Roma's biggest question mark for the next few weeks, if not the season, will be the back four - or back three if Luciano Spalletti decides to switch things up a bit. There are a few new faces in defense, and one missing old boy. The biggest key will be how healthy, effective and cohesive the central unit can become throughout the course of the season. The side story is how well the fullbacks will age, be it with the grace of a ballerina or Chris Farley on skates. Nine times out of ten the back four will be just that, a back four, but occasionally Spalletti has alluded to the possible use of a three back defense, which may be used to accommodate Mirko Vucinic as a striker, not a left wing. There also may be one more face to be introduced, but there probably won't be a definitive answer on that until 12:01a September 1st. For now, onto the usual suspects:
1. Philippe Mexes
3. matteo Ferrari
4a. Christian Panucci
4b. Marco Andreolli
Philippe Mexes (CB): The new (sole) leader of the back and has finally come into his own as one of the best defenders in Europe, considered by some as the best defender in all of Serie A. Everybody knowns how talented he is, but one of his greatest strengths - and consequently weaknesses - is his passion and fiery temperament. He's a back line demon taking men off the ball and breaking up attacks, but often times it's a little too harshly, giving him a proclivity for picking up pretty colored messages from the refs. In this respect, he showed in the Juventus friendly he's already in mid-season form by starting up a few spats with his BFF, Pavel Nedved. Very little worry, and he should begin taking more command of the back as he matures and improves his game - which, much to the benefit of Roma fans, is still a work in progress.
Prediction: 35 games, 2 goals, beaucoup cards, 37 different hair styles and the adoration of Romanisti everywhere. Also, personally - and I don't know why, I think Philou is going to improve from and offensive/passing standpoint this season. Just a gut.
Juan (CB): Despite the addition of another Brazilian defender, Juan is Roma's big buy for the summer and a complete gift from old boy Rudi up in Leverkusen. His acquisition was one of the worst kept secrets in Europe starting in the winter, and probably a large reason why a certain Romanian was put on the block early this summer. He's smooth, he's efficient, he's tall and he's damn good. Very underrated by most of Europe, but not those in Germany who were able to watch him clean house on a regular basis. Whereas Mexes is a hardnosed passion-driven defender, Juan will be a calming influence in the back while providing similar defensive abilities. It won't be long before he has Rome forgetting the name of.....what's his name again?
Prediction: 25-30 games, hugely efficient defensive performances all while chipping in the odd goal or two - eliciting glowing praises from the coaches of Serie A.
Matteo Ferrari (CB): Matteo was one of the surprise performers of last year, and filled in more than adequately in the absence of other defenders - mostly you know who. He'll get similar duties this year, with more of a three-headed central defense rotation based on doling out rest equally. One of the biggest factors in his progress (at 28 still progressing) is the fact that he has spent so many years jumping from team to team with little stability and comfort in a constant situation. Having another preseason and year with the same club could work wonders His best years were at Parma; the only consecutive years at any club outside of Rome - coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. Could surprise even more people this year with his improvement and call for more three back defenses than anticipated.
Prediction: 20+ games and consistently solid performances, making him nearly invaluable to Spalletti.
Marco Andreolli (CB): Potentially the defense's biggest question mark. He hasn't been favored much this preseason, and it looks like he's going to need to earn the trust of Spalletti before he sees any meaningful playing time. His biggest impact lies in the future, and if all things work out as planned, he should be a superstar in Roma's back line within a few years - provided the co-ownership works out in Roma's favor. The obvious thought is he will see early Coppa time, or some late game substitution time against weak squads, but only time will tell what really happens. It's doubtful he'll make any impact this year outside of giving Roma fans starry eyed dreams for the future. His biggest job will be proving to the Roma hierarchy he truly is the second coming of Alessandro Nesta and they can't afford to lose him in le buste next summer at any cost.
Prediction: 10 games or so and a lot of individual work on the side per Luciano. It's a time for development, not necessarily contribution.
Fullbacks & Wingbacks
RB Depth Chart
1a. Christian Panucci
2. Marco Cassetti
3. Aleandro Rosi
LB Depth Chart
1. Max Tonetto
Christian Panucci (RB/CB/LB): Old faithful has his work cut out for him to this season, that's for sure. He'll begin the campaign pairing up with Mexes at central defense until Juan and/or Ferrari are available to return. His performance was much improved during the Super Coppa matchup, but to say it isn't the ideal scenario is the understatement of the century. He should be adequate, but adequate enough? No clue yet. When he is switched back over to the flank, his spot will be occupied by Cicinho, at which point they'll probably split the majority of the time, as well as pick up cover for Max on the left if the roster stays as is and no additional reinforcements are acquired. Besides his adaption to central defense, the biggest question is how well will Father Time treat Christian this season. He's 35 and hitting that age where footballers legs, amongst other body parts, begin to fail them. He'll surely need more and more rest as the season progresses, but one of these days he's bound to show his age. Can only hope it's not soon.
Prediction: 25 or so games all across the back line, contributing as usual but needing more breathers. He probably has 2 more years of top flight action in his legs, until then he should be one of Luciano's more valued players.
Cicinho (RB): For fear of repeating myself consistently over the course of a few days, everything needed to be said about Cicinho was said here. You know his capabilities and expectations. 'Nuff said.
Marco Cassetti (RB): Possibly incomplete, as his fate will not be known until August 31st, but all indications are he'll be retained. His services are underrated, as pointed out explicitly by Bruno Conti, but he is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Offensively he's a potential star, with a great arsenal for RB and some moves that really make one question what his true position should be. Defensively he's adequate at best, and is easily beaten by better defenders. When he's defending, typically the most to be asked of him is to knock the ball away, rather than regain possession and act accordingly. He is capable of switching up flanks; in fact, for a RR last year he spent some quality time drifting over the left hand side of the pitch - specifically the penalty box. This year, if things stay as is, he'll probably be asked to back up sporadically on the left and right, but should Roma reach the depths of the CL knockout phases, it's fair to say he won't be getting much time unless dire straits arise.
Prediction: 15+ games, some smooth passes and maybe some time experimenting elsewhere on the pitch.
Max Tonetto (LB): Easily last year's biggest surprise and now an integral part of the starting XI. He spent most of his career as a winger, so his pace and ability to get down the flanks and put in crosses were known, but his defensive showing really opened the eyes of many a Roma fan and pundit. Also, outside of team success, probably the best story of Roma's campaign last year was his debut with the Azzurri at the ripe young age of 31 and the subsequent tears when telling his mother (can we get a big awwwww). His solid performances have come to be expected, and his absence means a large hole in the Roma lineup. Despite the depth of fullbacks, none are really left-specific, and Max is really the only true left-sided player on la rosa, which is somewhat of a cause for concern. He will get most of the starts and all the important games. The biggest thing is to pray that he doesn't go down with injury.
Prediction: Rival with Il Capitano for most games on the squad, 1 goal and plenty of class crosses.
Unnamed LB Backup: To be continued....
2. Gianluca Curci
3. Julio Sergio
Doni: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde v 2.0. On some days he can look like the best keeper in the world. On others, not so much. He performed well during the Copa America tournament this summer, improving greatly as it went on, but is still more than capable of the odd moment of mental relapse. No clue what it is with him. He may be a bit over-confident when it comes to going after balls he has no business going after, but a lot of the time it works out in Roma's favor. There are surely some keepers in Europe much better, but there are many many more much worse.
Prediction: Starter in 99% of Serie A, Champions League and maybe the Coppa advanced stages if Roma gets that far. Not to mention plenty of cardiac arrests all throughout the city of Roma and Europe - assuredly the reason I will be dead by the time I'm 27.
Gianluca Curci: His preseason left much to be desired. Actually, it left everything to be desired. Despite that, he is still exceptionally talented and Roma's future #1, whether Doni likes it or not. The recent call up to the senior Azzurri squad said quite a bit, and it's clear that in the future, that spot will also be his for the taking. The problem is his development. Depending on the source, either he didn't want to go out on loan and refused the notion, or he wanted to go out on loan and Roma was the one that refused. Either way, the consensus is he should be out on loan taking 78 shots a game in front of a non-existent defense and coming back a much better keeper. Unfortunately, the majority, if not all, of his playing time this year will come during the Coppa Italia tournament, and should Roma get bounced early, he will see very little time outside of playing "I spy with my little eye..." on the bench with Giuly and Pizarro this year. The kicker is he claims to want to fight for time as the #1, a status he held only a couple years ago but proved futile and eventually lost his job to Doni. Is he ready? It certainly doesn't appear that way, but hey, if he is it's a nice problem to have.
Prediction: Coppa games, a few starts against very weak squads and potential revisiting loan talk in January.
Julio Sergio: Probably the biggest service he will ever do for Roma is convincing Cicinho to join up from Madrid. He got some time early in the preseason and wasn;t terrible, at the very worst he might see a couple games, but it will take cataclysmic injuries to both Doni and Curci for Sergio to factor in at any significant level this season. Still, a good guy to have around just in case.
Prediction: Maybe a couple games, about it. But lots of time making Cicinho feel comfortable, which will be huge.
Carlo Zotti: He will either be loaned out or play no part in any games this season unless that much ballyhooed apocalypse comes. Julio Sergio getting preseason time spoke volumes and the 3rd keeper spot looks to be his. A loan at some point looks like a sure thing.
Next Installment: Overall