Roma and Chievo, two sides who, umm...someone help me out here. Truth be told, the history between the Wolves and the Flying Donkeys isn't as fanciful as their names would lead you to believe. In fact, they've played to three straight 1-0 results, and while Roma grabbed the most recent favors, the matches haven't exactly been the picture of excitement. Really, beyond some sort of bizarre Michael Bradley love triangle, there hasn't been a ton of animosity between these two clubs in recent years.
Chievo, teetering on the precipice of the relegation zone, welcome Roma to the Bentegodi on Saturday in a matchup between Serie A's second and sixteenth place teams. Despite flying close to their own paddocks, the Donkeys have only bested Roma once in their past six league encounters in Verona. So much for the comforts of home.
No matter where they met, prior to the October fixture, Roma hadn't defeated Chievo since 2012; an embarrassing spell that was put to rest thanks to some Halloween hijinks.
October 30, 2013: Roma 1, Chievo 0
The rather restrained musical accompaniment for these highlights underscores just what a dull rivalry this has become, but on this fall evening, the score line didn't do Roma's dominance justice. Rudi Garcia's men held possession for nearly two-thirds of the match, while peppering Christian Puggioni and the Chievo defense with 18 shots, nine times more than the Donkeys mustered at the Olimpico.
However, it would take a bit of luck, a bit of beauty, and a bit of physics for Roma to seal the deal. Although Adem Ljajic ostensibly started the scoring play, it was the persistence and presence of mind displayed by Alessandro Florenzi that led to pay dirt. Ljajic, starting from the left side of the box, looked to set-up a quick give-and-go with Florenzi by calmly laying it off and heading towards the goal line. However, before Ljajic could even turn his head to look for the presumed return pass, Nicolas Frey closed in on Florenzi with a well-timed slide-tackle, temporarily dispossessing the Roman forward.
Ale, eyes trained on the ball like a hawk soaring over its prey, tracked the ball as it arched from right to left, grabbing it out of mid-air with his weaker left foot, coolly playing a perfectly weighted outswinger towards the divine head of Marco Borriello. Sir Sexy was able to glance the header towards the far post, where it actually bounced just shy of the goal line, careened into the post, catching it at the perfect angle to reflect into the goal.
Roma grabbed the slimmest of advantages, but that's all she wrote. For Roma, it would be the last of a club record ten straight wins to start a season. For Borriello, it would be his last Roman goal...for now.
Chievo at Current
The last time these sides met, Chievo was under the thumb of the entire league, sitting in 20th place. So that they've managed to scratch and claw their way to sixteenth place is testament to something; To their own will power? Maybe. To the majesty that is a Flying Donkey? Perhaps. To the torpidity of Bologna, Catania and Sassuolo? Definitely.
Although, seeing as how they've won two of their past four matches, perhaps we should give credit them for sheer self-preservation. Of course, those two victories represent one-third of their season total, but timing is everything now, isn't it?
Their recent form notwithstanding, six wins in twenty eight is horrible. That rust won't buff out, no matter how hard you scour.
Chievo ranks dead last in possession, dead last in shots per match, dead last in passing and have scored only 23 goals, second worst in the league. Often times, when a club is so destitute offensively, particularly in terms of possession, we see an accumulation of tackles. After all, if you're constantly under attack, it stands to reason that you'd have more opportunities to strip the opponent, right? This season, Livorno, Catania and Bologna--the three clubs immediately above Chievo in possession percentage (meaning they're the four worst in the league)--are also in the top five in tackles per match, but Chievo, poor, poor Chievo, doesn't even crack the top ten.
In other words, not only is their offense anemic, their defense is damn near toothless. It's as if they've been stuck in a perpetual match of monkey-in-the-middle, ceaselessly chasing their opponents in a feeble attempt to win the ball back.
Really, beyond the man-on-an-island defensive performance of Boukary Dramé and the offensive exploits of the Milanese co-owned Alberto Paloschi and the man I touted as a Roman reserve, Cyril Théréau, Chievo fans haven't had much to smile about in 2014.
However, with rather grotesque six pointers against Livorno, Sassuolo and Bologna remaining, Chievo at least has some measure of control in their fight to avoid relegation. Outside of this week, naturally, we've got no beef with the Flying Donkeys, right?
Andare Con Dio, Chievo...Andare Con Dio
While last week's wild victory over Udinese provided some respite, with Napoli facing fourth place Fiorentina on Sunday, the real ground in the race to secure second place may be this weekend. If Vincenzo Montella can lend a hand to his former club and steal three points at the San Paolo, Roma, should they defeat Chievo, will have a six point gap and a game in hand over Napoli, which should allow us all to breathe a little easier.
So, how exactly will Roma hold up their end of this pretend bargain? Well, with Daniele De Rossi serving the final portion of his three week suspension, we can expect Rudi Garcia to use the same mold that worked relatively well against Udinese.
Give credit where credit is due. Thrust into action two weeks ago following the injury to Kevin Strootman, Rodrigo Taddei, after shaking off some initial rust, has been up to snuff in his role as a holding midfielder, which, it must be said, is not now, nor was it ever, his natural position. Against Udinese on Monday, Taddei's 82 touches were second only to Radja Nainggolan's 94, he completed 87% of his 63 passes, created one scoring chance, had four successful dribbles, two interceptions, two clearances and a team high six tackles.
While no one ever confused Taddei with some of his more celebrated contemporaries, his performances over the past several years, through the litany of managers, pet projects and next big things, is testament to his professionalism and dedication to the sport.
He may never have been a world beater, but Roma have always been lucky to have him. Look for Taddei to slot alongside Nainggolan and Miralem Pjanic in the heart of Garcia's 4-3-3.
With the return of Big Doug, Roma's back four returns to its Dodo-Castan-Benatia-Maicon status quo, leaving the only positional point of doubt upfront. Monday evening, Garcia opted for the trio of Gervinho, Mattia Destro and Totti (left-to-right), a decision for which he was handsomely rewarded, as they accounted for two goals and two assists against Udinese.
Having played "only" 72 minutes in his return from injury on Monday, Totti figures to get his usual start, but can we talk about Gervinho for a second?
As we all know, a football match is 90 minutes, and when you play nine of them, that's 810 minutes of action. Across Roma's last 810 minutes, Gervinho has played in 786, that's 97% for you math types. Distill that even further, and you'll find that Gervinho has played in 629 of Roma's last 630 league minutes, good for 99%. Point being, no offensive player has been used quite as heavily as Gervinho.
While this should be a concern for any player, when the contributions of the man in question are predicated solely on speed, the concerns become magnified. Sure, Gervinho has exceeded most of our expectations this season, but, looking at his run through late February and early March, a stretch in which he was turning in sub-seven match ratings, we're not left with many conclusions beyond fatigue finally taking hold of Roma's energetic Ivorian.
Of course, the most maddening aspect of Gervinho's lethargy of late is Rudi Garcia's steadfast refusal to let Adem Ljajic actually, like, you know, play. Over the past month, Ljajic has only seen 107 minutes in the shit, to borrow a phrase from Full Metal Jacket. And while we have begrudgingly come to terms with Garcia's preference for Gervinho, even Alessandro Florenzi, a player cut and tied in the Roman cloth, has seen his minutes decrease over the past several weeks, seldom spending more than an hour on the pitch at a time.
Preference is one thing, but ignoring blatant signs of fatigue is an entirely different story. Granted, the inclusion of Destro precipitates the omission of one of them, but against an opponent as weak willed as Chievo, might this be an opportune time to rest Gervinho?
Catch You Later, Chievo
Given their tenuous grasp on the top flight, this may be the last time Roma meets Chievo Verona in league play. At the very least, Roma needs to help them on their way down to Serie B. In order to do so, Roma, even in a match against a decidedly inferior opponent, must not relent, particularly in the opening moments of each half. If Garcia's men can ground the Flying Donkeys and get some help from Fiorentina, their stranglehold on second place should become nearly unbreakable.