Roma are traveling this weekend to an under-performing Serie A stalwart who have recently hired a new manager, and they’re eyeing a big win to vault the club back into the hunt for the top four. If that sentence doesn’t make you flashback to the Giallorossi’s 3-2 loss to Hellas Verona and immediately grow pessimistic, you’re a far better person than I. It may be Genoa instead of Hellas Verona, but the need for a win this matchday is just as critical now as it was back in September. Fortunately, there are some reasons that Fate may look more kindly on the Giallorossi against I Rossoblu than she did against I Gialloblu.
One of the main reasons I’m more optimistic entering this match is the sheer volume of injuries Genoa has to deal with right now. The Ligurian side will be without former Roma stalwart, CdT favorite, and current top scorer Mattia Destro this weekend, as well as Nikola Maksimovic, Mattia Bani, Domenico Criscito, Felipe Caicedo, Hernani, and Mohamed Fares. That’s a kind of injury crisis you rarely see outside of Trigoria, and these constant injury woes are a huge reason why Il Grifone have been in and out of the relegation zone this season, as opposed to their typical mid-table home. New manager Andriy Shevchenko admitted in his pre-match press conference that “avoiding relegation would be like winning the Champions League,” and although this is certainly a weakened Genoa side, we all know that that doesn’t equate to an easy three points for Roma.
Genoa vs. Roma: November 21st. 20:45 CET/2:45 EST. Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Genova.
Ironically, just as relegation could doom Genoa in countless ways, the financial issues that may arise for the Giallorossi if they miss out on the Champions League this season could be akin to relegation for I Lupi. For so many different reasons, from future player recruitment to making sure starlets like Nicolò Zaniolo stay around, a top-four finish is crucial for the club. A return to form after two seasons of middling results is crucial for the José Mourinho/Friedkin Group incarnation of The Grand Roma Project.
As the Giallorossi are sitting two points out of fifth place and six points out of fourth, a resounding win against Genoa could be just what José Mourinho needs to right the ship after a disappointing month of marquee matchups.
What To Watch For
Will Roma Beat The New Manager Trap This Time Around?
As I already mentioned, the last time Roma faced off against a side with a brand new manager, it didn’t go too well for the Giallorossi. Igor Tudor’s hiring has done wonders for Hellas Verona since their 3-2 victory over Roma, with I Mastini now comfortably out of the relegation zone (if you have a moment, offer some pity to Eusebio Di Francesco’s imploding managerial career). Currently sitting seventeenth in the table, Genoa are in just as concerning a state as Hellas Verona were to start the season; the club’s new ownership group has to be hoping that Shevchenko can provide the same kind of spark Tudor did and drag the once-mighty club out of the rut it’s currently in.
Is Shevchenko as good a manager as Tudor apparently is, though? Anyone who followed football in the 2000s knows how dynamic a player the Ukrainian attacker was at his peak; his 2004 Ballon d’Or-winning season is still the stuff of legend, and his energy, pace, and off-ball movement meant that when his career came to a close, he had become an indispensable character in the history of A.C. Milan, the Ukrainian National Team, and European soccer on the whole.
Despite not being seen as “managerial material” after his retirement, his five years at the helm of the Ukrainian National Team are largely viewed as a success, with Shevchenko leading the Blue and Yellow to their first-ever Euros quarterfinals. While with the national team, he used younger players whenever possible and encouraged a “champagne football” style of play, leading to the aforementioned quarterfinals run and a year-long unbeaten streak in 2019.
It’s safe to say that Shevchenko is working with less at Genoa than he did with the Ukrainian national team, particularly due to his club’s massive injury crisis. Yet make no mistake: if he’s able to replicate the free-flowing and adventurous style of play he encouraged in Ukraine, this game might be a closer encounter than some expect.
Will A Return To The Three-Man Defense Work?
Before COVID-19 protocols knocked Bryan Cristante out of contention for this match, it was widely rumored that Mourinho was planning on shifting the Italian international into the defense yet again, creating a three-at-the-back formation similar to what Paulo Fonseca had attempted in the 2020-2021 season. Obviously, the announcement that both Cristante and Villar will be unavailable after picking up the virus has derailed The Special One’s plans, at least partially. Instead, it looks as if Albanian international Max Kumbulla will get another shot to turn around his time in Rome, as Chris Smalling has been called up but isn’t ready to start for the Giallorossi just yet.
Since he joined up with the Giallorossi in 2020, Kumbulla has largely been on the periphery of the senior squad. Both Paulo Fonseca and José Mourinho haven’t seemed to place much faith in the young center-back, and Roger Ibañez and Gianluca Mancini have played practically every minute available in formations with two center-backs. Even with Chris Smalling’s continual issues maintaining fitness, at times Mourinho has seemed more eager to give academy players like Filippo Tripi a shot in the senior side than Kumbulla. Rumors also abound that Max might be moving to Torino this January to reunite with Ivan Jurić, the manager who first uncovered his undeniable talent.
Personally, I still think Kumbulla has something to offer to Roma, particularly if the Giallorossi shift to a three-at-the-back tactic. When Kumbulla exploded at Hellas Verona, it was in a three-at-the-back formation, and his Fazio-esque style of play could balance out the more aggressive stylings of Mancini and Ibañez. I doubt Mourinho pushes Kumbulla out the door simply because the Giallorossi aren’t exactly overflowing with quality depth at the moment, but a great performance against Genoa might move the Albanian closer to fulfilling his promise in Rome. At the very least, it might convince Mourinho not to repeat the “Bryan Cristante At Center-Back” experiment, which I will maintain until my dying day is a complete misuse of an admittedly adaptable key cog in Roma’s side.
Will Felix Afena-Gyan’s Ghanaian NT Turn-Down Translate To More Minutes?
It’s no secret that José Mourinho isn’t a fan of the international break. He regularly complains about it, and considering the number of injuries Roma players pick up away from the club, he certainly has good reason to hate it. That hatred has been turning into actual action in recent weeks, with Mourinho reportedly pulling international team stalwarts away from friendly games when he can. Both Lorenzo Pellegrini and Nicolò Zaniolo became last-second scratches from Azzurri play this past break, as they both had minor injuries heading into the break that could have been ignored but weren’t. That’s not much of an issue for either Pellegrini or Zaniolo; both are well-established with the Azzurri, and there’s no doubt that Roberto Mancini will be seriously considering Roma’s dynamic duo for the 2022 World Cup squad.
For players new to their national team circuit, though, Mourinho’s pushes to keep players close to Rome during the international break could cause ruffled feathers. It’s admittedly unlikely given his current teacher’s pet status, but Felix Afena-Gyan might be the player with the most potential for those ruffled feathers after this break. One of Roma’s newest starlets, Afena-Gyan has been quite impressive for the Giallorossi over the past few weeks, and those recent performances garnered him a call-up to the senior Ghanaian National Team this break. However, it’s reported that Mourinho and other club higher-ups convinced Afena-Gyan and the Ghanaian NT apparatus that it was best for the striker to stay with Roma and continue his training.
The logic certainly follows from Mourinho’s point of view; another few weeks training Afena-Gyan gets him more acclimated to playing with the senior squad’s tactics, while theoretically preventing the teenager from picking up a nasty injury during a relatively meaningless friendly. On the flip side, though, it’s every footballer’s dream to become a stalwart for their national team, or to put on that kit at least once in their career. One hopes that Afena-Gyan will continue to impress with Roma and become a no-brainer selection for the Ghanaian National Team, but if the striker suddenly sees a lot less pitch for whatever reason, he’d certainly have reasons to be grumpy.
I don’t expect Afena-Gyan to start a match for the Giallorossi for a long time, but he’s certainly shown a lot of promise as a second-half substitution (one of the few that José Mourinho seems to trust). If he’s able to continue building on that role, it may prove for the best that he didn’t grab his first-ever cap for the Ghanaian National Team. If he’s unable to see the pitch against sides like Genoa, though, that might break the trust that is clearly developing between Afena-Gyan and the man he’s called “an inspiration.”