It’s a night of magic in Madrid. Magic like the touches of Totti, magic like the saves of Doni and the tackles of Juan, magic like the goals of Taddei and Vucinic, magic like only Roma can be (they’re nicknamed “La Maggica” in the Italian capital). The home factor of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu did not work this time: what the Spanish call “miedo escénico” (scenic fear) did not even graze the Giallorossi as they stepped into the footballing heart of Madrid. No sir, Francesco Totti & friends travelled to Spain with the firm belief that an exploit was possible, that beating the team with the most UEFA Champions League titles (in their home stadium!) was not a pipe dream.
Tonight’s victory is in large part the merit of Luciano Spalletti, firm believer of his team’s potential, uncompromising in modifying their attacking style, and proving dead wrong those who said that playing in such a way will never get you significant results. It is also the victory of everyone else on the Roma roster, but in particular Juan, Daniele De Rossi, Alberto Aquilani, and Mirko Vucinic, absolutely royal in their performance. Yes, royal, because there was only one king in Spain tonight and it wasn’t Madrid: the Giallorossi traveled to the big monster’s lair, brought the Spanish giant down to its knees, and returned pride to Italian football. Grazie Roma.
Before the match started, a look at the teams’ tactical line-ups revealed two things. Firstly, Spalletti and Schuster adopted the same formation: a 4-2-3-1 with one single striker supported by a 5-man midfield, divided in two lines: 2 interdictors and 3 offensive playmakers. For Roma, a regular day at the office (the Giallorossi have been using that module for years now), for Real Madrid not so much. Which brings me to the second point: absences. Indeed, Los Merengues‘ formation was largely required by the big names absent from the Madrid roster, names such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Sergio Ramos, and Arjen Robben: not exactly easily replaced components. As for Roma, they could count on their full complement of troops, so the choice of privileging Cicinho and Alberto Aquilani over Christian Panucci and David Pizarro was entirely a tactical one.
But enough tactical considerations for now, on with the kick off. Those who expected a thundering debut by the home team were rather disappointed: Los Blancos knew too well of the lethal counter-attacking capabilities of their opponents, so they were determined not to concede any. As a result, the biggest highlights of the first half came essentially from free-kicks and long-range efforts. Beginning with minute 17, when a Julio Baptista set-piece howitzer was neutralized by the Roma keeper, after a small touch of the defensive wall.
Just a minute later thunder echoed through the Bernabéu, when an Alberto Aquilani 28m missile rattled the crossbar and rebounded back in play. Ensued another Roma attack, which developed into a feed by Mancini once again for Aquilani, and this time Casillas spectacularly deflected the ball into corner. Vibrant moments in Madrid. Even more vibrant (for the home team) was the chance landing on the foot of Julio Baptista 3 minutes later, as he received a Robinho cross deflected by De Rossi. The 10 yard effort of the Brazilian ‘Beast’ however, was over the bar.
The half thus ended on a 0-0 scoreline, with more or less tactical equilibrium between the two teams. However, much alike the first leg at the Stadio Olimpico had been for Real Madrid, tonight’s match at the Santiago Bernabéu has been largely dominated by the visitors in terms of ball possession. Mexès and Juan had completely neutralized the offensive initiatives of Raúl and Robinho (not in the best of forms tonight), while the performance of Diarra, Guti and Gago had paled in comparison of the two Roma lions Aquilani and De Rossi (especially in terms of playing intensity and velocity of execution). The short passing game of the Giallorossi (inspired by an always present Francesco Totti) was really keeping the Madrid defense on their toes, in particular due to the continuous wing overlap movements of Mancini and Taddei. In short: Roma were not simply defending their 2-1 aggregate lead, they wanted more.
After the break, the Real Madrid players tried to gather the energy of their 70,000+ supporters and bring the game back inside their opponents’ half. Julio Baptista went to work in the 49th minute, and powered yet another one of his thunderous free-kicks from 25 yards. This time Doni was fortunate: the ball hit the crossbar and was cleared. The Giallorossi’s response only took 2 minutes to arrive: a Cicinho cross from the right wing found Simone Perrotta inside the box, and forced Iker Casillas to a life-saving deflection which kept the Madrid goal safe.
Los Merengues were pushing more now, Roma kept their cool but were forced back inside their own half. Until the carousel of substitutions arrived. Schuster took out Mahamadou Diarra for Royston Drenthe (more offensive), repositioning Guti behind the strikers. Spalletti replied by removing Mancini (out of gas) and inserting Mirko Vucinic. The Montenegrin striker’s impact on the game would be devastating: first, exploiting a great Tonetto delivery from the left wing, his one-time effort from inside the box found only the crossbar to deny him the goal. Then 4 minutes later, a dribble close the goal line forced Pepe to bring him down, and earn his second yellow of the night. Real were left with 10 men.
The one-man advantage would prove to be decisive for the Giallorossi: in minute 73, a great cross by Tonetto found the imperious header of Rodrigo Taddei, who redirected the ball where Casillas would never reach it. 1-0 Roma.
Trailing by one and down to 10 men… game over for Real? Far from it. The Merengues‘s pride reaction was instantaneous: on the edge of the Roma box, Robinho found a penetrating pass for Raúl behind the backline, and the Madrid captain put the game level once again with a low shot pas Doni. 1-1. The only nag in all this? Raúl was clearly offside.
Real were really pushing up now, one goal away from sending this game into extra time. The corner-kicks for the home team multiplied, as did the ensuing counter-attacks for the visitors, ready to exploit the acres of real estate made available by Madrid’s desperate effort to score another goal. On a free-kick delivery, Taddei’s redirected header was only a millimiter away from being tackled into goal by De Rossi, Real were taking big risks but kept on pushing forward.
Then stoppage time arrived: ‘make it or break it‘ time for the home team. And as it turns out, Madrid were feeling pretty fragile tonight. In minute 92, Christian Panucci (on for Cicinho) delivered a marvelous free-kick far away from the right wing, and found the noggin of Mirko Vucinic for the close-range diving header. Cannavaro and Casillas both to blame on the occasion, but 2-1 Roma and game over. Giallorossi through to the UEFA Champions League Quarter-Finals, Real Madrid out of Europe. Vai Italia!
Marco Pantanella is the Chief Editor of Soccerlens and the Author & Editor of the mCalcio blog.