One match at a time, goes the old slogan. Not this time, goes the voice of the veterans. Claudio Ranieri and the rest of his brigade will tell you that they have nothing in mind other than Atalanta, but the upcoming match only gains meaning in light of the one right after it – that is to say, the derby. The weaker iteration of the Nerazzurri stand as the second in a string of seven opponents which we sketched from here to the mid-seasonal back-flip as representatives of Roma’s seeding time. None of these seven games can be understood individually. A look at the bigger picture is very much called for.
In terms of the present game, Atalanta represents only a moderate threat. They are not as soft as Livorno (who did take Roma down), but they are under-par competition regardless. Their game is comparatively physical, especially now that they have lost their creative fulcrum in the sale of midfielder Luca Cigarini to Napoli. A few of their individuals possess a discrete degree of talent – Cristiano Doni, for instance, was very threatening a couple of years ago, and even though he seems to have lost some shine this season, he could still throw up a spark or two. They also enjoy a surprisingly lively home support. They are not incapable of defeating Roma if the latter are on a bad day, but this is not the condition. In fact, the Giallorossi are in full growth, and the Atalanta defence seems an unimpressive rival for the newly regained Francesco Totti. It is only too obvious to call Roma the favourites for the game.
The maturation of the team from the capital has finally reached a steady rate of growth, a condition which is bound to remain stable regardless of the result against Atalanta. Earlier during the season, glorious victories such as the one against Fiorentina were not symptoms of ‘growth’ – they were an expression of the constant dips and leaps of chaos, a case in which the inconsistencies of a team busy in the labour of finding itself gave way to whiplashes of excellence and ineptitude alike, neither suggesting continuity in itself or the other. Against Bari, and before that against Inter, Roma gave signs of real cohesion. They had marshalled their qualities, rather than witnessing them as their own bodies let them loose. Even if Atalanta were to achieve a win, Roma are stable enough to pick themselves up quickly. Errors at the micro level no longer spiral into important disturbances at the macro level because the team has the internal solidity to absorb them. It is the end of the butterfly effect. The system is settled.
This is the great achievement of Ranieri so far, and it is precisely the greatness of the achievement which suggests that it must be protected. Though Atalanta are no longer capable of derailing the Roma machine, given how the scale of the match against them is micro rather than macro, the opponents immediately successive to them can. A derby is much more than a single match. It has the power to create or destroy the entire psychic condition of a team. A defeat against Lazio could undo all of the work conducted so far by Ranieri. It could lose Roma much more than just three of the fifteen points we expect them to gather on this seven-game mini-epic.
The match against Atalanta then becomes significant, less for the points that it yields than for the image of the team that it projects as they march towards the derby – the only true test left for Roma alongside the match against Sampdoria. Winning against Atalanta means paving the way towards a victory against Lazio of course, at least in terms of morale, but the truly meaningful aspect of this game is not the psychic boost or knock represented by the result. What really matters is that this is Ranieri’s last opportunity for experimentation. When facing Bari, he was as bold as to field a three-man offence, with Totti, Mirko Vučinić and Jérémy Ménez all on the field together. Many have applauded him for the choice (it is hard not to applaud after a victory by 3-0), but we are left with a grain of scepticism. The disposition is very daring, and it may lead the team to suffer against weightier opponents. If Ranieri is planning on using it over the long term, or even just against Lazio, then this is his last chance to trim the edges and oil the engines. By the time Atalanta is finished (for the better or for the worse), the formation must be perfectly efficient – or it must not be the same. Lazio are not a team that Ranieri can afford to experiment with.
It may seem early to start speaking about Lazio. The players certainly should stay focussed on the match ahead – three points are still an important booty, especially in the middle of this seven-game run. External observers, however, are advised to concentrate less on the immediate display and more on the bigger picture. That is where the real drama is going to play out. The proportion of older to younger players fielded, the choice of the formation, the performance of the defence and the fitness of the key players are factors that will come together to form a fresco. When walking into the game against Lazio, which will be one of the most important games of Roma’s season so far, that fresco will be the only thing available to us. Ranieri, hopefully, will have studied it carefully. For our own part, it will provide the flesh for nothing less than both our next two columns.
Roma Club Focus 2009/10
The senate is adjourned – August 25, 2009
Houston, we have a problem – August 28, 2009
The time of Penelope – September 1, 2009
Good move, bad timing – September 4, 2009
International week (Georgia-Italy, Italy-Bulgaria)
Break means homework time for Ranieri – September 7, 2009
A win that means more than three points – September 15, 2009
Ranieri chases team spirit – September 18, 2009
Champagne! – September 22, 2009
Children of Chaos – September 25, 2009
Catania is beginning to get on our nerves – September 29, 2009
Ranieri has yet to stabilise i Lupi – October 3, 2009
A solid win at a heavy price? – October 6, 2009
Rumours as IFFHS ranks the Giallorossi as best in Italy – October 9, 2009
The strange attractor of two inherently chaotic teams – October 16, 2009
The sound and the fury – October 20, 2009
The importance of being Francesco – October 23, 2009
A shot in the foot – October 27, 2009
Waiting for Godot (and the rest of our men) – October 30, 2009
Win as a team, die as individuals – November 3, 2009
Into the nest of snakes – November 6, 2009
A promise of spring – November 10, 2009
International week (Italy-Holland, Italy-Sweden)
Purgatory is not enough – November 20, 2009
The first leaves shiver – November 24, 2009
The ghost of a future derby – November 27, 2009