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How Roma can halt Real Madrid in the UCL

Roma vs Real Madrid: How the Giallorossi could frustrate CR7 and Co.

February 17, 2016 By Michelle Bonsu
Roma are definitely the underdogs in their UCL round of 16 clash against Real Madrid, but there are some ways they could try to balance the scales a bit.

Although Roma have turned a corner, with four straight Serie A wins following a difficult period, the Giallorossi will obviously face their toughest test later today as they welcome Real Madrid to the Stadio Olimpico.

Under coach Luciano Spalletti, now in his second spell with the capital club, they have put together a string of positive results in the league, scoring ten and conceding just three. However, two of those wins were against Frosinone and Carpi - both playing in Italian football's top flight for the first time - and whilst winning will have helped to elevate the team's confidence a bit, taking on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and company is something the Lupi surely would have wanted to avoid at this point in time.

Obviously, Real Madrid and their legions of followers will surely be feeling quite confident ahead of this match. Quite a few, certainly, were relieved and delighted when they found out they will be facing Roma, especially considering how poor the Giallorossi were during the Champions League group stages. Out of the 16 teams remaining, Roma were the worst-performing side.

With one win and three draws, they earned a dismal six points out of a possible 18. And their 16 goals conceded are the most ever for a team that has qualified for the knock-out stages. To further illustrate this point - Malmo and Maccabi Tel Aviv, who shipped 21 and 16 respectively did not even secure a Europa League berth as they finished last in their quartets

No wonder, then, that Real Madrid supporters will feel their side caught a lucky break and will be already thinking ahead to the quarter-finals. Roma, naturally, by far, are the underdogs in this clash, but in Spalletti they have a coach who knows a thing or two in handling their visitors, having masterminded a 4-2 aggregate win over them in the 2007/2008 season. This also so happens to be, to date the only time Roma have beaten Real Madrid at the Stadio Olimpico, and most significant, comprises two out of their three wins against the La Liga side.

So, in the ninth meeting between these two sides (of the previous eight, Real Madrid have won four, Roma, three, and the other finished as a draw), how can Spalletti pull off another impressive tactical masterstroke? Let's have a look.

1. Do not man-mark Cristiano Ronaldo

Whilst many teams may be tempted to do this, and double or even triple-team the three-time Ballon d'Or winner, they will be doing so at their own downfall. After all, he might be the top goalscorer in this season's edition of the Champions League, but Roma will not be just playing against him. Excluding, of course, the man in between the posts, there will be nine other players on the pitch, including Karim Benzema, who deserves to be described as a top striker in his own right.

Focusing all their energies on CR7 may be able to keep him quiet, but it will inevitably leave them open to attacks coming from other outlets. Rather, below is a better way to shut down their visitors' potent and powerful offense:

2. Clog the midfield and cut off the supply to Real Madrid's attack

Unlike Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo is not a playmaker. Nor is he the player that once went on blistering dribbling runs like he did at Manchester United. As he has gotten older, he has had to change his game and now has become more of a poacher, a fox-in-the-box type of player who relies on good service in order to score his goals. And here is where Roma could take some notes from what their Serie A rivals Juventus did last season: cut off his - and Benzema's - supply by clogging the midfield.

If stars like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are allowed freedom to operate, Roma could be in for a long and miserable evening. Spalletti will rely on the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic, Seydou Keita, and possibly Daniele De Rossi to stifle Real Madrid's midfield and in doing so, isolate and frustrate both Benzema and CR7.

3. Take advantage of gaps between Real's defense and midfield

Zinedine Zidane's side have improved since the dismissal of the highly unpopular Rafa Benitez, but they are still a work in progress. Real Madrid have a tendency to look vulnerable when transitioning from defense into attack, and at times the communication between their defense and midfield appears to be lost in translation. With speedy and tricky players like Mohamed Salah, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Diego Perotti in their ranks, along with the playmaking skills of Pjanic, this is where Roma could seize an advantage - but they will have to make it count as opportunities will be few and far in-between.

4. Deploy a high-press

Roma's defense is still a work in progress and they will obviously want to keep the ball in the opposition half for as long as possible to alleviate some of the pressure Real Madrid will certainly put on their back-line. Rather, they want to apply this same kind of up the pressure on their opponents' defense, especially with Marcelo reportedly making a return following a serious injury. Still, they will have to find a balance between going forward too much to avoid being exposed on any counter-attacks Real Madrid could launch. 

At the end of the day, let's be honest: The pressure will be on Real Madrid. Not Roma. After all, when this tie was announced, most observers viewed it as lopsided match-up in which the La Liga side should progress; anything other than that would be embarrassing to the 10-time Champions League winners.

Whilst the Lupi will certainly want to make it to their first quarter-final since the 2007/2008 season - in which they were dumped out by eventual winners Manchester United - not many expect to see it happen this season. And in the absence of high expectations, this is where they could possibly give their opponents a lot more trouble than many will have anticipated. Should they avoid defeat at the Stadio Olimpico, then it will be anyone's game in the return leg in Madrid next month. 

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