ROME — Roma was expected to struggle to reach the Champions League knockout stages, instead it qualified for the round of 16 as a group winner ahead of Chelsea and Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.
Diego Perotti scored the only goal as Roma beat Qarabag 1-0. The Italian side finished top of Group C after Atletico could only draw at already-qualified Chelsea 1-1 and was eliminated.
The match in England still had a couple of more minutes to go after the final whistle in Rome. All of the Roma squad waited in front of their fans and, as soon as the big screen showed it was over, there were huge cheers from players and supporters.
“It’s a wonderful moment for us,” Perotti said. “When the draw was made, nobody believed in us, but we worked hard and we deserved this first place.
“It was difficult. They were all behind the ball, it seemed as if they had something to play for. We were patient. These games are more dangerous and we didn’t lose our heads, fighting together for the goal. Now we’re going to enjoy it.”
Qarabag finished bottom of the group.
Roma has come on in leaps and bounds under new coach Eusebio Di Francesco, especially in Europe. It was only two years ago that it was booed off the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico after drawing with Bate Borisov 0-0.
It failed to even qualify for the group stage last season after losing a playoff to Porto 4-1 on aggregate, including a 3-0 defeat at home.
“The final result is what we dreamed of,” Roma captian Daniele De Rossi said. “No-one expected it at the time of the draw, this victory is very important for us, for our self-esteem.
“We have taken a lot of pummelings in Europe, this will also help us boost our image, coming first in a group that was so difficult … Di Francesco has surprised everyone.”
Roma knew it needed a victory against the group minnow to reach the round of 16 or hope Atletico failed to win at Stamford Bridge.
The Italian side attacked from the start but found it hard to create decent goalscoring opportunities.
Its best chance of the first period came in stoppage time as first Edin Dzeko fired over before Radja Nainggolan saw his effort well saved by Ibrahim Sehic, who also kept out Aleksandar Kolarov’s follow-up.
Roma broke the deadlock eight minutes after the break. Sehic kept out Dzeko’s effort with his knee, but the ball looped up and Perotti headed it into the back of the net.
Sehic pulled off another good save to deny Nainggolan as Roma sought the second goal which would have sealed the victory.
Qarabag almost leveled seven minutes from time when Wilde Donald Guerrier crossed for an unmarked Michel but he headed straight at Roma goalkeeper Alisson.
More AP Champions League coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/ChampionsLeague