Roma travel to Catania at the weekend having just scraped above them in the league standings. For much of the season the two sides have been at opposite ends of the table they are ordinarily accustomed to, but whilst the Romans are gradually mounting the league with five consecutive Serie A victories, the Sicilians recent slide has seen them lose their grip on a UEFA Cup spot.
A chance to compete in Europe of course would be beyond a dream for the Elefanti and is perhaps too much for even the most optimistic Catania fan to expect. For the Rossazzurri, avoiding a relegation dogfight would be deemed a success and will instill belief in the fans that under Walter Zenga, the Sicilian club may have foundations on which to build. The board has reaffirmed their faith in ‘Spiderman’ by giving him a one year contract extension that will keep him at the club until June 2010. Not bad for a Coach whose appointment was received with disappointment from many Catania tifosi.
The Sicilian side are well organised, particularly at home, and this has been the basis of their success this term, dropping only five points from a possible 24. Against a free scoring Giallorossi however, Zenga may think twice about fielding his preferred 4-3-3, instead opting to pack the midfield in an attempt to stifle the Romans who attack in numbers. This could see him drafting in Marco Biagianti to sit in front of his back four in a 4-1-3-2 formation.
The Rossazzurri could also welcome the return of Gennaro Sardo in place of Cristian Silvestri at right-back where he would slot in alongside Lorenzo Stovini, Matias Silvestre and Rocco Sabato protecting Albano Bizarri’s goal. With Biagianti filling in the holding role, Argentinean playmaker Pablo Ledesma has the license to push forward and create chances in areas where he can inflict more damage. Giacomo Tedesco and Ezequiel Carboni will provide width when attacking, but can narrow the route to goal when defending, giving Catania both stability and versatility in their approach to the game.
Zenga will also be pleased to recall danger man Giuseppe Mascara after his top scorer missed the game at Fiorentina with a bout of flu. The No.7 will line up alongside Michele Paolucci with Jorge Martinez dropping to the bench. The on-loan striker Paolucci has turned in some impressive performances under Zenga and could be in line for a permanent move if co-owners Juventus and Udinese are prepared to free the promising youngster from their ranks. On Sunday he will be asked to put pressure on Roma’s back line and free up space for Mascara and Ledesma to exploit.
Roma’s resurgence has seen them win eight of their last nine games in all competitions and after coming from behind against Cagliari last weekend, Luciano Spalletti’s men have moved into tenth, six points behind fourth placed Milan. The disastrous start to the season effectively wrecked their challenge for the Scudetto, but the capital side are still a dominant force and capable of a top four finish. If the Giallorossi are to claim a Champions League spot though, they still have plenty of work to do.
It is no coincidence that Roma’s upturn in fortune coincided with the return of their talismanic captain, Francesco Totti. Not only does he offer leadership and instill confidence throughout the team, his presence on the pitch allows Mirko Vucinic to pick the ball up in deeper positions where he has more space and time to use the ball clinically. Totti is also hitting form and fitness after several spells on the sidelines through injury and is a prominent factor in a potent attacking force.
Another player rising to prominence is the enigmatic Frenchman Jeremy Menez, who after a lackluster start has been rejuvenated in the last couple of weeks and is looking more like the acquisition Spalletti expected of him when bringing him to the Eternal City for £8.3m. He could earn a place in the starting line up at the expense of Julio Baptista who has been less effective a summer arrival. However, the inclusion of Menez could unsettle the balance as Vucinic prefers to play on the left where he can cut inside on to his right foot, though the Montenegrin is more than capable of playing on the right. Whether this combination suits the Giallorossi remains to be seen as the team did not perform well last time the option was tested.
Matteo Brighi’s return to the side after serving a one match suspension against Cagliari will add more bite in midfield and his presence on the pitch will relieve some of the pressure on the back four. With him sitting deep breaking up opposition advances, Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta can provide support higher up the pitch and force the game to be played in the Catania half. Though the midfield trio has bags of energy, Spalletti will need them to guard against swift Sicilians counters.
Artur Moraes is set to continue in goal for only the third time this season if Alexander Doni hasn’t recovered from the back problem that saw him pull out of last weekend’s encounter as well. Spalletti though can welcome the return of Christian Panucci who will reclaim the left-back berth from John Arne Riise. Though the Norwegian has been an attributable understudy in the absence of the Giallorossi No.2, the experience and stability the Italy international gives to the Roma back line cannot be replaced. He will slot in alongside Philippe Mexes and Juan with Marco Cassetti at right-back.
With Roma needing the points to keep pace with Milan and Napoli, they will travel to the Stadio Angelo Massimino with an attacking frame of mind in search of all three points, and whilst the onus is on the home side, Zenga will want to end his sides poor run of form and will guard against taking too many risks. This encounter may well become one sided, but there is likely to be goals at both ends.