The first return leg of 2012-2013 sees Roma venture to the land of elephants to take on 10th place Catania. Gli Elefanti are actually off to a better start than last year's surprising run under Vincenzo Montella and have been particularly tough within the friendly confines of the Stadio Massimino, taking 20 points in their Sicilian home.
While Roma has generally been a strong away side, picking up 15 points on the road, their last two jaunts away from the Eternal City have not gone so well, conceding five goals and securing zero points. Nevertheless, Roma have won four of their last six matches and will need every precious point they can manage if they want to experience Europe next season.
As you might recall, the first Catania-Roma encounter was the opening salvo in Zemanlandia 2.0, a dull one at that, in which Roma was fortunate to seal a draw at the death.
Following a blocked free kick by Sergio Almiron, Giovanni Marchese knocked home the first goal of the match, giving Catania the early lead. Not to be out done, Pablo Osvaldo leveled the match with an overhead volley in the 59th minute, which was quickly canceled out by Alejandro Gomez a mere 10 minutes later.
In the end, Roma salvaged one point from the jaws of defeat thanks to Nico Lopez's 91st minute goal, which was essentially the first and last we've heard from young Nico this season. *Cough* Loan Him Out *Cough*
Catania sits dead center in Serie A in both goals forced and conceded, 26 to 27, but boast a much more sterling +8 differential at home, 17 to 9. For the record, Roma sports a +1 differential on the road, 20 to 19, so this will be far from a cake walk.
That Catania has clawed their way to 10th in the table is largely due to their strong home record, as they only have a single player among Serie A's top 40 rated players, Nicolas Spolli, whose 9.1 clearances per game place him 5th in the league. While the Catania offense is led primarily by Gonzalo Bergessio, Francesco Lodi, and Alejandro Gomez. This trio has managed 14 goals and 11 assists among them. Unfortunately for Catania, Lodi is suspended for this match.
On the whole, both offensively and defensively, Catania is at or near the middle of the pack in most statistical categories. But where Gli Elefanti do excel is the second half, as they have scored 19 goals in the second stanza, while Roma has allowed 17 second half goals of their own.
Catania are very much a gritty team, fighting to the last drop. So one thing is for certain, Roma cannot rest easy on a short lead, they need to be at full tilt from whistle-to-whistle if they are to break Catania's stronghold at home.
The Roman story, per usual, revolves around who will comprise the starting XI. Already without the suspended Miralem Pjanic, Roma face possible late scratches in PDO (knee), Francesco Totti (thigh) and Marquinhos (Montezuma's Revenge). Facing a club with Catania's parsimonious home record without two of your top scorers and best defender is far from optimal.
While Totti's injury appears to be the least worrisome of the trio, PDO is assuredly out of this match and won't be traveling to Sicily at all, while Nicolas Burdisso will be forced to fill in for our Brazilian wunderkind.
In the absence of Pjanic, Alessandro Florenzi should make his return to the midfield alongside Daniele De Rossi and Michael Bradley, while Mattia Destro should join Totti and Erik Lamela up front. Florenzi has only played 30 minutes in Roma's last two matches, so he should be well rested and eager to recapture his earlier form.
Destro, once again the subject of completely asinine and unsubstantiated transfer talk, will need to turn in a strong performance if Roma are to reverse their recent road woes, all the more so if Totti isn't 100% fit. There is no doubting Destro's talent or his ability to make space for himself or to move without the ball, but he absolutely has to capitalize on any scoring chances, particularly as PDO won't be there to bail him out off the bench.
Which brings up another issue facing this Roma squad, depth. Once seen as a strength, recent weeks have shown depletions in all areas of the pitch, due to fatigue, injury, and illness. Without Marquinhos, there is little cover on the backline beyond 17 year old Alessio Romagnoli, the situation at fullback is even more scarce, with no one beyond Rodrigo Taddei capable manning the flanks (Have you seen my Dodo?). The story is much the same in the midfield, particularly with the eminent departure of Marquinho, leaving any subs minutes to the aging, but still capable, legs of Simone Perrotta and the odd man out of the Bradley, Florenzi, Pjanic and De Rossi quartet.
With little more than two weeks left in the transfer window, there has been nary a concrete connection to fresh Roman blood, so the front office's action (or inaction) will dictate how many fresh legs Zeman has at his disposal in the stretch run, as Roma's bench is populated by both extremes of age and experience, which could prove problematic in the long run.
The march towards Europe was never meant to be easy and this latest step promises little reprieve, as an undermanned Roma squad cross the Strait of Messina to tangle with a tough Catania side.
Make no mistake, this match is as tough and important as any Roma will face throughout the back stretch.