The first time someone dared bring Elephants to the outskirts of Rome, things didn't go terribly well, and while the original Romans eventually held off that Alpine Elephant assault, besting their opponents during the Punic Wars, their modern counterparts haven't had much luck with the pachyderms coming across the Strait of Messina. While Catania hasn't necessarily dominated this series in recent years, you have to venture back nearly three years to witness the Lupi take down the Elefanti, but, oh, what a match it was. With four goals between Marco Borriello and Mirko Vucinic, you can rest assured that, somewhere in the city that night, they partied like it was 200 B.C.
The story of Roma-Catania the past two years has been one of stagnation. How stagnant, you ask? Well, try this on for size. Over their past six matches, which included a stretch of three straight draws, Roma and Catania have scored 10 goals and drawn 18 yellow cards apiece.
Despite that eerie similarity, Catania has held a slight edge over those half-dozen matches, but how? Well, take a look at these two anonymous players:
Player A: 3 goals, 16 shots, 10 key passes, 18 dribbles
Player B: 2 goals, 17 shots, 12 key passes, 7 dribbles
Aside from the gulf in successful dribbles, these two players have put up remarkably similar statistics over the past six matchups. The problem is that Player A's goals in this series account for 18% of his career total, while Player B's make up 0.87%. I'll kill the suspense and just come out with it, Player A is Catania's Alejandro Gomez, while B is, you guessed it, Francesco Totti. I drew this comparison not to make light of Totti's contributions, but rather to highlight how Gomez and the rest of Catania have risen to the Roman occasion over the past three seasons, doing just enough to keep Roma from winning what was rightfully theirs. Roma, in case you don't recall, has the nasty habit of playing to the level of their competition.
So, what level of competition does Catania actually represent this season?
Elephants Never Forget...
Unless we're talking about how to play football on the road, then it's completely escaped them.
Through eight away matches, not only has Catania gone winless, they haven't even earned a single point. Take one look at the scoring ledger, and the reason becomes as plain as day. Outside the confines of Stadio Massimino, Catania has only scored five goals, which is bad, but not the worst mark in the league. But, oh lord, do they concede on the road. 21 goals....21! Catania has conceded 21 goals on the road through eight matches; that's on the road, not in total, or, if you prefer, three times as many goals as Roma has conceded this season. There is really no need to break it down any further; Catania is the worst road team in the league, bar none.
Even if we show them some generosity and factor in their home performances, Catania still doesn't fare any better. Quite simply, they bleed goals. Fortunately for Catania, Bologna and newly promoted Sassuolo have spared them the shame of being Serie A's most generous defense. But, brother, when Catania concedes, they do it with gusto; of their 10 losses this season, 70% have come by more than two goals. There's not much middle ground when it comes to the Catania defense.
But,bad is bad, no need to dissect it any further, so let's take a Roma-centric view on what to watch Sunday.
Keep An Eye On
The Makeshift Midfield
- In the run up to last week's match, we focused on how Rudi Garcia would utilize Michael Bradley in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Well, as it turned out, Pjanic's responsibilities were doled out among his comrades, with both Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman seeing an increase in their touches, while the playmaking portion, believe it or not, fell to Bradley. And, if we go simply by the numbers, Bradley availed himself quite well, tallying three key passes, hitting on 86% of his passes and playing four accurate long balls. However, as we've discussed numerous times, Bradley's passing escapes him at the worst moments and in the worst spots. On Monday, five of his seven incomplete passes occurred dead center and headed for goal. So, while we can credit him for being direct, accurate he was not. And, while it assuredly wasn't by design, Bradley found himself with four attempts on goal, which is, again, not his strong suit.
- Sunday, however, carries with it a bit of good news and a bit of bad news. Miralem Pjanic returning to the fold should bring a measure of creativity and fluidity to Garcia's midfield, while the absence of Strootman and DDR removes virtually all of Roma's tenacity, strength and recuperative capabilities. The quick fix to this is one many of you suggested last week, throw Alessandro Florenzi into the midfield and let the chips fall where they may. Florenzi certainly has the pace to hack it in the midfield, but does he have the precision and tackling ability to fill in for Strootman?
Francesco & The Forwards
- Well, Rudi Garcia certainly made a liar out of me last week, following my pre-emptive re-reporting of Totti's return to the starting lineup. While Totti eventually played 30 minutes, bringing with him the usual increase in quality, it wasn't enough to seal the victory. With Totti, Mattia Destro, Adem Ljajic and Gervinho all available, Garcia will, for perhaps the first time, have a full arsenal at his disposal. However, that doesn't necessarily mean things will simply fall into place. Without Strootman and DDR to keep the heat off of him, Pjanic's play becomes even more important, making the manner in which Garcia attempts to link him to the forwards even more critical. Does he tell Totti to drop deeper to make a closer connection with Pjanic? Will he pull the forwards in and shorten the passing lanes? Possibly change the forma...nevermind.
- Admit it, you're surprised. With Federico Balzaretti shelved for the fifth straight week, we're once again treated to the Dodo Experience. While we still have no idea what Dodo may become, he's shown some impressive strides the past few weeks. Consider Monday in Milan; Dodo had three clearances, an astounding 109 touches, and even seven tackles, both match highs. For a young player, sometimes all it takes is an extended run of minutes to build confidence and prove one's worth; he may be more than just a head of fantastic hair, after all. This week, however, he's not the concern. The curtains dropped on the work week amid speculation that Maicon won't be available for this match, leaving the right back duties to...Rodrigo Taddei? Tin Jedvaj? Marquinho? The obvious answer would seem to be Vasilis Torosidis, but he hasn't played since Halloween. Maicon's form had actually seen an uptick the past two weeks, so this may not be an easy fix.
Roma stand in a precarious position; they're still undefeated, yet they've managed only one victory in their past six matches, and while they're welcoming the league's worst road side to their stage, it's an opponent against whom they've struggled in recent years. And this is all against the backdrop of a two week break, one from which they'll be rudely awakened by a trip to Juventus Stadium.
Nothing is ever simple with this club.