Roma's fixture list thus far has featured lousy teams and long ago stars, and while Monday's match in Emilia-Romagna won't exactly produce any panic sweat, it does feature a decidedly tougher opponent, one that features an intriguing trio of former Roma players. From the dreadfully disappointing Stefano Okaka, to the always forgettable Aleandro Rosi, and, of course, the man who sold the world, Antonio Cassano, Parma features an interesting mix of Roma's highs and lows in the twenty first century.
Regardless of the respective qualities of Livorno and Hellas Verona, Roma was building some impressive momentum, until, you know, the ill-timed international break. Thanks, Sepp. So, trying to make any predictions based on a fortnight of fixtures is probably futile, but let's take a look at what The Crusaders bring to the table.
Whatever potency Parma's offense mustered last season largely fell at the feet of two men, Amauri and Ishak Beldofil, with the duo accounting for 40% of Parma's goals in 2012-2013. With the club essentially swapping Beldofil for Cassano, The Crusaders had better hope there's some life left in those crazy legs of Cassano's. Fortunately for them, the admittedly early and admittedly meager returns are promising, as Cassano scored Parma's lone goal through the season first two fixtures.
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All kidding aside, looking at least year's statistics reveals one thing: Parma is a middle-of-the-road club in every respect of the word, as they generally fell between seventh and tenth in most major statistical categories. However, when teams travel to the Tardini, trouble ensues. Last season Parma was one of the leagues better home sides, winning ten matches and allowing only 18 goals, good for fourth best last season, and managing a +10 goal differential on their own turf.
So Roma isn't exactly entering an easy away fixture, but when you're first two opponents are newly promoted sides, Parma might as well be the Galacticos.
I'm gonna be honest here for a second, it's tough to get amped about a side as blasé as Parma. They're pretty good, Amauri can still score, Cassano is still dangerous, and they're tough to beat at home, but, outside of #99, there's nothing terribly exciting about them.
So, defeating Parma won't exactly require a Sisyphean effort, but they won't simply roll over at the sight of Daniele's teletubby tattoos either.
I've said it a million times, this is an interesting team to which we've hitched our wagons.
Back From Break
One of the drawbacks of being an occasionally large club like Roma is that many of your top players feature prominently for their respective national teams. While this can certainly help boost the profile of your club, it also places your most prized assets in precarious positions. In the case of Michael Bradley, that position was made even more troublesome by a wet Ohio evening and some loose sod. Daniele De Rossi, meanwhile, escaped unscathed from Cesare Prandelli's latest tinkerings. Beyond that, the only other news of international note was Maicon's epic faux pas against Portugal.
The international break did usher in some good news, however. Due to the vagaries of international labor law and FIFA politics, the transfer of the Croatian Marquinhos, Tin Jedvaj, was protracted, to put it nicely. But the red tape has successfully been traversed and Jedvaj should make the trip to Parma.
While Bradley's injury will certainly impact Garcia's rotations, a starter he is not. We're all riding pretty high on Rudi Garcia, and through his first two weeks at the helm, it's beginning to look as though Roma found a diamond in the rough. He's a sharp dresser, he knows several romance languages and he makes for a good interview, but his greatest gift to this club might be stability, specifically within the starting XI, something which was sorely missing last season.
Starting at the back with Morgan De Sanctis, nine out of the starting eleven should remain intact week-to-week, with the only remaining ambiguity being who starts alongside Francesco Totti. Given his fast and furious forty minutes against Verona, you'd have to say that Adem Ljajic will lock down one of the forward spots, leaving a fight for survival among Gervhino, Alessandro Florenzi and Mattia Destro.
While that's all well and good, the real source of magic is Roma's midfield. It might be a bit too early to proclaim the trio of Miralem Pjanic, Kevin Strootman and DDR as the leagues' best, but they're off to a hell of a start. Through two matches, Roma is maintaining 63.8% possession, second only to Juventus, while completing a league best 89.4% of their passes. The Giallorossi also lead Serie A in shots per match and shots on target per match, while being top five in passes per match, crosses per match, and through balls per match. Point being, Garcia's midfield is moving the ball extremely well thus far.
Again, it's only been two weeks, but you'd have to attribute much of that success to the midfield. And much of that success falls to Strootman; the Dutch Jesuus is averaging six tackles per match and completing 94% of his passes. Combine this with DDR's resurgence, and you can see why Roma is keeping the lion's share of the ball thus far. But, lest you think these two are mere brutes, both men have been extremely accurate in the passing game; combine that with Pjanic's playmaking and you have a midfield that not only stifles attacks, but moves the ball forward extremely quickly and extremely accurately, providing ample scoring chances for Totti and Ljajic.
While Roma has thrown up some impressive stats through their first 180 minutes, there's just not enough meat on the bone to find any glaring weaknesses or strengths in either squad, so let's take a look at a few of the more important individual matchups on Monday evening.
Jonathan Biabiany vs Federico Balzaretti
For no other reason than we're talking about a 25-year old jackrabbit of a runner versus a 31-year old left back not known for his tackling prowess, this figures to be a crucial pairing. If Biabiany's first two matches are any indication of Donadoni's plans, the young Frenchman's main job this year will be pressing opposing left backs, often times starting from beyond the center strip. Beyond his ability to move, Biabiany's short passing ability and ever-increasing playmaking should test the limits of Balzaretti's agility. If Balzaretti himself ventures forward, De Rossi could be covering a lot of ground in front of MDS (which isn't a problem in and of itself, until you factor in the degree to which Cassano's movement dictates Roma's defensive positioning).To top it all off, Biabiany is becoming a force in the air, winning 75% of his aerial duels, far outstripping Balza's 43%, which may be a problem when you consider that Parma like to work the flanks and cross the ball, to the tune of 58 crosses through their first two matches.
Balzaretti doesn't exactly hold a PhD in defense, but his schema will be put to test against Biabiany, who, though not a star, has athleticism enough to give Garcia headaches.
Mehdi Benatia vs Amauri
We can pretty much throw one of these up here every week, but due to his size and the simple fact he's Roma's best defender, Benatia will be tasked with wrangling in the opposition's toughest and tallest forward. This week, it's all 186cm of Amauri, Parma's leading scorer last year, and the bagger of 50 goals in his past seven seasons. At this stage in his career, Amauri is relatively one dimensional, but that one dimension is still remarkably effective. All ten of Amauri's goals last year came within the 18 yard box, which is no surprise, but laterally speaking, all ten were scored within the mouth of the six. (In other words, within the 8 yard width of the six-yard box, extended outward)
So what does all of that mean? Amauri goes central and goes deep (try and resist), so the onus will be on Benatia to push Amauri up, out, and away from MDS; if he gets anywhere near the goal mouth, he causes problems.
Part and parcel of keeping Amauri away from the center of the 18 is denying him service in the first place, bringing us to...
Antonio Cassano vs Everyone
Part of what excites us so much about the tandem of Ljajic and Totti is that, in the faintest and foggiest recesses of our brains, it reminds us of Cassano and Totti; two men seamlessly overlapping, interchanging and creating chances, generally leaving opponents in slack jawed awe of their synchronicity.
And guess what? Whether he's been teamed with Mario Balotelli, Diego Milito, or Amauri, Cassano's blend of scoring and creating has been on full display in these, the latter years of his career. Look no further than last season with Inter. In only 28 appearances, Cassano managed seven goals and nine assists, while notching 2.6 key passes per match, third in the league. He may be on the wrong side of 30, and he's worn out his welcome in a few places, but he's still an incredibly effective player.
The hard part about nailing down Cassano, and why the matchup is really Cassano vs Everyone, is that he works his maniacal magic all over the park. Although the majority of his goals last season came from the left side of the pitch (Hello, Maicon), his key passes knew no bounds, as 32% of his chances created came from either wing.
This season is really no different; Cassano's 10 chances created are second best in Serie A, behind only, surprise, surprise, Totti. With four coming from the left, three from center and three from the right, Cassano's range of movement is as vast as it ever was. About the only thing Cassano doesn't do anymore is create from withdrawn positions, so if we had to narrow it down to one person, one man to corral Cassano, it would be DDR. With De Rossi occupying his more familiar slot in front of the defense, he should be free to focus on Cassano, and with four interceptions through two matches, DDR is reading and reacting as sharply as ever. So keep an eye on De Rossi as he keeps his eyes on Cassano.
Of course, this takes us back to our first key matchup, Balzaretti vs Biabiany. Whatever cover De Rossi has to provide for Balzaretti necessarily limits how much attention he can provide to Cassano, but therein lies the beauty of the Kevin Strootman transfer. His two way play will be huge this year, DDR, as good as he is, can't do it all alone.
While Roma holds the historical sway in this matchup, the addition of Cassano and the improvement of Biabiany gives this Parma side new attacking options, and creates numerous tactical headaches for their opposition. Cassano's movement and ability to create from anywhere will draw an inordinate amount of attention from defense (rightfully so), thereby exposing the flanks for Biabiany and Massimo Gobi, and drawing central defenders away from Amauri.
Because of that, and simply because of the sheer talent he possesses, the key to victory is keeping the ball away from Cassano, and when he does manage to find or create space, Roma has to put a body on Parma's main target man, Amauri. However, with De Rossi seemingly a man reborn and with enough bulk between Benatia and Castan to tussle with Amauri, Roma would appear to have to goods to put Parma away.
Despite the relative disparity of Non-Cassano talent between Parma and Roma, the Tardini can be a tough place to play, but Garcia certainly seems to be onto something here, so while I wouldn't expect a cake walk, I think Roma squeaks out a one-nil victory, with a goal from...oh, let's say, Benatia.