Hey, look at that, Serie A is back. Starting your season later than everyone else then promptly taking a week off for international duty is a bit like showing up for homeroom on time then skipping the next period because you've done enough already and you want McDonald's breakfast. Sure, it's probably detrimental in the long run, your peers are in class perfecting the art of factoring equations while you're in a beat up Civic licking maple syrup off your fingers and regretting passing on that second hash brown, but that's how you've chosen to live your life, consequences be damned, besides, those Hotcakes won't be there at 10:31.
The peril of the adolescent underachiever is that eventually you have to pay the piper; breakfast was delicious, but you've got third period gym. And sure, it's largely a blow off class, but you still have to show up, ditch the mandals and don that disgusting pinnie to get proper credit--unless you were like me and loved gym, then that's a pretty sweet way to start the day.
Roma's proverbial third period gym class is newly promoted Empoli, a fixture lacking in gravity, but an important early season test nonetheless. Roma was masterful against Italy's newly promoted sides last season, dropping only two points in the six matches against Verona, Livorno and Sassuolo. If Roma stand a chance at replicating last season's form, they must hold firm against the league's smaller sides, none of whom are more miniscule than Empoli.
Quick, Somebody Say Something Smart About Empoli
Yeah, I got nothing. Empoli have returned to the top flight for the first time since 2008, though they came tantalizingly close two years ago, bowing out to Livorno in the Serie B playoffs. The Azzurri (clever nickname) finished second to Palermo last season to finally secure direct promotion.
In terms of familiar faces, there are but two: Massimo Maccarone and Francesco Tavano. Though they were both born in the 1970s, they've still managed to terrorize defenses throughout Italy's lower ranks in recent years. Empoli's aging attackers accounted for a combined 105 goals over the past three seasons, with Tavano bagging the lion's share. Tavano, as you may recall, had a brief holdover in Roma, making 14 appearances during the 2006-2007 season.
Despite the presence of those two veterans, Empoli is, on average, the league's youngest side; a factor which can both threaten and comfort opponents.
So, what must Roma do to avoid embarrassment against Empoli?
Tuscan Talking Points
These two sides last met on March 22, 2008 when Roma, thanks to goals from Max Tonetto and Christian Panucci, defeated Empoli 2-1 at the Olimpico. All told, Roma has defeated Empoli 12 times over their 18 previous encounters dating back to 1986, but their record at Empoli isn't quite as sterling. In nine trips to this Tuscan town, Roma has barely come out on top--four wins, three losses and two draws, though they do sport a +5 goal differential.
Unlike last season's class of Serie A debutants, which featured old pros like Luca Toni and uber prospects like Juan Iturbe, Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza, Empoli's points of emphasis are few and far between. Given their lack of luster and extreme youth, we'll save the specific matchup anxieties for another day. Instead, let's focus on Roma's concerns of the day.
Lost amidst the excitement of qualifying for the Champions League, then the subsequent stomach punch of the actual draw, we may have neglected one simple fact: these additional matches will have a tremendous impact on squad rotations. With CSKA Moscow looming on Wednesday, we now (finally and thankfully) have the pleasure of discussing who will play in the league matches and who will be saved for the continent. Not always an easy decision, but one we'll gladly tackle.
Roma may never have an easier league fixture than their first tilt with Empoli, nor will the group of death offer up a kinder match than CSKA coming to Roma, so which supposed cake walk will Roma emphasize?
While we shouldn't expect too many drastic changes from the XI that faced Fiorentina two weeks ago, the most immediate debate falls down to who starts in the middle, Francesco Totti or Mattia Destro?
With this cluttered schedule now a reality rather than topic of discussion, this figures to be the first actual test in Rudi Garcia's management of Totti's minutes. For the sake of arguing, let's assume Totti has 60 minutes of peak production in his nearly 38-year-old bones this week, where will Garcia choose to maximize those minutes--against Italy's most feeble team or in the always critical Champions League opener? (You can probably decipher where I fall on this issue)
Big Doug's Bad Vacation
We touched upon it briefly yesterday, but Maicon's 2014-2015 season isn't off to a flying start. First there was the extended Post-World Cup holiday, then came partial and/or missed Roma trainings, and finally his banishment from Dunga's Brazil squad. Where is Maicon's head? Where is his heart? With so many fixtures over the next three weeks, Roma will need a fit and engaged Maicon to survive, so let's hope his troublesome summer is firmly behind him.
Leandro Castan is still listed as "probable" for this match, meaning Roma may once again have to rely on the untested duo of Davide Astori and Kostas Manolas; untested as a Roma tandem, that is. Love him or hate him, the loss of Mehdi Benatia will be felt this season, perhaps nowhere more than the sudden lack of chemistry among all of Roma's component defensive parts.
In fact, this may be the storyline of the entire season. Can the mishmash of Greek, Italian, Portuguese and French speaking tongues form a bond early enough to overcome their unfamiliarity with one another?
Busy Days Ahead
With 11 matches between now and the end of October, what we once wished for has come home to roost. Roma is now officially conducting three separate experiments, the mastery of which will determine the shelf life of their ambitious project. Walter Sabatini has assembled an intriguing menagerie of footballers: aging stars, prolific prospects, young men in the prime of their life and those seeking a second chance.
We've talked at length about the importance of this season for the projects long-term goals, but now that the transfers are done, all we can do is sit back and watch as Rudi Garcia attempts to coalesce these elements into a functional footballing force.