Cagliari, the pronunciation of which is a thorn in the side of every Italian language learner, has also presented a bit of a problem in the calcio sense. Though they currently rest in 15th place, the Islanders from Sardinia have won three of their past six matches against Roma, including this same fixture last season, in which none other than Radja Nainggolan drew first blood in Cagliari's 4-2 victory, which also included an own goal from Mauro Goicoechea. Ah, Zeman's Roma, how we miss thee.
But that was then and this is now. Nainggolan is a Roma player, and with his help the Giallorossi have not only maintained the second spot on the table, but have closed the Scudetto gap to a plausible eight points. However, if they have any hope of closing that breach, Roma must reverse their fortunes against the Rossoblu.
Before we discuss the manner in which Roma will exact revenge on the Sardinians, a look back to November.
November 25, 2013: Roma 0, Cagliari 0
Despite the shallow score line, this match was not lacking action. Roma berated the Cagliari defense with 19 total shots, 10 of which were on target, with Gervinho, Alessandro Florenzi, and Kevin Strootman threatening Vlada Avramov's goal. Fast forward to the 1:15 mark in that clip to see Maicon's tantalizingly close effort from distance. In what was essentially and end-to-end rush, Maicon paraded nearly three quarters of the way up the pitch, unleashing a cracker from roughly 20 yards out that was narrowly parried by Avramov; it was a great run and a fantastic shot, but it was ultimately felled by a spectacular save.
While Roma nearly grabbed three points at the death from a corner kick, they ultimately settled for the draw; the second of what would ultimately become four straight sister kissers.
Cagliari: A Quick Glance
It's hard to get amped up about a 15th place side, so we'll take the 10,000 foot view of Gli Isolani. Although I've never been there, I'm sure the Island of Sardinia is renowned for many things, Island things, one would imagine; fishing, beaches, sea shells, man thongs, you know, the usual. One area in which this island does not excel, however, is attacking football.
Cagliari Calcio has only managed 29 goals and has been held goalless in approximately 31% of their matches this season. Though, what has really done in the Islanders has been their decrepit first half performances; on average, Cagliari doesn't score their first goal until the 57th minute, making them the league's most latent scoring side, which should help explain their seven losses in one goal matches.
Leading the pack, a term I use loosely, bee tee dubs, is the triumvirate of Marco Sau, Mauricio Pinilla, and Nenê, each of whom has scored five goals this season. In particular, Sau's performance has been quite troubling for Cagliari, as his production has fallen off sharply from 2012-2013, where he scored a dozen goals and seemed destined for greener pastures. When your best player falters, the rest of the squad tends to fall in line, right?
Cagliari is a top ten team in shots per game, possession, and passing percentage, but if one were to diagnose the source of their offensive ineptitude, it would be the quality of their chances. Despite ranking in the top ten in chances created, Marco Sau and company only average 3.5 shots on target per match, the league's second lowest mark.
So, in terms of the relationship between their build up and finishing, the Cagliari attack is full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing.
But, just don't get on their bad side. Cagliari's 85 yellow cards are the third most in the league, while their seven red cards trails only Sampdoria. Blazing Cagliari's trail of badassness is none other than Daniele Conti. Everyone's favorite would be Roman leads Cagliari in each category, chalking up 11 yellows (third most in the league) and two red cards.
So, whatever they do, Roma best avoid getting on the bad side of Bruno's boy.
Eight is Enough
For Rudi Garcia's crew, the good news is twofold; by winning their game in hand against Parma, Roma closed the title gap to eight points and, for the first time in weeks, all hands are on deck, as only the eternally infirmed Federico Balzaretti and Kevin Strootman are absent from this week's squad list.
Perhaps the biggest and most welcome surprise of 2014 has been the resurgence of Rodrigo Taddei, who has proved he is much more than mere roster filler. Taddei, as honorary a Roman as you'll ever find, has been on a tear the past six weeks, turning in strong performances against Udinese, Chievo and Parma, tackling, hustling and moving like a man reborn, even notching his first goal in nearly two years.
However, now that Roma is back on the same schedule as the rest of Serie A, there will be no retroactive suspensions to deal with, leaving Garcia with a full slate of midfielders from which to choose. Despite his resurgence in form, Taddei will most likely make way for Radja Nainggolan's return to the starting lineup, marking the Belgian's first appearance against his former club, for whom he played parts of five seasons.
Given the time we devoted to their emergence earlier in the week, we can expect Mattia Destro and Gervinho to remain entrenched in the starting XI for the next seven weeks. Taddei, Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi will continue to comprise the midfield rotation, while the fullback duties will remain at the collective feet of Maicon, Vasilis Torosidis and Alessio Romagnoli, with Dodo, Adem Ljajic and Michel Bastos left to beg for scraps.
Roma may have a relatively soft fixture list remaining and some positive momentum heading into the spring, but will this be enough to put the Old Lady out of her misery?