It may be a measure of the health of Italian football that the weekend match between Genoa and Roma should be so important. Before the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, neither of these teams could have hoped for much before the crushing political and financial power of Juventus, Milan and (to a lesser extent) Inter. Today, a club like Genoa is allowed to put together a team strong enough to place a serious bid on Champions League qualifications while Roma has become a force to be reckoned with in that very tournament. Granted, there is still much to be done to level the plain and end a situation which arguably favours teams like Juventus (a penalty and a goal against them both disallowed in the match against Fiorentina) while doing its best to put down teams like Cagliari (two doubtful penalties awarded against them in their match against Lazio). But some improvements there have been, and for the moment we may at least reap their fruits in the very juicy Roma – Genoa.
Genoa has been called the surprise of the season so often that the term is beginning to lose meaning, but judging by their position in the table it almost seems inadequate. A better designation should have them as the astonishment of the season. Il Grifone won or drew against all the big teams in Serie A except for Juventus, they have the current second top-scorer in the league and have so far performed better than teams such as Fiorentina, Napoli, Lazio, Udinese, Palermo and – precisely – Roma. Their current position sees them sitting fourth and is the envy of the four or five teams just below them. If they can hold on to it, they will qualify for the Champions League.
It is a commonly held opinion that this is not going to happen, and that Genoa is just enjoying a favourable and temporary contingency. This opinion is facile. Of course Genoa are not the favourites for a Champions League spot – they never were in the first place. But they have proved in more than one occasion – including their recent draw against Milan – that they deserve the position they are in. The via cruces as to whether they will be able to hold it or not is precisely this weekend’s match against Roma. If they win, then yes, they are very well poised to hold on to the fourth place until the end of the year. A loss or a draw would make this objective much more problematic.
This is not to say that, should Roma lose, their Champions League run would be over. We mentioned that it is facile to see Genoa as destined to lose their position. It is every bit as disingenuous to imagine that Roma and Fiorentina are the only teams threatened by the Rossoblu. Juventus stand a mere three points above them and are starting to show some fatigue. While Genoa plays in one competition alone and is able to channel all of its energies into that, Juventus is fighting on three fronts, including the Champions League, which is notoriously debilitating. The Bianconeri will drop points before and/or after their games with Chelsea, and if they proceed any further (and this writer firmly believes they will) they will lose points again during the next round.
Then there is Milan, the ever resurgent. In January, as part of the Roma – Milan tactical preview, this site predicted that ‘unless we see some serious tactical growth in [Roma and Milan] over the coming few months, it is not only possible but likely that one of them will end up out of the Champions League next season.’ Milan seems to have found some space for tactical rejuvenation in David Beckham (of all people), and they are not competing in the Champions League. But the original prediction still stands, and it doesn’t have to be Roma losing out. When Milan drew against Genoa a few weeks ago, many felt that the Rossoneri had dominated the match and only failed to close it in the second half. But their failure to close the game was not a contingent accident – it was a symptom of those weaknesses that Milan has still failed to solve (in particular Carlo Ancelotti’s questionable tactical vision). If Milan were really out of danger, they would have archived the practice with Genoa, who are on paper much weaker than themselves. But Milan is not out of danger at all. Their structural cracks, albeit somewhat restricted, are still there and still open, and the second place they conquered ever so deftly could just as deftly be taken away from them.
The purpose of all these discussions is to give a measure of the importance of our game. If Genoa win against Roma, they could at some stage climb as far up as the third place. If Roma lose, it doesn’t mean that the Giallorossi risk being left out of next year’s Champions League – it means that such a danger is extended to Milan and even Juventus. The astonishment of the season indeed.
Then again, Roma are well aware of the importance of this game – witness how half the starting team, including Francesco Totti, was declared healthy last Wednesday only to turn out strategically ‘injured’ – and therefore rested – before the match against minnows Reggina on Sunday. A win by Roma would give us a much more familiar top four in the Serie A table (though the fourth place may be temporarily snatched up by Fiorentina, should they prevail against Lazio) and would go miles towards fulfilling the Giallorossi’s seasonal objectives. They will be walking into this as if it were a final. No wonder that Genoa president Enrico Preziosi has stated that he would be happy with a draw.
What kind of game are we to expect, and what kind of result? Roma, like Milan, still need to redress many of their problems. Unlike Milan, however, the most serious of their problems is not chronic but circumstantial – it is their incapacity to play without Totti. On Sunday Totti is going to be there, so that problem does not pose itself. For that reason, and for the bonus awarded by the fact that they play at home, Roma walk into the game as favourites. Regarding the rest of the Roma attack, we have some ups and downs. Julio Baptista should not be faced with any problems when confronting central defender Domenico Criscito, no more than a gorilla would when charging a hobbit, but Mirko Vucinic may suffer. The man is running dry on form, he is a poor performer against the least glamorous teams, and he will be faced by ex-Roma Matteo Ferrari, who ought to know a thing or two about him.
The Genoa defence is a limpid and effective one, but the Roma offence is ductile enough to burn through it. The happening of a goal will be less a question of ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ – in particular, it will be crucial for both teams to be the first to score. If Genoa can net one before their rivals, they can sit back and exploit quick counter-attacking runs to score a second. The prospect is a terrifying one for Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti – il Grifone are absolutely lethal on the counter, and it does not help the Roman cause that their defence is suffering from some intestinal trouble (see Christian Panucci’s rebellion and Simone Loria’s abysmal performances). Genoa’s Giuseppe Sculli and Raffaele Palladino possess more than enough technique to inflict damage, and as for Diego Milito, I sing the body electric – the man is the best poacher in Serie A and a hymn to beautiful football. Catch him if you can.
A goalless draw is very unlikely, but the amount of goals and spectacle we will see in the game will depend mostly on which of the two teams scores first. If Roma get on top, they will close up spaces and Genoa will have a hard time breaking through midfield pit-bulls Daniele De Rossi and Matteo Brighi (not to mention Rodrigo Taddei, whose defensive game is so dirty it becomes frankly amusing to watch). Expect a win by Roma or a draw. If Genoa score first, the Giallorossi will chase them up and are far more likely to equalise, but they will also open up enormous spaces in their backlines, resulting in a game of continuous blitzkriegs. If that happens, the final result will be completely unpredictable, and for ninety minutes so will be the fate of the whole top-four of Serie A.