With six plus years of experience here at CdT, I’ve written hundreds of match previews—ones against minnows, several dozen against Juventus, a few against random Romanian sides, and even one for the United States vs. Belgium—but I don’t think I have ever encountered a match quite like this; a Roma manager being on the brink is nothing new of course, but being pushed off the edge by the man he replaced? A man who may be the most beloved coach in the modern history of the club? That’s new...even by Roma’s already absurd standards.
It sounds insane, but that’s where we’re at: Eusebio Di Francesco is a hardworking and intelligent manager, but for some reason he simply hasn’t been able to push Roma out of this funk, and given the timing and the circumstances under which he took the job, he’ll be inextricably linked to Luciano Spalletti. No man has brought Roma so close to ecstasy like Spalletti, and the manner in which he saved Roma’s 2016 season from the banal clutches of Rudi Garcia, and his abrupt departure 18 months later, necessarily cast a pall over Di Francesco’s tenure.
Roma v. Inter Milan: December 2nd. 20:30 CET/2:30 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
It’s not fair of course, but that’s life in Roma. However, when EDF managed the unthinkable—bringing Roma to the brink of the Champions League final—Spalletti’s shadow began to recede. So, with fresh optimism and some new recruits at his disposal, this was supposed to be the year in which EDF made his own mark with Roma. After all, if he could tackle Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, and Barcelona, surely he was up to making Roma one of the two or three best sides in Italy, right?
While the season started off well enough—a victory over Torino to start the campaign and a thrilling 3-3 draw with Atalanta, one in which Roma mounted a two goal second half comeback—Di Francesco has struggled to maintain or create any consistency in his squad. A four match winning streak in late September and early October notwithstanding, EDF’s Roma side has repeatedly taken three steps back for every positive step forward.
And it’s not as if we can blame Di Francesco’s love for the 4-3-3 either; Di Francesco has (for the most part) made all the correct tactical calls this season; his shift to a 4-2-3-1, one that emphasized the playmaking of Javier Pastore, and later Lorenzo Pellegrini, precipitated that aforementioned winning streak and gave us hope that he’d unlocked the secret to this squad.
While the Xs and Os haven’t necessarily plagued Di Francesco, Roma’s poor finishing, and the always ambiguous “mentality” have been the veritable doughnuts pulling Roma off their otherwise strict diet.
But that’s all prologue—the spectre troubling EDF and Roma this week is, quite simply, a superb Inter Milan side. Through 13 weeks of play, Spalletti’s side has been one of Italy’s most well rounded and potent sides, racking up a +15 goal differential. Led by Mauro Icardi, Inter Milan has forced 25 goals while conceding 10; making them at once one of the league’s most dangerous attacking sides and stingiest defenses.
In a word, it’s been classic, peak-Spalletti. While Icardi has managed a club leading seven league goals, the spread of the remaining 18 strikes has been quite impressive, as a full seven players have multiple goals. To Roma fans, this is nothing new; so much of his success in the capital was predicated on a multipronged attack, one that kept opposing defenses off kilter. It could be Icardi who cuts your heart out, but you still have to deal with Lautaro Martinez, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Keita, Roberto Gagliardini and even Radja Nainggolan—there is virtually no limit to Inter’s options. Making matters worse, Spalletti’s defense allows only 12 shots per match; there’s no quarter given in this side. Anywhere.
So, if you’re Eusebio Di Francesco and you’ve got James Pallotta and potentially Antonio Conte breathing down your neck, you’ve probably been losing some sleep this week. And with Edin Dzeko, Stephan El Shaarawy, Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini all doubtful (if not completely ruled out already) this week, Di Francesco has probably had his share of nightmares.
Inter’s defense is tough enough as it is, but now that Roma are potentially relying on the shaky legs of Patrik Schick, Cengiz Under and Justin Kluivert—talented players all, but not exactly oozing with quality at the moment—Roma may struggle to create a single, solitary chance tomorrow evening.
That is, unless, the throw in from the Radja Nainggolan deal continues his progression. Nicolo Zaniolo, Roma’s 19-year-old midfielder, wasn’t exactly a line-item addition in the Nainggolan deal, but selling such a cherished player at a cut rate deal was bound to garner all the headlines. However, as we cautioned last summer, the inclusion of Zaniolo could, in time, swing this deal in Roma’s favor.
And, well, that “in time” may have already arrived. Nainggolan may have two league goals to his credit, but he’s been a shadow of his former self, particularly when compared to the 2016-2017 version, the one in which he scored 11 goals for Spalletti’s last Roma side. Zaniolo, meanwhile, hasn’t yet lit the league on fire, but he’s shown enough poise and promise to give you hope that his hype is legitimate.
With Pellegrini and Pastore doubtful for this match, the playmaking onus may fall on his shoulders—and what better time to truly make a name for himself than against his former club? Zaniolo was the crown jewel in Inter’s youth system, so while he’s been given his first chances with Roma, one has to imagine he’s got a bit of a grudge. We still don’t know what he is yet, but if Roma’s future rests on his shoulders, I think we’ll be alright.
But that’s a matter for the future, tomorrow is paramount, and tomorrow might be a disaster. Roma are outgunned and outmanned, and what’s more, it’s not as if they’ve made the Olimpico some impenetrable fortress—only 11 points through six matches—a fact Inter is more than capable of exploiting; with 12 points through six road matches, Inter have been quite comfortable outside of Milan.
Given Roma’s struggles and their list of walking wounded, it’s hard to find a positive spin on this match. However, if Roma do overcome those odds, it will have to come down to Di Francesco—his tactics, his selections, his substitutions and his simple ability to get these guys up for this match.
Otherwise, he might be on the outside looking in come Monday morning.