Triumph and tragedy often come in threes, with Roma and Inter squaring off three times over the next week-and-a-half, fates and silverware hang in the balance.* Okay, perhaps that's a bit melodramatic, but with Roma continually chasing European qualification and their 10th Coppa title and second place still within Inter's grasp, the next two weeks will go a long way in determining how much success each club has over the next four months.
*Apparently, the second leg has been pushed back to April. Nevertheless, three Roma-Inter matches promises to be exciting...right?
Any victory at the San Siro/Giuseppe Meazza is a big deal, but when you beat Inter and Antonio Cassano 3-1, it's bound to be one of the season's highlights.
The scoring on that particular September evening was opened by Alessandro Florenzi, who headed home the opening goal in the 15th minute, assisted by Francesco Totti. Cassano, however, leveled matters just before half time, unleashing a shot that bounded off Nicolas Burdisso and found its way past Maarten Stekelenburg.
But that was all she wrote for the Nerazzurri, as Pablo Osvaldo and Marquinho The Singular each slotted home goals in the second half, lifting Roma to the 3-1 victory.
This space is usually occupied by a discussion of who will suit up for Roma, but its Inter who enter this match with the greater lineup uncertainty, but unlike the usual Roman fare, their drama is mostly medically based. Cassano, Diego Milito, and Walter Samuel are all listed as questionable for Sunday. While Coutinho, Yuto Nagamoto, and Joel Obi remain incapacitated, Andrea Ranocchia and Juan Jesus appear ready to return to action.
On the pitch, Inter are a well-balanced side, ranking among the league's top six sides in both goals scored and conceded, resulting in a +10 goal differential. Their defense, thanks largely to Samuel and Ranocchia, has been particularly adept at disrupting attacks, as this tandem, and the team at large, are among the league leaders in interceptions, clearances, and tackles per game, leading the league in the latter category.
Offensively, the Nerazzurri are led by Diego Milito, whose eight goals pace the squad, followed by Rodrigo Palacio's six. Cassano has had a particularly strong season so far, knocking home five goals and assisting on a further seven. Inter also excels on the counter attack, tied for third in goals of this fashion. Similarly, they create scoring chances with relative ease, as they are 5th in goals from open play, 3rd in through balls, and 8th in long balls per game-point being, their interchange in attack and movement of the ball is done efficiently and effectively, creating 232 total chances through 20 games.
While Inter has featured a variety of tactical formations, everything from the 3-5-2 to a 4-4-1-1, their attack is overwhelmingly focused on the left hand side (40%, tops in the league), resulting in this scatter plot.
34% (11 total) of Inter's 32 goals have gone lower left, fortunately for Roma, they've only conceded 12% of their goals (4 total) in that quadrant, compared to a whopping 47% (16 goals) in the lower right...yikes. Interestingly enough, despite their extreme preference for starting the attack on the left, they have scored 10 goals in the lower right quadrant, which you could attribute to the versatility and mobility of Milito, Cassano, and Palacio, the latter two of whom have featured on either side of, and in some cases behind, Milito.
Again, remember your average Serie A side usually doesn't skew over 35ish% for either side of the pitch, so Inter is an anomaly in this regard. Thankfully, things have changed since these sides first met, namely the emergence of Ivan Piris, so the defense down Roma's right flank is somewhat less a concern, even less so with the questionable status of Milito and Cassano.
While Roma holds the advantage in many team categories, Inter have been getting particularly strong performances from several key players, with Ranocchia and Samuel each ranking among the league's top 15 players. In fact, Ranocchia is Serie A's highest rated defender. Esteban Cambiasso and the aforementioned Cassano are also turning in strong seasons.
Inter's recent results have been a mixed bag, with victories against Pescara and Napoli being countered by losses to Udinese and Lazio, with a draw to Genoa thrown in for good measure. Inter are a mere four points behind second place Napoli and seven behind leaders Juventus. While seven points might be insurmountable, the four point gap between Inter and automatic Champions League qualification should provide ample motivation for the Nerazzurri.
As for Roma, the list of walking wounded is considerably shorter, with PDO the only player of note currently in doubt, though Stekelenburg and Alessio Romagnoli are also dealing with fitness issues. With a recent spate of minor injuries and/or illnesses behind them, Roma's usual back four of Marquinhos, Leandro Castan, Federico Balzaretti and Ivan Piris should be reunited for this match, meaning a reappearance of last week's 3-4-3 is unlikely.
Though, as always, the actual construction of the midfield remains a source of debate. With Michael Bradley, Daniele De Rossi and Florenzi all going the full 120 minutes on Wednesday, and with such a congested schedule the remainder of this month, chances are one of that trio won't start.
With Mattia Destro serving as the midweek hero and PDO being out injured, the frontline should see Francesco Totti and Erik Lamela manning either side of Destro, paving the way for Florenzi to slide back into the midfield following his more advanced role against Fiorentina.
To say the offense has suffered this season without Francesco Totti would be the mother of all understatements, while his return is certainly welcome, Totti's greatest gift to this team is his ability to creating scoring opportunities. Totti leads the squad in total key passes by a comfortable margin, but for a team suddenly bereft of goals, the pressure to finish is mounting on the young shoulders of Mattia Destro, whose goal binge from late 2012 has suddenly dried up, as he's gone goalless in league play over his past five appearances. A matter made worse given the time PDO has missed due to injury and suspension.
Take those factors and throw in a relatively stout Inter defense and you get a tough fixture, the first of three against Inter Milan, but there is hope. While Roma didn't exactly put on an exhibition of free flowing football against Fiorentina, gutting out an extra time win with a depleted squad should go a long way towards bolstering the squad's confidence; they are, after all, still in the midst of a two game league losing streak.
Dropping points to lesser squads, including recent matches against Chievo and Catania, as well as those earlier in the season, has left Roma on the outside looking in at next year's Champions League. Sitting on 32 points, the Giallorossi find themselves three points out of Italy's final Europa League qualifying spot.
Lamenting about these losses and pining for the Champions League does neither the players nor the fan base any good, instead we must focus on that which is within reach, the Europa League. For a team with no European football whatsoever this season, an EL spot would be a step in the right direction, not the one we had hoped for, but progress nonetheless.
But before we even worry about that, we have to get past Inter...three times.