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Lofty goals: Roma repays Di Francesco's audacious ambitions

It was a rhetorical question from Eusebio Di Francesco, but also a ridiculous one. “Why shouldn’t we keep on believing?” asked the Roma manager on the eve of his team’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Barcelona. “Why not hope?”

A few obvious reasons sprang to mind. His team trailed 4-1 after the first leg at the Camp Nou, and Roma would need to win by three clear goals to have any chance of progressing. This against an opponent that had conceded just three times in the entire tournament so far, and a team that is unbeaten in 38 games in La Liga.

Everybody knew it was improbable. Perhaps there were even one or two Roma fans who wished Di Francesco could see that as well. The Giallorossi have a vital derby game against Lazio coming up on Sunday. The two clubs are joint-third in Serie A, just a point ahead of fifth-placed Inter, and Roma’s place in next year’s Champions League hangs in the balance.

The rational choice might have been for Di Francesco to rest his key starters, to keep them fresh for a game where they had a genuine opportunity to prevail. But football is no place for rational minds. Not on a night like this.

Before 60,000 delirious fans at the Stadio Olimpico, Roma would not just win – it eviscerated Barcelona. The 3-0 scoreline somehow still did not fully reflect its domination. From the first whistle right through to the 82nd-minute Kostas Manolas header that put it ahead on aggregate for the first time in the tie, Di Francesco’s team was utterly magnificent.

The manager had lined his team up in an untested 3-4-1-2 formation, an alignment that allowed him to include Patrik Schick as a second striker. But it was the man who has led Roma all through this tournament, Edin Dzeko, who gave his team a platform by bulldozing his way beyond the Barcelona defence to convert a long pass from Daniele De Rossi.

Without that early strike, perhaps the miracle could never have come to pass. The Ultras in the Curve behind the two goals had smuggled in one or two fireworks, yet an early goal was still needed to light the touch-paper of their imaginations.

The Stadio Olimpico rocked. Barcelona simply rolled over. A team boasting several of the world’s most refined technical footballers allowed itself to be overwhelmed by the physicality of De Rossi, Kevin Strootman, and Radja Nainggolan in midfield.

Even Leo Messi had no more elegant response than to try to run down the clock. Roma’s fans howled with indignation as the first half ended without a second of injury time, after the Argentinian had burned almost three minutes preparing to take one free-kick.

The hosts had missed several good opportunities to add to their advantage. It didn’t matter. Dzeko’s tireless running brought fresh reward as Gerard Pique pulled him down crudely inside the penalty area early in the second half. De Rossi converted an emphatic penalty. Manolas’ header from a Cengiz Under corner then completed the turnaround.

The celebrations in Rome will not subside any time soon. This is a historic night: The Italians becoming just the third team ever to recover from a three-goal deficit to progress in the Champions League. One of those, of course, was Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain last season. From the “Remuntada” to the “Roman-tada” in the space of just 14 months.

Di Francesco deserves endless plaudits for the way he prepared his team for this tie. Even the 4-1 defeat in the first leg was misleading. He got his tactics right that day, only for Roma to come apart at the seams following a pair of deeply unfortunate own goals.

More than his schemes, though, the manager should be praised for his defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. Before landing the Roma job this summer, his most high-profile job had been with Sassuolo, a team that had never even played in the Italian top-flight until he brought them up in 2013. He took them on an improbable Europa League run three years later, but had never faced an occasion like this.

His players did not always believe that wins like this were possible. After Roma was drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk in the last-16, De Rossi remarked that there were “two or three teams in this season’s Champions League against whom, in all probability, we would already be beaten before kick-off.”

In the space of two short months, Di Francesco has reminded a 34-year-old World Cup winner what it means to play without fear.

Asked during the pre-game conference whether his team possessed a “winning mentality,” Di Francesco observed quite bluntly that Roma, as a club, had never won all that many trophies. “So in that sense, there has never been a winning mentality here. You create that over time, with a sense of belonging … We need to drag the fans along with us, not with talk but with results.”

This one will linger long in the memory. But with a semi-final draw now to look forward to, Di Francesco might just believe that even greater nights still lie ahead.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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