One of the biggest games of the season awaits Roma on Thursday as they visit Ajax for the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final tie.
Having fallen off the pace in Serie A, many believe this competition now harbours Roma’s best hopes of returning to the Champions League. However, some tough obstacles could prevent that – the first being Ajax.
The next two weeks will paint a clearer picture of Roma’s ambitions, as well as Paulo Fonseca’s hopes of staying next season. It isn’t quite all or nothing yet, but this is the start of a period in the season in which every game counts.
Hence, Roma travel to the Netherlands knowing what they need to do. An evenly-balanced tie on paper, the Giallorossi will be trying to prove a point.
Their chances of doing so have been boosted by the return of Jordan Veretout to the starting lineup, as confirmed in advance by Fonseca. Roma have missed the midfielder hugely in his absence and after his return as a substitute at the weekend, he will finally be back among the starters.
Edin Dzeko will also get the nod from Fonseca, looking to continue his fine record in European competitions for Roma. The hope is that he will roll back the years to deliver the kind of vintage performance that has helped the club in games like this before.
Another player almost guaranteed to start, although Fonseca didn’t mention him, is Bruno Peres. With Rick Karsdorp suspended, the Brazilian – who scored on Saturday – should play at right wing-back.
Roger Ibanez and Gonzalo Villar are both available for selection again after missing the last league match through suspension. However, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Chris Smalling remain out as they continue their comebacks from injuries, and Stephan El Shaarawy has been ruled out for a couple of weeks.
As for the opponents Ajax, some key players will be missing. Daley Blind will miss both legs through injury, while former Roma goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg will have to sit out the first leg for similar reasons. The Eredivisie outfit are thus likely to have to turn to 21-year-old Kjell Scherpen in goal.
Lisandro Martinez, who has been suggested as a Roma transfer target recently, will likely have a key role for Ajax in defence. Ryan Gravenberch is the player to watch in midfield and former Southampton forward Dusan Tadic will be the danger man up front.
Ajax’s club-record signing Sebastien Haller will not be involved, though, as they accidentally left him off their Europa League squad list. Hence, it will be a battle between two clubs who have made administrative errors this season.
The full focus is on what happens on the pitch, though, and it should be an intriguing tie. An away goal would be useful, but Ajax have not lost at home in the Europa League since 2017. Roma have won four of their five away games in the competition this season, though, so will be hoping to continue that trend.
The game kicks off at 8pm UK time. For the first time of this Europa League campaign, it will be live on TV; BT Sport 3 is the place to see it.