Roma's annual trip to the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, while not necessarily a stressful affair, isn't without its share of perils, as evidenced by Genoa's 1-0 victory last May. However, with a 67% winning percentage and +7 goal differential in their last six meetings, it's safe to say that Roma has ruled the roost as of late. However, something's different in the North of Italy this year, the Grifone are perhaps Italy's biggest surprise this season, firmly entrenched in the battle for Serie A's final European births, alongside stalwarts Napoli, Lazio, Milan and fellow surprise contender, Sampdoria.
Despite the lack of a true superstar and some rather middling (and telling) statistics, Genoa has knocked in 20 goals and maintained a +8 goal different through 14 weeks of play. However, if you've read anything I've written in these spaces or even have, like me, a rudimentary understanding of statistics, you'll know that Genoa's performance may be unsustainable in the long run.
But, the thing about numbers is that every so often they're trumped by luck, so will these Griffins come crashing back to earth on Sunday afternoon or will Lady Fortune threaten Roma's place on the table?
Let's take a look
Not Your Grandpa's Grifone
Or maybe they are, it really all depends on how old your Grandpa is or was, and if it's the latter, let me offer my condolences. Genoa was the bee's knees back in the roaring twenties, when they won their ninth and last Scudetto in 1923-1924. So, what have they been up to since the flapper went the way of...well, the flapper?
While Genoa has been a Serie A fixture for much of the past century, outside of the 1936-1937 Coppa Italia and, of course, the esteemed Anglo-Italia title they claimed in 1996, their history has been rather non-descript. The only reason you know they exist is simply because they exist. They is what they is, is what I'm trying to say.
So how exactly has this typically blasé side risen to such great heights this season?
Well, as we mentioned at the outset, luck may be a contributing factor. Genoa ranks 17th in shots per match, 11th in shots in the area, 12th in possession, 16th in passing precision, and 18th in chances created, yet they've scored 20 goals. While we should credit them for shot accuracy and conversion rate, both of which are among the league's leaders, these numbers don't portend long-term sustainability.
Leading this strange charge has been Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina castoff, Alessandro Matri. After a few lost years at those esteemed clubs, Matri's career appears headed for a resounding second act. Matri, 30, currently leads Genoa in goals (six) and assists (four), while ranking in the top three in shots and key passes per match.
Beyond Matri's rejuvenation, Roma's own farmboy, Andrea Bertolacci, is finally starting to fulfill his enormous promise. Through 13 appearances, Genoa's number 91 is tied with Matri for the club lead in assists, while ranking in their top five in shots per match, key passes, dribbles and fouls drawn. He's a young man with an incredibly vast skillset, one who should make his mark in the Eternal City before all is said and done.
However, the man we all pine for is barely a man at all. 22-year-old goalkeeper Mattia Perin has done nothing to dim his star this season. Perin not only has five cleansheets through 14 appearances, but he leads the league in saves and has won (depending on one's preferred site of choice) several man of the match awards.
Italians are as guilty as any for overhyping and over burdening their footballing youth, but Perin is looking very much like Italy's next big thing between the sticks and should be there to foil Gervinho at every turn.
So, will Perin's promise, Matri's renaissance and Bertolacci's blossoming be enough to tackle Roma?
I won't try to recap Roma's Champions League crash out, Masonio did a far better job than I could have, but we're still left to ask, what now? Are the psyches too damaged to carry on, or will that loss foster a new sense of purpose?
That purpose, of course, is their now annual chase of Juventus. If Roma's 5-1 victory over CSKA Moscow in their Champions League opener did anything, it was to ramp up expectations to the realm of unrealistic. Roma was never meant to win the Champions League, nor were they meant to survive the group of death, if we're being honest, but that resounding victory got folks talking...talking madness.
That reality, then, forces us to ask another, more difficult question; does that same twisted perspective apply to the league? Is this Roma actually built to win the whole thing?
One could argue last year's version was actually more equipped to chase down an even stronger Juventus side; Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castan were a cut above any other defensive pairing the league had to offer, while Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan comprised one of the toughest and most efficient midfields in the world. It didn't happen in the end, but the belief and the narrative was entirely plausible.
This year the results haven't been as unequivocal, the football not quite as resplendent and the doubt not quite as removed. Morgan De Sanctis is suddenly showing every one of his 37 years, De Rossi hasn't been quite as sharp this season, nor has Pjanic, while Gerviho's bad days are starting to outweigh his good ones.
Now, don't get it twisted, Roma won't suddenly plummet down the table, but the football we've seen this season, particularly in their most important matches, has been lacking; in flair, in urgency and in results.
With their European dessert suddenly off the menu, can this Roma make a meal of Serie A?