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Europa: Mourinho’s Roma ready for Real Sociedad’s assault

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Both placed fourth in their respective league tables, Roma and Real Sociedad convene at Stadio Olimpico on Thursday, to contest the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie.

Last year’s Europa Conference League winners now aim to take another step towards more silverware, as they meet La Real for the first time ever in UEFA competition.

Taking an indirect route to the last 16 after finishing Group C runners-up last autumn, Roma had to overcome the stern challenge of RB Salzburg in the knockout round playoffs, but proved equal to the task as their continental success story continued under Jose Mourinho.

Beating the Austrian champions 2-1 on aggregate after a closely contested tie – in which Paulo Dybala scored the decisive goal – Mourinho’s men prolonged their journey in this season’s Europa League, having lifted the inaugural Conference League trophy last term.

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They now return to European football following a morale-boosting win over Dybala’s old club Juventus on Sunday, when Gianluca Mancini’s sweet strike from the edge of the area not only ended a long personal goal drought for the Roma defender but also earned three precious points in his side’s pursuit of a top-four finish.

As the Giallorossi’s promising start to 2023 had come to a halt just days earlier, when they lost to Serie A’s bottom club Cremonese – who also knocked Mourinho and co out of the Coppa Italia – such a result will brighten the mood ahead of Real Sociedad’s arrival in Italy.

Roma have lost just two of their last 33 home matches in UEFA competition, winning on 24 occasions, although both defeats came against Spanish teams – to Real Madrid in 2018 and a 2-1 reverse against Real Betis in this term’s group phase. More recently, they have won seven of their last eight matches on home soil, so can be confident of setting up a first-leg lead to take to San Sebastian in seven days time.

Ultimately, the Eternal City club are aiming to upgrade their current European trophy at the end of the season, as they seek a first-ever Europa League or UEFA Cup triumph, with their previous best run taking them to the final back in 1991.

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Eliminated by RB Leipzig in last year’s knockout round playoffs, Real Sociedad’s furthest run in Europe’s second-tier tournament was as far as the quarter-finals in 1989, and Imanol Alguacil’s current crop will now aim to match that feat by beating Roma over two legs.

The Basque club have, however, won just one of six competitive meetings with Italian teams in the past, so will seek to build on their superb form in the Europa League’s group stage rather than dwell on that dismal record.

As Group E winners ahead of Manchester United, La Real won all three of their away fixtures without conceding a single goal – the only team to do so in the competition’s autumn phase – and racked up a total of 10 goals from six games.

Imanol, who has spoken glowingly of Mourinho in the build-up to this last-16 tie, has not been able to keep his team’s momentum building in recent weeks, though, and they have now won only once in seven matches for the first time in over a year.

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Following a 1-0 defeat to Valencia, La Real drew 0-0 with another La Liga struggler, Cadiz, last Friday; meaning they have played more than 250 minutes of football since Mikel Oyarzabal scored an early opener against Celta Vigo last month.

As a result, they are perilously close to being caught by Roma’s group-stage conquerors Real Betis in the standings, so may welcome the return of knockout competition, which has its own unique rhythms, on Thursday.

Despite the importance of the tie, Jose Mourinho may make at least a couple of changes on Thursday night, as his side’s relentless schedule resumes – Sassuolo await in Serie A on Sunday.

He is therefore set to rest Leonardo Spinazzola, with Stephan El Shaarawy starting instead. Alternatively, Rick Karsdorp would be brought in, with Nicola Zalewski switching to the left flank.

Tammy Abraham should lead the line after being benched against Juventus, as Roma revert to playing a conventional centre-forward, though Andrea Belotti – yet to score in Serie A this season but on the scoresheet against Salzburg last month – is also in contention.

January loan-signing Diego Llorente – who represented Real Sociedad from 2017 to 2020 – could even make a first Roma start against his former club, as after scoring a spectacular winner versus Juve, Gianluca Mancini is now struggling with an ankle injury.

The visitors, meanwhile, welcomed talisman David Silva back to their squad last weekend after missing six games with a calf problem. Having made a cameo appearance from the bench against Cadiz, he may even be thrown in from the start.

Imanol also has Ander Guevara and Mohamed-Ali Cho back from injury, while Aritz Elustondo may be passed fit in time to feature at some stage, leaving Umar Sadiq – who spent a spell at Roma earlier in his career – as the only man sidelined for La Real.

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In the final third, Mikel Oyarzabal and Take Kubo are likely to support Alexander Sorloth, with Cho also a contender.

Roma possible starting lineup:
Patricio; Llorente, Smalling, Ibanez; Karsdorp, Cristante, Matic, El Shaarawy; Pellegrini, Dybala; Abraham

Real Sociedad possible starting lineup:
Remiro; Gorosabel, Zubeldia, Le Normand, Rico; Zubimendi, Merino; Oyarzabal, Silva, Kubo; Sorloth

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