Rashad Sadygov, is suspended after the unfortunate red card he received during their 4-0 home defeat to Chelsea last time out.
The away side's attacking threat will be severely dented too, with Brazilian winger Pedro Henrique also suspended. Henrique was Qarabag's most dangerous player during Roma's 2-1 win in Baku back in September, and pounced on a Maxime Gonalon's error to close the gap for the enthusiastic home side just as Rome looked set for a stroll in the park.
Qarabag have shown themselves to be nobody's cannon fodder -- their hammering at home to Chelsea was caused largely by Sadygov's harsh sending off -- and Eusebio Di Francesco is bringing out the big guns to make sure of qualification. Alongside the returning De Rossi will be Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman, the same midfield that hammered Chelsea, while Diego Perotti will line up in attack with Edin Dzeko and Stephan El Shaarawy.
With as much as €20 million riding on Tuesday's match, Di Francesco can't afford to take any chances. Few people gave them much hope of finishing above either Chelsea or Atletico when the group stage draw was born, now they have the chance to see off both. It's also an opportunity for De Rossi to show that he can do it when it matters, and exorcise the ghosts of meltdowns past.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley