Uefa Champions League: Either Edin Dzeko’s AS Roma or Iker Casillas’s Porto are bowing out
If AS Roma against Porto remains as taut and close in the later stages of its remaining 90 – or 120 – minutes on Tuesday as it looks after the first leg, one or two distinguished internationals must anticipate taking the rap for not having put the outcome to bed earlier.
In Portugal six days ago, Roma sneaked away with a marginal advantage, the away goal in the 1-1 draw in what is the tightest, highest-pedigree of all the play-off ties for a place in the group phase of the Uefa Champions League. But they came home knowing it might have been more.
Edin Dzeko’s failure to capitalise on an embarrassing slip by Iker Casillas, the Porto goalkeeper, is Roma’s chief regret.
• Champions League results and round-up: AS Roma and Porto in tight tie
Porto, meanwhile, are haunted by their own goal – Felipe’s deflection past Casillas – and for their failure to capitalise on a first-half red card suffered by Roma’s Thomas Vermaelen.
Poor Vermaelen was playing his first competitive match for the team he has joined on loan from Barcelona; Dzeko was playing his first as a permanent Roman, his loan spell of last season now converted into a full move from Manchester City.
These play-offs can define a campaign even when a season feels like it has hardly begun in earnest. The fixtures elbow their way into mid-August, with their heavy baggage. They can dictate what sort of budget a club might forecast for itself for the season, shape late-summer transfer business: potential new players want to know if they will be spending their midweek nights in the Europa League – the losers on Tuesday end up there – or in the better class of competition.
When the third-placed team in last May’s Serie A were drawn to fight out a prize worth a potential €30 million (Dh124.5m) with the bronze medallists of Portugal’s Primeira Liga, both Porto and Roma knew they had been done no favours.
Even the most experienced men felt the jitters. Casillas, three times a European club champion with Real Madrid and owner of every major international medal available, spilt a routine clutch-and-gather to offer Dzeko the sort of chance Roma fans hope the striker will convert more regularly than he did last term.
Casillas made some amends with later saves though he lost his cool. “Leave me in peace!” he pleaded on social media as commentators dissected, relentlessly, his mixed performance.
Dzeko has had a similar appeal made on his behalf by Luciano Spalletti, the Roma manager. His 2015/16 season, launched amid great expectations when he arrived from City to spearhead Roma’s attack, started promisingly, with a goal in a win over champions Juventus.
But it finished unfulfilled, his eight Serie A goals bookending long periods of barrenness in front of goal. The miss at the Dragao Stadium last Wednesday was greeted with groans in Roma, an unwelcome déjà vu.
“What I don’t want is a repeat of the tune we heard last season,” said Spalletti, anticipating criticism of Dzeko.
“So I will say right now, I am right behind him. He contributes so much to the team, and sacrifices himself a great deal.”
Dzeko, 30, is off the mark in the league campaign, at least, having scored Roma’s third goal in the encouraging 4-0 win over Udinese in their Serie A opener on Saturday.
Casillas, Spain’s record holder of international caps, has the backing of Nuno Espirito Santo, Porto’s coach, new to the club this season.
“Iker is subject to criticism and detailed analysis of his displays like anybody at a major club,” Nuno said. “He knows how to deal with it.”
What Porto are not so familiar with is falling short of the last 32 in Europe’s principal competition.
Since they won the Champions League, under Jose Mourinho, in 2004, they have failed to make the group stage only once.
As for Casillas, he has been on the starting grid in the competition every September this century and will not want that record to end now.
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Updated: August 22, 2016 04:00 AM