Despite having a combined history of 199 years, AS Roma and Spezia Calcio have shared the pitch just once over those almost two centuries of shared existence. On December 16, 2015, Roma, just as they will tomorrow, welcomed Spezia, who were in Serie B at the time, to the Stadio Olimpico for a Coppa Italia fixture. On that early winter evening, Rudi Garcia rolled out a lineup featuring Mohamed Salah, Edin Dzeko. Miralem Pjanic, Antonio Rüdiger, and Emerson Palmieri. Despite that star-studded starting lineup, Roma couldn't crack the Spezia defense and eventually fell to their visitors 4-2 in a penalty shootout.
Roma vs. Spezia: January 19th. 21:15 CET/3:15 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
For Garcia, it was perhaps the lowest of lows, as this ignominious defeat was the unofficial end of all the goodwill he engendered over the previous two seasons. The 10-0 start, the camaraderie with his players, the violin GIF; all of that was rendered moot by this defeat, which ultimately proved to be Garcia's undoing as he was sacked less than a month after this match.
While I wouldn't dare say that Paulo Fonseca is in the same boat yet, there are some parallels worth noting, or, at the very least, might appeal to the extreme skeptics among us. Fonseca, much like Garcia before him, was a bit of an odd hire for Roma, if for no other reason than he wasn't Italian and/or cut his coaching teeth in Serie A. Fonseca, much like Garcia before him, eschewed traditional wisdom to experience a bit of success in the capital. And Fonseca, much like Garcia before him, experienced wild swings in the press, alternatively being hailed as a paradigm-shifting genius or simply a mediocre coach who caught a bit of luck.
The analogy isn't perfect—Garcia was in the middle of his third season with the club, where Fonseca is only in his second—but with bettors in Roma already speculating on possible Fonseca replacements in the wake of the 3-0 derby defeat, one can't help but notice the coincidences as a possibly embattled coach embarks on a Coppa Italia fixture against Spezia.
So, let's take a quick look at how Fonseca might avoid a similar fate against the Little Eagles.
Spezia: Stats & Stuff
Spezia, who make their home in Liguria in the Northwestern corner of Italy, gained promotion to Serie A for the first time in their 105 year existence this year after defeating Chievo and Frosinone in the promotion playoffs last year. And with 18 points through 18 matches, it's safe to say their promotion has been a rousing success thus far.
Fueled by a breakout campaign from French forward Mbala N'Zola, who has found the back of the net nine times already, Spezia's attack has been decidedly mediocre—a monumental accomplishment for a club tasting the top flight for the first time. With 23 goals scored, Spezia are tied for 10th league-wide and have actually outperformed their xG total thus far, while their shots on target, goals per shot, and goal-creating actions are all similarly midtable(ish).
Out of context, there's nothing terribly overwhelming about that, but when you consider that this is their first season in the top flight, that's actually quite impressive. However, as one might expect, their defensive numbers are practically a perfect inverse. Through 18 league matches, Spezia have conceded 32 goals, the fourth-most in the league, while they're surrendering 0.14 goals per shot, the second-worst mark in the league.
In some ways, Spezia are your classic newly promoted team: they give away goals like a cheap hardware store passes out shoddy tape measures but they have enough punch to surprise you, meaning an upset is always on the cards.
Roma: Looking for a Rebound
If we told you way back in September that, after 18 rounds of play, Roma would be seated in third place ahead of Napoli, ahead of Juventus and ahead of Atalanta, you probably would have jumped for joy...in a responsible, socially-distanced manner, of course. And while it may feel like Roma are struggling, we have to face facts: Fonseca has this team in third place.
So why, then, does it feel like we're on the brink of disaster again? Is it because the club always tends to tank in the winter months? Does it have something to do with Edin Dzeko and his increasingly incongruent performances? Do the nature of their struggles (a 4-1 undoing by Atalanta and a 3-0 derby disaster against Lazio) make things seem bleaker than they actually are? Or do Roma fans always think the sky is falling? (Don't answer that last one).
Whatever the case may be, one can't help but feel we're at another inflection point. Roma's struggles against the top clubs are well documented and their continued struggles against those “big six”, as we've come to call them, means Fonseca has practically no room for error against the remaining 13 clubs in the league, Spezia included.
All of which makes tomorrow's Coppa Italia tilt, as well as their league match against this same Spezia side later in the week, a chance for Roma to silence the doubters. And in some ways, the manner in which Roma wins is more important than actually winning. If Roma struggle tomorrow (or on Saturday for that matter) and barely scrape by Spezia, will that silence the rising chatter from critics?
Despite being in third place, make no mistake: the heat is on Paulo Fonseca. Roma needs to finish in the top four; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Putting together a two-for-two clean sweep of Spezia could go a long way towards restoring Roma's confidence after two crushing defeats over the past month.
But, if Roma struggles or, dare I say it, loses either of these matches, Fonseca may want to call Garcia for some comforting words.