Sunday's 4-1 defeat against Atalanta was, in some ways, a case study of the entire Fonseca Football® experience. Roma ran out to an early lead thanks to Edin Dzeko's third-minute goal (his 25th under Fonseca's watchful eye) and despite it not being the most aesthetically pleasing choice, Fonseca's counter-attack tactics were actually working quite well through the first 30 minutes of the match, limiting Atalanta to mostly pointless possession through the first half-hour.
Roma missed a few chances and dodged a few close calls, but the Giallorossi were holding steady through the early stages of the second half before falling prey to Gasperini's second half changes; none more instrumental than the inclusion of Josip Ilicic, who masterminded a stunning change of fortunes in the second half, scoring a goal and setting up two others.
An early lead, a delicate balance between beautiful football and pure frustration, late substitutions, and a failure to counter the opposition's second half changes; all the hallmarks of Fonseca Football® were at play in Sunday's ultimately lopsided defeat to Atalanta. However, thanks to Lazio's 2-0 victory over Napoli, Roma emerged from round 13 relatively unscathed and safely ensconced in fourth place, albeit with a slim one-point lead.
All of which brings us to tomorrow's fixture against the Islanders of Cagliari. Currently nestled in 13th place, Eusebio Di Francesco's crew has struggled mightily lately, dropping points in six of their past seven matches dating back to late November.
Roma vs. Cagliari: December 23rd. 20:45 CET/2:45 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
But will they make for a soft landing for Roma or are we in for a barn burner? To answer that, let's take a look at a few of the key storylines heading into this match.
What to Watch For
Can Roma Continue Their Command Over Cagliari?
We're all painfully familiar with Roma's historic struggles against clubs like Juventus, but it’s nice to find ourselves on the other end of the equation for once, isn't it? Dating all the way back to 1964, Roma have won nearly 42% of their fixtures against Cagliari, outscoring their Sardinian counterparts by 125 to 98 in all competitions.
In terms of recent history, Roma have won three of the last six fixtures against Cagliari and haven't actually lost to the Islanders since February 1, 2013, when Cagliari upset Roma 4-2 at the Stadio Olimpico thanks to goals from Radja Nainggolan (when he was still with Cagliari the first time), Marco Sau (set up by future Roma player Victor Ibarbo), Francesco Pisano and an own goal from Mauro Goicoechea, which was par for the course for his Roma career.
With a 1-3-3 record and a -5 goal differential on the mainland thus far, Cagliari's struggles against Roma seem likely to continue tomorrow, but that doesn't mean we're safe from harm on Wednesday.
The Giovanni Simeone & João Pedro Partnership
Cagliari's attack is about as middle of the road as it gets in Serie A, with the Sardinian club sitting in the middle of most major statistical categories: goals scored, assists, xG, shots, SOT, goal-creating actions, shot-creating actions, etc.
Despite being so decidedly average, Cagliari are enjoying solid seasons from João Pedro and Giovanni Simeone, who have combined to score 11 of Cagliari's 19 goals thus far, with both players exceeding their xG marks. What's more, both men have been pretty efficient in converting their attempts into goals, sustaining 21% (Pedro) and 31% (Simeone) conversion rates.
In order to curb those rates tomorrow, Roma's defense will have to do their best to limit their shot attempts to wider areas, which means the onus will fall on Jordan Veretout and likely Gonzalo Villar to disrupt Cagliari's passing through the neutral zone and, of course, the center-backs closing out space in the final third.
All of this is easier said than done, but it doesn't take a genius to deconstruct Cagliari's attack: stop these two and you stop the entire team.
But there is one riddle Roma may have trouble solving.
Can Roma Crack Cragno?
We'll end our preview with...a preview. It seems all but certain that Roma will be shopping for a new goalkeeper this summer and Roma fans may be treated to a preview of next year's shot-stopper when Alessio Cragno takes his place between the sticks tomorrow.
While Cagliari's defensive record has been pretty poor this season (-5 goal differential), they can't really blame Cragno. Through 13 appearances, Cragno leads the league in total saves (56), saves inside the box (34), saves outside the box (22) is 7th in save percentage (72%), 2nd in crosses stopped (11), 6th in cross stopping percentage (9%), tied for third in punches (5) while placing 4th in high claims.
Cragno may not be the tallest keeper in the world, but he's among the most explosive and technically proficient in Serie A at the moment. Roma cannot leave anything to chance against this guy and must bury any chance they get—Cragno is dope, is what we're saying.
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I just want both teams to have fun