Monchi’s Failure! Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Review

Let’s move on the next game in the Champions League, which saw a struggling Roma side face a Porto side which are quite difficult to break down. While other games were being spoken more on, this tie still had some excitement to it, so let’s look at a game where Roma showed their best and worst sides, and Porto battled for their place in the quarter finals.

We’ll begin with the first leg, which saw Roma come out deserving 2-1 winners over their Portguese opponents. This was the game that Roma needed to win, and was arguably their biggest game of the season. Roma were missing Cengiz Under for this game, someone I didn’t realise was actually out until that first leg. It didn’t matteer much, since it was Nicolo Zaniolo who came in to replace him. The Italian has been one of the few bright sparks for Roma this season, and showed it in this game. He was the man of the match, scoring both goals and put in a very good performance for his side, taking 3 shots on target and completing 2 dribbles. I do think there are elements of his game he needs to improve, mainly his passing, but he gets into good areas and plays the role of a second striker very effectively. While Roma didn’t exactly dominate this game, they did put in a performance that was worthy of the victory, even with a complete collapse in defence costed them that clean sheet.

Porto weren’t exactly good at all, but not all is their fault. They were missing Moussa Marega, their top goalscrorer in the competition with 5 goals. While he isn’t the most technically gifted footballer around, he uses his physicality and aggression to his advantage. Without him, Porto just lacked that bite up the field, which was needed in this game. I mentioned how they needed to win the battle in midfield, and they struggled to do so. Pellegrini ran the show, creating 5 chances and having 4 shots. Pereira and Herrera just couldn’t get near him, and allowed him to pull the strings. I mentioned before that Porto were very fortunate in their away games so far in the Champions League, and they showed that against Roma. They managed 2 shots on target in the game, showing how much they struggled to take advantage of the possession they had. This is down to both of their strikers on the night, Soares and Fernando, just not being very good. Fernando only managed 18 touches, and both forward kept drifting out wide, making it very hard for Porto to create anything of note. They did manage that important away goal, thanks to Adrien Lopez getting on the end of a good ball in the box. While Roma had the advantage, Porto were definitely still in this tie.

The first leg showed Roma at their best, and the second leg showed them at their worst. I said in my preview that they needed to take advantage of that first leg because they had Lazio right before their visit to Portugal. To say their form took a cataclysmic drop after that win is an understatement. They scraped by with wins against struggling Frosinone and Bologna, but a huge 3-0 loss to Lazio hurt the side. Lazio aren’t nearly as good as they were last season, but showed a spark of their attacking prowess shown when they were so close to Champions League football. It left Roma low on confidence and going to face Porto, who had Moussa Marega back from injury. Roma were so much worse in this game than their first leg victory, and some of it has to go down to some of the changes made to the side that fought valiantly in Rome. He went back to a back 3 and changed an energetic midfield of Cristante and Pellegrini to accompany De Rossi and went to a midfield 2 of the captain and N’Zonzi. It gave the side zero protection from Porto, and allowed their opponents to comfortably control the game without the bite and speed that Roma had in the last game. It baffles me why Di Francesco would change a winning formula like that, in favour of a more pragmatic approach that didn’t work. It’s all down to Di Francesco because the players to have to take some of the blame. Manolas gave the ball away early in the game and allowed Corona to gift Soares with an open net. These players showed in both legs that they seem unable to keep track of runners, and the second goal showed that. Karsdrop was not tight enough on Telles, and Marcano just allowing Marega to make a run at the far post. It’s been a consistent theme of what has went wrong in the capital this season. With Di Francesco gone and Monchi close to Arsenal, the whole Roma project that looked so promising has now fell into ruin. While Di Francesco always has his doubters, me included, I do think Monchi should face some of the blame. I think he was hoping to have the chance to bring in prospects like Under and Kluivert time to develop into the players they are showing they could be. But the difference has been what changed since his arrivals. Both Milan clubs had massive investment which instantly put them back into the conversation for top 4, while Lazio and Atalanta were both making smart moves to push for those European football. Roma were lucky to even qualify for Champions League football last season. If it wasn’t for Inter dropping the ball, and Lazio having a slight consistency problem, I doubt they would have even qualified. Allison was the 2nd best goalkeeper in Europe last season, and saved Roma a lot of points. Replacing him with a relatively average keeper in Olsen was not a good move. Allowing both Strootman Nainggolan to leave, and replacing them with Cristante and N’Zonzi, two players who are not better than the ones who departed, left them weak in a position they were strong in for so long. Monchi seemed to change the plan of long term success to just trying to succeed on the short term. While signings like Pellegrini and Kluivert showed plenty of promise, it just wasn’t enough at the end of the day, to justify missing out on the attraction of Champions League football.

Porto were much better in this game, as it was expected. While their away record is fortunate at best, no one can argue just how good they’ve been at home in Europe. In the group stages, they scored 8 and only conceded 2. They showed Roma why teams fear them in their homeland. They were aggressive and attacked with plenty width. I complained that Pereira and Herrera didn’t do enough in the first leg, but they definitely brought their best in the home leg. Pereira especially was outstanding. He dominated that midfield, where he won 3 tackles, created 3 chances and had 4 shots. A good display from a player we know is capable of them. However the man of the match was comfortably Moussa Marega. He returned to the team in style. He forced Manolas to make the mistake, which lead to the first goal, and scored the second to ensure that Porto would go into extra time. He also created 2 chances and had 4 shots. While I don’t think he’s a great or even a good player, you cannot deny he is very useful and key to the way his side attacks. It is great to see Porto and Ajax, two historic clubs progress to the round of 16, in a world where the Top 5 leagues dominate every year. It gives hope that these leagues will only improve and continue to make smart business, the more their bigger clubs progress. Porto will not be an easy tie in the next round, and if they can just improve their away form, they could make it a tough tie for whoever they are drawn against.

Will Roma Replicate Last Year’s Success? Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Preview

 

Let’s begin with by far the least interesting fixture of the round. This isn’t to say there is nothing to say about this tie, but the other games are by far more interesting. Let’s start with Roma. I was originally going to disucss why Roma are struggling so much in Serie A, and it can quickly be summarized by key players leaving and not being replaced by players of the same level. The giallorossi sold two of their starting midfielders, and brought in an aging Seven N’Zonzi and a very average Bryan Cristante. The positives for them this season is some of their younger talent truly shining and the future does look bright. Monchi seems to be looking in Italy and other less known leagues for reasonably priced talent and it seems to be working to an extent. I am still very unsure on whether Di Francesco is the man to bring this side success. He is managing the side in a very difficult period, with many of the side’s star players beginning to age out. He is still seemingly unsure what is best eleven truly is, and it’s resulted in players constantly in and out of the side. El Shaarrawy and Pellegrini have been two of the best players for Roma this season, yet they have only started a combined 25 games. He’s relying heavily on the older players in the side, and talents like Schick and Kluivert just don’t seem to be flourishing in the same way we all hoped. They are struggling and there isn’t any signs to say they should be higher than where they are.

While they have been very up and down this season, they have actually been very good in the Champions League. It did help that their group was relatively easy, with a struggling Madrid, a Moscow side they comfortably beaten twice and a Plzeñ side they managed to put 5 past. While Edin Dzeko has struggled in the league (he has arguably been very unlucky though), he has been fantastic in the Champions League. In the 4 games he started, he scored 5 and managed 2 assists. He’s had more goal involvements than any other Roma player, and only Messi and Lewandowski have scored more than the Bosnian. He has had some injury problems, but he will be available for this game, which is a huge boost. I mentioned before that Lorenzo Pellegrini has been good, but he’s been even better than he has been in Italy. He has 3 assists to his name in Europe, with only Mbappe, Depay and Mahrez getting more. He has been a creative hub for his side in his 3 starts, with only Toni Kroos making more key passes than his 3.5. He has to play if Roma want anything out of this game. Their wingers, Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Ünder, have both been great whenever they’ve played. Kluivert’s time in Rome has been limited, but he’s still only 19 and has put up solid numbers in the Champions League. Under and Kluivert have completed the most dribbles for Roma in the Champions League, and only Pellegrini is creating more chances the Dutchman. I like Under a lot and think he does have a very promising future, but it’ll only be positive if his shot numbers improve. Kluivert takes a more shots in the box than his turkish teammate, and considering he is also creating more chances too, it is worrying. Under just takes too many shots outside the box and seems to have Coutinho syndrome (a condition where all your positives can be outweighed by awful shot locations. Suso also has this awful condition). He’s still only 21 so this is definitely an area will improve on with time.

Let’s move on to Porto, who have been very good since Sérgio Conceição arrived at the club. Porto won the Liga Nos title last season by scoring the most goals and conceding the least. They only conceded 18 goals too, bettering every other side in the league. They have continued this into the current season, only conceding 11 goals so far this season. It does help that the competition in Portugal, Benfica and Sporting, have droppped off massively in the past couple of years. Benfica have sold a lot of talent in the past few years, with the likes of Lindelof, Ederson, Mitroglou and Semedo all leaving the club for better things. Sporting have had a similar problem but with completely different circumstances. There were claims that the club president sent fans to attack the players, with key figures of the team like Gelson Martins, Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Piccini all leaving the club because of the dangerous enviroment. They were allowed to leave for low figures too, which meant it was hard to find good replacements. I bring this up because Porto have not had these problems. While selling Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot, leaving 34 year old Maxi Pereira as their only first choice right back, but it seems to not be a problem, thanks to Eder Militão. The Brazilian arrived from his native league for a bargain £3.6 million, and it could be seen as one of the signings of the continent. He has been playing as both a right back and a centre back. and is seemingly unable to put a foot wrong. Porto haven’t had the same transitional period as their rivals, which has allowed them to have an easy running in the league. While I do think they have had more talented squads in the past, but it cannot be argued that the manager is getting the best out of what they have. While they were unbeaten in the group, some of the scorelines have painted the image of a side that is performing well, when in reality, that isn’t the case. Their wins away at Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow were games where they were outshot do show they have been lucky to even finish the groups unbeaten (they scored 3 goals with 3 shots on target against Galatasaray). They were in fact one of only two teams  to have a negative expected goals difference at the end of the group stages. They also scored the most penalties. This isn’t to discredit them, but to show that while what they have done so far is imprsssive, they are a side that have rode their luck.

I discusssed how well Dzeko has done for Roma in the Champions League, so it only seems right to credit Porto’s own striker, Moussa Marega. The Mali forward has been stand out for his side in the competition. He has scored the most goals with his side with 5. While Dzeko was a shot machine Marega was not. He was only taking 2 shots a game, but 1.8 of those were coming in the penalty area. Marega is not a great player in the slightest, but to his credit he does very well in this system. He gives the most fouls away in the side, and that for striker can be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign of a player who knows how to press effectively. Players like Firmino and Lewandowski are great at pressing and usually give away a lot of fouls in an attempt to regain the ball in an aggressive manner. Marega does this in a similar fashion. He leads the line very well for his side, and excels in the 4-3-3 system they have deployed. Another reason why Marega has done so well is because of his teammate, Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has been insansely good for the past few years, mainly because of his dribbling. In 5 games, he managed 2 assists and is completing 3.6 dribbles per game, double of the player behind him. He is so important for Porto’s attack, and helps massively in transision and can give full backs an absolute nightmare. In a majority of Porto’s attacks, the ball will always go through the Algerian. If he manages to bring his A game, Roma will have a horrid time.

If Roma want to earn their place in the final 8, they will need to take advantage of their home leg. While it is very simple, it seems Serie A might have to take priority. Before their game in Portugal, they have the Rome derby against their biggest rivals, Lazio. Roma haven’t been great in big games this season, losing to Juventus, drawing twice to Atalanta, failing to beat the Milan clubs. Their only win would be against Lazio back in September. If they have any chance of getting top four, they need to beat their closest rivals. Porto are a defensively solid side and are very aggressive. But as mentioned, their right back is a massive weakness. If El Shaarawy or Kluivert can take advantage of a very weak right side, there could be a chance create chances for Dzeko and Under. Under can not be wasteful. It’s something you expect from the wide man, but this side do not give up goals. It’ll be difficult to score against them, but as seen against Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow, their away record is not great and have to hope they aren’t as lucky as they have been.

If Porto have any chance of getting by the giallorossi, they must deal with that weak midfield. When I say weak, I do not mean in lacking ability, I mean in physicality. Danilo Pereira and Hector Herrera are two players who are defensively solid and need to bring their aggressive side. Porto are great at winning the ball higher up the pitch, and with midfield consisting of a slow De Rossi and N’Zonzi and defenisvely poor Pellegrini and Cristante. These are players you can truly get at and it’s so vital to not let them play their game.

With all this considered, I’d put my money on Porto advancing through this stage of the compeition. Di Francesco’s job is truly on the line, and Porto are just in much more comfortable place. Dzeko isn’t firing in the same way as he was last season, and the loss of Strootman and Nainggolan have add a real fragility and lack of leaders in the side. This is arguably the worst side in Roma’s recent history, and this just isn’t the year for Roma to be focusing on Europe, when Champions League qualification is on the line.

 

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group D

After going through two incredibly hard groups to predict, let’s look at a group with less quality, but is just as hard to predict.

Galatasaray

The Super League champions go into this group with a good chance of getting out of it. Galatasaray have started the season relatively well, scoring a lot of goals, but a loss to Trabzonspor was not good, losing 4-0 away from home. When talking about stand out players, there are a few who have started well. Fernando is among a few who has started the season very well. The former Manchester City midfielder has put in a great 4.6 tackles and interceptions. While his ability in the offensive side has never been stand out, his great defensive work is enough. Another who has stood out is Eren Derdiyok. The swiss forward has started very well, putting in 4.4 aerial duels per 90, which should tell you enough on his style of play. He has been putting in a very average 2.2 shots on target per 90. The forward could be seen as over performing, but let’s hope he continues it into the competition before his form fades. They have already scored 11 goals at home in 3 games. Their home form is a threat, but there is question marks on if they can do it away from home. Nevertheless, I do think they will escape the group and reach the round of 16, but won’t top it. They just have more quality than the rest of the teams here.

Lokomotiv Moscow

The Russian League Champions were incredibly lucky in their group draw. They were in the same pot as Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona and teams at that stature. They avoided all the top teams, but still could have drawn some difficult sides. They were lucky to draw teams that are definitely beatable. Even with the lucky draw I am not expecting much from the Russian side. They have been very poor at the start of the season, as they sit in 9th place in the league. They have struggled to score and defensively are not keeping the opposition away from the box. Players like Smolov, Eder and Fernandez have failed to make an impact this season. I have no hope for them at all in this group, and expect a bottom finish.

Schalke

Schalke were a strange one last season. While they did finish second, it was more down to the other teams not performing, instead of Schalke being great. This season has proved this. With Bayern at their usual superhuman ways, and Dortmund looking good, Schalke have been exposed. They haven’t had the easiest of starts, but Wolfsburg, Munchengladbach and Hertha are still beatable. They have just been struggling in front of goal this season. I thought the signing of Mark Uth would be an excellent addition to the forward line, with him being an exciting Hoffenheim’s top scorer last season. He hasn’t started so well, but so hasn’t the rest of the team, excluding Caligiuri. He has started the season very well, he’s averaged 4.7 tackles and interceptions, and making 3 key passes per 90. Schalke just seem to be out of form at the moment, and it will continue into the group stages. A 3rd place finish it will be for the German side.

FC Porto

Porto are in a great position at the moment. They went from constantly staying behind Benfica, to now being the league champions, after winning be league with a more workman approach. They sold both Ruben Neves and Andre Silva, two very promising players, and instead of replacing them, chose to use the players at their disposal in a different way. They went from a 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2. They went for a front two of Aboubakar, a player who was out of favour, and Marega. Both are in their prime years and won the league by sharing the goal load between them. They also have Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has risen to become one of the more important players for the club. He is an excellent dribbler and is a real driving force in that attack. He has been taking 2.5 shots already this season, showing that he has no intention of slowing down from last season. If Porto are to do anything in the Champions League, it will be on Brahimi. Porto do have the best side in this group, and will top it.

Final Table

1. FC Porto

2. Galatasaray

3. Schalke

4. Lokomotiv Moscow