If September 27th wasn't already a civic holiday in Rome, it ought to be by now. This Saturday marks the 38th birthday of our patron saint, Il Capitano himself, Francesco Totti. If you're new to team or the sport in general, I'll refer you to my Homeresque (the epic poet, not the fictional nuclear safety technician) look into just how sensational Francesco Totti has been in this, the supposed August of his career. He may not surpass Silvio Piola's scoring record, but Totti has thrown together one of the best post-age 30 careers the world of sports has ever seen. To celebrate this special day, Totti and the boys welcome a familiar and, you knew it was coming, devastatingly handsome face back to the Olimpico, in the form of the tall drink of water called Luca Toni.
Toni, whose own late career resurgence is nothing to sneeze at, leads a still surprising Hellas Verona side into Rome. Although they're barely treading water with a +2 goal differential, the Mastiffs (yes, that is one of their Wikipedia accepted nicknames) are sitting on eight points after defeating Palermo and Torino in recent weeks. Not exactly a murderer's row of opponents, but Toni led Verona to a surprising 10th place finish last year, a mere six points out of Europa league qualification. Of course, a key contributor to that midtable finish, Juan Iturbe, is now playing--well, injured, I guess--for Roma.
So, still beleaguered and facing huge tests over the next week, can Roma once again manage to squeak out a victory over a strong, albeit underpublicized, foe?
But first, a quick aside. I'm writing this a bit earlier than usual, so the finer points of who's in and who's out aren't quite clear yet, but there's no real secret to this match, you gotta stop Luca. So, with that in mind, let me tell you why, if I could be any professional athlete on earth for, like, a week, I'd choose him.
- Every woman I've ever known, whether they're even realize he's a professional athlete or not, absolutely loses their shit when they seem him. I'm not exactly a Homunculus, but I'd take that genetic package in a second.
- He does things, things that have been known to send Daniele De Rossi into hysterics
- He works well with Francesco Totti, and on the biggest stage, no less.
- He's timeless. In an age where players are ever faster and increasingly diverse, Toni is still out there, still lumbering around, still holding up play and still getting on the end of crosses and putting that daft face on after he scores.
Anyway, thank you for indulging me, now back to the matter at hand.
Hellas Verona: Hella Surprising
After returning to Serie A last season for the first time in 11 years, no one really knew what to expect from the Mastiffs (I like it, it's way better than Gialloblu, but then again, the only Italian Mastiff I can think of hails from Napoli). Manager Andrea Mandorlini hitched his wagon last season to the aging vet Toni, a perpetual loanee like Romulo, the Serie A castoff Marquinho, and a pair of exciting, but untested prospects in Iturbe and Jorginho.
It wasn't exactly a motley crew, maybe they would've been good enough to finish 15th...maybe, but to crack the top ten and come within a hair's breadth of European play was a shock of the highest order. But they did it, you were there, you saw it. And here we are a month into the season, and Verona doesn't look any more of a doormat than they did last season.
Sure, all the pretty names are gone, leaving Toni alone and virtually serviceless, but they're hanging in there and, while they might not threaten Europe again this season, they'll surely play the role of upsetter on more than one occasion. Through the season's first month, Verona ranks top ten in shots per match, possession, passing percentage, while their 36 chances created ranks 12th in the league, only three behind Roma, and guess who's leading the charge?
Panagiotis Tachtsidis, good ole' Copy & Paste, the man who would've replaced Miralem Pjanic had Zeman's nicotine fueled dreams come true. Tachtsidis is second on the club in shots, goals, interceptions and tackles, while leading Verona in chances created. We always said he was a good player who simply found himself in an unfortunate position in Rome, so it's somewhat reassuring to see him find asserting himself in Verona.
Due to the departures of key figures like Iturbe and Romulo, Verona may not repeat last season's performance, but they're proving to be a solid side, one adept and holding and moving the ball, and creating scoring chances with the best of them.
This won't be an easy test, that's for certain, but their failure to capitalize on more of those scoring chances and their vulnerability in transition, once again, plays right to Roma's strengths.
Whose Turn is It?
I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here, but the story of this season has, unfortunately, been more about who's missing then who's performing; Roma's depth has been tested nearly to the max after only four weeks of action.
Fortunately, Walter Sabatini has an eye for talent and Rudi Garcia is a master manipulator of said talent. So far we've already seen marquee performances from new signees Juan Iturbe, Seydou Keita, Kostas Manolas and even a few flashes of brilliance from Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, with stalwarts like Totti, Daniele De Rossi and, most recently, Miralem Pjanic and Adem Ljajic taking their turn on the factory floor.
So, if you'll allow me to further flog that dead horse, Roma's back-to-back matches against Manchester City on the 30th and Juventus on October 5th might be the toughest set of tilts this club has faced in nearly a decade. And we haven't even mentioned Mehdi Benatia's return to Rome on the 21st when Bayern Munich come to town. Heady days, indeed.
With Iturbe's uncertain status for the next couple of weeks, Gervinho's role against the Citizen's grows even larger; his game changing speed and agility will be absolutely essential in any chance Roma has of drawing, let alone defeating, City on the road, so one would imagine his minutes will be carefully guarded this weekend.
So, who will it be this week?
The obvious choice would be Ljajic or Alessandro Florenzi, one of whom is sure to play the full 90, but if Roma can grab an early lead, might we catch our first glimpse of Leandro Paredes or Antonio Sanabria? At some point this season, either of those young men will have to play some critical minutes, and what better time than at home against a side that struggles against speed and creativity, and on Totti's birthday no less?
The Best Birthday Present
The best birthday present I ever received was probably this sweet-ass Mongoose BMX bike I got when I was about 11-years-old; it had mag wheels and fluorescent tint, it was tight. Sure, it wasn't the chrome GT with front and rear pegs I really wanted, but it was still the best ride on the block and I was stoked....until it got stolen thanks to my little sister leaving the garage door open.
For Er Pupone, the best gift he could receive on his 38th would be an easy win and some precious rest on Saturday, because there sure as well won't be any party favors waiting for him at the Etihad on Tuesday.