In nearly every season and across every league, a newly promote side somehow defies the odds, proving that they're destined for more than mere survival. This year's Serie A Cinderella is Hellas Verona, Italy's sixth place club, who, led by Luca Toni's nine goals and six assists, is even on points with Inter Milan and sits just outside Serie A's final Europa League spot.
Through twenty weeks, Verona's latest taste of the top flight has already been an unabashed success, and with European play a real possibility for Italy's newest side, you can rest assured they will come at Roma with guns ablaze.
But this Verona side is a bit different from the one toppled by Miralem Pjanic and Adem Ljajic back in September, so let's fire up the flux capacitor and travel back.
September 1, 2013: Roma 3, Verona 0
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For lack of a better narrative, we pitted the first leg as Roma vs Luca Toni; after all, he was the biggest name on the squad, in presence and prestige. While Toni has gone on to pad his resume in the usual fashion, he was effectively removed from this match by Mehdi Benatia, Leandro Castan and Daniele De Rossi. Toni only made 28 touches on this afternoon, ripping off only two shots, neither of which was threatening in the slightest.
On this afternoon, the idiom rang true; Roma cut off Verona's most handsome head, and the body surely died. Roma dominated nearly every facet of the game and breezed to a 3-0 victory, highlighted by Pjanic's lovely 20+ yard chip over the helpless head of Rafael.
Easy, breezy, but what about tomorrow?
A Different Variety of Verona
The biggest difference between Verona in September and Verona in January comes down to the man with arguably the best inho name in the game, Jorge Luiz Frello Filho, a/k/a, Jorginho, Napoli's newest recruit. And while Jorginho wasn't terribly effective against Roma in the first fixture, his imprint on Verona grew larger in each successive week, as he rang up seven goals and three assists before moving to Napoli last week.
But that doesn't mean there isn't an apprentice on whom Roma must still keep an eye. Enter 20-year-old Argentine and occasional Roma transfer target, Juan Iturbe. While Iturbe didn't feature in the first matchup, he is steadily making a name for himself, drawing the admiration of Walter Sabatini and a host of other talent evaluators. Iturbe, who has morphed into a pretty effective wide forward, has three goals in his last seven appearances and should test the limits of Dodo's defensive capabilities.
So, while they've proved to be a decent incubator of young talent this season, it's the most senior member of the squad who Roma must key upon. At 36-years-old, 2013 has been a bit of a rebirth for Mr. Toni, as his nine goals through 17 matches already exceeds his total from last season in Fiorentina. Lest you think Toni is all about goals, he's doled out six assists this season as well, one shy of this total from the past three years combined. More to the point, it's not as if Toni's numbers have coasted on early season successes, in his last three matches alone, Toni has tallied four goals and two assists, half of which came against Lazio; there's a reason Roma fans will always love him.
For Roma, there isn't much intrigue or debate; everyone is available and Rudi Garcia has steered his club to three victories in four matches, so let's do our usual thing...
Keep An Eye On
The Third Forward
- Every year there is one point of contention for Roma, as far as lineups are concerned, at least, because, let's face it, for much of the past decade, Roma has been a living and breathing melodrama. Last season, it was the midfield, prior to that it had been keepers, central defenders and even the manager. Roma had seemingly always had 75% of the equation solved, leaving that last quarter an utter wreck, but this season, that last 25% has been a pleasant point of contention
- Whether it's because of his sheer speed or his familiarity with Garcia, Gervinho has settled in as the de facto starter alongside Francesco Totti, with his speed being a pleasant compliment to #10's playmaking. While Gervinho will never present the picture of consistency, he does have a goal and two assists in his past three matches, so, at the very least, his wave is cresting.
- We've discussed it nearly all season long, but having three players as unique and as talented as Mattia Destro, Alessandro Florenzi, and Adem Ljajic to fill that last spot provides Garcia with numerous tactical options. But with Totti starting as the false nine, the final straw comes down to Ljajic vs Florenzi, and, despite his role as supersub this season, Ljajic is the more in-form player at the moment, having turned in decent-to-strong performances against Catania, Juventus and Livorno in recent weeks, but has he flourished due to that substitute role? Has Florenzi already hit his second half wall? These are important questions to consider when discussing who fills that third spot.
Luca Toni vs The Core
- Luca Toni isn't Ronaldinho in his heyday, he's not Ibra on a modest day, nor is he Antonio Cassano on a sane day. Everyone knows what Toni is and how he operates, yet you can't stop him; Toni is most effective and scores the majority of his goals close to the six and within the spans of the goal posts, there is no chorus of stepovers, no bending free kicks, and no sublime chips over daft keepers. You know where he's going, how he scores, and how he celebrates, but here he is at 36, and doing it as effectively as ever.
- So this puts the onus squarely on Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castan, both of whom Toni towers over, but, if we narrow this down to pure physics, there is hope, as father time appears to be wilting Luca Toni a bit. Despite his advantages in stature, Toni is only winning 46% of his aerial duels, putting him on par with Castan and more than a few steps behind Benatia's 62%. So, while he was never blessed with the greatest of hops, Toni's struggles with gravity appear to be getting the best of him. But don't mistake Verona for a mere long ball or wing oriented team, they move the ball north and south quite effectively, so keeping Toni away from MDS' goal mouth will be critical, but....
Juan Iturbe vs Dodo
- If we had to draw a straight line between Verona's greatest weapons, before the ball gets to Toni, it often starts out wide with Iturbe. The hopefully future Roma player makes his mark on the right flank, where his 0.9 crosses per match, while not impressive at first glance, does place him in a 13th place tie league wide. However, when you consider that he only averages 18 passes per match, his crossing precision is even more impressive. So, for Dodo, and even Castan, the mission is simple; cut the tether between Iturbe and Toni.
- Don't look now, but Dodo has put in some impressive defensive performances over the past month, and while he may never wow you with his tackling, his ability to read the game, as indicated by his interception and clearance numbers in recent weeks, is improving. Dodo isn't a brick shithouse, but he his quick, he is agile and he has exceptional recovery speed, all of which facilitates his ability to disrupt an opponent's passing game; it's just been a matter of getting the minutes, which, thanks to Balzaretti's groin troubles, has finally presented itself. This may not be a straight one-v-one matchup, but Dodo is the first line of defensive on the right flank, so this could be an exciting matchup of two quick, young, and agile players.
At this point in the season, with Roma still eight points adrift of Juventus, the story of 2014 is simple; stay ahead of Napoli. As I'm writing this, they trail Chievo at the half, 1-0, and with an eminently winnable match next week against Parma, the time might be ripe for cementing second place.