“I am particularly glad, as Roma had some real embarrassments in Europe over the years, so this has cleaned up the image of Roma in Europe in a way,” said Daniele De Rossi and presumably nobody dared – because this is Daniele De Rossi and nobody p***es off Daniel De Rossi – point out that it is the captain himself who should carry the weight of last year’s embarrassment, when his horrific challenge on Maxi Pereira left Roma with ten men and 51 minutes to turn over a 2-1 deficit in their play-off with Porto.
That failure to reach the group stages left Roma with a financial hole filled by the summer sales of Antonio Rudiger and Mo Salah, so there was definitely a sense that De Rossi had a debt to repay as he led out his club against Qarabag on Tuesday night. Regardless of what happened at Stamford Bridge, Roma knew that victory would bring qualification. That it also brought top spot and the chance to avoid PSG, Manchester City and Barcelona (though crucially not Real Madrid or Bayern Munich) in the last 16 was an unexpectedly lovely bonus.
De Rossi, now 34 and surely no more than 18 months from hanging up his boots, has played in Champions League quarter-finals but he must have doubted he would play in another when third seeds Roma were placed in the same group as English champions Chelsea and serial semi-finalists Atletico Madrid. He was excellent in the 3-0 demolition of Chelsea in Rome but watched on they lost 2-0 to Atletico in Madrid, reduced to a spectator’s role because his legs can no longer play twice in a week. Back against Qarabag as he serves a domestic suspension for ridiculously slapping Gianluca Lapadula, the captain delivered in a victory more dominant than the 1-0 scoreline suggests.
“It’s satisfying because nobody believed we could qualify at all, they assumed we’d be eliminated, but we worked hard, proved ourselves and won the group,” said manager Eusebio Di Francesco, who has surpassed all expectations from his first season in European football. “It all started with the opening 0-0 against Atletico Madrid, when we’d just started and were finding our feet, but we suffered and held out for what proved to be a decisive point.”
Somehow claiming a point from that Atletico Madrid game in which they managed only one shot on target in 90 terrifying minutes was the catalyst, and De Rossi has since been vocal in his support for a manager who has not been afraid to use his captain sparingly. It is a credit to Roma’s leader that he acknowledges he was wrong to doubt the former Sassuolo coach after he replaced his beloved Luciano Spalletti.
“In May I was talking about how much Spalletti had put us back on track, especially as I think he’s the coach who worked with me the most,” he said. “I wanted to confirm my fondness for him when he left. But it’s clear that the new coach has made a huge impact and surprised everyone, because we didn’t expect to raise the level to this degree in Europe as well as in Serie A.”
So congratulations Roma, well done Eusebio Di Francesco, and you are officially off the hook Daniele De Rossi.