Roma play host to tenth place Torino in a rare Tuesday fixture, looking to exact some revenge on the team that denied them an eleventh straight win to start off the season. In the ensuing four months, each side flirted with glory, with Roma briefly wresting the Scudetto away from the wrinkled hands of the Old Lady, while Torino flirted with a European future of their own.
While both clubs have since regressed to reality, Roma, now the proud owners of a six point gap over third place Napoli, will look to cool down Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci to make amends for that nonplussed November meeting.
That's a decent enough segue, right? So let's take a look at how Torino ruined Roma's march towards history.
November 3, 2013: Roma 1, Torino 1
The thing to remember about Roma after ten weeks was not simply their unblemished record, but the utter disdain they showed to their first ten opponents, trouncing them by a combined 24-1. This wasn't a Roma with which we were familiar; this Roma didn't seem real, where were the dropped points? Where were the desperate screamers from 20 yards? Where were the overweight Brazilians?
And while it wasn't a last minute blunder, the dropped points to Torino hurt just the same. Looking back on the match, for much of the first half, it looked like business as usual. Roma held possession, passed with precision and threatened the Torino goal near and far. It would take 28 minutes for Roma to draw first blood, but what it goal it was.
Watch as Miralem Pjanic receives a wonderfully played long ball on the edge of the box. As soon as Pjanic turns his body to cradle the ball, Strootman immediately drifts parallel to the goal line, narrowly avoiding an offsides call. Next, notice how subtly Strootman mirrors Pjanic's movements towards the end line, finds the open space and calmly puts his instep on the ball and past the Torino keeper.
It wasn't the most resplendent goal Roma scored to that point, but the beauty was in the syncopation and the execution; Strootman's tap in was merely the final stroke on a master piece of team movement.
The two sides would heave and hoe for the next 30 minutes or so, with Alessio Cerci threatening Morgan De Sanctis from the spot and run of play, but Roma stood strong and looked well on their way to making it 11 straight victories. But, in true Roma fashion, they were ultimately done in by one of their own.
In the 63rd minute, Riccardo Meggiorini did the unthinkable, besting Mehdi Benatia on a loose ball with a shoulder barge. From there, it was pretty calm seas, as all Meggiorini had to do was wait for the Roma defense to over commit and find Cerci in the seam. Roma had several chances to keep the streak intact, but were ultimately found wanting and dropped two points that were rightfully theirs.
At the time, this simply looked like a blip on the radar, but it was just the start of Roma's worst run of the league season; as they dropped points to Sassuolo, Cagliari and Atalanta in successive weeks, managing to only win only two of eight matches through the end of 2013.
The Scudetto chances, no matter how slim they may have been, were put on life support after this match.
Tuesday's home match is Roma's third in eight days, so beyond the return or Daniele De Rossi and the suspension of Mehdi Benatia, very little has changed, so let's jump right into...
Keep An Eye On
Alessio Romagnoli vs Ciro Immobile*
While we certainly weren't expecting this bout, thanks to Benatia's suspension, Serie A fans will be treated to what may become one of the marquee matchups of the next decade. Immobile, thanks to his hat trick over the weekend, is Italy's newly anointed top scorer (well, tied with Carlos Tevez, but let's not split hairs) and has more than tripled his output from last season with Genoa. At 24-years-old, Immobile is just scratching the surface of what he may become; a deadly efficient scorer capable of dominating the penalty area. Through 26 appearances, Immobile has scored with each appendage and sports an exemplary 26% conversion rate; he's even scored twice from distance, so he's not simply a one trick pony.
Romagnoli, on the other hand, is just beginning his professional life, but when you consider he's been forced to play out of position, all that he has accomplished through his first six matches looks even more impressive. However, with Dodo, Maicon and Vasilis Torosidis all available on the wings, Romagnoli should get his first start at his natural position, filling in as Roma's right center back in Benatia's absence.
Although Immobile has shown an ability to threaten from multiple areas, the majority of his goals have come from the left side of the penalty area, which puts him squarely in Romagnoli's cross hairs. For Romagnoli the challenge is simple; keep Immobile as far away from MDS as humanly possible. While Alessio holds the advantage in height and weight, Immobile is undoubtedly the stronger player, so this will be quite the challenge for young Romagnoli, as he not only has to re-acclimate to the position, but will come face-to-face with Italy's deadliest scorer.
*There is the possibility that Rafael Toloi will start in Benatia's spot...stay tuned
The Return of De Rossi
Full props to Rodrigo Taddei; he did a masterful job in DDR's stead, but he ain't De Rossi. The tactical benefits of the DDR-Nainggolan-Pjanic midfield are obvious, as the former two should allow Pjanic to focus on the offensive side of the game, but a three week layoff, no matter the reason, is still a three week layoff. De Rossi's fitness and focus, particularly with the prospect of Immobile and Cerci on the table, is a paramount concern, as he will need to lighten the load on Romagnoli and Leandro Castan.
This is another obvious bullet point, but Cerci is Torino's true ace. His 3.1 shots per game are tied for eighth in the league, his 11 goals are good for fifth, while his eight assists are tied with none other than Francesco Totti for the league lead. Cerci is Torino's most dynamic attacking threat, using his deadly left foot to knock home 10 of his 11 goals, while also creating scoring chances from the extreme right wing and dead center.
Given his preference for working and cutting in from the right flank, the onus on containing him falls to Nainggolan and Dodo; they must keep him pinned to the sideline and close out any passing lanes he might attempt to exploit. Fortunately for Dodo, the one area in which he excels, speed, will come in quite handy against a player as athletic as Cerci.
While Roma's grasp on second place appears firm, you have to imagine Rudi Garcia will be eager to exact some small measure of revenge against the side that slowed their roll, so to speak. With an away fixture to Sassuolo on Sunday, Roma would be best served by dispatching Torino early in this match. In order to do so, Roma really only need to shut down Immobile and Cerci, who have accounted for 64% of Torino's 42 goals this season; with the return of De Rossi and the emerging Romagnoli, Roma should be well equipped to handle this challenge.