We make a lot of pop culture references here at CdT, some obvious, some esoteric. If you'll permit a somewhat obscure (depending on one's tastes, of course) literary reference, I think the works of Kurt Vonnegut can help explain the predicament in which Roma currently find themselves.
In his 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut introduces the notion of a karass; a group of people who are forever linked, unwittingly and unknowingly, in a cosmically significant way. The interactions between these members are often divinely orchestrated, though not necessarily divulged or discovered, and impact the lives of the entire karass. Put simply, a karass is a group of people thrown together to carry out the will of a divine being, without ever knowing that deity, its purpose, or even recognizing the links between one another-yet these links have tremendous ramifications for the life of each karass member.
While it would be easy to put the other 19 clubs into Roma's karass, there are two that standout for the significance and impact they've had on the Giallorossi this season: Fiorentina and Chievo. It's nearly impossible to rationalize the disparate performances Roma has turned in against these two clubs, who seemingly always play a significant role in Roma's results from year-to-year. There is some sort of divine will at play here, some inexplicable force that enables Roma to defeat fourth place Fiorentina three times, twice on the road, while not only losing, but failing to score a single goal against Chievo. The unfortunate irony is that we may never know how or why the fortunes of these clubs are so inextricably linked, they just seem to be and the results haven't been kind to Roma this year.
This phenomenon, and I would add Cat's Cradle in general, are hard to explain--but what is a church if not a bastion for souls confounded by the lack of rationality in the universe?
So, to my fellow Totti worshipers seeking refuge from the vagaries of life in Serie A , I say let us not dwell on that which we cannot control and focus instead on the matters of the day: AC Milan.
This is it, the home stretch; all that remains of the 2012-2013 Serie A season are this week's sojourn to the San Siro and next week's home match against Napoli. Sitting two points out of Europa League qualification the old fashion way, Roma must hope their recent away form against Milan (three victories in their last six) holds true.
But first, as you expected, a look backwards.
Roma closed out 2012 with a bang, dusting off Milan 4-2. Though, if we're going to be precise, Milan scored the last two goals in that match, so in the micro sense, 2012 didn't end too swell. Nevertheless, Roma was outshot and out possessed, but managed to win rather convincingly, thanks in large part to their performance in the first 45 minutes.
Nicolas Burdisso went into Beast Mode almost immediately, heading home a goal in the 12th minute and doing what Nico does best, running around like a man possessed. A mere 11 minutes later, Pablo Osvaldo received a wonderfully played left-footed ball from Francesco Totti, pushing the score to 2-0. It was a wonderful day to be an Argentine, as Erik Lamela scored Roma's third and fourth goals, shortly before and after the stroke of halftime.
But it just wouldn't be Roma if they didn't shave years off your life. Following Lamela's second goal, Marquinhos was shown the red for a handball in the 78th minute. Less than 10 minutes later, Giampaolo Pazzini drew and converted a penalty, making it 4-1. Some sixty seconds later, Bojan would capitalize on some sloppy defending, poking home a rebound, making the final score 4-2, though to Bojan's credit, he did not celebrate against his former teammates.
The victory capped off quite a run by Roma, winning six of eight matches to close out 2012.
The San Siro plays host to round 37's final match, with kickoff slated for 20:45 local time. Despite winning three of their past six away tilts against Milan, the Rossoneri haven't lost at home in sixth months and need only two points from the season's final fortnight to secure their place in next season's Champions League. Although Milan face lowly Siena next week, who may or may not be playing for topflight survival, one would guess they'd rather lock up that Champions League cash sooner rather than later.
The manner in which Allegri approaches this match will be influenced by the outcome of the Fiorentina (there they are again, tacitly and unwittingly influencing Roma's destiny) Palermo match. A loss, or even a draw, by the Viola tightens Milan's grip on third and, in turn, might see their lineup decrease in luster, making Roma's chance of victory (hypothetically speaking, of course) a bit easier, by Roman standards, at least.
As you might expect, being third best and all, Milan is stout in all facets of the game. And you'd be correct. Milan enters this match with a +27 goal differential, fifth in goals scored and third in goals conceded. They're first in total possession, tied for first in passing percentage, third in shots conceded per game, third in shots taken per game, second in shots on target per game and they've won three matches in a row.
Leading the Milanese attack has been Stephan El Shaarawy, whose 16 goals pace the club, while his four assists trails only Robinho for the club lead. However, young El Shaarawy has made 39 appearances in all competitions this season, resulting in some late season fatigue. Il Faraone has failed to score since February's match against Inter and has gone the full 90 only once in his past five matches.
Lest you think Roma will receive a reprieve, look no further than the jewel of Milan's winter mercato, Mario Balotelli. Over his past three league matches alone, Balotelli has scored four goals. Thus far in his brief Milan tenure, Super Mario has 11 goals in as many matches. Throw in the goal he scored for Italy against Brazil, and Balotelli's total increases to 12 goals in 12 matches. Of course, across those same dozen matches, he's been carded six times. In this case, you take the (supremely) good with the bad.
Joining The Pharaoh and Super Mario among Milan's list of double digit scorers is Pazzini, who has found the back of the net on 15 occasions of his own. For those keeping score, that's 42 goals from three players all under the age of 30, two of whom are under 23...yikes.
Milan feature a wide-attacking 4-3-3 that has shown a proclivity towards running down the right flank (39%), so Roma's choice of formation will be quite telling: will they counteract act with their own 4-3-3, or will they take a wider approach through the midfield?
My formational guesses in the Andreazzoli era haven't been terribly successful and looking around the internet, this week is anyone's guess, with everything from a 3-4-1-2 to the tried and true 4-3-3 being bandied about. Although the only real difference between the two is the inclusion of Federico Balzaretti and who starts between Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic...Same song, different day.
Looking back on their recent form, and indeed the season on the whole, Roma have been possessing and passing at a consistent rate, it's been their horrible finishing that has done them in, particularly against Chievo and Pescara. But there is very little you, I, or even Andreazzoli can do about that-it's a simple matter of execution, which was severely lacking last week.
Though he was adamant that Mattia Destro and Pablo Osvaldo could play alongside one another, Tuesday's results say anything but, as each man was among the squads lowest rated players for the Chievo match. Their passing was particularly atrocious (58% for PDO, 67% for Destro), which can, in part, be attributed to their poor connecting play with one another. Interestingly enough, looking at the heat maps from this match, Destro spent more time centrally located, with Osvaldo floating around the edges of the 18 yard box, not exactly his strong suit, as the vast majority of his goals have come within the narrow confines of the six yard box. Stranger still, once Destro was subbed off, you'd imagine Osvaldo would've occupied that central space, but that simply was not the case, as Ossie still remained on the outskirts of the 18 yard box. The Bradley for Destro swap remains as strange today as it did on Tuesday.
With 36 weeks under our belts, we sort of know what to expect from Roma, to the extent that is even possible. We've seen what has worked and what has flopped, but unlike the strange cosmic circumstances that have entwined Roma and Fiorentina, there is no mystery what has confounded Roma, finishing.
While Roma hasn't suffered from a drought of goals, they've scored 69 of them, an argument can be made that they suffer from a lack of timely goals. Using their win-loss record in one goal matches as a completely arbitrary standard, we can see the end results, as Roma is 5-7 in such matches.
Taking that a step further, though admittedly stretching the argument, the fine folks at whoscored unveiled their own unique Serie A stat this week. What they call the most valuable scorers, is a "reductive yet still quite revealing method is to look at points won as a direct result of the goals that players have scored. For example, if you were to take out a player's goal in a 2-1 win, their team would have picked up one point rather than three, meaning that strike has earned the side two extra points, and so on."
It's an interesting read and the accompanying graphic shows the league's leaders, none of which are Roma players. So, if you can draw any conclusion from these two statistics, it's that when Roma wins, it's usually by wide margins (12 victories of 2+ goals), and, though they've scored a lot of goals, none of them have been particularly "timely" (whatever meaning you wish to ascribe to that word), as evidenced by their win-loss record in one goal matches.
Point being, Roma, on the balance of the season, has no problem finding the back of the net, yet, in terms of their record in close games and the value of the individual goals scored, they suffer from poor finishing at the worst moments. All of which leads to seventh place.
The ways and means of this match are pretty simple; Milan's defense is tough, particularly when it comes to conceding shots, so Roma must capitalize on what little chances they can muster. Oh, and contain Mario Balotelli.
Of course, should the cosmic hand of our karass get involved, we might get an assist from our brothers in Firenze.
After all, when it comes to Roma, the inexplicable is often inevitable.