As Paulo Fonseca watched relegation-threatened Cagliari score against his Roma team for the third time, he chose to see the glass as half-full. This had been another grim Sunday afternoon in a spring packed full of them, but at least he had been able to get two of his first-choice defenders back on the pitch ahead of Thursday’s Europa League semi-final against Manchester United.

“The important thing was for Chris [Smalling] and [Leonardo] Spinazzola to play [after recent injuries],” Fonseca affirmed afterward, highlighting the Englishman’s 59 minutes as especially pleasing. Smalling had been out for six weeks with a knee injury, during which time he endured the trauma of an armed robbery at his home. “He played really well,” said Fonseca. “The team looked confident with Chris.”

Smalling’s story has come full circle in two years. He left United in 2019 because Ole Gunnar Solskjær could no longer promise him regular opportunities to play. Now he will return to Old Trafford as part of a Roma team whose disappointing domestic campaign has been partially attributed to the fact he was not available more often.

Injuries have limited Smalling to just 12 Serie A starts this season. It is no coincidence that Roma have averaged 2.08 points in those fixtures, compared to just 1.43 when he is absent.

When he arrived – initially on loan – in the summer of 2019, his transfer felt like an afterthought. His future at United was decided after the English transfer deadline had passed, and the opportunity to move to the Italian capital was presented to him with no time to consider. A conversation with Fonseca persuaded him.

He was a perfect fit for the Portuguese manager, who prefers compact formations with a high defensive line. The idea is to reduce opponents’ attacking options, forcing them to work the flanks or rely on long passes over the top instead of playing through a crowded central area. It is a strategy that can only work with defenders who are confident in the air and quick enough to keep up when the ball does get played in behind.

Chris Smalling turns out for Manchester United against Arsenal in 2019.
Chris Smalling turns out for Manchester United against Arsenal in 2019. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Smalling’s first season at Roma was almost entirely positive. He won over supporters in no time, delivering a dramatic goal-line clearance against Napoli between goals against Brescia and Udinese. His veteran leadership was valued in a young team. When Edin Dzeko was substituted late in a November Europa League game, it was the defender who took the captain’s armband.

“Chris is an extraordinary lad, very intelligent,” Fonseca told the Portuguese newspaper A Bola. “He’s fast, almost unbeatable in a one-on-one. He has great capacity for reading the game and anticipating. He has been so important for our team.”

Securing a permanent transfer for “Smaldini” – a nickname born in Manchester but adopted warmly in Rome – was among Fonseca’s top priorities last summer, even though the deal once again did not get resolved until the last moment. Roma hoped his return would be the final piece of the puzzle in their push for a Champions League spot. Instead, after spending much of the season in the top four, they have faded down the stretch.

There is more to that picture than Smalling’s absences. Roma have done without key players throughout this season, from the gifted young attacking midfielder Nicolò Zaniolo, who tore his cruciate ligament in September, to Spinazzola struggling with muscle injuries and another former United player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, having a brilliant start interrupted by a thigh issue.

Roma’s league campaign has crumbled – they have taken just five points from their last seven Serie A matches – but they have saved their best for Thursday nights. They won home and away against a Shakhtar side that beat Real Madrid twice in the Champions League group stage, then defeated Ajax despite giving up almost 70% possession to their opponents across two legs.

Roma know they are underdogs against United, and the fear of a repeat of the 7-1 drubbing they received in 2007 is present in the minds of supporters. Yet there is hope, too, for an upset. Italian sports journalism has long sustained the “immutable law of the ex”, which states that a player will always come up big against their former club. Therefore the presence of Smalling and Mkhitaryan together could only be a boon.

There are more tangible reasons for optimism. Lorenzo Pellegrini has continued his emergence as one of Italy’s most promising creative talents, while Jordan Veretout has 10 goals from midfield. In Edin Dzeko, Roma have a player who has twice scored a double at Old Trafford.

“It will be a special game for me, since it was a derby for me until a few years ago,” said Dzeko, for whom this will be a first return to Manchester since he left City in 2015. “Manchester United are certainly favourites, but the very fact that we’ve got to the semi-finals gives us the right to believe.”

The return of Smalling has raised that belief at least a little, allowing Fonseca to present a glass half-full. This challenging season, though, has left underlying cracks that might yet cause it to shatter.


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