Tuesday evening Roma welcomes Bayern Munich to the Olimpico for their much discussed Group E encounter. And, as one would expect in a matchup of this magnitude, there will be multiple story lines in play when Roma and Bayern take the pitch tomorrow. First, there's the simple fact that, with a victory, Roma can overtake Bayern for first place in the group of death. Tuesday's tilt will also see Pep Guardiola bring his unique brand of football back to his old stomping grounds, where he played alongside Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi in a handful of matches in 2003. And, let's face it, from a purely objective standpoint, there is going to be an awful lot of talent on the pitch tomorrow: World Cup winners, Champions League winners and even the occasional Roman rumor target; it should be a feast for footballing eyes.
But, it doesn't take genius to find the real storyline here, the return of Mehdi Benatia. You'll have to forgive me for burying the lead here, but Benatia hasn't exactly been his old self through his first few months in Bavaria, making only four appearances for the German champions. However, if old Machine Gun Benatia does suit up, we can be sure to expect a near Juventus level of hostility towards the man many have labeled the greatest mercenary since Sgt. Slaughter.
So, if you're still feeling jilted by Benatia, feel free to let the hate wash over you. But what about the rest of Bayern, how will Roma receive them?
To say Guardiola's side is steamrolling the Bundesliga wouldn't even scratch the surface. Through eight matches, Munich has six victories against two draws, and has conceded only twice en route to their +19 goal differential. Bayern leads the league in shots per match, shots on target per match, possession, passing percentage, chances created...you get the picture, and they've only been booked four times, so not only are they prolific, they play nice.
Leading the Bayern Blitzkrieg has been the trio of Arjen Robben, Mario Götze and Thomas Muller. This trio has accounted for 12 of Bayern's 21 goals, while chipping in a collective five assists. Throw Xabi Alonso into the mix, and Guardiola's offense becomes even more dynamic and efficient. There is simply no limit to the ways in which they can beat you.
Defensively speaking, despite the loss of Javi Martinez and Benatia's ongoing transition to the German game, Munich has kept a tight grip on their opponents, conceding only twice and allowing a measly six shots per match.
Quite simply, outside of perhaps Real Madrid, they may be no finer footballing power at present than Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich; they do so much and do it so well, it's tough to pinpoint any one weakness.
But hey, Roma has history on her side. Not only does Bayern sport a losing record on Italian soil, but Roma took the most recent spoils, toppling the Germans in the 2010-2011 group stage on November 23, 2010 thanks to goals from Totti, De Rossi and Marco Borriello.
Rested for a Reason
One has to imagine that Rudi Garcia's decision to leave Gervinho and Juan Iturbe on the sidelines Saturday was done explicitly with this match in mind. With so few holes to poke in Munich's lineup, Roma's best bet is to rely on the nearly unparalleled speed of their dynamic wingers, both of whom have enough athleticism to counteract the world class talent of Philip Lahm and the rest of Munich's enforcers.
Just exactly how Roma will attempt to unlock that defense is a matter of conjecture. With Iturbe and Gervinho presumably figuring large in Garcia's game plan, one of Mattia Destro and Adem Ljajic, both of whom wowed over the weekend, will be left out in the cold--this is presuming Totti will run for at least an hour. The seldom seen trio of Totti, Destro and Ljajic actually worked quite well together against Chievo--granted they're worlds apart from Bayern--which amounts to one thing: Roma's myriad attacking options are all finally coming together at the same time, which is only a problem when you consider who we're up against here.
When dealing with an opponent like this, there may not be many wrinkles to exploit, and even if Roma does find a way to take advantage of Munich, that perceived edge may only produce three or four genuine chances. So the shape and form of Garcia's front three may be the determining factor in this match. One would have to imagine Totti will get the start, springing Manu or Gervinho behind Munich's flanks in what is becoming their usual manner. However, as we've seen, when Totti exits, things necessarily change; without his creativity in the hole, those incisive runs can sometimes go for naught and Roma's offense become stagnant. Furthermore, if Garcia does indeed go for a more direct front-to-back approach, Destro will come face-to-face with the much larger tandem of Jerome Boateng and Dante, and possibly Benatia himself. So the Totti option, as we all know, is the best course of action, making his stamina an even larger concern tomorrow.
Options are a good thing, of course, and given that Gervinho and Iturbe are Roma's biggest weapons, we can safely assume they'll team up with Totti as Roma attempts to knock Munich on their heels early in the match.
Getting a Grip on Group E
Pep Guardiola has created a nearly flawless football factory in Munich, from front-to-back and left-to-right, Bayern is swift, strong, technical and efficient; they may very well be the best team Roma has faced in years. Even scraping out a draw tomorrow will require a herculean effort from Rudi Garcia's men. However, if they can do the unthinkable and send Benatia and Bayern home packing, they will have a precious one point lead in the group of death, putting them in prime position to advance to the knockout stages.
So, as your voice goes horse with rage from railing against Benatia, don't forget the bigger picture here. Roma has a chance to make a definitive statement, one that proves they truly belong in the conversation with the world's greatest clubs.