Softly do we come. While the press is still raving about José Mourinho and his exploits against Chelsea, Serie A continues, and even here we receive little to no attention. This weekend Milan faces up against Napoli, Inter go against Palermo, Fiorentina host Genoa, and Juventus battle it out against Sampdoria. We alone, in bittersweet anonymity, receive no light nor word. This is our greatest strength. Half of everyone is going to drop points this weekend, so we should catch up or outdistance half of everyone either way. Or so we hope – Roma have not won a game for a solid month now, and if we do not change the trend, then the Scudetto race really is over and done for this Sunday. It may be true what they said of Claudio Ranieri, that he is allergic to winning, but there will be time to be pessimistic later. Let’s face trouble one step at a time.
Though Roma have considerable advantages walking into this game – the lack of pressure from the media, the fact that they are playing at home – they suffer a marked weakness in the midfield. No less than three of their four central pillars are suspended (Rodrigo Taddei, Daniele De Rossi and David Pizarro). In these conditions, Ranieri will have to improvise a solution, as he has often done in the past. Some sources would have it that he will field a wall of mediani in Matteo Brighi, Simone Perrotta, and the young colt Ricardo Faty (the latter is not very good but he gains points with us because he is so amusing to watch – he gets things done, yes, but with all the grace and propriety of Goofy). Chances are we may even see something of Stefano Pettinari, the young Roman promise in the midfield, lately courted by the Premiership like Davide Petrucci a while ago. Conversely, the offensive half of the team will field Jérémy Ménez as trequartista, with Mirko Vučinić and Luca Toni up-front. It is potentially a very dangerous trident, but one which begs the question of how balanced the team is going to be when one half of the upper-body squad is so defensive and the other so offensive. We’re guessing that the idea is for them to complement each other, with the mediani providing enough defensive coverage for Ménez to roam around freely (not unlike what Wesley Sneijder was allowed to do against Chelsea). On the other hand, it could also backfire if the two departments do not operate organically, and if we only ever end up defending and attacking with three men at a time.
Luca Toni will be key to ensuring that Ranieri’s idea works as it should. He will have to hold the ball up and let the midfield come forwards, and he will also have to run back and defend when necessary. An asphyxiating task, no doubt, but we might substitute him in the last 15 minutes with a certain Francesco Totti, if only to give our captain some match-fitness as we go towards the game with Inter. Also key will be the manner that Ménez manages to interact with the rest of the squad. We compared his role to that of Sneijder, but the Dutchman is integrated in the dynamisms of the Nerazzurri in a way which is a dream, whereas Ménez, in the last game against Livorno, continuously struggled to find an understanding with his teammates.
Of course, all this is conditional on Ranieri’s making use of the 4-3-1-2 we have been postulating. He may well opt for another disposition, and then who knows how things will go. After all, he has surprised us in the past, most notably with that bewildering 3-5-2 against Napoli (though the suspension of Philippe Mexès out-rules it for this match). What we will say is that Udinese have their own absences in the midfield to deal with, by far the most critical of which is that of Gaetano D’Agostino. Since Pizarro is also out of the game, it means that we will see a match without registi (an intriguing scenario, from a tactical point of view). Ranieri should try and cut down the bridges that the Zebrette can build between midfield and offence by choking their three midfielders, exploiting the void in game-construction ability left by D’Agostino. The latter man’s absence may also be the reason why people are speculating that Ménez may be fielded as a trequartista, since there is no requirement for central man-marking as there was before, enough space is now open to field a creative rather than holding player in that position, one who has the added bonus of compensating with his inventiveness for the absence of Pizarro (that’s the plan, at least – the execution will be in the hands of the Frenchman). It is an important opportunity for the young fantasista, and we hope he seizes it. It may be the last real chance he has to stay with the squad.
Other than Faty and Ménez, the squad is somewhat lacking in youth. Unfortunately, Marco Motta and Marco Andreolli are unacceptable for this match. The latter deserves more playing time, but with Antonio Di Natale, the current capocannoniere of Serie A, marauding on the left and centre, this is no time for experiments. Nor is it the time to field Motta, who had the worst performance of his Roman career last Sunday. The only option left is Marco Cassetti, who is not a very reassuring choice himself, but he seems less of a gamble. This, at least, is predictable. If there is one constant in the way Ranieri plays, it’s that he plays it safe.