It is a case of master versus apprentice as Xabi Alonso takes his Bayer Leverkusen side to the Eternal City to face his former coach and serial winner Jose Mourinho. The Spaniard enjoyed two seasons under the Portuguese trainer’s tutelage at Real Madrid, but is out to prove he has learnt a thing or two along the way.
With both says not likely to make the top four in their respective leagues, a potential Europa League triumph would give them a backdoor into the continent’s top tournament next season as well as giving them a moment of crowning glory to cap this season.
The Giallorossi are looking to repeat their European glory of last season when they beat Feyenoord in Tirana to lift the inaugural Conference League trophy. It was their first piece of European silverware in 61 years and has only added to the hunger of the passionate home fans, while adding to coach Mourinho’s impressive CV.
They have dropped from fourth to seventh in Serie A over the past few weeks having taken only two points from their last four matches and, like Leverkusen, they suffered a weekend defeat in preparation for the semi-final. A home defeat by Inter at the Olimpico occurred the day after B04 had lost their own long unbeaten run at home to Köln.
Roma’s quarter-final with Feyenoord was an epic with the Dutch side seemingly going through with the scores at 1-1 with ten minutes to play after winning the first-leg 1-0. However, a Paolo Dybala goal took it to extra-time, where further goals from Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Pellegrini sealed a date with Bayer Leverkusen.
Until Friday’s home defeat to Köln, the Rhine side had gone 14 games unbeaten in all competitions, and will be desperate to start a new run as their season enters the last few matches. They have three more Bundesliga games to try and ensure European football through their league position, but the Europa League trophy is also very much on their radar and chance to once and for all squash the cruel nickname ‘Neverkusen’ as some label them.
The players have been transformed under Xabi Alonso, who took over with the side 17th in the Bundesliga. They too needed a top second-leg performance in the quarter-final to overcome Belgian side Union St. Gilloise after the Brussels side earned a 1-1 draw at the Bay Arena. They showed their attacking intentions right from the start and enjoyed an emphatic 4-1 win to progress to the semis.
Jose Mourinho’s side are built on defensive strength, whereas Leverkusen’s pacey attacking players are the key for the German side so two fascinating games are on the cards. Should Leverkusen triumph and reach the final, they will face the might of European heavyweights Juventus or Sevilla, so Roma is only first (big) step to possible glory.
Jose Mourinho has a number of injuries to compensate for and question marks over the tiredness of others. Defenders Rick Karsdorp (knee operation) and Marash Kumbulla (cruciate injury) are unavailable.
Top scorer Dybala sat out the weekend defeat to Inter after picking up a previous knock and his availability is in question. Stephan El Sharaway is also a doubt with a hip injury. Defender Chris Smalling looks set to only be fit enough for a possible place on the bench.
Possible line-up: Rui Patricio; Mancini, Cristante, Ibanez; Zalewski, Camara, Matic, Bove, Spinazzola; Pellegrini; Abraham.
Aside from Patrick Schick (ex-Roma), whose season has been declared over due to his adductor injury, Xabi Aloso has a full-strength squad at his disposal. A choice needs to be made whether to go with Adam Hlozek or Amine Adli in the front attacking role.
Possible line-up: Hradecky – Tapsoba, Tah, Hincapie, Frimpong, Andrich, Palacios, Bakker, Wirtz , Diaby, Adli
What they’re saying:
Jose Mourinho: “It’s the second team from the Champions League that we’ve faced as Red Bull Salzburg also dropped out in the group stage. That’s how the Europa League is. That’s why it’s become a top-level competition. Halfway through, teams with different levels of potential and status come into it.
“How many games have we played in it now? Six, eight, ten, 12 already. Now we face this hurdle. Obviously, with all the problems that we have, we can’t give Bayer any gifts in the game tomorrow. We’ll go out there with everything we have in terms of quality and desire while trying to get a result that allows us to take a lead into the second leg and then try to reach the final.
“What I’ll say is that Bayer Leverkusen are the team that I’ve watched in Europe this season that are the best on the counter-attack. If he might like a different style of football, that’s something else. In the meantime, he’s showing real quality as a coach and the pragmatism to play in a way that’s suited to his players. He has five or six players who could be at the Olympics competing with [Marcell] Jacobs in the 100 metres based on how fast they are. They play purely on the counter. They defend in numbers and they’re almost impossible to stop on the counter.”
Leonardo Spinazzola: “I think we’ll be up against a really good side, as the coach said. They’re so fast. We’ll need to be more focused when we’re on the ball, as we could lose it, and also when they’re in possession and we’re deep on the pitch. They have five or six incredibly fast players. It’ll be a brilliant game.”
Xabi Alonso: “The feeling within the team is top. We have high energy and feel great excitement. We expect a great atmosphere against a very good opponent. We want to take our chance tomorrow. Roma are strong in counterattacking and we have to be prepared for that. Rome’s players have experience and quality to face this game. We need our best performance.
“It will be a special meeting for me with Jose Mourinho. I have learned from him to convince a team and to be a leader. But when the match starts, that’s what I’ll be focused on.”
Rudi Völler: “I wish Roma to finish among the top four teams in Serie A so that we can meet again next season in the Champions League. But I think that after 30 years Bayer Leverkusen deserves to lift a trophy.
“Mourinho? José is a coach who sparked excitement among fans, especially by winning the Conference League in 2022. He is a coach who always says what he thinks: openly, directly, sometimes provocatively. He can’t stand anything, and that’s what Romans like.”
Michael Ballack (former B04 midfielder): “Given the strength of Bayer Leverkusen this is a 50/50 tie. They don’t have to run and hide scared at all. But I also think it’s always a slight advantage when you have the return leg at home because you enter the game knowing what sort of result you need plus you have the crowd in your corner.
“Bayer is a solid side that’s robust enough to achieve this objective of winning the Europa League, it’s a special opportunity. If they get their performance right I’m convinced they’ll progress.”
06/05/23 Inter Milan (h) 0-2 L (Serie A)
03/05/23 Monza (a) 1-1 D (Serie A)
29/04/23 AC Milan (h) 1-1 D (Serie A)
24/04/23 Atalanta (a) 3-1 L (Serie A)
20/04/23 Feyenoord (h) 4-1 W (Europa League)
05/05/23 Köln (h) 1-2 L (Bundesliga)
29/04/23 Union Berlin (a) 0-0 D (Bundesliga)
23/04/23 RB Leipzig (h) 2-0 W (Bundesliga)
20/04/23 Union St. Gilloise (a) 1-4 W (Europa League)
16/04/23 VfL Wolfsburg (a) 0-0 D (Bundesliga)
The last meeting between the two sides was seven years ago in the 2016/17 Champions League group stage also in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. On matchday 4 the Italians triumphed 3-2 after Leverkusen had fought back from two goals down.
Mo Salah opened the scoring in just the second minute and a second was added by Edin Dzeko on the half hour mark to put the hosts in control. However, the Werkself hit back at the start of the second period with two goals Admir Mehmedi scored within a minute of the restart and Chicharito scored five minutes in to level the game.
With eleven minutes left. Ömer Toprak was sent off for a foul on Salah and Roma were awarded a penalty. Miralem Pjanic dispatched it past Bernd Leno to give Rudi Garcia’s team all three points.
Players to watch:
Their captain Lorenzo Pellegrini is the key man for Roma. The Italian international takes almost all of the set pieces. With four goals and four assists, Pellegrini is the most successful scorer and provider in the current Europa League campaign.
Whether he is combing with Jeremie Frimpong down the right, switching over to the left, or taking a more central berth, French attacker Moussa Diaby is going to be Leverkusen’s main attacking weapon at the Stadio Olimpico. It will be a battle of his pace and skill against the more wily and organised defence of the Italians.