It isn’t 100 percent accurate to say that the Giallorossi have been defying all expectations for this season so far. Sure, being three points ahead of Juventus feels like it shouldn’t be possible, but “in the hunt for the Champions League” is exactly where Roma wanted to be (and to a certain extent needed to be) at this point in the league calendar. We can quibble about who Roma’s been able to beat handily (and who they’ve lost to) to get to where they are today, but nevertheless, Roma is four points off of first place before a head-to-head with second-place Inter. That’s something to be celebrated but not rested on.
Roma vs. Inter Milan: January 10th. 12:30 CET/6:30 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
As Paulo Fonseca and I Lupi host the Nerazzurri at the Stadio Olimpico tomorrow, they’re going to be looking to prove that their place at the top isn’t just a result of being markedly better than the mid-and-bottom-tier teams in Serie A. A win over Inter would show that they truly are title contenders; a loss will only add to the growing choir of voices who say that Paulo Fonseca can’t win big matches. That’s a lot on the line, huh?
What To Watch For
Defending Inter’s Two-Headed Attack
Inter have the best attacking corps in Serie A, with Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez working near-perfectly together in Antonio Conte’s set-up. All told, the duo have scored 21 of Inter’s league-leading 41 goals in league play so far this season—no defense has been able to keep them quiet.
If there was a defense that might be able to do the job, though, it’d be Roma’s. We’ve been writing a whole lot lately about the explosion of Roger Ibañez onto the scene, and his expected pairing with Gianluca Mancini and Chris Smalling tomorrow may be the best central defender trio in Serie A. Put another way—keeping Max Kumbulla on the bench is no small feat, but each of the starters for Roma deserves their spot. Add in the resurgence of Bryan Cristante, and Roma’s defensive-minded players might actually be able to cause Lukaku and Martinez some headaches. If that can happen, this is anybody’s match.
The Pau Patrol’s Last Chance Saloon
Antonio Mirante’s recent absence has basically forced Paulo Fonseca into regularly playing Pau Lopez once again, and although it’s been a manageable situation against smaller sides, this match versus Inter is clearly Pau’s make-or-break match. The Spaniard has insisted that he wants to stick around the Olimpico for a while longer and prove that he belongs as a starter for Roma, and even though that’s a bit of a moot point considering I doubt there are many takers for Lopez’s services right now, if Lopez can’t find good form against Inter tomorrow, when Roma need him the most, you can kiss him goodbye.
Keeping a clean sheet against Crotone isn’t impressive. Keeping one against Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, though? Then we might be talking about a Lopezaissance.
No Dual Striker Formation Against Inter, But Will Mayoral See The Pitch?
At this point, it’s no secret that Borja Mayoral has been rather impressive in his limited minutes this season. Mayoral’s six goals for the Giallorossi across all competitions have powered them through the Europa League to date and given Edin Džeko the space to recover from COVID-19 when it was necessary. I’m no soothsayer, but I’m pretty sure that Tiago Pinto will end up exercising Roma’s €15 million option on Mayoral at the end of the season—at some point, it becomes stupid to let him go.
For right now, though, the question on many Romanisti’s minds is how to incorporate the red-hot Mayoral into the starting line-up while Roma’s third-ranked all-time scorer is still doing a good job. At the very least, a change in formation isn’t in the cards for tomorrow’s match, with Paulo Fonseca saying that he doesn’t think a double-striker formation will be happening just yet. Even so, a 60th- or 70th-minute substitution of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Edin Džeko, or Lorenzo Pellegrini for Borja Mayoral might be the shot of adrenaline the Giallorossi need if the match is tied. He certainly offers a different skill-set than any of those (excellent) attacking players, and it would only confirm his value to see him perform against a club like Inter.
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