Like it or not, there will come a day when we have to speak and pontificate about a Roma without Francesco Totti. While that day is presumably still a few years away, Udinese fans face a similar specter with their own club legend, Antonio Di Natale. Although Toto hasn't been playing for Udinese as long as Totti has for Roma, his legacy (comparatively speaking) is just as large.
Since making his debut for the Zebras in 2002, Di Natale has gone on to score over 180 league goals, pushing his career mark to 201, the seventh highest total in league history. And it's not as though he's coasting on reputation, either. Check out his goal hauls from the past five seasons: 29, 28, 23, 23, and 17. Through 15 appearances this season, Toto has already slotted home eight goals, so he remains Udinese's prime scoring threat.
Fortunately, Di Natale hasn't victimized Roma since October 2012, which was, coincidentally, the last time Udinese defeated Roma. However, Toto's 13 career goals against Roma are his highest mark against any opponent, so the question of how Roma will stop him is as relevant as ever.
Zebras in The Hunt
As the New Year kicks off, Udinese find themselves mired in ninth place, in the thick of a congested race for Italy's final European qualification spots. Starting with third place Napoli and falling all the way down to twelfth place Sassuolo, there are currently ten teams separated by only seven points, with the likes of Palermo, Milan and Fiorentina all joining Udinese in their hunt for Italy's third through fifth spots, making this first home test of 2015 a crucial one for Udinese.
As one would assume, given their dependence on Di Natale, as Toto goes, so often go the Zebras. Toto's eight goals account for nearly 50% of Udinese's haul through 16 matches, and while Cyril Thereau's five goals aren't far behind, Toto's 2.6 shots per match are double his next closest competitors shot output. Taken with his club leading three assists, it's patently obvious; Udinese is as reliant upon Di Natale's legs, even at 37-years-old, as they ever were.
When you look at their broader numbers, this phenomenon becomes even more vexing (for them, for us, it's fantastic). Udinese ranks in the bottom half in terms of shots per match (where Toto accounts for nearly 24% of their 11 per match), possession, passing, dribbles and even fouls drawn per match. Point being, for Udinese, mere survival is often a Toto or bust proposition.
Udinese has won four of the six matches in which Di Natale has scored, so if you want to take down these Zebras, the song remains the same; stop Di Natale, either by pressuring him the moment he receives the ball or removing him from action altogether, forcing their supporting cast to take the initiative, which, as the numbers show, seldom goes well.
Roma: Recuperated for 2015?
Udinese's extreme reliance on Di Natale becomes immaterial the minute we honestly assess Roma's run through the tail end of 2014. Following their 7-1 undressing against Bayern Munich in late October, Roma has managed only five victories in twelve matches. Now that doesn't sound terrible on the surface, but when you consider that they were held scoreless in four further matches, not to mention blowing a couple of chances to gain ground on Juventus, and Roma's once sunny disposition looks a bit gloomy.
The reasons for this are myriad: Totti might be playing too often, Destro not enough, Gervinho hasn't been quite as threatening and maybe we're finally realizing just how important Kevin Strootman was to Garcia's offense machinations last season. Whatever the case may be, something is rotten in the Kingdom of Rome.
While the New Year generally brings a renewed sense of optimism, Roma's 2015 not only starts with a tough away fixture in general, but with Totti and Destro currently listed as probable for this match, Roma will be missing two of their most potent attacking talents. Take away Roma's AFCON participants, Seydou Keita and Gervinho, and Garcia's side is missing five critical components; the maestro, the poacher, the glue guy and the predator.
All of which should heap the pressure on the Balkan Boys. The good news, in terms of the team sheet, is the return of Miralem Pjanic, back from suspension and hopefully recovered from Roma's raucous New Year's Eve celebrations. Pjanic and his Balkan Brother, Adem Ljajic, have combined for nine goals, six assists and three-and-a-half key passes per match. While Mira has been a rock for much of his time in Rome (save the Zeman era), we simply can't say enough about the growth exhibited by Ljajic this season, who has often times looked like Roma's most complete, most dynamic and most dangerous player.
The next few weeks will be very telling for all of Roma, but particularly for the Balkan Boys, who each have a chance, due to the aforementioned absences and the general offensive uncertainty suddenly plaguing the squad, to truly make an imprint on this team, to establish themselves as leaders in the clubhouse and on the pitch.
New Year, Clean Slate
In some ways, despite opening up on the road, Roma's 2015 couldn't have started off with a better opponent. Not only are Udinese an extremely and blatantly one-dimensional team, but their defensive record (22 goals allowed) is so poor that Roma should be able to overcome the potential absences of Totti, Destro and Gervinho. To escape with three points, Roma needs a strong performance from Kostas Manolas and Davide Astori, to lock down the afore-and-oft mentioned Antonio Di Natale, while someone other than Totti needs to orchestrate the offense.
Not an easy task by any means, but Roma has managed seven points in their last four trips to Udine. Besides which, can you imagine Roma, in her current state, opening up 2015 with the Derby della Capitale? While Roma looks comfortable in second place, getting their feet underneath them against Toto and company will serve them well in their quest to overtake Juventus in 2015.