Roma v Juventus
Serie A Week 19 – Sunday, 12th January – 14:00 GMT – Stadio Olimpico
The glorious performance against Cagliari makes some of the previous ones even more maddening. Other than some usual toothlessness in the first half, where the team seemingly preferred to string together passes rather than looking to shoot, it was a peek into the full potential of the squad and obviously the offensive explosion in the second half corrected that issue.
Coach Maurizio Sarri insisted on the mentality in the previous pre-game presser and it was quite clear from the get-go that the players were looking to dominate and they did. Such aspects often trump tactical and technical elements, becoming the main driving factor behind a team’s success. Cagliari are a good side, but they were undermanned and on a downswing and the spot, at home and right after a refreshing break with almost everybody available, was ideal for that kind of display.
Now the lads will have to prove to have the same hunger and command in a more difficult match-up, on the road and versus a historic rival. They tried to do that in the last trip to the Olimpico Stadium, but they did not finish the job and Lazio’s opportunism got the better of them.
Most of the positive elements came from the midfielders: Miralem Pjanic must have shaken off some kind of ailment, or he was simply re-energized, because he was right back in the thick of things, something he had not done in a while and Aaron Ramsey, even without doing too much, just makes the ball move better and faster with his sheer presence, and he is a master in finding and occupying the open spots the defence gives to him.
Paulo Dybala has been terrific over the last few months, but the two play the same position in very different manner, as La Joya more often than not starts from the right wing to cut back, tries to combine and to shoot, while the Welshman moves around the whole pitch and is constantly looking to feed somebody else. He is forward adapted to no.10, Ramsey instead thinks like a midfielder.
Both approaches work, then it depends on what the team specifically needs that day or really even in a particular stretch of a game. If they could regularly put Cristiano Ronaldo in position to finish with such ease, then there would no longer be the pressing need to have another centre-forward on the pitch. Every option remains squarely on the table, but it is time to identify what makes everything click and build on it.
Adrien Rabiot continues to be on the up-and-up and if he carries on like this, when Rodrigo Bentancur will be back in a couple of matches, the coach might finally be able to pull off a Blaise Matuidi-less lineup, which was likely the ultimate goal when the roster was assembled, but injuries and the slow adaptation processes got in the way. I am eager to see whether such formation is feasible without being too soft on the defensive end.
Matthijs De Ligt is apparently dealing with a pair of small injuries and that is why he has not been playing recently: it is certainly a luxury to have somebody like Merih Demiral as a back-up. There is no reason not to confirm last week’s XI, but perhaps the coach will make some tweaks to make it more solid in light of the increased difficulty of the bout, but he has generally been resistant about that.
4-3-1-2: Szczesny; Cuadrado, Demiral, Bonucci, Sandro; Rabiot, Pjanic, Matuidi; Ramsey; Dybala, Ronaldo.
Chiellini (knee), Khedira (knee).
Roma have mostly been brilliant over the last three months and on their best day they can take it to anybody, yet sometimes they have occasional and inexplicable stumbles against lesser teams. It happened last week versus Torino and few rounds ago in Parma, their only two blemishes over the last ten fixtures, where they held Inter to a nil-nil tie on the road. After another summer of big chances and a few more good players leaving, Daniele De Rossi, Kostas Manolas and Stephan El Shaarawy, they have to be pretty satisfied with the impact of Paulo Fonseca in his first season in the Peninsula. They are poised to contend for a Champions League spot throughout the season, but with Lazio and Atalanta also faring well, one quality team is inevitably going to be squeezed out. It should be a riveting race.
The Portuguese coach has been pretty consistent with his selection, moving Nicolò Zaniolo out wide on the right, advancing Lorenzo Pellegrini to no.10 and picking Amadou Diawara and Jordan Veretout as pivots once Bryan Cristante got injured, while Gianluca Mancini has supplanted Federico Fazio in the back. They did a nice job in the summer in building towards 4-2-3-1 and, in my mind, it is one of the best tactics when everybody pitches in on both sides of the ball.
The two Italian youngsters have been terrific. Pellegrini is putting up big numbers in the assist department and the quality of his playmaking is outstanding and, in some matches, he truly manages to pull the strings and orchestrate the whole offence. Zaniolo has more room for his powerful runs down the flank, and he is the total package. It is a solution that makes a ton of sense to have them both close to their peak together and operating in the most significant areas of the pitch and the switch has not really affected Zaniolo’s performances.
They overhauled the back-line following the exit of Manolas and Chris Smalling has been quite the surprise, while it did not take long to Mancini to fit in. They form a stout and muscular duo of centre-backs that poses a big threat in the box on the other end. New goalie Pau Lopez has been pretty reliable as well and it was not hard to do better than Robin Olsen. They are one of the teams in Europe that score the most with defenders, considering that Aleksandar Kolarov, even though he is no longer their top penalty taker, is a terror on set pieces and with his long-range shooting in general.
Two negative aspects have held them back a little so far: first of all, a litany of injuries and a few players will be out this week as well, as Justin Kluivert is nursing a tricky problem, Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked up a second hamstring strain, Javier Pastore is on the mend with a hip contusion, Davide Santon with a thigh problem. Cristante could be back after missing months with a major groin issue and Pellegrini also spent a lot of time on the sidelines earlier in the year.
Edin Dzeko is an extremely complete player and has fabulous technique for a striker, but he is no longer in the stage of his career where he can churn out goals in spades. When he is off, scoring becomes a bit of an issue: they have few that can contribute, but not a true second fiddle, nor that guy that can bag cheap goals. Zaniolo and Kluivert will have to surge to that role if they want to take it up a notch. They have done okay for midfielders, but they could use a more consistent production.
Both wingers, Diego Perotti is the only one standing on the left, like to cut back to shoot or create for others, leaving plenty of space for the scampers of the fullbacks and Kolarov and Alessandro Florenzi, who has taken the job back from Leonardo Spinazzola, are both strong in the final third.
It is a team that does not a clear weakness, it is well-rounded but without a specific impressive trait, it can be a bit moody and get complacent. As it is the case in most matches, Juventus will have to watch out for their counter-attacking game, which is not by any stretch their go-to option, as they like to keep possession and calmly work their way around defences looking for a timely through ball or deep interplay, but they do have players that can be devastating if given the opportunity.
Some reports suggest Fonseca also tested a three-man defence in the final practices since they are a little short on attackers, so there is a chance they trot out a very compact 3-4-2-1 with a lot of emphasis on the two wing-backs, but for now their usual scheme is the frontrunner. In that, centre-back Mert Cetin might wind up playing on the right flank in lieu of both Alessandro Florenzi and Leonardo Spinazzola for a stouter look.
4-2-3-1: Lopez; Florenzi, Mancini, Smalling, Kolarov; Diawara. Veretout; Zaniolo, Pellegrini, Perotti; Dzeko
Mkhitaryan (hamstring), Kluivert (thigh), Pastore (hip), Santon (hamstring), Zappacosta (knee).