Since the world may or may not be ending tomorrow, this preview is going up a bit earlier than usual, so please forgive my lack of prescience or any inaccuracies.
**If it happens to already be Friday where you're reading, don't spoil the surprise for the rest of us**
Seeing as Roma have only defeated AC Milan once in their last six encounters, if the world does end, we might as well going out with a bang.
So, on this the eve of our destruction, should you find yourself bewildered, terrified, or in denial, there is no need to fret; don't worry where your next meal will come from, or if you can find potable water, or even if the sun will rise again because there is a much more pressing matter to deal with.
Stephan El Shaarawy, everyone's favorite Egyptian-Italian striker is waging his own galactic battle against Italy's goalkeepers. At all of 20 years old, Il Faraone is lighting up the league and appears to be the latest in a line of magnificent Milan forwards.
El Shaarawy's 14 goals accounts for 44% of the Milan offense and bests Edinson Cavani's 12 goals for tops in the league. El Shaarawy is managing 3.4 shots per game and is converting on 24% of his shots. Furthermore, the Little Pharaoh has been deployed by Massimiliano Allegri as a left forward, left attacking midfielder and center forward. So, not only is he lethal and efficient, he's versatile.
Not exactly good news for Roma's possible patchwork back four.
Aside from El Shaarawy, Milan have been getting an all-world performance from another 20 year old, defender Mattia De Sciglio, who ranks top 10 in tackles and has contributed two assists and will surely be a candidate for young player of the year.
So we have those two to look forward to for the next decade or so, unless, of course, the Mayans are correct.
Meso-American meltdowns notwithstanding, Milan is surging, having won four straight matches (remember what that was like?), after thrashing Pescara 4-1. Milan maintains a league best 58% possession, pulls of 16 shots per game (two less than Roma) and completes a league high 86% of their passes.
Despite all that, they trail Roma by two points in the standings, so if the sun does rise on the 22nd of December, Milan might find themselves one up on Roma.
Heading into the winter break, Roma's main concern is maintaining both their pace with top three, as well as Lamela's ankle, Destro's leg, Totti's new found youth, and De Rossi's sense of belonging.
But before Roma ventures to the magic kingdom, they need to fend off Milan, an already tough task made more difficult with the sudden uncertainty in the back four.
Leandro Castan will miss this match due to accumulated yellows and, as of this post, Marquinhos status remains in question, following an injury that forced him to crutches last weekend. So we could see some combination of Nicolas Burdisso, Alessio Romagnoli or, in a return to his performance at Euro 2012, Daniele De Rossi.
To put it nicely, last week's offensive performance was, uh, subpar. The trio of Francesco Totti, Pablo Osvaldo, and Miralem Pjanic just couldn't keep things moving. Whether it was the fog, the lousy conditions on the pitch, or just a hangover from the Fiorentina victory, something didn't seem quite right with the offense.
So which was the true culprit-the playing conditions, a general malaise, or the officiating? It's hard to say, but as we discussed earlier this week, it was probably a combination of all three, it was just a perfect storm of putridity.
The news wasn't all bad, as Erik Lamela and Mattia Destro both returned from injuries last week, coming on as second half substitutes. It was Lamela's first action in a nearly a month, but given the second half conditions, he couldn't really gain any traction, literally and figuratively. But Lamela simply being on the pitch was a positive development; a welcome development no doubt, but one that complicates matters of the midfield.
Pjanic has performed admirably in his more advanced role, but the return of Lamela and Destro means there is one less vacancy in the trident. Given his general run of form lately, it would make little sense to remove Pjanic from the equation entirely, but decisions must be made.
So if Pjanic slides back, who gets the boot?
DDR being forced to central defense would make this question a bit easier, for one match at least. To his own credit, Alessandro Florenzi is as surprised as anyone that he's featured so much so soon, appearing in all 16 matches. While he's only 21 and can run for days, his performances have varied greatly over the past two months, so perhaps Zeman gives him a much deserved rest.
Reports from training late in the week indicate Marquinhos and Burdisso are the likely central pairing, with the midfield consisting of Michael Bradley, DDR, and Pjanic, with the tried and true Totti, PDO, Lamela trio up front. Stay tuned.
Whatever the case may be, the midfield needs to be on point, consistently moving the ball and feeding the forwards, as Milan are conceding only 11.1 shots per game, third least in the league. So Roma can't simply weave their way through the Milan defense on reputation alone.
Securing three points at home then heading to Orlando for some R&R would go a long way to calming our collective fears, as the schedule doesn't get any easier after the break, with a crucial-for-European-qualification match at Napoli, as well as the first return leg of the season against Catania.
While the world may not come to a screeching halt, a tumultuous 2012, full of upheaval and dredged in disappointment, is mercifully coming to a close.
Zeman has brought many things to Rome, foremost among them, hope for a better 2013.