This is it, the big one, the one we've been anticipating/dreading since the Champions League draw, Roma's first ever trip to the City of Manchester Stadium, where England's reigning champions await Rudi Garcia and the Giallorossi. Had this matchup occurred ten years ago, it'd be gravy, City was a mere afterthought on the English landscape, but, just in case you hadn't noticed, the Citizens are now wet with oil revenue. And with five trophies in the past three seasons, we can safely call it money well spent.
Through six weeks of Premiership play, Manuel Pelligrini's side is in the thick of the hunt, five points behind table toppers Chelsea, so they may very well add to that title haul. As we've so often seen, in a matchup with no precedent, sometimes simple bounces and twists of fate matter more than tactics, so we're about to find out if Roma's momentum can survive the trip to Manchester.
Polling the Citizenry
There's no way, nor is there really a need, to sugar coat this. Manchester City is absolutely stacked with world class players at nearly every position. Led by Sergio Aguero, Stevan Jovetic, Eden Dzeko and English legend come short term loanee, Frank Lampard, City has scored 12 times in league play while conceding only seven, both top three marks in the Premiership. Overall, Pelligrini's side is a top three to five team in nearly every major statistical category in league play. So, if you're looking for any cracks in their armor, keep searching, you won't find any; Sheikh Mansour has built a nearly unstoppable footballing machine.
But how exactly does this machine work, you ask?
Pelligrini has run out a variety of formations this year, but has generally relied upon a variant of the base 4-4-2, often times shifting it ever so slightly into a 4-4-1-1, using Jovetic as an otherworldly second striker with Dzeko serving as the nominal center forward. And...umm...yeah, they're only supported by Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure, Fernando, David Silva and Jesus Navas, among others. So, you know, no big deal.
City's absurd collection of talent produced an equally absurd +65 goal differential in the Premiership last season and has outscored their opponents this month 14 to 6. Taking even a single point tomorrow will require a herculean effort from Garcia's men, particularly with the amount of walking wounded still among their horde.
Strangers in a Foreign Land
To say that Roma have struggled on English soil would be putting in kindly. In 14 trips to the land of fish and chips, Roma has managed only one victory. Not one in the past three years, or one in Manchester. One. Total--a 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the 2000-2001 UEFA Cup fourth round, which they still lost on aggregate anyway.
With such an impressive array of attacking talent, particularly when they're so adept at moving, switching places, and picking defenses apart through the middle of the park, Roma's still congealing defense will be pushed to the limit by Manchester City. While we don't know exactly which formation Pelligrini will opt for, to say nothing of who he'll actually start, Roma's fullbacks will be under extreme duress dealing with Navas, Silva and James Millner, so we'll have to hope that Ashely Cole's familiarity with those names is enough to make up for his slow start to the season.
There is some good news, however, the possible return of Daniele De Rossi. DDR, fresh off a suspension three years in the making, should give Roma the extra shot of grinta they'll need to disrupt City's attacking midfielders. Look for DDR and Radja Nainggolan to spend most of their energy holding Toure, Silva, and Milner et. al in check, hopefully carving out enough space for Miralem Pjanic and Francesco Totti to create a little havoc of their own. But, if De Rossi isn't able to overcome his calf injury, we're still in luck, as Seydou Keita is perhaps Roma's most in form midfielder at the moment and should provide a much needed calming influence in a hostile atmosphere.
But, as we mentioned over the weekend, the key figure here is Gervinho. We quite rightly laud Roma for their ability to dominate the transition game, thanks in large part to Gervinho's pace, but they've yet to actually score on the counter this season. Something tells me, however, that they'll need to capitalize on that talent tomorrow evening. City is just too good in possession and their passing is so succinct and incisive, Roma won't be able to toy with them like they do with the Verona's of the world. So if Roma stand any chance at catching Manchester City off guard, you can bet your bottom dollar that Gervinho will be involved at some point.
However, with the possible returns of De Rossi and Juan Iturbe, coupled with Seydou Keita's impressive form, Roma does have enough disruptive power to unchain City's attack, while Francesco Totti, Gervino and Iturbe are more than capable of changing this match in mere seconds.
This is what you get when you mess with the Champions League; titanic, well-heeled clubs who love nothing more than to crush pretenders to the crown. However, from a pure fan perspective, this match is absolutely scintillating and dripping with talent. As Roma fans, though, we have to hope that the one area in which Roma is superior to City, the transition game, proves to be the deciding factor tomorrow evening. Even if it isn't and Roma can escape with one point, they'll be sitting pretty in Group E ahead of Matchday Three.