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Wednesday, 04 April 2007

4368: Champions League Preview – AS

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by : Hugh Larkin

Manchester United break new ground by travelling to Rome for their Champions League quarter-final. They have never encountered Roma in their long European history.

The ‘giallorossi’ may be a club from the capital city but they rank well behind other Italian sides in the history of Europe’s premier competition. Since the competition moved to the Champions League format, this is their best performance.

Roma have had distinct trouble getting out of the group stages when they have qualified- even when they were involved as Serie A champions back in 2001. They negotiated what was then a first group phase but then fell short in a section topped by Barcelona and Liverpool.

This season they have enjoyed an excellent season in domestic competition behind runaway leaders Inter Milan. With Juventus absent they have taken a grip on second spot and should certainly be back again next year.

Even so, the squad weren’t expected to get through the last 16 after drawing high-flying Lyon. Their performance in the group phase had been moderate but when it mattered they saw off the French champions.

Roma look to their outstanding figure Francesco Totti for much of their inspiration. At 30 he’s back in his best form as his leadership of the Serie A scoring charts shows- a top achievement for a player who doesn’t operate as an out and out striker.

United will have to decide whether to detail some one to keep an eye on him, although that would go against Sir Alex Ferguson’s normal inclination. The World Cup winner is the dominant player in the side but he does have a supporting cast up front.

Fellow Azzuri World Cup winner Simone Perrotta (an Ashton under Lyne lad) provides a lot of the hard running in midfield while Daniele De Rossi is another Italian international who holds the middle of the park. The spice is provided by Brazilian Mancini, who carries the ball in spectacular fashion.

Mancini is said to have fallen out with the influential-and occasionally argumentative- Totti but surely in a game of this magnitude he will preferred to the less explosive Swede Christian Wilhemsson, his rival for the right side berth- or both could play with Mancini going to the left.

At the back Philip Mexes and Christian Chivu are very well thought of defenders and there’s also the massively experienced Chrstian Panucci to call on. The defence have been very tight in the last couple of Champions League games and Roma are unbeaten at home in their last nine European ties- they have also conceded the least goals in Serie A this campaign.

United have the weapons to test Roma though. Christiano Ronaldo is the kind of player who can pull defences out of shape and if the visitors select a Scholes/Carrick pairing in the centre than it will be clear that attack is on Sir Alex’s mind.

United may well want to probe the absence of Chilean midfielder David Pizzaro due to suspension. The thought is that Chivu will come forward from defence to fill the gap which would leave Roma also without half their back four, with full back Tonetto out.

No Nemanja Vidic is going to be a blow which means two of United’s first choice back four are also out (Gary Neville is the other). Gabriel Heinze should relish the call to left back though- these kind of games are made for the Argentinian.

There seems every reason to think that neither team is going to play a cagey game. Roma have fallen short away from home in Europe on several occasions in the past decade and so may seek to take a decisive advantage to Old Trafford.

For United, progressive football has been their watchword this year and they have shown a priceless ability to find goals when needed. Louis Saha may be back to play a part and the side have looked at their most fluent when Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs have been able to play around the Frenchman.

One of the disadvantages of the Champions League is that the big teams play each other often and are familiar with their respective games. This one has the flavour of an old fashioned encounter with each side having to make adjustments on the hoof.

There are the maverick qualities of Totti, Mancini, Ronaldo and Rooney to mix in as well. It should be a cracker but expect the two sides to come out level.

Prediction- Roma 2- Man United 2

Hugh Larkin
3 April 2007

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