With all the buzz generated by the unveiling of the Stadio della Roma earlier this week, you'd be forgiven if you conveniently overlooked the ten matches remaining on Roma's docket. The first of which, an away fixture against relegation candidate Sassuolo, looks like a breeze. After all, the Neroverdi are currently in 19th place, one slim point above last place Catania, and have managed only two victories in all of 2014.
It looks like a breeze, of course, until you remember what happened last time.
November 10, 2013: Roma 1, Sassuolo 1
This, uh, this wasn't a pleasant match to endure. Not only did Roma fail to defeat the newly promoted Sassuolo, they failed to even score of their own accord. Despite Roma's advantage in possession and passing, the Neroverdi attack still mounted a more than credible threat, putting more shots on target than Roma, 7 to 6.
But it would be a Roma shot, of sorts, that broke the seal on this match. Starting from the left flank, Alessandro Florenzi and Miralem Pjanic worked a text book give and go, dragging the Sassuolo defensive line back and forth, creating oodles of space for Florenzi to slip through. Ale unleashed a low bender, which was quickly parried away by Gianluca Pegolo and fell to the unfortunately placed left foot of Alessandro Longhi, whose ill-fated clearance attempt resulted in an own goal. However, despite the ignominious ending, the buildup play was actually quite nice, so credit the two young Romans for that much at least.
In the ensuing 70 minutes, a lot of things happened. Football things. Shins were kicked, people feigned agony, shots were fired; some went wide, some were blocked, while some simply never stood a chance. But, honestly, the only minute that mattered was the 90th.
With seven men in the box, Sassuolo worked the ball inwards from the left flank, with a wide sweeping in-swinger that eventually fell to the ground right on the edge of the six-yard box. Now, this is where the chaos truly started.
With the ball seemingly entrenched in the ground and the Neroverdi players screaming for a penalty, five Roma defenders haplessly flailed at the loose ball, which eventually squeaked its way out to Domenico Berardi, who summarily banged it into the upper right hand corner.
Fucking, Juventus. They get you when they're not even really there.
Strangers in a Strange Land
It's not that often that two sides play each other for the first time in their respective histories, but that was the case back in November, making this Roma's first trip to Sassuolo, who, in case you were not aware, call the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia home. So, there isn't much history to expound upon, I'm afraid.
The Neroverdi do feature several familiar faces, however. The problem, from a Sassuolo and a narrative point of view, is that many of them are injured. All told, Eusebio Di Francesco's squad has ten men on the injured list, including Roma farm hand and Serie's leading tackler, Luca Antei, and former midfield stand-in Matteo Brighi, as well as well-known adversaries Paolo Cannavaro and Antonio Floro Flores.
While no one is going to shed any tears for Sassuolo, what we're dealing with is an already weak team pared even further to the bone. Even their lone bright spot, Berardi, has struggled mightily over the past two months, failing to score since January 26th. Outside of his outrageous four goal explosion against Milan, Berardi's bark has been far worse than his bite in 2014, as he tallied only one goal and a solitary assist since that spectacular evening.
And that's really the long and short of it, Berardi has accounted for 41% of Sassuolo's goals. Beyond him, the only real offensive threat the Neroverdi can throw up is Simone Zaza, who, beyond having a fantastic name, has banged home half a dozen goals while averaging 2.5 shots per contest.
Given their injuries and the general lack of talent, Sassuolo's first foray into the real world will probably be a brief one.
Roman Rest Stop
Having already played one league contest this week, and with two additional matches next week, the major storyline behind this week is rest; as in, who will get it and who won't?
With less than 24 hours before the match (depending on when I actually hit submit, I guess), there is already speculation about rest being meted out to Francesco Totti, Miralem Pjanic and Maicon. We won't even talk about Gervinho because that ship has sailed; he ain't getting rest on Rudi's watch.
However, if Rudi Garcia does deem it necessary to inject some fresh blood into his lineup, the defense would seem the most amenable. Between the return of Mehdi Benatia, the versatility of Vasilis Torosidis and Alessio Romagnoli, not to mention Garcia's sudden faith in Rafael Toloi, there are plenty of bodies to shuffle around the rear guard.
We could make a similar case for the forwards, were it not for Garcia's shunning of Adem Ljajic and Totti's recovering legs, leaving the bulk of the minutes on the overused Ivorian, Mr. Correct and Florenzi. The midfield, however, is another story, unless you want to count on Michel Bastos in the heart of the pitch, meaning Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan, Rodrigo Taddei and Pjanic will have to log some heavy minutes over the next ten weeks.
If you want to further your troubles, consider the fact that Nainggolan, Pjanic, Florenzi and Destro are all on the verge of suspension. The race to secure second place is as much about the names on the fixture list as it is the miles on the player's legs.
But, with Juventus and Napoli facing each other Sunday, there's a good chance Roma's aching bones will receive some sort of assistance.