August 25, the last meeting between these two sides, was not just dripping with uncertainty, it was practically soaked. Remember, this was the first matchup between Roma and Livorno since March of 2010, and only the sixth since 2007.
If the unfamiliarity between the two sides wasn't enough, this was day one in Project Roma 2.0, or is it 3.0 by now? I lost track. Even five months into the Rudi regime, we still don't have Garcia completely pinned down, and back in August, it was anyone's guess. Was he lenient, temperamental, prone to tinkering, would he swear in French or Italian?
The questions didn't begin and end on the touchline either, apart from Francesco Totti, there was virtually no one on Roma's opening day roster above reproach. Had Daniele De Rossi recovered from the tumult of the previous season? Having only made 19 appearances in 2012, was Mehdi Benatia ready for the muck and mire of Serie A? What about Miralem Pjanic, where was his head? Had Zeman's lack of faith wilted his potential?
Five months ago we knew nothing, not about the man on the touchline, the opponent, or even the eleven lads clad in red and yellow.
So, how did it go?
August 25, 2013: Roma 2, Livorno 0
This was, of course, the first match of the season, and for the first hour or so, it looked like history would repeat itself. Despite, or I guess because of, the dearth of matchups between these clubs, Roma hadn't experienced much success against Livorno, drawing four out of five matches and going winless since 2006. So, all hope and optimism aside, this was far from a sure thing.
Though they threatened several times through the first hour, they looked like the Roma of old; long on promise, low on results. Then, twenty minutes into the second half, DDR scored a cracker from 25 yards out, breaking the ice on the new season. Not to be outdone, Alessandro Florenzi would score two minutes later, cradling a pass in stride and poking it past the keeper, making the first match of the season a decidedly Roman affair.
Roma ran off nine more wins following this clean sheet, briefly standing atop the Serie A ladder.
So, now that we've arrived at the return fixture, we ask, how has Livorno fared over the past five months?
To answer that question, not well. Livorno has not fared well. With only 13 points from 19 matches, Livorno is knee deep in the relegation zone. In fact, they're in 19th place, second from the bottom, which I guess would make them ankle deep in the relegation zone?
Enough orthopedic references, why are they so bad?
Well, they've only scored 16 goals for starters, making them the third most anemic scoring side in Serie A, and only five of those have come on the road. So, unless you're a complete dullard, you shouldn't really be floored when you look at Livorno's away form on the whole, or lack thereof; one win, one draw, seven losses and 16 goals conceded.
Their recent form hasn't done them any favors either, as they've lost seven of their past eight matches and haven't tasted victory since early November. It hasn't been pretty, to say the least.
Frankly, aside from Paulinho's six goals and six yellow cards, there isn't much to get your panties in a bunch...wait, he does sort of look like Pablo Osvaldo, so, depending on your tastes, we can scratch that last comment.
Roma Ready for Round Two?
One of the interesting, and potentially frightening, parts of employing a new manager is the learning curve. How quickly will he adapt to the league's idiosyncrasies? Can he find inefficiencies to exploit in his opponents tactics? How long before the league figures him out?
That last point is the salient one, and, really, it works in two ways. In the broader sense, how quickly will the league catch on to his tactical nuances, his proclivities, and his general philosophy? Can he be shaken, or is he resolute in his beliefs?
In the more immediate sense, how does he prepare when facing an opponent for the second time, when they have not only an inkling of his preferences, but actual game film and first hand experiences on which to base tactical changes? Will the same matchups that succeed in August cut the mustard in January? Can Garcia be as effective without the Laissez Faire attitude afford by the business casual motif he wore so well in August?
Fortunately for Garcia, in this his first return fixture as a Serie A manager, he has nearly a full stable at his disposal, with only Federico Balzaretti and Alessio Romagnoli among the walking wounded. But really, what's the loss there?
The good news this week, as you may have guessed, is the return of De Rossi, Leandro Castan, and Adem Ljajic, each of whom were suspended last week against Genoa. Castan should immediately resume his customary role in the heart of defense, while DDR, despite an impressive pair of matches from Radja Nainggolan, should be back in the thick of it, ravaging Livorno's attack, leaving Ljajic relegated to his usual super sub role.
At the risk of repeating myself, if the status does indeed remain quo over the next four months, the only week-to-week uncertainty (there's that word again) remains who will start, Florenzi, Gervinho or Mattia Destro?
While this is obviously a great problem to have, Garcia's choice week-in-week-out could provide some slight insights into his game plan for any given opponent .If he leaves Totti in the middle, flanked by Gervinho and Florenzi, you can bet the order of the day is confusion; using the pace of each man to confuse and bewilder central defenders, leaving Totti free to drop back and cut up the defense as only he can. On the other hand, if he opts for The Destro(yer), particularly if he places him in the middle, the approach might be more direct and centrally focused, accentuating the playmaking of Pjanic more than the dizzying runs of the wings.
Honestly, neither choice is a misstep, and they're really only dependent upon the nature and capabilities of any given defense, obviously.
We mentioned it a few times over the past several weeks, but what has been most impressive about Walter Sabatini's assemblage of talent is how diverse it is; every facet of attacking football is present in Roma's roster. So, were he the type to tinker more often, Garcia could shape and mold his formation and tactics seemingly at will and still present a lethal attack and steady defense.
I don't know if there is an executive of the year award in Italy, but if there is, Sabatini would surely be the favorite.
The Second Swing
Roma's 2-0 victory over Livorno on opening day was, as we all know, the first of ten straight. And while we firmly deny that luck played as great a role as Roma's detractors claimed in that streak, the fixture list was pretty favorable.
And guess what? The second swing is the same as the first. If Garcia can manage the return legs, keeping his opponents guessing while learning from his own mistakes, Roma has a grand opportunity ahead of them. Not an opportunity to close ground on Juventus, though I suppose that's still technically plausible, but rather an opportunity to widen the gap over Napoli.
It may be week twenty in Serie A, but the race for Europe starts now.