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Is This Roma the Real Deal?

After a week where the obscene became reality, now's a good time ponder the big questions of 2016/17.

Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Friends, come over here for a minute. I notice you've been walking around in a bit of a glum mood lately. This week hasn't been easy on any of us in our global community. And an international break of absurdly uninteresting football didn't exactly do much to put us back at ease. So grab a seat and a warm drink, let's have a chat about something that makes us all feel a little bit better about our own problems. Let's talk about Roma.

After twelve weeks of Serie A, Roma are sitting in second position on 26 points, four behind the Juventus juggernaut and one point in front of Milan. Ignoring how we got there, it's quite fair to say this wouldn't be too far off meeting most of our pre-season expectations for where we should be at mid November.

Best of the Rest?

The state of Serie A right now is rather intriguing. The morale destroying acquisitions by Juventus led to pretty much all and sundry abandoning 2016-17 as a runaway Scudetto that would be in the Old Lady's hands by Christmas. Whilst Juve still sit very comfortably at the summit, they haven't quite been able to reach the heights expected of them and have presented their rivals telling vulnerabilities along the way. But the real story of this season has been the second third of the table, the dreamers and the over achievers.

Roma's principle opponents coming in to the year appeared to be Napoli and Inter Milan. While Napoli sit only 5 points back from the Giallorossi, the results of their last few matches have been telling. The sale of Higuain on top of the injury to Milik have been catastrophic to Napoli's game plan which relies heavily on a number 9 to finish off aggressive play from the flanks. Ironically enough, nowhere was this more apparent than during Roma's bold victory over the Neapolitans in Week 9. Until Maurizio Sarri can shape the focus of their attack away from the underperforming Gabbiadini, they are going to struggle to reclaim second spot.

Meanwhile in the fashion capital, serious Euros were dropped during the summer by Inter on a brand spanking new manager and what at the time appeared to be a serious squad upgrade. Fast forward to today and marvel at the sheer train-wreck that the Nerrazzuri have become. On paper their squad is stacked with impressive technical talent that De Boer was never able to mould into a coherent unit. Their victory over Juventus was an exception rather than the start of something legitimately threatening. The team suffers from an over reliance on the brilliance of the fiendishly unlikable Mauro Icardi who seems to find new and exciting ways every season to make himself the worst human in Serie A. The hiring of Pioli to replace De Boer appears to be a stop-gap measure that isn't likely to push this team to their potential and you can start placing your bets now as to who his replacement will be for next season.

Napoli and Inter's struggles, whilst blunting the race for the scudetto, have actually opened the door for some exciting young teams to contest the Champions League spots with Roma. Despite honourable mentions to Atalanta, Torino, Chievo and Ciro Immobile (I refuse to credit the organisation), the most genuine of these contenders appears to be AC Milan.

Coached by Roma royalty Vincenzo Montella, Milan have managed to fuse a spine of sensationally talented youngsters into a genuine threat to Roma not only this year but probably for the next decade as well. Donnarumma, Romagnoli, Locatelli, Suso and Niang have exploded under the tutelage of l'Aeroplanino to form the most exciting collection of young players we have seen in Serie A for some time. The curse of youth is of course consistency and as demonstrated in their humbling defeat away to Genoa, Montella is going to struggle to keep these guys in the top spots come the end of the year. A strong Milan is a key indicator to the health of Serie A as a whole and after Berlusconi sold up his ownership rights to the team there's a lot of us around here who are fast running out of reasons to loathe this team.

Dare To Dream?

With most of her direct rivals suffering from a combination of growing pains and a lack of 36 goal strikers, it is easy to be seduced into viewing 2016/17 as an apt opportunity for Roma. And watching Juventus succumb to not one but two defeats in the opening ten weeks certainly breathed oxygen into the glowing embers of possibility that just maybe the Giaollorossi have an opportunity to launch a genuine title tilt.

First things first, can Roma win enough matches to actually get this done? Before the Inter Milan and Napoli matches I would have been inclined to laugh this question off and then make some sarcastic remark about that being as likely as Trump becoming the President of the United States (who here has come up with a nuclear apocalypse plan?).

Right now Roma possess a devastating attack that is being led by two players hovering around career best form. Mohammad Salah and Edin Dzeko are recording astonishing numbers right now and give Roma the ability to outscore any Serie A opponent (not named Empoli) on any day. The cutting edge these two have so far displayed allows Spalletti the luxury of knowing Roma can shred their opponents despite generating a minimum of scoring chances. This is something that this team has been forced to deal with following the unfortunate departure of their major creative force to their sworn northern enemy.

Whilst both Perotti and El Sharawy have struggled to impose themselves this season as effectively as they were last year, the level of talent and ability is still there. Indeed, excluding the presence of Iturbe, Roma's attack appears to be more potent that it has been since the glory days of Totti and Vucinic at their peak.

The rub to this however is the knowledge that come January, a certain Africa Cup of Nations is going to rob Spalletti of one of his most devastating weapons, Mohammad Salah. This absence has the duel prong of misfortune by ensuring our Egyptian pal is going to arrive back in the Italian capital utterly exhausted. It wasn't that long ago when Gervinho and (gasp!) Doumbia rocked back to Roma as complete shells of the players they were a month previous.

This brings us to the next unfortunate reality that is plaguing our utopian dream, injuries. Holy balls does Roma have some injuries to worry about. The complete decimation of our back four this year is nothing short of a rotating tale of woe that is being shuffled from one player to the next. I love a good ACL conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but what in the world is going on a Trigoria that involves the stressing of knee ligaments?

The latest addition to this lengthy list was of course Alessandro Florenzi. This was a double blow to the team as Ale was the preferred replacement for Salah in the right wing spot during the AFCON. This further heaps pressure on Bruno Peres to be fit and firing for the foreseeable future, should Roma hold any notions of a late season challenge with Juventus. And it is this extra workload that is covertly being placed on the Nainngolans, the DDRs and of course the Manolas's that further compounds the degree of difficulty of season 2016/17 for Roma. Right now Roma's defence appears to be the achilles heel that threatens to temper expectations. Should a genuine attempt at the title eventuate, the injury curse must be lifted.

In the good old days this is the part where we would shift our focus to the winter transfer market and pillar Mr Pallotta to open his cheque book and produce some reinforcements. But things are a touch more complicated now with that FFP rascal doing it's darnest to upset the apple cart. To add to this, Roma's catastrophic implosion against Porto a few months ago kind of had some rather harmful fiscal consequences for the transfer budget. As a result, all expectations of a December buying spree must be tempered with a cruel dose of austerity. (Incidentally who the hell is this Rocky Massara guy?)

This reality clatters uncomfortably with the twilight of Roma's favourite two sons, Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. The simple fact of the matter is that no one can bank on this duo being involved in a genuine Scudetto push following 16/17. Will this be enough to loosen the sentimental purse strings?

While we are talking about off-field issues there has been a noticeable change on the club's official stance on the uber controversial barriers plonked smack bang in the middle of the Curva's Nord and Sud. Roma have produced a number of social media videos with none other than Francesco Totti and Ale Florenzi voicing personal requests for the removal of the barriers and the return of the Ultra's to the Olimpico. Although this issue remains bewilderingly outside the control of the club itself, the impact of having a packed Olimpico and a boisterous Curva Sud creating a cauldron atmosphere is a very real factor in generating momentum for the team on the pitch. The resolution of this impasse would surely benefit the points column next to Roma's name.

So smacking all of these random musings together, where should we place Roma on the S word probability scale? Even with the removal of Roma's infamous inability to win high pressure matches, the two-thousand pound gorilla in the room is the black and white bogey from Torino.

The dizzying depth Juventus boasts mean that any window of opportunity they offer to their rivals is going to be slimmer than Walter Sabatini's severance package. Roma will surely have to record double victories over La Signora Vecchia to grant themselves a fighting chance at end of season glory.

The same goes for their cross-town rivals. Although Lazio are unlikely to continue their impressive string of wins, Ciro Immobile and Felipe Anderson must be neutralised by Roma at the Olimpico both times for this tilt to become the real thing.

Sacrifices must be made to the injury Gods (I nominate Juan Iturbe) and both the Brazilians J. Jesus and Emerson ‘Seppuku' Palmieri require a mid season awakening. Meanwhile can someone please sell the ghost of Vermaelen over the winter for scrap.

If Spalletti can keep the goals coming and paper over the mid season absence of Mo Salah, there's plenty of evidence that Roma's offence has the potency to blast their way past the vast majority of Serie A defences. The growth of Leo Paredes is also pivotal to Roma's success as is the healing of his ankle ligaments (sigh).

As things stand at the 12 Week mark there are enough positive signs that suggest Roma do indeed stand a fair shot at achieving greatness this season. Of course it just wouldn't be Roma if you couldn't draw the opposite conclusion upon analyzing the same data.

So what's the answer? Is this squad destined for the history books or the bottomless pit of what could have been?