Roma and Cagliari first squared off on September 13, 1964...oh, hey, 50th anniversary, awesome...and much of that history has been rather non-descript. Roma have won 27 of the 70 encounters, outscoring The Islanders 104-85 in the process. For much of that half-century, Roma bounced up and down the table while Cagliari endured a cycle of promotion and relegations. Really, beyond a mutual affinity for all things Kappa, there weren't many ties binding these two sides together.
But, take a look at the last 24 months of this matchup...my, how times have changed.
The 2012-2013 season ushered in a new era of optimism for Roma fans, Zdenek Zeman and his balls-to-wall brand of attacking football had injected new life into a fan base bored to death by Luis Enrique's failed tiki-taka experiment. And while this reunion didn't start off with flying colors, there was reason enough to be optimistic; ZZ had gotten Totti into the best shape of his life and was on the verge of turning Erik Lamela into a global icon. That optimism, however, was dealt a crushing blow on February 1, 2013 when Roma welcomed Cagliari to the Olimpico.
Having not won a match in nearly a month, Roma were in dire need of three points. But they wouldn't get those three points; in fact, it would take only three minutes before that dream was dashed altogether. Radja Nainggolan drew first blood after only 270 seconds, beating Mauro Goicoechea to give Cagliari the early lead. While Roma would level a half hour later, they eventually limped off the pitch in an embarrassing 4-2 defeat; a loss that would spell the end of Zdenek Zeman's second tour in the Eternal City.
Since that fateful day, Roma has poached Cagliari's best players, Nainggolan and Davide Astori, while Zeman has resurfaced in Sardinia after a 12-month Serie A exile. Now that the stakeholders from that fateful day have swapped sides, this once droll fixture should have some added juice, as both clubs have fresh insights into each other's machinations.
Stranding The Islanders
ZZ's latest return to life on the peninsula isn't exactly off to a roaring start. On the surface, it's the same old Zeman--Cagliari is among the league leaders in shots per match, chances created, shot percentage and dribbles--the results simply haven't come through the first two weeks, as Cagliari's attack hasn't been able to capitalize on the many, many chances they've created. It's amazing how having guys like Francesco Totti, Erik Lamela and Miralem Pjanic can lend a bit of efficiency and effectiveness to your maniacal ways, isn't it?
That doesn't mean, however, that Cagliari's attack is completely toothless. If you had to pick out one player that stands to benefit most from ZZ's attacking schemes, look no further than Marco Sau. Over his past two seasons with Cagliari, his first in Serie A, Sau scored 18 goals in 60 appearances.
While this is a pretty respectable rate for a young player on a rather mediocre side, when you dig a little deeper, you can practically see the drool on Zeman's chin. Over the past two seasons, Sau has been an extremely accurate shooter (81% and 68%) and an efficient scorer (21% and 31% conversion), all while averaging less than 1.5 shots per match. This means that Sau, much like Destro, is remarkably effective given his relatively low usage rate. Indeed, the early returns on the Sau-Zeman relationship are quite promising. Through the season's first two weeks, Sau has been an integral part of Cagliari's attack, doubling his shot output to three per match, while maintaining his accuracy (67%) and scoring one goal. Sau seems like a safe bet to score at least a dozen goals, and should cause plenty of problems for Roma's patchwork defense tomorrow.
Given that there are only two weeks in the books, we can't make too many empirical judgments about the latest iteration of Zemanlandia, but since the wounds are so fresh, we're all well aware of what it takes to undo Zeman's tactics. You simply have to wait until that moment when they've committed soooo many men forward and seize upon the acres of available space, which, more often than not, is on the flank, which plays right into Roma's strengths. Or, based on Cagliari's current talent level, simply hope that Roma's class wins the day in and of itself.
Roma: A Repeat Performance
There are some surface similarities between Zeman's Cagliari and Roma's midweek opponent CSKA Moscow, in so far as they both have the same glaring weakness; the propensity to leave gaping holes in defense and their wings exposed. The key difference being that CSKA are the two-time reigning champions of their domestic league and were, at least on paper, far more suited to weather the storm than Cagliari.
Zeman's extreme focus on attacking football is one thing when you have Leandro Castan and Marquinhos holding down the fort, but Cagliari has nothing remotely resembling either of those Brazilians. So, much as it was Wednesday against CSKA, the key to unlocking Zeman's defense, to the extent it even exists, is to exploit their porous wing defense, either by pouncing on the counter attack or simply taking advantage of their high defensive line. The only question we have to ask, then, is who exactly will do that unlocking?
With Juan Iturbe on the shelf for the foreseeable future, we can rest assured that Alessandro Florenzi will get plenty of run on the right flank, but how will Garcia manage the minutes on the left wing? Will he continue to rely on Gervinho, who played 71 incredibly effective minutes midweek, or is a match like this screaming for Adem Ljajic? And what about the middle, will Mattia Destro make his first start of the season, or will Totti take the first hour or so of action?
We really can't stress this enough. Roma hasn't had to deal with balancing domestic and continental football in quite some time, so Garcia's selections will be quite telling. Does he measure out Gervinho's minutes with an eye on the looming trip to Manchester, relegating Ljajic to the "lesser" duty, or does he run Gervinho right into the ground?
Further compounding Roma's rotational issues are the injuries to Astori and Castan. Put Astori out of your mind, he's gone for the remainder of the month. But with Castan's uncertain status, Roma will have to rely solely on Kostas Manolas and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. Depending on who you ask, Manolas has either been a revelation or incredibly lucky, while Mbiwa is about as unknown a quantity as Roma has at this point. He could prove to be the Gervinho of defense, a player seemingly ripe for Garcia's rejuvenative powers, or just another passerby; we simply don't know and now we're forced to find out, for better or worse.
Champions League Hangover
Of course, aside from the loss of Iturbe and Astori and the questions marks in defense, there is one anxiety we're left to face: the big game hangover. It was a match nearly four years in the making, and Roma came out and exceeded all expectations. Players laughed, smiled and clapped each other on the back as they walked off the pitch after humiliating CSKA, while those in the stands were in the throes of hysterics, jubilant over Roma's most decisive European victory ever. Throw in Zeman's disregard for common sense tactics into the mix, and you have a match ripe for miscalculation, if not outright apathy.
However, that was the script for the old Roma; Rudi Garcia has, thus far, proven to be cut from a different cloth. Of course, if you've kept up with the latest news in his personal life, you know Rudi is a smooth operator, so something tells me he'll have no issue getting the boys amped up for this match.