It wasn't that long ago that Roma and Sassuolo were perfect strangers, but now that the Neroverdi have managed to stick in the top flight for three straight seasons, this budding rivalry has a bit of lore to it; who can forget Domenico Berardi's 94th minute equalizer two seasons ago or the time that Seydou Doumbia actually scored a goal? Thanks to some shrewd loans and some impressive young players, Sassuolo has the looks of a Serie A mainstay, rising from 17th place in their maiden season to 12th last year.
Sassuolo will never be confused with Italy's true title contenders, but they're more than capable of playing the upsetter, indirectly influencing the Scudetto race this season. Fortunately for Roma, the brief history between these two clubs has been painted red, as Rudi Garcia has managed to take eight points from Roma's first four matches against Sassuolo, including a three-nil drubbing last April.
Coming off the high of containing Barcelona, can Roma keep the good feelings rolling against a dramatically different opponent?
Dawn of a New Defensive Era?
While none of Antonio Rüdiger, Lucas Digne, Kostas Manolas or Alessandro Florenzi were flawless Wednesday evening against Barcelona, Roma's defensive line that evening—none of whom are over the age of 24 by the way—held one of the world's all-time great attacking forces to a single goal, which was probably offside anyway and may have only happened because Digne was knocked down.
You simply have to marvel at how responsive, how flexible, how dynamic and how relentless these four were against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Their performance becomes even more amazing when you consider that Rüdiger and Digne have probably spent more time in a pediatrician's office than they have on a Serie A pitch.
We spent much of the summer kvetching about Roma's supposed defensive deficiencies, and while the depth remains a concern, let's take a moment to appreciate what is going on here. Between Manolas and Rüdiger, Roma has two massive, athletically gifted and aggressive defenders, whose collective understanding of the game should only grow as they age. Manolas can keep up with virtually any forward in the world while Rüdiger is strong enough to hold off the tallest and strongest center forwards in the game. We still don't know what's going on with Leandro Castan, but the fact that we've barely mentioned his name over the past two weeks or so speaks volumes about Manolas and Rüdiger's potential this season and beyond. All this duo is missing is a nickname of some sort, maybe we can go the classic WWF route and call them The Legion of Doom.
On the flanks, the future is just as bright. We've talked intermittently about Lucas Digne's immediate impact on Roma's tactics and simple effectiveness, but it certainly bears repeating. LD has been a boon to Roma's offensive cohesion, instantaneously reinvigorating Garcia's offense with balance and unpredictability, all while providing solid defense and excellent aerial control.
Florenzi, meanwhile, is still a developing asset as a fullback—particularly in terms of actual ball winning skills—but when he gets forward, he's essentially a fourth forward; a threat not many teams can match. We mentioned it a couple of seasons ago, but if he's afforded the proper time and given the appropriate training, he could become a legitimate two-way threat back there, and if Roma can mask his temporary defensive shortcomings, his offensive contributions would probably outweigh them anyway.
But those are the broader developments, in terms of Sunday's match with Sassuolo, we simply have to wonder how much life is in their collective legs. Those 90 minutes against Barcelona were about as hard fought as they come, and with four matches in the next two weeks, Garcia might need Castan, Norbert Gyomber, Emerson Palmieri and Vasilis Torosidis to step up at some point in the near future.
The same can be said about the forward lines, where Edin Dzeko, Mohamed Salah and Iago Falque have logged the lion's share of minutes in the season's first month. One would think Roma could topple Sassuolo with Francesco Totti, Juan Iturbe and Gervinho in the lineup just as easily; Garcia's man management skills will be essential to keeping Roma on track, he can't lean too heavily on the starters this early in the season, nor can he ignore the reserves that need match minutes to stay tuned in. Squad rotation is as crucial as ever.
We haven't really touched on this week's opponents, but you know the drill, Eusebio Di Francesco's side is no stranger to scoring goals. Sassuolo plays with width and likes to hit on the counter, so in essence they are Roma to Roma's Barcelona, if that makes any sense. Expect Sassuolo to deploy the same compact defensive line the Giallorossi used against Barcelona this week, with Di Francesco's men aiming to keep Falque and Salah at bay, while Paolo Cannavaro and Francesco Acerbi will attempt to strip Dzeko of the ball the moment he receives.
While the odds say this will be a cakewalk, a drudging 1-0 affair certainly isn't out of the question either, but make no mistake, this match is just as important as Wednesday's.