Club Focus – Roma – The final countdown

Minus seven, minus six, minus four. The distance to the top of the mountain gets shorter every week, to the point that it no longer even looks like a mountain. There should have been a ‘minus five’ in that countdown, but Claudio Ranieri can thank Leonardo and Milan and Napoli for the draw. As expected, the teams from the North are paying their debts, be it to fatigue or to the calendar. Roma, on the other hand, have never been better. For every suspension Inter gets, for every injury Milan suffers, a supernova explodes in the Olimpico (the latest being that of Jérémy Ménez – more on that later). There are nine games left and nowhere to go but up.

As for the match we just played against Udinese, it looked for a moment as though the Giallorossi may throw away their lead one more time. This tendency to go up by a couple of goals and then let the opponent climb back (a spectre of Luciano Spalletti’s game, and the most exasperating one) should not be taken lightly, and we shall go as far as to claim that it is the single greatest threat to Roma’s hopes for glory. It was about to happen against Udinese, it could happen again when facing smaller teams, and the dropped points could cost a lot. On the weekend, what saved the team was the offence. Against a trident made up of three exceptional players in exceptional form, there was nothing the Zebrette could do. The defenders may not have been lions, but football is not ping pong and a poker of four goals is always an exceptional feat. Roma’s progress since December was based on the consistency of their defence, so the shift in focus, while welcome for the spectacular value, had better be equally reliable.

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And this is where we come to Jérémy Ménez, and all the questions that are raised around and about this French boy. Anyone who has seen the last game knows that his performance was everything we were hoping for from him. He was disciplined, decisive and brilliant. The question is how the Coach or team can get him to stay that way, since the effectiveness of the trident was largely dependent on his work, and since on occasion he has been the exact opposite. Regular playing time is an ingredient, of course, but at the expense of whom? Mirko Vučinić, who only just graced us with three goals? Luca Toni, who scores one per game, and whose bulk opened up the very spaces which Ménez went on to utilise? Francesco Totti? Please. Also we should note that Ménez seems most at ease when playing centrally with permission to widen his game towards the sides, rather than the other way round. He was originally brought in to replace winger Amantino Mancini, but the two players have less attributes in common than might appear, and Ménez may not be as tactically versatile as he is technically gifted. Use him as a trequartista, Ranieri, or resign yourself to seeing him wasted. Furthermore, the presence of Ménez in the middle does something nobody else on the team can do, for the moment: it compensates for the absence of David Pizarro by providing an alternative outlet for creativity, which is exactly what hoped he would do in this particular match.

Finally, a few words on the style of the Frenchman (we realise we have expended a great deal of space on the man, but he really was the central gravitational body of the match, technically and tactically). His pace and sudden accelerations have drawn comparisons with Kaká. For our own part, we saw something of the hyperbolic trickery of Cristiano Ronaldo in his performance (notably, the way that he sees space not as an end in itself, but as a medium to buy time). Obviously we do not want to draw any qualitative comparisons with these two Ballon D’Or winners, but there is no doubt that we are looking at an utterly modern football player, one who favours an analogical physicality to the cryptic pursuit (and cultivation) of instinct. For the moment, this player has no clear referent, no faded totem for us to say, ‘Ménez is the next so-and-so.’ If he can clear his psychological issues and grow into consistency, learning the subtleties of classifying the ‘Ménez-style’ will be a real privilege.

With that out of the way, it is time for the team to rest and for Ranieri to ponder which men to field next week. If the trident works as it did, you cannot possibly bench it, but that’s a very big ‘if.’ There’s also the return of Totti to consider. We wouldn’t be surprised if Ranieri played for the draw (and this time around, unlike with Milan, we would be happy with that). After all, our upcoming guests are Inter. Expect an extensive preview on Friday.

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