Concluding a memorable first season for the Europa Conference League, Roma and final opponents Feyenoord convene in Tirana on Wednesday night, as they battle it out for a place in history.
While the Italian club are seeking their first victory in a UEFA final, having twice lost previously, their Dutch counterparts could become the first team to have lifted all three of Europe’s current club trophies.
Although winners of the long defunct Inter-Cities Fairs Cup back in 1961, Roma are still waiting to claim their first-ever major European prize, after losing to Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup final and fellow Serie A side Inter in the UEFA Cup seven years later.
While both competitions have since been revamped and form the top two tiers of continental competition – the Champions and Europa Leagues – UEFA’s newest addition to their stable, the Conference League, was inaugurated less than 12 months ago.
After wending its way through the outposts of Europe since getting under way last summer, the tournament’s path leads ultimately to Wednesday’s grand finale, which will be played out in the Albanian capital.
Roma arrive in Tirana having finished with a flourish domestically, as their league season concluded with a 3-0 win at Torino last Friday, with a Tammy Abraham brace and Lorenzo Pellegrini’s penalty securing Europa League football for next season, whether or not they triumph this week.
The free pass to that competition which comes with the Conference League crown will not be required, as the Giallorossi secured a top-six finish in the Serie A standings; just one point behind capital city rivals Lazio.
Over the intervening days, coach Jose Mourinho has been preparing his squad for their coming appearance on the European stage, and so far this season, his side have largely thrived at the lower level.
After comfortably cruising through to the last 16 – despite a shock 6-1 drubbing in the Arctic Circle, at the hands of Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt – Roma then edged past Vitesse at the first knockout stage, before reconvening with their group stage conquerors in the quarter-finals.
Though they suffered another defeat in the away leg, Bodo/Glimt were eventually brushed aside at Stadio Olimpico, before Mourinho’s men overcame Leicester City in the semi-finals: drawing 1-1 away and winning 1-0 at home.
Like Wednesday’s opponents, Europe’s newest club trophy is now Roma’s only chance of silverware this season, and Mourinho has extra motivation to urge his team, spearheaded by Abraham up front and captained by the inspirational Pellegrini, to finish the job against Feyenoord.
The veteran coach would be acclaimed for winning four European competitions with four different clubs – the first one being the 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup, as assistant to the late Bobby Robson at Barcelona – and having won both the Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League twice since, he now has the chance to clinch yet another club competition trophy.
Feyenoord booked their place in the inaugural final after a monumental semi-final tussle with Marseille, and are now aiming to complete four wins from as many European finals – their previous three having seen them bring a trophy back home to Rotterdam.
Victories in the 1970 European Cup final against Celtic and the UEFA Cups of 1974 and 2002 established the Dutch club’s reputation as a name to be revered in continental competition – even if they have been far less feared in recent times.
Leading De Stadionclub to the Conference League final in his first campaign at De Kuip, coach Arne Slot has brought back a taste of past glories, having made a big impression by fielding a side full of energy, intensity and plenty of goals.
Slot’s attack-minded team threw away a two-goal lead at home to Marseille in the semis, but then recovered to take a slender 3-2 lead to Stade Velodrome for the second leg, which ultimately finished goalless.
In even more impressive fashion than their final opponents, Feyenoord had already swept through the group stage – in their case, unbeaten – and saw off both Partizan Belgrade and Slavia Prague on their route to the final four.
Undefeated since the start of the tournament, the Eredivisie club have found the net 28 times in their 12 Conference League games to date – one more than Roma. They also boast the competition’s leading goalscorer, with Cyriel Dessers having racked up ten goals so far, which is one more than the Giallorossi’s main man, Abraham.
Since sealing their place in the final, Feyenoord have gone on to secure a third-placed finish domestically, despite a final-day defeat to Twente, when their thoughts may have understandably drifted elsewhere.
That setback halted an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions, but the 15-times Dutch champions are a force to be reckoned with under Slot, whose philosophy contrasts starkly with the pure pragmatism of Mourinho.
Roma Europa Conference League form:
Roma form (all competitions):
Feyenoord Europa Conference League form:
Feyenoord form (all competitions):
Having recently recovered from his latest muscular injury, Roma forward Nicolo Zaniolo – who appeared as a substitute last time out – is in contention to start in Wednesday’s final.
Therefore, Eldor Shomurodov should drop out of the side that started against Torino on Friday, while Jordan Veretout’s spot in midfield is also vulnerable to the claims of Bryan Cristante, who has often featured in Europe this term.
Finally back at full tilt after the long layoff which followed his Euro 2020 heroics, Leonardo Spinazzola lined up on the left flank in Turin – with young Nicola Zalewski switching to the right side of Mourinho’s midfield – but former Feyenoord man Rick Karsdorp has been a regular at wing-back and will hope to be involved.
Due to a hamstring injury, playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan remains unavailable, but England striker Tammy Abraham will be on hand to lead the Giallorossi line, having netted 26 times in 51 appearances this season.
Meanwhile, Genk loanee Cyriel Dessers, who moved clear as the Conference League’s top scorer by netting his ninth and 10th goals of the campaign in the semi-final, starts up front for Feyenoord, who should adopt a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The Nigeria international is set to be flanked by Reiss Nelson – currently on loan from Arsenal – and Luis Sinisterra, who will aim to increase his tally of six goals in the competition.
Goalkeeper Justin Bijlow has been sidelined by injury since March, so Ofir Marciano continues as the last line of defence for Arne Slot’s side.
Roma possible starting lineup:
Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Ibanez; Karsdorp, Cristante, Oliveira, Zalewski; Pellegrini, Zaniolo; Abraham
Feyenoord possible starting lineup:
Marciano; Geertruida, Trauner, Senesi, Malacia; Aursnes, Kokcu; Nelson, Til, Sinisterra; Dessers