Xabi Alonso showed Roma what he has learned in 12 months at Bayer Leverkusen

Xabi Alonso peered over his assistant’s shoulder and looked at his phone. They were checking the score in the other Europa League quarter-final. When the buffering stopped and it became clear who had qualified on their side of the bracket, a lip reader wasn’t necessary. “Roma.”

One of Alonso’s backroom staff pumped his fist. The other clapped his hands. “We were not celebrating,” Alonso insisted. But it was the tie his Bayer Leverkusen side wanted. They had not lost in Europe since this time last year against the same opponent, in the same stadium and at the same stage of the Europa League, when Edoardo Bove, a blonde, local boy, a midfielder like his coach Daniele De Rossi, scored the only goal of the tie.

Roma had 28 per cent possession and an xG of 0.03 that night. The Leverkusen players walked through the mixed zone like a tourist who had enjoyed a wonderful day in Italy’s capital, with a bellyful of carbonara and selfies outside the Colosseum, only to realise with shock and distress that their wallet, phone and watch were gone.

“I’m speechless we got eliminated,” Nadiem Amiri said, the words snatched away from him by Roma’s then coach and one of Alonso’s illustrious mentors, Jose Mourinho, who must have been an interested observer on his couch last night. “That defeat was brutal.” Alonso admitted. “It was painful and the pain lasted for a while.”



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Thursday was not about revenge in his eyes. Too much water flowed under the Milvio and Duca d’Aosta bridges leading to the Stadio Olimpico. “Roma have changed a lot.” Alonso said. “They’ve changed coach, changed players and changed style.”

If last season offered the starkest of contrasts in football philosophies, this time around Leverkusen and Roma shared more in common than each having a World Cup-winning former midfielder in the dug-out. “I see myself in (De Rossi’s) career path,” Alonso explained. “Probably the generation of coaches I belong to is showing new things and De Rossi’s doing that.”

Roma have become more expansive since De Rossi took over in January, more in-step with the latest football trends. Their record is the third best in Serie A since he replaced Mourinho and only Serie A champions Inter have scored more goals. Writ large across the Curva Sud was the word “Avanziamo”. Let’s go through. It was the club’s fifth European semi-final in six years, a feat matched only by Real Madrid who, of course, have done it exclusively in the Champions League.

“My wife said to me: ‘I don’t want you to play in Rome. I have a bad feeling’,” Leverkusen midfielder Robert Andrich revealed. “But it won’t be a problem.” Not for a team on a 46-game unbeaten run.

And yet when Romelu Lukaku, the Europa League hitman, struck the bar in the 20th minute it served as a reminder of how difficult it is for visiting teams to come to the Olimpico and win. No one had managed to do so in Europe since Betis two years ago and as was the case against Brighton and Milan it looked like an early Roma goal might cause the kind of escalation in atmosphere that can consume an away team. “In lots of games this season (nine of De Rossi’s 21 at the helm) we’ve got the opener,” the 40-year-old said. “And that’s turned the game in our favour. Tonight it was the opposite.”

De Rossi was pleased with how Roma played for most of the first half. Alonso’s decision to field a striker-less team did not take him by surprise. “Usually they play with a natural centre-forward like Victor Boniface or Patrik Schick, but against Dortmund and Bayern Munich, probably teams, I won’t say Leverkusen feared, but ones they consider good going forward, they played like this,” he said. “We analysed it and thought they’d be a little more defensive.” What Leverkusen showed were the layers they have added to make themselves a potential treble this season.



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On the one hand, the mobile, zero reference point attack caused Roma’s centre-backs problems. Chris Smalling, in particular, likes nothing more than heading away crosses. Leverkusen did not play to his strengths. Against the newly-crowned German champions he wasn’t comfortable stepping out to meet Amine Adli, Florian Wirtz or Jeremie Frimpong.

On the other, Leverkusen weren’t ashamed to defend as a back six when Roma had the ball. The chain flung across their penalty box did two things. It meant there were no gaps for Roma to play through and enabled centre-backs Piero Hincapie and Edmond Tapsoba to jump and snuff out the likes of Paulo Dybala and Lorenzo Pellegrini without fear of being caught uncovered.

Ultimately, it was an error that decided the game. Karsdorp underhit a backpass to goalkeeper Mile Svilar and then slipped. Only Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappe and Cole Palmer have scored more goals in 2024 than Wirtz and he was not about to miss a opportunity like the one he did last season here. As Alonso reiterated, the game did not constitute revenge but “a second chance.” Will Karsdorp get one at Roma?

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Florian Wirtz fires Bayer Leverkusen in front (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

When De Rossi replaced him on the hour-mark, the Sud showed no mercy and whistled him. Once frozen out of the team by Mourinho after a game against Sassuolo in which Roma’s former manager talked about a “traitor” in their ranks, Karsdorp lost the fans he’d worked so hard to win back over.

But not De Rossi.

“It’d be wrong to point the finger at anyone when in the past we’ve scored because of someone else’s mistake.” he said. “Mistakes are part of the game.” Karsdorp’s, however, forced Roma to come onto Leverkusen, who ruthlessly countered and could have ended the first half more than a goal to the good. They are a complete team, a more fully realised version of Thiago Motta’s Bologna who also won here in the last month.

“It was their night. It’s their year,” De Rossi conceded. “You can be less aggressive but then they get their possession game going. Be more aggressive and you expose yourself to their speed in behind.” It’s a case of picking your poison, although Mourinho wouldn’t have chosen at all. He would have sat back and waited for Leverkusen to make a mistake instead.

All told, Leverkusen were deserved winners and Andrich’s wife needn’t have worried after her hubz curled in the clincher.

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Robert Andrich curls in a second (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

Roma, to borrow a phrase from US sports, got all the looks they wanted. Bryan Cristante glanced a header past the post from the exact same position he scored against Udinese last week. Pellegrini played Sardar Azmoun in one-v-one and fellow substitute Tammy Abraham missed a similar header to the one he buried in stoppage time in Naples at the weekend.

It was the opposite to what happened when Brighton visited here when De Rossi candidly admitted the scoreline flattered his team. Leverkusen were fortunate to fly home with a clean sheet. It leaves Roma needing a Romantada like the one De Rossi helped deliver against Barcelona in 2018. “I believe,” he said.

But, for now, Leverkusen’s streak goes on. How poetic it is that Neverlusen’s streak continued here, of all places, in the Eternal city.

(Top photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

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