Roma got the job done against S.C. Braga in the Europa League, and although he is definitely excited to be facing Shakhtar Donetsk in the next round, Paulo Fonseca’s main priority has to be the Giallorossi’s match against A.C. Milan this Sunday. The Rossoneri are on quite the skid at the moment, having barely squeaked through their tie against Red Star and with two straight losses in Serie A.
Roma vs. Milan: February 28th. 20:45 CET/2:45 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
Combine that with Roma’s inability to beat top sides so far this season and you’ll see that even though the Roma-Milan rivalry is not that big of a deal historically, there’s every reason to think that both sides will be coming into this match with something to prove.
October 26, 2020: Milan 3, Roma 3
Roma’s last match against Milan is arguably the most impressive they’ve looked against a top side all season. Sure, they never were in the lead during their 3-3 draw with the Rossoneri, but the sheer determination required to claw back a goal against Milan three times over the course of ninety minutes has to be appreciated. Penalties were handed out to both sides and converted by Jordan Veretout and Zlatan Ibrahiović, respectively, but it was Marash Kumbulla’s 84th-minute goal that sealed the scoreline at the San Siro.
After the match, we bemoaned the apparent lack of quality Roma had in its wide men:
This evening saw a Roma weak-point that we’ll see be the undoing of this Giallorosso team many times throughout this season to come: the wide men.
Leonardo Spinazzola is good for about 45 minutes of play then shuts down for the night, while the right wing is frankly anyone’s guess as to how Roma dig themselves out of the selection problems on that side.
Bruno Peres was OK in this game, Rick Karsdorp much less so. It was clear Fonseca wanted to try and win the mental battle for domination of the flanks, and so felt the deep-lying Santon wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the Roma coach simply doesn’t have a substitute for Spinazzola on the other end. That leaves Roma playing with grains of uncertainty sprinkled into their overall play.
If you could just find two men with the strength to dominate the flanks, the Roma’s opponents would be intimidated to trying their luck through the middle, where the core of this Roma side wants the ball to be played into the very strengths of this Giallorosso unit. That’d be in an ideal world; one where you’d get a Roma team shooting towards the top positions in the table. Instead, what we saw was Roma picking and choosing their moments to toil away to a point away at the San Siro.
The issues out wide have been largely resolved by the Karsdorp Renaissance and the continued good form of Leonardo Spinazzola, but barring the explosion of Bryan Reynolds in the next month or two, we’re still dealing with the same corps of attacking fullbacks. They’ve shown their mettle time and time again against smaller sides - can they do it tomorrow against a side with a world-class goalkeeper and quality throughout the side?
What To Watch For
Borja’s Big Break?
With Edin Džeko once again sidelined with injury issues, Paulo Fonseca will most likely be forced into playing Borja Mayoral until his feet fall off. Mayoral has really impressed this season, scoring eleven goals and assisting six across all competitions, and given that, it’s almost guaranteed that the Giallorossi will sign the Spaniard permanently on the €15 million option provided by their loan agreement with Real Madrid.
Even though Mayoral has undoubtedly been Roma’s best backup to Edin Džeko, well, ever, it’s equally undoubtable that most of his goalscoring has come against the smaller sides of Italy and Europe. Much like Fonseca’s Roma more broadly, Mayoral has shown himself to be excellent at helping Roma win against the minnows, but his effectiveness against the bigger clubs has been questionable at best. With The Bosnian Diamond unavailable tomorrow, Mayoral will have the chance to show that not only is he worth his €15 million option, he’s worth positioning as Roma’s star striker post-Džeko.
The Bench Keeps Getting Shorter
Of course, Edin Džeko’s sidelining due to injury is only the latest in a series of injuries crippling Paulo Fonseca’s side during one of the most hectic parts of the Giallorossi’s season. As of right now, it appears that nearly half of Roma’s defenders, Edin Džeko, and of course Nicolo Zaniolo won’t be included in the squad for tomorrow’s match against Milan. Roma has had injury issues for as long as I’ve supported them, but the sheer number of current injuries hitting the squad is almost ridiculous.
Given that, it’s honestly rather commendable that Paulo Fonseca has been able to keep things under control for the past couple weeks. Draw against Benevento notwithstanding, the Giallorossi remain in direct contention for the Europa League title and qualification to the Champions League through Serie A. A win with a depleted side against Milan, even a Milan going through a patch of rough form, would do a lot to convince The Friedkin Group to keep the Portuguese manager around for the long haul. I just hope we don’t have to see Leonardo Spinazzola at center-back for much longer. It’s functional, but not pretty.
The Pau Patrol Versus The Zlatan
If Roma expect to get a win against a top-eight side for the first time this season, they’re going to have to hope that Pau Lopez and his makeshift Patrol can handle Zlatan Ibrahimović. Zlatan scored two against Roma in the first half of this tie, and although those goals were against Antonio Mirante, I’m not convinced that there’s a huge gulf of quality separating Mirante from Lopez - it’s more about who’s healthy and in decent-enough form.
Ignoring the necessity of Roma stifling Zlatan tomorrow if they expect a win, I would be so happy if the Giallorossi could silence the Swedish striker for ninety minutes. First, there’s Zlatan’s current war of words with LeBron James, which has forced this Celtics fan into the unenviable position of having to strongly defend the star of the Lakers. Beyond that, though, I’m just not a huge fan of Zlatan.
When he moves to a club, he makes it all about him and never about the players he’s supposed to be working with to win a title. He wins, sure, but it’s about him winning, not the club—a direct antithesis of the love between player and club personified by Francesco Totti’s history with Roma. He’s a mercenary for hire, and although he’s probably the best mercenary for hire ever in the history of the sport, a mercenary is a mercenary. Add in the questionable nature of his current spat with Romelu Lukaku, and I’m officially on the anti-Zlatan train.
LeBron responded after Zlatan Ibrahimovic criticized him for his activism.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 27, 2021
“I’m kind of the wrong guy to actually go at because I do my homework.” pic.twitter.com/VyKgBrYuiz
So Pau, I know we’ve had our differences. I think a couple months ago I said I had lost all faith in you and didn’t want to see you between the sticks for Roma next season. Honestly? That’s still kind of true. But it would mean the world for me if you could keep it together for ninety minutes against Zlatan. If you don’t do it for me, and the idea of Roma getting three points against Milan won’t make you do it, do it for the karmic balance of the world.