Now that the mishegoss of transfer deadline day is behind us, we can focus on something real, something immediate, and something important; the always acrimonious return of Antonio Cassano to the Stadio Olimpico. Cassano brings his seven goals and his seventh place Parma side to Roma for a Sunday fixture. Although the first matchup was nearly fourth months ago, not much has changed, at least in terms of the teams' respective abilities; Roma still rests in the highest reaches, while Parma remains among the average. But, as we all know, when Antonio Cassano is thrown into the equation, the outcome is anything but certain.
With that in mind, let's take a trip back to Mid-September, before the leaves fell from grace and the polar vortex descended upon us like a bat out of frozen hell.
September 16, 2013: Roma 3, Parma 1
Roma's perfect run through the first quarter of the Serie A season nearly came to a crashing halt in only its third week. As the first half was about to close, Jonathan Biabiany put his bleached blonde head on the end of a wonderfully chipped ball from nearly 25-yards out, driving a textbook header past a lunging Morgan De Sanctis. Little did they know that this would be the last goal Roma would concede for another eight weeks.
Roma would level matters a mere two minutes into the second half, following a strange set of circumstances. Looking at the replay, we can see a beautiful, albeit elongated, triangle set up between Adem Ljajic, Miralem Pjanic and Alessandro Florenzi. With Ljajic frantically trying to keep his balance and maintain possession, it was actually the Parma defender, in an attempt to strip Ljajic, who inadvertently played the ball straight to the welcoming feet of Pjanic, who quickly chipped it to Florenzi, who then caught it on the first bounce, calmly guiding it into the upper right hand corner, 1-1.
Not to be outdone, Francesco Totti opened his 2013 account in the 70th minute. In a bit of delayed play from Garcia's men, the ball soon found Kevin Strootman on the left side of the pitch, and with ample time and space, Strootman delicately chipped a ball from some 40-yards out to a streaking Totti, who, as one would expect, made the perfect first touch, glanced at the keeper while weighing and measuring his soul, then proceeded to slot one into the short side of the goal. 2-0, game over. Strootman would bag the rigore 15 minutes later to seal the 3-1 victory; three relatively easy points in one of the league's toughest venues. Job well done, one and all.
Parma: Part II
As we mentioned, Parma find themselves in roughly the same position as we saw in September. Roberto Donadoni's dudes are in seventh place, even on points with Verona and Torino in what is sure to be a heated three-way race for Italy's final Europa League spot. Parma's 32 goals forced are good for 9th in the league, while their 27 goals conceded place them seventh. Generally speaking, Parma is a top ten club in most respects, so perhaps we undersold them a touch at the outset. However, there is one area in which they do not overwhelm opponents, offensive momentum.
Cassano's crew only amasses 12 shots and 8.5 dribbles per match, yet they've scored 23 goals from the run of play, which places them well off Juve's 34, but within a whisper of Inter's 27 mark; Italy's second ranked club in this regard. So what does that mean, exactly? Well, for one thing, it tells us that Parma doesn't attempt to drown their opponents with an offensive deluge, nor do they put on a Joga Bonito-esque display of dribbling, but when they do move the ball, they do it with purpose and efficiency, typified by #99's 23% conversion rate. Cassano's five assists also paces Parma, ditto for this 2.8 key passes per match. Cassano, despite his age and recent travels, is as involved and as critical to his team's attack as ever.
Beyond old crazy legs, we have to keep a watchful on Parma's other offensive masterminds, Amauri and Marco Parolo, The Crusaders most profligate shooters, who account for 38% of Parma's shots.
Owning The Olimpico
To call Rudi Garcia's home record impressive would be an exercise in whatever the opposite of hyperbole is....give me a minute...understatement. Boy, that's disappointing, I was hoping for something more effusive or linguistically loquacious. Anyway, back to football.
Garcia has coasted to an impressive nine wins, two draws, zero defeats, and only two goals conceded within the confines of his new home, good for 29 of a possible 33 points, second to only, you guess it, Juventus. For their part, Parma's 13 points away from the Tardini is fourth best in the league, but this match ain't in Parma, now, is it? Roma has so utterly dominated this fixture at the Olimpico, I can't even find, at least on a cursory glance, record of Parma's last league victory over Roma at the Olimpico. In fact, they only have three league victories over Francesco Totti's side since 2001 in total.
While a decade's worth of facts and figures does little for the here and now, it is impressive nonetheless. Faced with the prospect of making history repeat itself on Sunday, Garcia will have nearly a full squad from which to choose. Really, the only name excluded from this match is that of Radja Nainggolan. If you got caught up in the hoopla of the winter transfer window--and, based on Roma's performance, who among us can blame you--you may have overlooked this fact; Roma's winter mercato effectively began and ended with the transfer of Nainggolan. Sure, Michel Bastos and Rafael Toloi may have a measured impact at some point over the next three months, but neither will be as decisive or as integral as Nainggolan.
In Nainggolan's absence, expect the tried and true trio of Pjanic, Strootman and Daniele De Rossi to resume their role as Serie A's best midfield. What will be interesting to see, however, is how Garcia will manage his midfield rotation without his fourth option. With four matches in ten days, and little more beyond those three than Rodrigo Taddei (no disrespect), Garcia's substitution pattern for his strongest asset carries added significance. If one were to venture a guess, one could assume Garcia would stick with Totti, Gervinho, Mattia Destro and Adem Ljajic among his forward rotation, leaving Florenzi available for a reserve/emergency midfielder's role. Outside of that less-than-ideal circumstance, the cupboards are relatively bare, with little more than Federico Ricci's untested legs and the uncertain health of Bastos behind Nainggolan, in terms of reserve midfielders.
History says this should be an easy three, but let's take a quick look at what to...
Keep An Eye On
Antonio Cassano vs Everyone
No need to reinvent the wheel here, so have a go at this excerpt from September:
The hard part about nailing down Cassano, and why the matchup is really Cassano vs Everyone, is that he works his maniacal magic all over the park. Although the majority of his goals last season came from the left side of the pitch (Hello, Maicon), his key passes knew no bounds, as 32% of his chances created came from either wing.
This season is really no different; Cassano's 10 chances created are second best in Serie A, behind only, surprise, surprise, Totti. With four coming from the left, three from center and three from the right, Cassano's range of movement is as vast as it ever was. About the only thing Cassano doesn't do anymore is create from withdrawn positions, so if we had to narrow it down to one person, one man to corral Cassano, it would be DDR. With De Rossi occupying his more familiar slot in front of the defense, he should be free to focus on Cassano, and with four interceptions through two matches, DDR is reading and reacting as sharply as ever. So keep an eye on De Rossi as he keeps his eyes on Cassano.
Fast forward to February, and Cassano's 54 chances created lead the league, while his distribution of those chances is just as vast: 17% on the left, 19% in the center, and 17% on the right, to go along with 28% from 18-40 yards out. Cassano is a menace all over the pitch and, despite my previous proclamations, he's done a fair job in a more withdrawn position this season; not Pirlo deep, mind you, but he's shown the same flare for the dramatic from beyond the 18-yard-box.
Marco Parolo vs Gervinho
No quoting myself on this one, but Parolo has put together a hell of a season thus far, contributing to the Crusader's cause on both ends of the pitch. Parolo's six goals and three assists places him just behind Cassano in each respect, while his 4.5 tackles leads the club and trails only Luca Antei for the league lead. Parolo, while not flashing the same level of offensive/defensive prowess as DDR, has been just as integral to all things Parma this season.
Ostensibly listed as the left-sided midfielder in Donadoni's 4-3-3, Parolo's defensive fortitude will come face-to-face with the suddenly surging Gervinho. Fortunately for Roma, where Parolo falters (relatively speaking) is where Gervinho flourishes; the one-v-one game. Parolo, though obviously adept at tackling, isn't immune to playing the fool. Among Parma players with at least a dozen appearances, Parolo's 1.1 dribbled by/was dribbled (there's no elegant way to phrase that) per match are the worst, which looks all the more troublesome contrasted against Gervinho's 2.6 successful dribbles per match, which is tied for fifth in the league. Gervinho may have a field day tomorrow.
A Busy Month Ahead
February may be the shortest month on the Gregorian calendar, but the fixture makers have managed to cram six matches into these next four weeks, including the two-legged Coppa Italia semi-final against Napoli and the away turn of the Derby della Capitale. February will not only be busy, but piqued with intensity.
While Walter Sabatini earned high marks for his performance in January, outside of Nainggolan (which was huge) and Bastos, Roma purchased very little in terms of immediate help. So, if Roma are to hang onto that last automatic Champions League qualifier and advance in the Coppa Italia, while remaining within shouting distance of the Scudetto, Rudi Garcia must flex his managerial muscle to keep his most important assets their sharpest. This means decisive and effective substitutions, fragile yet focused training methods, and some sort of Tai Chi routine, Zen garden, or serene mantra to calm the nerves of his most irritable charges.
Whatever tricks Garcia pulls out of his mock nock, make no mistake, now that the transfer season is officially over, the race for May starts now.