Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco the mastermind behind Barcelona comebackby Chloe Beresford / 11 April 2018, 16:18Tweet
It was a warm evening in Reggio Emilia back in September 2016. The Sassuolo supporters that had gathered in the Mapei Stadium to witness their first ever foray in Europe may had been few, but they were excited all the same.
That historic occasion saw them host Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, a side who had reached the final of that competition as recently as in the 2012/13 campaign. The Neroverdi were fearless in their approach despite an inferior history to their Basque opponents and - spearheaded by ambitious boss Eusebio Di Francesco - they raced to an unlikely 3-0 victory that day versus a side led by Ernesto Valverde.
The latter would of course go on to take a prestigious role at Barcelona and could have only felt a sense of deja vu as his current team were soundly beaten by the same scoreline on Tuesday evening, courtesy of Di Francesco’s AS Roma.
It was the unlikeliest and most sensational of comebacks after Barca had taken a somewhat undeserved 4-1 victory in the first leg at Camp Nou, and it was all credit to the Coach that he continued to believe in his side’s chances. “EDF” took forward the positives from the week before, focusing on the good aspects of the first leg performance rather than the seemingly insurmountable scoreline.
To say that the Blaugrana simply didn't turn up at the Stadio Olimpico wouldn't be inaccurate, Valverde’s men managing just nine shots - only three of which were on target - whilst allowing their determined opponent to pepper Marc-André ter Stegen’s goal with no less than 17 attempts. But to focus on the failures of Barca would be to do a disservice to the tactical acumen and belief of Di Francesco and the sheer will of his players on the night.
Star midfielder Radja Nainggolan returned to the lineup as the young boss reshuffled his tactics, deploying a surprise 3-4-1-2 formation. Such a switch was even more shocking for those regular viewers of Italian football, supporters who know all-too-well that Di Francesco is normally heavily attached to his favoured 4-3-3. He revealed after the match that he had stayed awake until 5am the night after their weekend defeat to Fiorentina in order to conceive the new system, his insomnia paying off in spectacular style in midweek.
While it has been difficult to get strikers Patrik Schick and Edin Dzeko working in harmony in the league, this change allowed the duo to put in their best performance to date together, supplied with chances created by giving extra freedom to wing-backs Aleksandar Kolarov and Alessandro Florenzi by playing them in front of the three centre-backs.
“Tactically, we were a step above them. If Barcelona don’t get to play the ball to feet and pass it around comfortably, they really struggle,” said Florenzi to reporters at Mediaset Premium after the game.
“The Coach will decide, but what we saw tonight should increase this man’s credibility. We players never doubted him, but some in the media and the stands…
“At half-time, he told us to stay calm, as we knew that we could achieve this miracle. We brought home an historic result. Roma hadn’t been in a semi-final for 34 years.”
That aforementioned semi-final resulted in a win for Roma bizarrely versus Dundee United, the Giallorossi eventually losing on penalties to Liverpool in the 1984 final. That took place just one year after Daniele De Rossi was born, and the Captain was the linchpin in ensuring that he and all his team-mates worked tirelessly to make the newly-conceived formation work.
In recent years Roma have been under the spell of a weak mentality, a factor exacerbated by former bosses Rudi Garcia and Luciano Spalletti. Under that duo this side would likely have crumbled in the second leg versus a larger opponent such as Barca but they have emerged as strong and resolute thanks to the work of their former midfielder Di Francesco.
Such long-awaited success in the Champions League has emerged in the face of sales of key players - such as Antonio Rudiger, Mohamed Salah and Leandro Paredes - from a manager who had no previous experience of Europe’s most elite club competition. Tuesday night proved that Roma will be no pushovers in the semi-final, and it is Eusebio Di Francesco who believes in his team more than anyone else.