It's hard to understate just exactly how important it is for Roma to qualify for the Champions League. Without the ability to print their own money via a gleaming, club controlled modern stadium, not to mention a history of debt that may or may not be paid off, Roma relies on that Champions League cash to keep the club in the upper reaches of the table; without those assurances, Roma's supermarket would be bursting at the seams every summer.
For much of the season, it seemed like Roma would struggle to even qualify for next season's Europa League, to say nothing of it’s more esteemed colleague, the champioonnnsss. However, thanks to a pre-holiday break surge in which they won three out of four matches, Eusebio Di Francesco has managed to drag his beleaguered squad all the way back up to sixth place, two points behind their bitter city rival, and current holders of fourth place, SS Lazio.
With a nine point gap at the top of the table, Juventus has their latest title all but wrapped up, but the fight for fourth place figures to be slug fest between Roma, Lazio and AC Milan at least, with Sampdoria, Atalanta, Torino and Fiorentina each within six points of fourth place; misery may love company, but in Serie A this season mediocrity has no shortage of friend requests.
Roma will face each of those squads in the second half of course, but which ones present the biggest challenge to the Giallorossi's quest for fourth place?
To answer that question, we'll take periodic looks at those clubs, but we'll start with the squad right above Roma on the table, AC Milan.
Position: Sixth place (31 points)
Form: 9 points over their last six matches
Goal Differential: +6
The Rossoneri of the 2010s are somewhat reminiscent of the New York Yankees in the early 1980s, two legendary clubs who had fallen on somewhat hard times. Growing up in the Reagan era, I remember being puzzled why people were so fanatic about the Yankees. I mean, yeah, Don Mattingly was a good player, but the Yankees sucked; they hadn't won anything since the 1970s, so why was everyone so obsessed with them?
Somewhere in Italy there is probably a little kid not too different from that mop topped version of me, a kid who only knows a universe in which Juventus dominates and wonders why people speaking so glowingly of AC Milan. Sure, they have nice kits occasionally, but what have they actually done lately?
While I'm sure many Roma fans would trade their recent history for ours (two titles in the past 17 seasons), this is not your father's Milan; they've been down in the doldrums since that 2011 title, spending several seasons staring up the table at Roma.
In the here and now, Roma and Milan are separated by a mere point and were a 95th minute Patrick Cutrone goal away from calling it a draw in their first matchup in late August. Since then, Milan have slightly outperformed Roma on the table, grabbing four additional points, but the finer details have not been quite as kind to Milan.
Since that meeting in late August, Roma have amassed 31.92 xG (the league's second best mark) to Milan's 24.48 xG, and while neither side has lived up to that metric, it does speak to Roma's greater capacity for doing damage, as does their superior conversion rate, 11% to Milan's 8%. Neither side is redefining the word clinical this season, but Roma have at least been flirting with the idea of being dangerous.
Making matters worse for Milan is the current Gonzalo Higuain quagmire. Higuain, whose six goals currently leads Milan, has reportedly put in a transfer quest to reunite with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. While that hasn't yet been sorted out, it certainly doesn't bode well for a side that ranks ninth in goals scored, though Cutrone seems like he could catch fire at any minute.
What Milan do have going for them, however, is a pretty stout defense. With only 20 goals conceded, the Rossoneri are among the stingiest sides in the league and have actually been better on the road, conceding 0.89 goals per match away from the San Siro.
Fourth Place Fear Factor: 6 out of 10
On the surface, Roma and Milan are eerily similar sides. They're both managed by former players, they've both cobbled together mini three match winning streaks at various points this season, they've both dropped points to supposedly inferior squads, and they both have young strikers they're eager to get rolling.
The difference between the two sides, as we just discussed, is that Roma have had a potent attacking bubbling beneath the surface all season long. Milan, meanwhile, have been held to one goal or less nine times in their first 19 matches, and have gone scoreless 32% of the time, and without Higuain they simply have no proven goal scorer.
If the battle for fourth does ultimately come down to Roma and Milan, the margins may be decided by which club addresses their shortcomings first: can Roma get Kostas Manolas some help at the back before Milan finds a consistent scoring threat, or will their penchant for shipping in goals be their undoing?
With large payrolls and even larger ambitions, neither of these clubs can really afford to miss out on next season's Champions League, but Roma should have enough firepower to edge out their northern neighbors when all is said and done.