Cagliari is one of those mid to lower table sides that always makes me nervous, particularly when sporting ex-Roma products. Whilst we have grown accustomed to the annual Daniel Conti morphing into Gareth Bale matches, on this occasion we also had to deal with the return of the lovable, haggard, neurotic Uncle Zeman.
It was therefore a most wonderful relief to see Roma bust out of the gates like an Arabian thoroughbred as the Olimpico faithful breathed fire onto the field with a cauldron of noise. With Roma’s artisans Totti and Pjanic resting on the pine the midfield boasted an intimidating line up of Radja, DDR and Keita, while Destro lead the attack with Florenzi and Gervinho on the flanks. In defence, Cole got a crack at left back while Manolas was accompanied by the new loanee Mbiwa (whom I feel the need to refer to as MB from now on) and Maicon kept his spot on the right.
The plan to knock around Zeman’s inexperienced midfield worked a charm as it was a clear-cut case of men vs boys for the opening exchanges. Cagliari barely got any time on the ball as they were hounded and unsettled, MB throwing in a strong tackle early that came straight from the lower reaches of the Premier League. The left side of the field appeared the chosen avenue of approach to the Sardinian goal and Destro had a solid chance early on following one of Gervinho bizarre weaving runs (which I will attempt to encapsulate later on).
It was at this point that it became painfully obvious that the Cagliari defence was going to be in a world of hurt if they tried a high line against an onrushing Roma attack. And sure enough, around the 10th minute Florenzi found himself with boondocks of space inside the Cagliari area on the right as the defence scrambled to turn around. The Prince of Rome calmly delivered an absolute killer ball across the area past the keeper to the onrushing Matia Destro who put his foot through it and buried it deep into the net for his first goal of the new campaign.
Just vintage electric play from the two young Italians.
There was never any doubt that Florenzi’s pass was going to be inch perfect rather than a scuffed shot/cross and Mr Right was the perfect man to be barrelling towards the goal face. Roma 1 Cagliari 0.
The fans barely had time to resume their seats and clear the smoke from the flares before Roma was at it again. Once again the utterly clueless defence tried to play an unacceptably high line, Gervinho sprung the trap, did his best to fall over, controlled the ball without shinning it to the keeper and put it on a plate to his right. From here Alessandro Florenzi bared down on it like a great white shark on a baby seal and nearly ripped the net open with a trademark first touch, right footed pile driver. Poetry, beauty, sheer tambourine waving ecstasy!
Florenzi immediately wheeled away and ran straight for the stands where he leapt up to where his 82 year old Nonna was sitting and gave her a great big hug and kiss. Who said romance in professional sport was dead?
This was Nonna’s first time at the Olimpico for her grandson’s game. And this is why Florenzi is such a crowd favourite. The kid has every reason to give himself a shit haircut and walk around the place like an arrogant fuckwit (ciao Balotelli e Pogba!) but he is better than that. He knows the fans of Roma because he still is one. This is a kid who appreciates every single bit of love thrown his way and is one who is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his spot in the team that means so much to him.
I’m going to call it early, best yellow card of the season!
Roma 2 Cagliari 0, game over man, game over.
The swagger with which Roma played was infectious as they wrapped their hands tightly around the neck of the contest. In this mood, the Olimpico is a place to fear and sure as hell isn’t somewhere you should be playing a high defensive line.
The Cagliari defence, inspired by the music from the Benny Hill theme, was constantly on the back foot while their midfield was surrounded and bossed off the ball. As the half wore on Roma was happy to control the ball in their own half with interplay between defence and the midfield, which in turn provided ample space for the wingers to run into while also denying Cagliari the chance to counter attack into space when Gervinho lost the ball.
As the adrenaline from the midweek match and the opening two goals drifted away the game slowed down into a bullying effort resembling a large teenager keeping a small 10 year old at bay with an outstretched palm on the top of his head whilst the kid swings empty punches into the air well short of its target.
Keita and De Rossi were magnificent in tandem, controlling the ball and snuffing out any momentum for the opposition.
At half time I turned on the TV and had a cheeky glance at the EPL game, Leicester City vs Man UTD. What’s just as good as watching Roma score 2 goals? Watching Manchester United concede two and lose to a newly promoted side. Priceless.
Alas, back to Italia.
The second half was pretty much the same deal except this time Cagliari showed a bit more spine on the ball and sat a little deeper. The most serious incident was Gervinho losing his headband (and presumably his powers) during a headed challenge around the 55th minute.
Rudi decided to introduce some creativity into the rather dire proceedings in the 68th minute with Pjanic coming on. But his choice to do so at the expense of Mattia Destro was super puzzling and somewhat alarming for your humble scribe. Tactically it wasn’t too much of an issue, but surely this was the perfect match for Mattia to play himself back into deadly form. He had been frustrated by a sheer lack of quality service (Florenzi’s ball excluded) for most of the game. And this was displayed as he hurled his substitutes bib with displeasure as he took his seat on the panchina. The man was crying out for Mira or Francesco to come on thread him some through balls.
Something is rather amiss here, and the circling Premier League vultures that are sure to come out in January make me nervous.
Shortly after this Ljajic got a crack as Florenzi was subbed off to a hero’s reception and the game slowly opened up.
Gervinho stuffed a fantastic chance by being offside and took his standard two miskick attempts at goal, just to keep it real. This was particularly galling given that such an opportunity was Destro’s bread and butter. Of course the match wasn’t riding on this, but you can bet your bottom dollar Mattia would not have been offside and would have provided a poacher’s first touch. This was a clear case of Destro’s strength vs Gervinho’s weakness.
I should take this opportunity to calm the blood pressure of all the Gervinho fans out there. I don’t mind the guy, he obviously suits Rudi’s tactics and when used correctly is a terrific weapon against nervous defences. However, it is rather comical watching him move with the ball. He strikes me like a new born foal, not quite steady on his new legs when the ball is played straight to him. Whereas in full stride anywhere remotely central on the field with defenders in front of him he strikes the pose of an out of control slalom skier. Stay with me here. He flies past the first defender, switches direction to beat the second and completely loses control of the ball and begins rolling like a snowball by the time the third guy gets a foot in. Seriously, check it out next time.
Sadly for the Roma faithful this story does not have a happy ending. No not the Gervinho story, geez move on people. In the 80th minute DDR sank to the ground holding his lower left leg. Shit. Balls. Damn it!
He immediately signalled to the bench that he had to come off. The look on Totti’s face encapsulated everyone’s mood, dark concern. This is precisely the sort of shit we want to avoid this month. In less than a week we have seen three of our most key players sink to the Olimpico pitch in pain.
We are all intimately aware of the difficulties of battling on three fronts this year, it appears our new purchased depth is going to be tested far earlier and with greater pressure than we had anticipated.
Rudi sent on Emanuelson to replace DDR, presumably for the comedic factor, as he sat in front of Cole on the left, pushing Keita into his more familiar holding midfielder role.
As the game rolled to an end without further incident it is worth noting that Roma has yet put their pedal firmly to the metal for extended periods of time this season. This, I believe, can be attributed to having one eye firmly on midweek European commitments. With that said though, when the machine clicks into gear, the passing is crisp and forward momentum brings genuine pace and excitement. Injuries aside, things are progressing in the right direction.
The new look defence wasn’t really tested thanks to the performances of the midfield street toughs, but didn’t look too bad either. New boy MB sure does have strength in the tackle and on the ball, which is cool and all but it sort of makes you nervous how he will adapt to the refereeing in Serie A. The EPL this ain’t and referees are certainly less forgiving when the timing of challenges is slightly off. Furthermore I can’t help but feel the burn of apprehension when I imagine Dzeko and Aguero bearing down on him at full flight in midweek.
Ashley Cole had a solid if unspectacular game, he looked to push forward early and put in a handy enough cross. Defensively he wasn’t quite at his peak when the wingers were baring down on him. With that said, the man has the experience to sure up these shortfalls as he grows more comfortable with the squad. I’m not too worried about this guy, he ain’t no Bradley. (G’day USA readers!)
So there we have it, we survived the Bohemian’s return and passed our first domestic + continental week with aplomb minus the mounting injury toll. Cagliari has often been one of those teams that has hounded Roma with late equalisers so it is quietly comforting to pocket these three points.
Light your DDR shrine candles and pray to the calf gods for speedy recoveries to Castan, Astori, Iturbe and Capitano Futuro. This season is starting to warm up, lets hope Rudi’s renewable energy system keeps the scoreboard ticking in our favour against our fossil fuel burning rivals.