I don't claim to be a genius, nor are we attempting to reinvent the wheel around here, but the narrative of the first Roma-Cagliari fixture was patently obvious; Zdenek Zeman's third return to Rome, this time under the guise of Cagliari headman, was the banner headline that weekend. With Zeman's always anarchical approach to attacking football colliding with Rudi Garcia's free flowing 4-3-3, this had a wild west style shootout written all over it; shots step overs, vertical football and goals galore. However, a funny thing happened along the way to Roma's 2-0 walkover, as the two sides combined for only 16 shots, though the match was anything but unforgettable (more on that in a moment).
The ensuing five months have seen drastic changes for both sides. Zeman was promptly shown the door when his hellfire tactics failed to catch on in Sardinia, while Garcia's je nais se quoi has gone the way of the dodo, and although Cagliari fell 2-1 to Atalanta last weekend, with two victories in their past four matches, they are in far, far better form than our deal Giallorossi.
So, what hope does a Roma side ravaged by injuries have of, you know, winning a match Sunday?
September 21, 2014: Roma 2, Cagliari 0
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As we just mentioned, despite the philosophies on the pitch, the fireworks were distinctly lacking, save for Roma's two goals, the latter of which was particularly memorable. After setting up Mattia Destro's tap in, Alessandro Florenzi drove the nail into the coffin when he beat the Cagliari keeper in the far post in only the 13th minute. What happened next was bound to make all those homemade birthday cards you gave your Nonna look like utter shit.
After icing the match early, Florenzi vaulted into the stands to plant a kiss on Ole Grammy. It was unexpected, it was endearing, and it was uniquely Roman, but that was back before Roma became exposed as a one trick pony.
Unfortunately, Garcia's pony has a game leg, and you know what happens to horses that can no longer run, right?
Roma: Running on Fumes
If you can, put aside the four straight draws for a moment and take a gander at this:
Rather than rattling off the list of Roma's walking wounded, I'll let the fine folks at whoscored paint this dreary picture
Whether it's down to injury, suspension or international duty, Roma is without nine key players, including seven nominal starters. So, despite Roma's historical advantage over Cagliari--two straight wins, including four goals from Destro--they aren't exactly well equipped to escape Sardinia with three points.
This is usually where we detail the opponent's performance and what sort of road block they might present to Roma, but Cagliari is rather non-descript, clinging to life one point above the drop zone, so their story is pretty straight forward.
Back to Roma, or what's left of her.
In the absence of so many players, young and old, familiar and new, Garcia will have no choice but to rely on a rather experimental lineup. Cruise on over to the usual sites and you'll see that most of them predict a Adem Ljajic, Francesco Totti, Miralem Pjanic frontline, buttressed by Leandro Paredes, Seydou Keita and Radja Nainggolan in midfield, with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Davide Astori, Maicon and Jose Cholebas in defense.
While it remains to be see how or to what extent that 4-3-3 morphs into another formation, it doesn't seem to put Totti or Pjanic in optimal positions to succeed. Without his usual racehorses on the wings, when Totti drops deep, he may find precious little beyond Pjanic staring at him when he looks for the lanes usually exploited by Gervinho, Florenzi or even Juan Iturbe, while Zeman's tenure in Rome showed that Pjanic seldom excels in such a wide role, and with Keita presumably serving as the safety valve for the midfield, much of the link up play will fall to the inexperienced feet of Paredes.
Not exactly ideal circumstances for Roma to grab three points, and on the road no less, but if they have any prayer of keeping the heat on Juventus, to say nothing of keeping Napoli at bay, that's exactly what they must do.