If there’s one non-Roma story that’s tugged at my heartstrings over the past several seasons of Serie A football, it’s the rise of Atalanta into a perennial Champions League side and Italian powerhouse. Compared to the old guard of Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and even Roma, Atalanta is the only side other than Sassuolo to really break into Serie A and stay there; with the help of Gianpiero Gasperini and a superb scouting department, the Regina della provinciali is slowly becoming the Regina della Serie A. Although the Bergamo side’s continued excellence has made it harder for the Giallorossi to be assured of a spot in European competitions, it’s been worth it to see all of the Seven Sisters struggle against the new kid on the block.
This season has been more of the same for La Dea, as they now sit comfortably in the Champions League slots and only three points behind league leaders Inter. They’ll be looking for their seventh straight victory in Serie A tomorrow against the Giallorossi, and while signs certainly point towards Atalanta getting the three points at home (the bookies give them a 57% chance of a win), there’s still reason to hope for success for I Lupi.
What To Watch For
Can Anyone Stop Duván Zapata?
Atalanta have quite the well-balanced squad these days; this is no Ronaldo-era-Juventus situation, where one star outshines all the other players on the pitch. Yet out of all of Atalanta’s formidable starting eleven, there’s still no doubt that Duván Zapata is the most likely player to give the Giallorossi a headache this weekend—he's scored four times in 12 matches against Roma. Zapata’s notched twelve goals and seven assists in all competitions so far this season, practically guaranteeing he’ll join the double-double club before May. These stats, along with his 1.6 key passes per match and 1.4 dribbles per match, showcase that in many respects, Zapata is an all-around threat. If you cut off his ability to score, he’ll just find that extra pass to give someone like Josip Ilicic, Ruslan Malinovskyi, or Mario Pasalic an easy chance.
Even if he doesn’t have the name recognition of Dušan Vlahović or Ciro Immobile, he’s arguably just as big an attacking talent as any other striker in the league. The good news is that Roma’s defense has been excellent at neutralizing star strikers this season; there’s something about seeing a star’s name on the team sheet that helps Roger Ibañez and Gianluca Mancini find a higher level of play. The bad news is that Zapata is far more balanced of a striker than either Vlahović or Immobile, but nevertheless, you have to start somewhere when trying to defeat Atalanta’s hydra-like offense.
Will The Three-At-The-Back Formation Hold Against A Big Side?
On a related note, Roma’s defense is really going to have to hold its own against Atalanta this weekend, otherwise, the Giallorossi are in line for another drubbing in the style of their 3-0 loss to Inter. There’s little doubt that José Mourinho will be relying on his new-look three-at-the-back defense against La Dea, and although it has been successful against smaller sides in recent weeks, it’s an open question whether or not it can handle a real offense. We know that Ibañez, Mancini, and Chris Smalling can have moments of individual greatness in defense regardless of the opponent, but can they work together to hold the line against the second-highest scoring team in the league?
Roma may be down to bare bones in a lot of positions, but fortunately, center-back is one of the few where they have an adequate substitute ready for when things go south. With Chris Smalling training with the team again and ready to start against Atalanta, we can expect Marash Kumbulla to be pushed back onto the bench. In my eyes, this makes him one of the likely first substitutions for Mourinho this weekend; he’s shown his worth over the past few weeks, particularly in this three-at-the-back offense, and with Felix Afena-Gyan suspended, it’s highly likely that Mourinho will look to fortify his defense sixty minutes into this one instead of giving his offensive line an adrenaline shot.
There were rumors linking Kumbulla with a move away from the club this January, either on loan or permanently, but as we get closer to Christmas, it’s become clear that Kumbulla does have a long-term future with the Giallorossi. Having him as a fourth option for a three-man defense will be incredibly useful if Mourinho hopes to make this tactic a regular part of Roma’s plans, particularly against the big boys of Serie A and Europe.
Will Zaniolo Finally Break The Goal Drought?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Nicolò Zaniolo hasn’t had the easiest season. Whether that’s because the referees seem to be out to get him, because he’s still working on getting back to full strength after two years of rehabbing his ACLs, or because he’s just been unlucky, that’s translated to zero goals in Serie A for 515 days. Fortunately, Zaniolo has gotten a lot of support from both his manager and his club through the first half of the season; they’ve fought for him against the referees and they’ve supported him while the goal drought has continued.
Even still, you have to imagine it’s been incredibly frustrating for The Kid to only score in the Europa Conference League so far this season. This is a guy who’s been thought of as the future of Roma and the future of the Azzurri. All the reassurances in the world from José Mourinho and Roberto Mancini that he’s still a big part of their respective plans won’t do much to quiet the doubts that are no doubt developing in his head as his Serie A drought continues.
Just like this incarnation of Roma could use a win against a big club just to break the duck, Zaniolo desperately needs a goal, particularly against a club that matters, just to prove to himself that he is still that star of the future. I can’t imagine that there are any Romanisti out there rooting against Nicolò (then again, us Romanisti are a weird bunch), but I hope we all root for him especially hard against Atalanta tomorrow. If you want the Giallorossi to be thoroughly in the hunt for a Champions League spot, you have to want Zaniolo to rediscover his goalscoring ways. At the end of the day, it’s as simple as that.
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