When previewing this particular fixture each year, my energy is usually divided between extoling the goal scoring virtues of German Denis and feebly training Microsoft Word to differentiate between ‘Atalanta' and ‘Atlanta'. Somehow, amidst the horrific visions of Denis' hat trick against a helpless Luis Enrique side, I managed to work my way through the haze of squiggly red lines to conjure up a passable narrative, but not this time. Denis hasn't scored against Roma since 2012 and with a simple ‘right click, add to dictionary', Atalanta is suddenly an acceptable wrinkle in the American-English lexicon, so now what?
I guess we'll see, but I'm not the only party interested in this match asking that same question ahead of tomorrow's tilt. With the suddenly maligned Mattia Destro facing the first of four matches on the sideline due to suspension, joined this week by fellow suspendees Miralem Pjanic and Alessandro Florenzi, not to mention an injured Mehdi Benatia, Rudi Garcia faces the menace of that ambiguous yet important question. Now what?
How will he adapt? Who will fill Destro's shoes? Can Roma survive without those four crucial players?
Before we tackle those questions, let's remember the day when Kevin Strootman snatched a point from the jaws of defeat.
December 1, 2013: Roma 1, Atalanta 1
This match was really about two moments; one of brilliance the other of buffoonery, with Roma playing both the victor and the victim. In the 51st minute, Davide Brivio pulled off a decent enough free kick, opting to go underneath the Roman wall, but he would receive a huge assist from Morgan De Sanctis. Granted, the ball took a bit of an in-between hop as it approached the goal line, but De Sanctis was in position to make the save, but, for whatever reason, just flubbed it; whether he misjudged the trajectory or simply over committed, this was one MDS probably should've knocked down.
Roma would save herself a draw in the waning moments of the match thanks to some fleet footwork from Adem Ljajic. While he didn't unleash an array of stepovers, Ljajic still showed some impressive composure on the ball, evading two defenders to pick out Kevin Strootman in traffic, who rescued Roma from an embarrassing defeat right before the final whistle blew.
While closing the Scudetto gap to eight points has been a welcomed development, when we rue missed opportunities and dropped points, this one will be at the front of the line. One simple and savable free kick might have been the difference between an eight point gap and a six point gap.
Anti-Apotheosis of Atalanta
Although they've been relegated three times in the past ten years, the Goddesses of Atalanta have played more than 50 years in the top flight and have played host to some pretty notable names, including Roberto Donadoni, Filippo Inzaghi, Christian Vieri, and even Cesare Prandelli. We tend to overlook Atalanta because they're not terribly exciting, but they've been a pretty reliable fixture of this league for decades and have produced some reputable talent.
Okay, so what about the 2014 edition of La Dea, what kind of challenge do they present to Roma's depleted squad?
Well, that's tough to narrow down. On the one hand, Stefano Colantuono's crew is ahead of the league mean in terms of winning percentage and points per match, thanks in no small part to the six straight victories they ran off until last week's defeat to Sassuolo, they're sixth in clean sheets, they have eight one-goal victories, and they've conceded fewer goals per match than the league average. While on the other hand, though they sit in ninth place, they sport a negative goal differential, they're second to last in shots per game, they've been held scoreless ten times, and they've allowed more than one goal on 17 occasions.
The point being, they've done enough to crack the top ten, but just barely. If we're being honest, they've been a bit lucky, as the underlying numbers don't add up to a ninth place team, but they beat Lazio and Inter Milan during their six match streak, so we'll thank them for that.
As one would expect, their offense is led by Luca Cigarini's playmaking and German Denis's scoring. Cigarini's 2.1 key passes per match ties him with Miralem Pjanic for fifth in the league, while his seven assists and 1.9 accurate crosses per match are both tied for fourth in Serie A; pretty impressive stuff from a player who has never been capped by the Azzurri at the senior level. Cigarini should provide quite a challenge for Rodrigo Taddei and Daniele De Rossi tomorrow.
The man bringing home the bacon in Bergamo is, drumroll please, German Denis. The Argentine has scored 11 goals this season, pushing his three year total to 42, and has shown a pretty decent scoring range through 31 appearances, scoring from left, right and center. Denis has even scored two from beyond the 18. So, while he hasn't punctured the Roman defense quite as often as he used to, he's still Atalanta's prime threat, scoring nearly 30% of their goals this season.
Atalanta has had a strange season, so it's hard to know exactly what to expect tomorrow; their two best players are in good form, the club has won six of their past seven, yet they've struggled on the road.
Instead of predicting what they'll do, let's turn our thoughts to Rudi Garcia's suddenly reduced squad.
Roma: Call Up The Reserves
We mentioned it at the outset, but it bears repeating, Roma will be without Pjanic, Destro, Florenzi and Benatia tomorrow. These aren't mere spare parts we're talking about here; for an entire month, Roma will have to cope with the absence of perhaps the world's best central defender and the league's most in-form forward. Dealing without Destro will be tough as it is, but throw in Garcia's Ljajicaphobia, and we're staring down the barrel of a Gervinho-Totti-Bastos front line. Two-thirds of which is fine, but, yikes...are we really prepared to have Michel Bastos starting on our frontline?
Now, to be fair, Bastos' Roma career consists of little more than 300 minutes, roughly what Gervinho racks ups in a fortnight, so we can't make any definitive claims about his abilities. However, outside of a solid performance against Napoli, he hasn't really done anything of note, his goal against Sassuolo notwithstanding, but without Florenzi and Destro, one has to imagine Ljajic will work his way onto the pitch at some point...we hope.
With the return of Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan, the crisis in midfield will be averted, particularly when we factor in Rodrigo Taddei's run of form at the moment; so no problems there. In defense, the absence of Benatia and Dodo's relegation to the bench means we'll be treated to start number two in the Rafael Toloi saga. The first foray for Roma's newest Brazilian didn't go to well, as he was caught ball watching on Ciro Immobile's 52nd minute equalizer.
The probable selection of Toloi raises a few questions. Namely, with the availability of Vasilis Torosidis, why not just use Alessio Romagnoli in his normal central role? Presumably, Garcia has been satisfied with Romagnoli's performance as a fullback, and rightfully so, but he is a central defender by trade, one who, despite his age, is actually more experienced than Toloi, while Torosidis is comfortable on either flank. But, for a variety of reasons, we haven't seen the sans Benatia quartet of Torosidis-Castan-Romagnoli-Maicon; is it that Garcia doesn't want two left-footed center backs? Does he not trust Torosidis on the left flank? Is Toloi just too handsome to keep on the bench?
We may never know, but from the looks of Benatia's injury, we'll have a month to figure it out.
Keys to Victory
While surviving without Destro, Florenzi, Pjanic and Benatia won't be easy, on paper it looks as though Roma still has enough firepower to defeat Atalanta. Really, in terms of individual players and matchups, Roma's biggest concern should be pressing Luca Cigarini and Giacomo Bonaventura, Atalanta's key playmakers, but DDR and Nainggolan can win that matchup any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
In terms of keeping the ball out of the net, it's really a matter of the untested chemistry between Castan and Toloi, who will be charged with tracking Denis as he approaches the penalty area. While no one will ever confuse Toloi with Benatia, the fact that he and Castan speak the same language should be a tremendous boon to Roma's latest central pairing.
Atalanta doesn't do any one thing particularly well, so that's really the long and short of it; they're not particularly adept at holding possession, passing, or moving, and they don't threaten the goal with any regularity, so it's really just a matter of Roma adjusting to life without Destro and Benatia.