Lost among the fallout from Roma’s Europa League exit was one small fact: though they didn’t erase the aggregate deficit against Lyon, they were as spirited, as vigorous and as effective as we’ve seen all season. Gone were the tired legs and weary looks, replaced instead by intensity and focus. Roma lost the battle, sure, but the war rages on and Luciano Spalletti’s men look they just saw Ann Margret at a USO show (Jesus, how old am I? Does anyone know? (not that old, rest assured)).
So, can this slightly downtrodden but newly spirited club continue their dominance of the Neroverdi of Sassuolo?
Before we answer that, a quick look back at the reverse fixture.
October 26: Roma 3, Sassuolo 1
After falling behind early thanks to a goal from the lesser of two Cannavaros, Roma would come storming back in the second half. Following an impressive display of poise, Mohamed Salah unleashed Edin Dzeko on the left flank with a pinpoint pass from nearly 40 yards away to level the match. A Dzeko penalty kick and a 78th minute Radja Nainggolan were enough to put this match to bed, giving Roma their fourth victory in seven matches against the Neroverdi since their Serie A debut in 2013.
It Ain’t Easy Being Green
The Neroverdi (black-greens) were once the darlings of Serie A, going from debutants in 2013 to European competitors in 2016. However, as is so often the case when newly promoted clubs reach Europe, the weight of multiple competitions takes its toll on the domestic front, and Sassuolo are certainly no exception to that rule. Through 28 matches, Sassuolo are mired in 15th place, their once potent offense limited to only 35 goals, which isn’t necessarily terrible, but thanks to their porous defense, they’ve run out a -8 goal differential; and there’s your 15th place, folks.
Roma v. Sassuolo: March 19th. 20:45 CET/3:45 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
Where Domenico Berardi was once the prize pony for Sassuolo, his place on the podium has been usurped by Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gregoire Defrel, the latter of whom Roma nearly forked over tens of millions of pastel colored Euros for, while the former is the darling of every Roma prospect hound. At 20-years-old and with five goals and four assists to his credit this season, the future is indeed very bright for Pellegrini. Bring him home, Monchi or whoever.
While the safe money is on Sassuolo avoiding the drop (they’re 16 points clear), chances are they won’t be sniffing Europe anytime soon, and with the futures of Pellegrini, Berardi, Defrel, Matteo Politano and even head coach Eusebio Di Francesco up in the air (each of whom, minus Berardi, have been connected with Roma), Sassuolo is hardly the picture of stability.
But will this make them ripe for the plucking tomorrow? Let’s take a gander.
Following Sunday’s home match, Roma will head out on spring break until April 1st, giving Radja Nainggolan ample time to corrupt Roma’s youth with beer bongs, whip-its and frozen burritos (seems plausible, right?). Shenanigans aside (happy St Patrick’s Day incidentally), Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman, Bruno Peres and the rest of Roma’s draught horses will get some much needed R&R (depending on how much they play for their respective national teams of course).
In the meantime, there is still the matter of this match, and the pressing question has suddenly shifted to tactics. After relying on the 4-2-3-1 for much of the season (a Spalletti classic), Lucky Luciano has shifted to several variants of the three man backline, rolling out the seldom seen 3-1-4-2 against Lyon Thursday, with Daniele De Rossi serving as the de facto libero in front of the defense. Of course, at one point Roma had five forwards on the pitch, so I’d caution you not to glean too much from that particular formation.
Point being, Spalletti has shown little hesitation in tinkering and adapting as needed. In their last domestic match against Palermo, he opted for a similar formation, swapping out DDR for Leando Paredes and giving Clement Grenier the start as a malleable playmaker alongside Nainggolan, tucked behind Mohamed Salah and Stephan El Shaarawy, giving him the freedom to stay in the good graces of Nainggolan or venture slightly ahead in a near-trequartista spot.
So, despite his lack of personnel rotation (in terms of going deep into the bench), Spalletti has mixed and match formations and tactics among his most trusted 12-13 players, which we can presumably attribute to his lack of faith in anything beyond that baker’s dozen.
But where will he turn tomorrow? With Bruno Peres suffering a muscular injury, odds are we’ll see a three man backline of Antonio Rüdiger on the right, Federico Fazio in the middle and Kostas Manolas on the left, with the usual crew manning the midfield, leaving the only other wrinkle of doubt up top: Does he go Dzeko-Salah-Perotti, Nainggolan-SES-Dzeko, or something else entirely?
It’s been a bit of a guessing game this season in that regard, but Dzeko’s 30 goals speak for themselves. Going out on a high note before the international break is just what the doctor ordered; this team needs positive momentum before they take on Empoli on April Fool’s Day.
If Roma can carry over the vim and vigor from Thursday, we should be alright.