Endeavour and passion drove the Italian side forward but it’d be bland to assume that those were the only qualities that the Giallorossi displayed. They dominated the Blaugrana by employing a high press game, restricting Ernesto Valverde’s preference to play from the back.
To implement the strategy, Roma’s industrious midfielders – Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman and Danielle De Rossi - needed to be on top of the game. De Rossi was particularly stunning, with the veteran Italian working as the axis of the midfield and controlling the tempo for his team.
It was he who converted the all-important penalty in the second half to put Roma within touching distance of an eventual semi-final spot while also providing an assist to Edin Dzeko for his side’s opening goal. The high pressure maintained on the night by Roma also pushed Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi out of their comfort zones in attack.
However, paeans will also be written about Aleksander Kolarov’s momentous display on the left wing. He was immense and proved too much to handle for Nelson Semedo, who offered no response to the Serbian’s bouquet of crosses into the box. At least on one occasion, he was denied a goal by a good save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The real hero on the night though was Dzeko. Too hot to handle, the Bosnian created numerous openings for Nainggolan and Patrick Schick, often leaving the Barcelona defence clueless. He scored the goal, won a penalty and was nearly unplayable for the La Liga leaders’ central combination of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti. He won nearly five aerial duels and had four shots on goal while leading the high press strategy.
Kudos to Eusebio Di Francesco, who will lead Roma into possibly their most important two-legged tie in the last five years. The tactic of shutting down the revered Catalans from the back paid rich dividends. Special mention to the way he marshalled Federico Fazio and Kostas Manolas, the man who sealed the team’s passage into the final four. This was the fifth consecutive cleansheet kept by Roma in the Champions League this season.
The less stated about the Lionel Messi-captained side, the better. Run ragged by a virile Roma team, they simply had no answers in attack and often fell victim to bumbling mistakes by their defenders. Pique, in particular, was poor – conceding the penalty and not doing enough to prevent the Greek from getting the crucial third goal from a corner.
Equal questions must linger on what happened to Barcelona’s fabled midfield. Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta were absent on the night, drawing blanks and contributing nil. Leo Messi, so imperious at the weekend, needlessly clipping Kolarov – a sign of the bad tidings that drew Barcelona into the Champions League sinkhole.
A torturous night for Valverde mustn’t be highlighted for Di Francesco’s high watermark. The Lions of Roma have roared as Roma reach their first Champions League (or European Cup) semifinal since 1984.
The continent looks forward to their revival.