Fresh off their vivisection of Carpi over the weekend, Rudi Garcia and Roma travel to Belarus to take on BATE Borisov match day two of the 2015-2016 Champions League group stage. Roma, after their valiant effort against Barcelona on match day one, are level with Barca on one point, three adrift of group leaders Bayer Leverkusen. Making the nearly 2,500 km trek to the Borisov Arena without Edin Dzeko and Francesco Totti, Roma's victory is far from assured.
However, despite injuries to Dzeko, Totti and Seydou Keita, Roma are flying high after their masterful performance over the weekend, but can they keep the momentum rolling as they travel east?
Let's take a quick look, but first things first, who the $%@# is BATE Borisov?
A Date with BATE
BATE Borisov, as you might expect given their presence in this competition, have utterly dominated the Belarusian Premier League, capturing 11 titles, including last season's honors. Futhemore, BATE is currently in fine form in European play, winning four straight home matches in the qualifying and playoff rounds. In fact, BATE has never been defeated by an Italian opponent at home, drawing Milan and Juventus once each over the past seven seasons.
I'm not going to pretend I know much of anything about BATE, but we've certainly seen what can happen when Roma faces an inferior opponent with a strong record at home. This match has trap written all over it, and without Dzeko's presence in the box, goals might be hard to come by.
Can Roma Keep Rolling?
Goals were certainly no problem over Sunday's tiny opponent Carpi, but the question of the day, as it seemingly always is, is how will Garcia line up his squad?
Once Dzeko and Totti limped off the pitch, Roma effectively operated with Juan Iturbe, Gervinho and Mohamed Salah up front, with The Predator serving as the nominal center forward. Surely this trio can outrun virtually any team on the planet, especially one as small as BATE, but we're all too familiar with what happens to wingers in Roma's system when there is no fulcrum in the middle; they get pinned to the sidelines and have no other recourse but to fire desperate crosses into the non-existent strikers or try in vain to shimmy their way past defenders.
Had this happened a year ago, no problem, just throw Marco Borriello in there and hope that he can conjure some of his old magic for 90 minutes, but without Borriello or Antonio Sanabria, Garcia has no other choice but to rely upon Ezequiel Ponce as his reserve striker.
We spoke about it briefly yesterday, but Roma went out of their way to bring this kid over a year early, and if injuries to the only two men ostensibly ahead of him in the pecking order aren't enough to garner some match time, then what will it take? When will Garcia finally roll the dice on one of the club's many impressive youth players?
But put all that aside for a minute, Garcia simply cannot roll out Iturbe-Gervinho-Salah for 90 minutes over the next month, a stretch of six matches. Something simply has to give, whether it's tomorrow against BATE or later against Palermo or Empoli, Ezequiel Ponce needs to enter the equation.
Beyond the frontline, we'll have to see where exactly Daniele De Rossi lines up. With Antonio Rüdiger on the mend and Leandro Castan MIA, DDR should once again reprise his role as a makeshift central defender alongside Kostas Manolas, and with Seydou Keita's injury concerns, William Vainqueur might earn his first start tomorrow lining up alongside Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan.
Dzeko or not, Totti or no Totti, the scales are still tipped in Roma's favor; they're stronger, faster and better tested. The problem, particularly during the past 10 to 12 months, has been Roma's tendency to disappear in matches that common sense dictates they should dominate. Whether it's Frosinone, Sassuolo or Sampdoria, somehow, someway, Roma fails to live up to expectations in these scenarios.
Travelling halfway across the continent and facing a side adept at defending their home ground, the pieces are in place for another upset. Look for Roma to control the midfield and dominate possession, but in order for Roma to truly master BATE Borisov, Miralem Pjanic must be on top of his game.
With Iturbe, Gervinho and Salah running wild in the final third, the connecting play between Pjanic and Roma's forwards must be crisp, quick and efficient. The moment the wingers start dancing on the edges and firing hasty crosses to no one in particular, BATE can settle down, pack in and make life miserable for Garcia's attack.
However, if Nainggolan and Vainqueur and quickly funnel the ball to Pjanic, chances are he'll find any one of those jackrabbits in space. From there, we just have to hope that Iturbe has his head up and that Gervinho...well, that Gervinho isn't Gervinho.
It probably won't be pretty, but Roma should still walk away with three points tomorrow, but they absolutely cannot afford any further injuries.