If the 48 hour onslaught of Roma-Juventus stories didn’t clue you in, let me flat out say it: ROMA IS PLAYING JUVENTUS TOMORROW. I feel like I say this every week, and perhaps I’m prone to hyperbole, but this is the match of season. With only four points separating the two sides, Roma has a golden chance to shrink the Scudetto gap to one measly little point.
Will it be easy? No, of course not, Roma hasn’t won away to Juve since 2009 (Thanks, Riise!), but given how close these clubs are statistically, it is possible. After 16 rounds of play, the Old Lady has thrown up a +21 goal differential, while Roma has managed a +20, while actually outscoring Juventus. Roma is third in shots per match, Juventus fourth. Roma is third in possession, Juventus fourth. Juve is second in passing, Roma fourth...you get the picture, there is very little separating these two sides. In fact, if Roma didn’t shit the bed against Empoli, we might be looking at a true do-or-die six pointer, one that would have immediate table consequences.
Juventus v. Roma: December 17, 20:45 CET/2:45 EST. Juventus Stadium, Torino.
But, since we’re not even half way through the season, Roma still has a chance to make some serious hay, so let’s take a look under the hood.
Juventus: Old (lady) Faces, New Places
It was one thing to rob Roma of Miralem Pjanic (just go with it, we all know it was Roma’s fault) but it was quite another to poach Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli, a man who has haunted Roma for many years. For the first couple months of the season, it appeared as though the joke was on Juventus; Higuain was overweight and ineffective (by his standards), while Pjanic looked lost in his new surroundings.
Well, as one would expect, Higuain and Pjanic are rounding into form, combining for five goals and three assists in the past few weeks alone. It was bound to happen of course, but isn’t it just our luck? Why couldn’t we face gordo Gonzalo and a hapless Pjanic?
If ifs and buts were candy and nuts...I don’t really know how the rest of that saying goes, but Pjanic and Higuain aside, Juventus is a pretty peerless club. They shoot, they score, they tackle, they defend. They win close matches (six victories in one-goal matches), they win by blowouts (four victories with a 3+ goal margin). They score early (six goals from 0-15 minutes), they score late (five goals from the 76th and beyond) and they score first at a greater pace than any other club in the league, 75% of the time.
Yet somehow, despite all that overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as Danny and I talked about earlier today, there’s this belief floating around that they’ve slipped. Well, to quote the inimitable Joe Biden, that’s a bunch of malarkey. With Higuain added to the likes of Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic, and with Daniele Rugani quickly making the BBC club quite crowded, this club is as stacked as any of the other five title winning teams throughout this decade.
So, it will take a miracle, but we already knew that, so let’s take a look at what Spalletti has up his sleeve.
Has Anyone Seen Salah?
That’s the big question on everyone’s lips, right? And for good reason. Sure, Edin Dzeko is in the thick of the capocannoniere race, but The Bosnian Batistuta is more of a reactionary player, insofar as he needs service to really succeed, whereas Salah is a one-man wrecking crew, capable of blowing past any defender on earth—a quality none of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini or Daniele Rugani can contain. (Also, don’t look now, but Dzeko hasn’t scored in his past three matches, his longest drought of the season)
After wrenching his ankle several weeks ago, it was widely presumed that Salah would be shelved for at least three weeks, putting him out of action for essentially the remainder of 2016. Well, as the week wore on, a faint echo of hope was heard in the deepest recesses of the Romaverse, as Salah was getting close to, well probably not match fit, but enough to give it ago.
However, let’s approach this as if Salah won’t play, then what? How will Roma unlock the Juve defense?
Well, those hopes may rest on one particular young man, with particularly well coiffed hair and magnificently appointed eyebrows. We’re talking, of course, about Stephan El Shaarawy. Last week’s second half substitute will more than likely be forced into the starting lineup now that Bruno Peres—last week’s Salah replacement—has suffered his own ankle injury.
SES’s season has not exactly gone as planned, but he’s the only man on this roster capable of replicating Salah’s game changing speed, and the early indications point towards a 4-2-3-1 with the Pharaoh lining to the left of Radja Nainggolan, putting him square in the crosshairs of the detestable Stephan Lichtsteiner, who we all loathe, so here’s hoping El Shaarawy recaptures his form and quick.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the real matchup to keep an eye on during this one—Gonzalo Higuain vs. Roma’s defense, namely the central pairing of Federico Fazio and Kostas Manolas. All but one of Pepito’s nine league goals has come from within the 18-yard-box, with a near equal distribution between his right and left leg, so it’ll be all hands on deck in the area. However, with Fazio’s size and Manolas’ mobility, you have to like Roma’s chances of making Higuain a bit uncomfortable.
Of course, defense really starts further up the pitch. Listen, in some ways I don’t care about the outcome of this match, I just so desperately want to see Daniele De Rossi or Kevin Strootman, or anyone for that matter, upend Pjanic—he’s on quite a tear now, so breaking that link in the attacking chain is absolutely essential.
Honestly, the math is quite simple, but the execution is what befuddles Roma so often in this fixture. Even without Peres and Salah, Roma has enough firepower to steal three points on the road here, but it will take flawless execution and a steady hand at the back.
Are Roma up to the task, or will this be yet another caning on the backside from the Old Lady?