My standard routine when writing a match preview, particularly after an international break, is to give myself a quick refresher: what's the current form, who's injured, who's suspended, who's fighting each other in the locker room, etc. It's a pretty basic routine, and one I'm sure many of you do as well, but with seven plus years of writing match previews under my belt, I like to think I've become a fine-tuned match previewing machine, but I just experienced something brand new.
When looking back at Roma's most recent matches, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Now, I don't claim to have an iron clad memory, but Holy Moses, Roma lost to SPAL....again!? Perhaps it was due to the international break, or the rare two-fixture week for the women's team last week, but I honestly forgot (or suppressed the memory of) that match.
Roma vs. Napoli: March 31st. 15:00 CET/9:00 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
But it was all too real. Roma dropped six points...six!...to SPAL this year, and thanks to that most recent stinker, Roma have lost three of their past four matches, squandering an opportunity to claim fourth place in the process. Not only that, now that Inter have seemingly sorted things out (four wins in their past six) Roma's four point deficit behind them might as well be forty.
Things are tough in Roma town, that's for sure, and this weekend offers no quarter either as second place Napoil visit the Olimpico on Sunday. Napoli may be a distant second to Juventus but their +29 goal differential speaks to their balance and effectiveness through the season's first 28 rounds.
However, Carlo Ancelotti's bunch aren't exactly lighting the world afire at the moment, having only won two of their past six matches. Similarly, despite the high flying reputation they earned under Maurzio Sarri (and maintained by Carletto), Roma has played Napoli quite tough over the past few seasons, winning three of the past six fixtures.
And, were it not for a last dash goal from Dries Mertens, that stretch could have been four in six...
October 28, 2018: Napoli 1, Roma 1
This. This was a bitter pill to swallow. After seizing the lead in the 14th minute thanks to Stephan El Shaarawy, Roma held the vaunted Napoli attack in check for, like, 99% of the match, but then came stoppage time and Mertens’ swift kick to Roma's groin. Losing in the 90th + is nothing new for Roma, but this one took the cake. Start with Lorenzo Insigne's flying out of bounds cross to Jose Callejon—how in the world did the track that down let alone play it so accurately to Callejon? And for that matter, look at Callejon's subsequent attempt; it was a complete miss-hit, a total flub that inexplicably fell to Mertens, who was now wide open because Aleksandar Kolarov was so focused on Callejon.
Don't get me wrong, the pre-Insigne buildup was quite lovely, but there was more than just a bit of luck at play here, right? Either way, chalk it up to another wasted opportunity for Roma, one they can ill afford this time around.
Roma Can Win This One, I'm Just Not Sure How
Roma are fighting, but fighting is normal. Roma are selling, but they might also be buying. Roma are building a stadium. Roma aren't building a stadium. Roma are....Roma-ing. This international break has brought out the worst aspects of the 24/7 news cycle, hasn't it?
All that being said, I have no idea how, despite their recent record of success against them, Roma can pull this one off, and that's not me being eternally pessimistic; the team is in such an odd state of affairs right now that it's hard to predict how they'll play from one moment to the next.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but Claudio Ranieri is only preparing for his third match in charge of Roma. The Giallorossi haven't looked entirely convincing under the Tinkerman yet, barely hanging on against Empoli and failing to show up against SPAL immediately prior to the break. Granted, Ranieri was dealing with a spate of injuries and suspensions, but there is simply no excuse for losing to SPAL.
But, Claudio's luck may be beginning to change. Late this week, Ranieri was granted a bit of a reprieve when Daniele De Rossi and Aleksandar Kolarov (and possibly even Cengiz Ünder and Kostas Manolas) were given clean bills of health...maybe.
They’re top players and if I had them both in the team, it would be massive for me and the fans. Slowly but surely they’re all getting back to their best but they’re not quite there yet. I have to assess all our options. I don’t like to risk losing a player for three matches just so he can play one. That’s always been my philosophy and I’ll weigh everything up carefully.
Which brings me back to our prior point: take the managerial change, Roma's poor form under the waning days of EDF, and the simple fact that we don't know who is even going to play, and Roma become damn near impossible to predict.
A point not lost on tomorrow's opposing manager:
Roma are under pressure and that can make the players even more motivated. The psychological strength is in our hands and we’ll see if that situation increases Roma’s concern or their courage.
Ancelotti went on to say "You know, this wouldn't be a problem if I were managing Roma”...at least that's what people were saying in the break room at lunch yesterday, but I can't be certain.
What is certain, however, is that this is a must win for Roma; a statement we can safely apply to the remaining ten matches. Claudio Ranieri and Roma have ZERO margin for error any more; I'm not suggesting they need to grab 30 points from their remaining matches, but no way in hell they're getting fourth place without netting at least 24 of those points.
Getting the likes of De Rossi, Manolas and Kolarov back will certainly go a long way to preventing any late collapses, but Roma's attack hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders lately. With only three goals in their past four matches, two of which were penalties, the well seems to have run dry, and with all the El Shaarawy/Dzeko nonsense filling up the headlines this week, it almost seems as if the players are equally as confused as the fans as to how Roma can bust out of this goal scoring funk.
But bust out of it they must. With Atalanta and Lazio threatening to push Roma out of Europe altogether next season, Roma no longer have the luxury of viewing each match with a fourth place or bust mentality—if Atalanta and Lazio each win this weekend, Roma could wake up Monday in seventh place, and maybe even tied for eighth if Torino take care of Fiorentina and Sunday.
Point being, this is a fucking mess. Ranieri has said repeatedly he knew what he was walking into when he took the gig, but the flip side of that is simply this: if Ranieri can pull this off, he'd be a god among men in Rome.
And what better way to achieve immortality than to beat a fellow Roman? It worked for the original wolf of Roma, so why not this one?