From an internal, CdT standpoint, this has been an incredibly busy summer. Between the World Cup, the prospect countdown and the unrelenting stream of transfer rumors, we've had no shortage of topics to cover. The strange thing about this uptick in coverage, however, was that much of time it felt like we were discussing some fictional future, one in which today's Giallorossi were bit players, subverted under the significance of an as yet unformed entity. Everything was fixated on the future; what the club might become and what they must do to get there. It was getting to the point where I forgot that there was an actual team we cover here, a living and breathing entity that does, in fact, exist in the present tense.
That's not to say I don't enjoy writing and philosophizing about transfer targets, youth players, or what else may lie ahead, because I do, but there was just something about this silly season that wore me down like no other.
So, it is with great pleasure that I present to you, our loyal parish member, an actual, authentic Serie A match preview.
This start to this season's fixture list isn't quite as favorable as last year, a point typified by Roma's first opponent, Fiorentina. While Roma had the great fortune of starting off last season against newly promoted Livorno, they have no such luxury with Mario Gomez, Juan Cuadrado and Borja Valero coming to town tomorrow afternoon, though Cuadrado is suspended, but you get my broader point.
Since this is the season opener, we'll eschew the detailed tactical analysis, but if you took our quiz this morning, you now know that Roma has bested the Viola in five of their past six meetings (all comps); a streak they no doubt wish to continue, but how can Rudi Garcia, amidst late summer squad upheaval, keep this train rolling?
First, a quick look at Fiorentina
Gaming For Gomez
When you think of the Viola, what springs to mind? Is it the purple shirts? The Fleur-de-lis? The Atermio Franchi at sunset? Or, if you're like me, does it make you think of actress Linda Fiorentino from the Men in Black?
Wherever your mind wanders, in recent times, when one thinks of Fiorentina, they probably think of injuries; long, sustained injuries to superstars like Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez, the latter of whom Roma was fortunate enough to avoid last season.
Well, guess what? The injury bug has once again bitten poor Signor Rossi, meaning Roma will be spared the wrath of facing one of Italy's most prolific goal scorers. Well, guess what else? Mario Gomez is not injured. Quite the opposite, actually. The man who can lay claim to being the most dashing man in the league (it's a tossup between him and Luca Toni) has been in near-vintage form this summer, bagging two goals through the Viola's pre-season.
Due to Gomez's recent spate of injuries, it's a bit hard to discuss how Vincenzo Montella will utilize the giant German-Spanish hybrid in attack. After all, Gomez made only eight appearances last year, his first in Firenze, but one look at his record book should leave you quaking in your boots. Between his days at Stuttgart, Bayern Munich and Fiorentina, Gomez has 126 career league goals, 75 of which came in only four years at Bayern. So the man can score in buckets, so on that subject, there is no debate.
However, in order to get an inkling of how Montella will exploit the return of Gomez, Rudi Garcia needn't look any further than his own backyard. The key to stopping Gomez may very well be cutting the tether between him, Valero and even Alberto Aquilani, as this setup somewhat mirrors the relationship between Gervinho, Pjanic and Mattia Destro; a trifecta Garcia exploited to much success last spring. The point is, we simply don't know the precise ins and outs of how Montella will exploit Gomez's gifts because he has little to no track record in Serie A, so we have to rely upon the familiar.
But the key to stopping this Fiorentina has always been putting the clamps on Borja Valero, the true keystone in Montella's architecture. Last season Valero handed out nine assists, averaged an impressive 2.5 key passes per match, and completed 88% of his passes. For all intents and purposes, he is their Miralem Pjanic; dictating the pace and direction of the Viola attack from a variety of positions. So, pay special attention to Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan, as they'll be the ones primarily responsible for denying Valero the ball and shrinking the space in the middle of the park.
Injuries or not, between Gomez, Ilicic,
Cuadrado and Valero, Fiorentina has more than enough firepower to steal one or more points tomorrow.
So what about Roma? What's the story as they begin the season?
Disorder in Defense
We started off our season preview series with the attack and midfield for good reasons; they're talented, they're cohesive and, lets' face it, they're intact. So there isn't much cause for concern.
The defense? Umm, yeah. Not so much.
We could spend a few hundred words talking about shape, cohesion or man marking, but the simple fact remains, we have no idea who is even playing. Leandro Castan, Roma's criminally unheralded rock in defense, is still nursing an injury from the pre-season and remains in doubt for the season opener. Maicon, another stalwart from last season, seems to be suffering from a touch of World Cup hangover, while Ashley Cole and Urby Emanuelson have been less than impressive this summer, so we can't exactly expect them to hit the ground running.
And, as far as the center of defense is concerned, disorder barely describes the state of affairs. Davide Astori has Serie A experience for days, but hasn't looked terribly sharp this summer, and Kostas Manolas probably hasn't even unpacked his toothbrush yet, so there is little to no certainty behind Roma's midfield.
Disorder and disarray are seldom good for team chemistry, to say nothing of on-field results, but when that chaos is centered on the back line, particularly the central pairing, particularly against someone as massive and as skilled as Gomez, your worries tend to multiply.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at what to...
Keep An Eye On
Daniele De Rossi's Role
DDR, as we all know, is the spine of this team in every sense of the word. His work on both ends of the ball often dictates the extent to which Roma controls the middle channels, closing out passing lanes and springing attacks, which often times determines the outcome of matches. However, in this instance, it's his versatility that might save Roma once more.
If Garcia deems Manolas not ready for active duty, there is every reason to suspect that De Rossi will line up as a center back, where he will come nose-to-nose with Mario Gomez. Suffice it to say, keeping Gomez out of the six is key.
Even if he doesn't drop back into defense, DDR still has a tough assignment...
Boxing in Borja Valero
Look, we mention this every time this fixture comes around, but there is simply no way around it. In order to stop the Viola, Roma must rein in Borja Valero. If DDR remains in midfield, he needs to track Valero with laser-like precision, denying him the ball and closing out space, particularly as he approaches the 18 yard box, where 37% of his key passes occurred last season. Valero is also quite effective when he drives towards the right corner, so in this sense, De Rossi's communication with Ashley Cole is critical. If De Rossi does indeed play in defense, these duties should fall to Seydou Keita.
Roma effectively contained Valero in both fixtures last season, limiting him to 84% passing and ZERO chances created. If they can continue to render him useless once more, Fiorentina's attack will lack both momentum and direction.
Mario Gomez vs Davide Astori
With Castan most likely sidelined, Astori will assuredly be given the starting nod, putting the impetus on stopping Gomez at his feet. Yes, this runs somewhat contrary to our first point, but Astori is a center back, De Rossi is not. Therefore, the burden should really fall on Astori, rather than the makeshift central defender. Astori has the size and mobility to matchup with Gomez, but Mario can change the face of a match in an instant, so Roma's new #23 needs to keep his head on a swivel and get all up in Gomez's shit.
Astori and Gomez have only met once in Serie A, with Gomez winning the only discernable matchup between the two; a header at midfield. Like we said, the Serie A stat sheet on Gomez is practically non-existent, so it will be interesting to see who can take greater advantage of this unfamiliarity.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles...
Begins with a single step. These were the sage words of Confucius, or maybe it was the erstwhile boy band O-Town, I can't remember, both the sixth century BC and the early 2000s were hazy times for me. Regardless of whether or not you're buying the Scudetto hype, with Bayern Munich, Manchester City and CSKA Moscow suddenly on their plate, not to mention the chase for their 10th Coppa Italia title, Roma has a tough and long road to hoe this season.
With so many matches and so much at stake this season, both for the present and future of this project, the importance to these early matches cannot be understated. Money was spent, proclamations were made and expectations are at an unprecedented high. But all the positive vibes and good intentions will go out the window if Roma stumbles out of the gate.
Last fall's unprecedented 10-0 start set the tone for the entire season, one which may prove to be a watershed moment in the club's history. There were no own goals, no foolish red cards, and no last minute calamities. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
And yet, despite the records, despite the groundswell of support, despite the shock of it all, we were left with the feeling that, unlike years gone by, something real was happening, something sustainable, that this Roma may not be an anomaly after all.
We started this piece off by questioning the future, or more aptly, why we focused so much on it this summer. The fact of the matter is that for the first time in her history, that fictional future suddenly seems attainable.
If Roma are to reach that far off place, that place where Rome is the destination and not an afterthought, where Pot 1 is familiar and not fantasy, then they must seize upon the moments in front of them. Make no mistake, this match, this moment, and this season are monumental.
The once unrealistic expectations have suddenly been conflated with pragmatism. There is a road map to this alternate future where Rome once again reigns. And sure, it's long, potentially frustrating, and full of pitfalls, but it has been plotted, it has been measured, and it has been decided upon.
If the journey of a thousand miles truly begins with one step, then there may never be a more important footprint in Roman history than the one embedded tomorrow.
O-Town sure was on to something, weren't they?