For a club that only plays once a week, Roma seldom lacks in storylines. Just this week, Roma was forced to face the specter of life without Kevin Strootman, the sudden Liverpool lust for Adem Ljajic, and the fortuitous return of Francesco Totti. But, such is life in the Eternal City, fortunes rise and fall as often as the sun sets. Playing host to Antonio Di Natale and the rest of the Zebras on Monday evening, Roma look to turn the tide from last week's loss to Napoli.
Unlike many of their latest foes, the recent history between Roma and Udinese has been pretty even. Over their past six encounters, Udinese has won twice, Roma thrice, with one draw thrown in for good measure. Udinese has scored eight goals, Roma nine. Udinese has drawn 19 yellow cards, ditto for Roma. Things don't get more even keeled than that, eh?
But, hey, it's Monday Night Calcio, Totti vs Toto, 400+ goals between them, what more do you need!?
(If you're not American, you're probably not familiar with the concept or novelty of Monday Night Football...here's a taste.Cowboys. Country Music. Cheerleaders. Aircraft Carriers. Fireworks. I think you'll find it equal parts bombast and hyperbole. #Murica.)
October 27, 2013: Roma 1, Udinese 0
Roma did the nearly unthinkable on this evening, defeating an opponent without Francesco Totti in tow, all thanks to their erstwhile American midfielder. Given what we just mentioned, the final marks of this match should come as no surprise, as both sides were nearly dead even in shots, shots on target, passing, shots blocked and even bookings.
Although Marco Borriello, Miralem Pjanic and Adem Ljajic would threaten throughout the match, Roma would be bailed out late in the match by The Bald Beauty himself, Michael Bradley.
But first, a quick aside. With all the talk about Ljajic leaving for Liverpool this summer, the first turn in this matchup is testament to what Roma's #8 brings to the fold. On this evening, Ljajic hit on 67% of his shots, created one scoring chances, drew two fouls, pulled off four dribbles and completed 93% of his passes. While we can quibble about his maturity or his minute-to-minute focus, he is an immensely talented player.
Anyway, back to Bradley. Coming on in the 78th minute for Borriello, it didn't take long for Bradley to assume the role of hero. Only in this instance, the buildup to Bradley's heroics didn't nearly match the magnitude of the moment. Remember, Roma was still riding an eight match winning streak. In and of itself, the goal was rather simple, just a simple layoff from Strootman, followed by a delicate chip by Bradley, but it was enough to seal the deal and send the visiting fans into hysterics.
Toto & Co
Even the most novice Serie A fan knows that when you talk about Udinese, you're really talking about Antonio Di Natale, the newly crowned 10th all-time leading scorer in Serie A history, having recently surpassed Gabriel Batistuta's 184 goals. For the man affectionately known as Toto, not much has changed; he's still sun around which Udinese's offense--hell, let's be honest, their entire existence--revolves. Di Natale leads his club in goals, shots and is a fraction away from leading in dribbles per match. And while neither Di Natale nor Udine look set to repeat their successes from the early half of this decade, with three victories in their past six matches, they're still a somewhat formidable opponent.
I say somewhat simply because, despite their recent success, they're still mired in 14th place, ten points above the drop zone. The problem for Udinese this season has simply been what any reasonable Serie A supporter would assume; its Toto or bust. Di Natale's nine league goals are 55% more than his closes compadres, Thomas Heurtaux and Luis Muriel, while his 79 shots leads the club by an equally wide margin.
Compounding this problem for Udinese may be that age has, at long last, started to catch up with Toto. Di Natale's nine goals this season is a far cry from the 26 he averaged over the prior four seasons. His shooting, creating and dribbling numbers are also down from their recent high-water marks as well. Quite simply, when the man upon whom you rely so much starts to falter himself, the club suffers in turn.
We often wonder what will become of Roma's offense when Totti can no longer be Totti, well, Udinese fans may be living their own version of that nightmare this season, and it hasn't been pretty.
However, with 39 goals conceded and a -9 goal differential, their defense isn't exactly doing them any favors either.
Udinese isn't horrible, nor are they spectacular, so let's move on to...
Keep An Eye On
Home vs Away
- If we can pick one point of divergence between these two clubs, it's their respective performances home and away. You know the story for Rudi Garcia's crew, Roma has been damn near impregnable at home, taking 33 of a possible 39 points, allowing only two goals in the processes. Put that in decimal form and it looks even more attractive. On the whole, Roma has outscored her opponents at the Olimpico 2.31 to 0.15. Phrase that in percentage points above/below the league norm, and it looks dead sexy. Roma scores 35% more and concedes an astounding 87% less at home than the leagues other 19 clubs.
- Udinese, on the other hand, hasn't fared too well away from the Friuli. Toto & Co have only won 33.3% of their road matches, while losing greater than 50%, scoring only 1.11 and conceding 1.44 goals per away match. All of these are, depending on your perspective, above or below league average. Point being, Udinese is among the league's worst travelling teams.
- So, combine those ingredients, throw them in a slow cooker, and it looks like Roma should have a slight advantage tomorrow.
- While word came down late in the week that Francesco Totti would return to the starting lineup, it did, in an unexpected twist, bring with it a small wrinkle-the possibility of a switch to the 4-3-1-2; a formation which Rudi Garcia has not yet utilized in Roma. While the return of Totti certainly affords Garcia more options, the real crisis point in this squad--in the light of injuries and suspension--is the midfield, so it seems odd that Garcia would tinker with the forward throngs of Roma's attack.
- Garcia has utilized both the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-2-1 on separate occasions this season, however. In each instance, Mattia Destro was the headman, supported by Totti in the former, and Gervinho and Adem Ljajic in the latter. So, the question of whether or not Destro and Gervinho can co-exist has had at least one prior experimentation, though putting Totti in support of them should make Garcia feel a bit more comfortable, right?
- Although it hasn't been explicitly discussed in the news this week, might the 4-2-3-1 actually be the safest bet here? Radja Nainggolan and Miralem Pjanic are certainly capable of providing enough coverage as a double pivot, while Totti, Gervinho and Ljajic/Florenzi could support and surround Mattia Destro easily enough to still wreak havoc on Udinese's defense.
- No matter which formation he chooses, the real headline here is the midfield, as in, who will play alongside Nainggolan and Pjanic? Once Strootman went down versus Napoli, Rodrigo Taddei headed the call; will he rise to the occasion again? Will Florenzi slide back? Michel Bastos? Will Federico Ricci make an appearance against an inferior opponent? With Strootman out until possibly 2015 and DDR out a further two weeks, there really is no greater story.
Totti vs Toto
- Besides their collective 72 years on this earth, Francesco Totti and Antonio Di Natale have combined for nearly 1,100 league appearances and 417 goals. I don't have an exact way to quantify it, but outside of perhaps Batistuta and Roberto Baggio, or Gunnar Nordhal and Silvio Piola taking the pitch at the same time towards the end of their respective careers, it's not very often that we see two men with such legendary numbers take the field at the same time. (Any combo of Totti, Toto and Alessandro Del Piero circa 2012 would also qualify).
- And with Alberto Gilardino being the only other active player with over 100 league goals, it may be decades before we see this again; be sure to savor this, because it won't be long before Totti vs Toto is a thing of the past. Furthermore, given the economics of the global game, we may never see anything like this in Serie A again.
- Fun fact: Totti and Toto have each scored 13 league goals against one another's clubs.
Surviving St. Paddy's Day or Defeating Udinese on Unification Day
While a majority of the world's Catholic nations (well, the ones to whom the Irish emigrated, at least) will spend this day in Guinness soaked, green clad revelry, the people of Italy will be celebrating the 153rd anniversary of Italian Unification. In order for Roma to escape the hangover that traditionally accompanies this unique day on the calendar, they must simply find cohesion among a suddenly fractured squad.
The absence of Kevin Strootman will be felt in manners both large and small; he was, after all, the missing piece after which Roma had pined for years; someone with the defensive presence to enable Pjanic and Totti to remain relatively unfettered, yet capable of running circles around opposing centerbacks and threatening the goal. He did all the small things that befuddled Roma's midfield equation under previous regimes, yet, through skill and technique, he was large enough to turn the tide of match on his own.
With or without Strootman, Roma must focus on the task at hand and not simply assume that Udinese's road struggles will continue.