Think back to the last days of high school, when all that stood between you and your Caligulian visions of college life were a few meaningless weeks of classes. Sure, you still showed up, but the whole process was a sham, and your teachers wanted out as badly as you did. Really, your only motivation to walk through the door was to get one last taste of that sweet, sweet cafeteria pizza; somehow you knew, no matter where life brought you, it would never taste the same.
So, now that they've sewed up second place and have visions of greater days to come next fall in their heads, this is precisely the scenario in which Roma find themselves; call it a case of Serie A senioritis, if you will. Roma only has to manage a draw to set a new club record for points in a season, and beyond reversing their current drought against A.C. Milan, their motivation isn't exactly palpable.
That's not to say we're expecting an apathetic display; after all, what better joy is there than seeing the Rossoneri mired in mediocrity? However, in order for Roma to break a string of consecutive draws against their Milanese neighbors, they'll have to avoid the pitfalls of the reverse fixture, where they were done in by a late equalizer.
Don't remember? Have a look.
December 17, 2013: Roma 2, Milan 2
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Thanks to a relatively late goal from Sulley Muntari, we were treated to the Roma of old, as the Giallorossi threw away two crucial road points, wasting goals from Mattia Destro and Kevin Strootman in the process. Despite that brief trip down memory lane, there were a few moments worth reliving, most notably Destro's 13th minute goal.
It's almost sad to see it in print, but now that Strootman has been out of commission for nearly three months, one tends to forget what a gifted player he is on the offensive side of the ball. With his momentum carrying him simultaneously towards the endline and away from Destro, and with barely a glance away from his feet, Strootman threaded a perfect ball across the box to Destro, practically nutmegging Daniele Bonera in the process. It was just a beautiful and instinctual play from the Washing Machine.
Following a 29th minute equalizer by Cristian Zapata, Strootman would strike once again, capitalizing on the penalty drawn by Gervinho to push Roma back in front 2-1; the last bit of good luck Roma would have on this evening, however, as Muntari's 77th minute goal levelled affairs for good, robbing Roma of two crucial points.
Fortunately for our psyches, the ensuing four months have been incredibly kind to Roma.
Perhaps that acronym only strikes a chord with our North American readership, but if you're not familiar with Uncle Jessie, Uncle Joey, Steve Urkel or Balki Bartokomous...well, I don't know what to say, other than I feel sorry for you and your childhood.
On this particular Friday, however, there is still much to be thankful for, as Roma and Milan share the center stage in this tantalizing kickoff to week 35. But, as we just mentioned, the incentive for Roma may be wearing thin, a hurdle Rudi Garcia addressed earlier this week:
I definitely still believe we can win the Scudetto. Everything is still open and possible. Obviously we need to win all our matches, starting on Friday. If we win we can wait and see what happens with Juve and Sassuolo. Hopefully Sassuolo will do what they need to do in order to try to stay up.
Expecting anyone to topple Juve at this point in the season is a tough ask, but if any side can muster the proper motivation, surely it's one in the thick of a relegation battle, and with nothing but a tie breaker keeping them off the chopping block, Sassuolo fits the bill. But, Rudi is right; all Roma can do is handle the opponent in front of them, and this week, it just happens to be one of the hottest sides in the league, AC Milan.
Clarence Seedorf's side has suddenly won five straight matches, trouncing their opponents 11-1 in the process, with the only blight coming from an own goal. Thanks to that incredible run, not only has Seedorf made a case for his permanent appointment next season, but Milan has thrust themselves back in the Europa League race, sitting a mere five points back of Inter Milan, and, wouldn't you know it, they've got a potential six pointer against their city rivals next week...how convenient.
Milan is firing on all cylinders and has ample motivation to end Roma's eight game winning streak, so, with that in mind, let's take a quick look at what to...
Keep An Eye On
Balotelli vs The Brazilians
While Roma's newly branded Brazilian Backline has done quite well this spring, Mario Balotelli is undoubtedly their toughest test to date. As one would expect, Super Mario has been complicit in Milan's untainted spring, knocking in three of Milan's aforementioned eleven goals, pushing his annual total to 14, doubling his closest club competitor, Kaka. Making matters worse for Leandro Castan & Co, Balotelli has been positively scorching lately, scoring three goals and dishing out two assists in his past five matches.
While his conversion rate won't bowl you over, Super Mario has put 50% of his shots on target this season, which is no small feat when you consider that his 138 total shots lead the league by a wide margin. Beyond sheer volume, Balotelli has been a menace all over the pitch, even burying six goals from beyond the 18-yard-box.
With his virtually limitless scoring range and quick trigger finger, Balotelli is a concern for the whole of Roma, but none more than Castan and Rafael Toloi, so look for Leandro to lend a helping hand to his young compatriot...he'll need it, after all.
Kaká vs Maicon
Continuing with the Brazilian theme, we'll turn our attention to Kaká. While he's a far cry from the young man who scored 70 goals and grabbed a Ballon d'Or during his first stint at the San Siro, Pretty Ricky is still a pretty effective playmaker, dolling out four assists while averaging a club leading 2.3 key passes per match this season, good enough for fourth in the league.
The reason we narrow this down to Maicon alone, beyond mere creative convenience, is that Ricky's best work comes on the right flank, an area in which he's served up 15% of his 60 chances created this season. Of course, part and parcel of that wide playmaking panache is his ability to connect from the fringes, where his one successful cross per match is second on the club and top 20 league wide.
While we can debate which is more important--Maicon's pressure on Kaká or Castan/Toloi out muscling Balotelli in the box--there is simply no way around it, in order to derail Seedorf's attack, the tether between these two must be cut. (This was written before the squad lists were announced, so I hope to god all four of these men are playing).
Eight vs Five
With neither side dropping points since mid-March, Friday night's matchup features the two hottest sides on the peninsula. In fairness to Milan, we'll keep this discussion narrowed to each club's last six matches, but consider this: Milan has won five of those six matches, outscoring their opponents 12-2 along the way; pretty impressive stuff until you consider the only team to exceed each of those marks is Roma, who have taken all 18 points, banging home 15 goals in the process.
So, take that, Milan. Who cares about your seven Champions League titles anyway?
Friday Night Lights
Another reference most likely lost on our non-North American fans, but in this case it rings universal. Friday night's matchup features two sides with a collective 13 match winning streak, two sides that have barreled over their opponents by a combined 32-9 scoreline, and two sides absolutely oozing with Italian and Brazilian talent...sometimes the Serie A schedule makers get it just right.
Friday night's matchup won't require much of a sales pitch to the impartial fan, that's for sure. All that lingers now is a question of motivation: will Roma's personal pride outweigh Milan's European ambitions?