With both Milan clubs perched near the top of the Serie A table and the two capital clubs not far behind, Serie A remains a wide-open race between some of Italy's biggest and most well-known clubs. This may be a public relations dream come true for the league office, but for the six or seven clubs jockeying for a position in the top four, it's an incredibly daunting gauntlet to navigate, with every match potentially worth millions in future Champions League revenue.
And with a crucial six-pointer (more or less) against Milan on Sunday, Roma are faced with the unenviable task of slowing down the Rossoneri. While Zlatan Ibrahimovic and friends have hit a bit of a rough patch, Milan remains one of the most dangerous clubs in the league, one more than capable of giving Roma a run for her money under the best of circumstances, to say nothing of a Giallorossi squad currently beset by injuries.
To get a better perspective on Sunday's match, we turned to our friends at the AC Milan Offside, who were kind enough to answer a few questions about tomorrow's fixture at the Stadio Olimpico.
It’s been quite a wild 18 months or so for Milan. What were the key factors in their stunning turnaround late last season? Going along with that, what’s caused this recent dip in form? Was there an aspect of their 2020 success that they’ve abandoned or is simply no longer working?
AC Milan Offside: I think it’s a combination of things. When Zlatan arrived, he brought that win-at-all-costs mentality, but what he also did was he relived a lot of the pressure on some of the younger players who’d been struggling as well. Kessie, Bennacer, Calabria, Leao, and Calhanoglu started to play much more to their expectations and a few even started to exceed them. Pioli’s done a great job at implementing a system that gets the best out of these players, and in an environment with no fans in the stadium and the media focused around Ibra, some of the players started to have breathing room to showcase their ability.
With the recent form, it boils down to creativity and confidence. Bennacer and Hakan drive a lot of our back-to-front play, and both have missed a lot of time and hadn’t settled back in before one got injured and is out again. We don’t get creativity out of a lot of players, and if the burden is all on the shoulders of one then all the opposition needs to do is shut that down. With the lack of goals and recent results, the team just hasn’t played with as much confidence as we’ve recently become accustomed to. They were flattened by Atalanta, new boys Spezia, Inter, and then were lucky to get by on away goals against Crvena Zvezda. It’s a young squad so these things happen, but you certainly hope they get that winning mentality back because top 4 is by no means a guarantee.
For the uninitiated, this team is probably all Zlatan all the time, but who else should Roma fans keep an eye on Sunday?
ACMO: I’d say Tonali is really coming into his own. Kessie has been the main man in the double pivot, especially with Bennacer out, so Tonali’s been asked to do a job in that right side of the defensive two and although his assist tally doesn’t show it, he’s shown he can pick a pass and drive the ball forward when needed. He certainly struggled out of the gate, but he’s young and was getting into the swing of things. Now he seems to be growing in confidence and ability. Keep an eye on him!
Tell us a bit about Franck Kessie. He seems to be enjoying the best stretch of his career. What’s his typical role under Pioli and how does it differ from the ways other Milan managers utilized him?
ACMO: Kessie at Atalanta thrived in the double pivot role Gasperini placed him in, and upon his arrival at Milan he was played as part of the base in a 4-3-3. When Giampaolo took the helm, he still was a part of the diamond midfield in a mezzala role. Pioli changed the formation to something that suited Franck the Tank more, the 4-2-3-1. His strength lies in his ability to cover acres of space defensively while also displaying his incredible ball retention and further distributing to those on the wings or Bennacer across the middle. He doesn’t often put up eye-popping numbers for goals and assists, but he’s also not really that type of player.
Milan features a pair of former Roma defenders, Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjær, but we never got to enjoy them as fully formed players. What are their strengths and weaknesses as a partnership? How can Roma best exploit them?
ACMO: Kjær has brought positional experience to the partnership. He just always seems to be in the right place in the right time, and on top of that he’s never afraid to put his body on the line for the ball. Romagnoli’s strength has always lied in ball distribution and positional placement from the back, but recently he’s struggled for form. Their weakness is that neither of them are very pacey, so the high line Pioli loves to play often leads to easy counters from opposition. If Roma puts the press on and forces a turnover in the midfield then the backline, bar Theo, usually isn’t quick enough to get back and stop the impending counter.
Losing in the derby was a crushing blow for Milan, but are their Scudetto hopes dashed now?
ACMO: I wouldn’t say they’re dashed, but they’re certainly dimmer than a few weeks back. If you ask any fan, they’ll always tell you the goal is top 4, myself included. I’d also be lying if I said with all the results thus far that we aren’t gunning for the Scudetto. It’s Inter’s to lose, but as sour as it is, I’m alright with it if it means Juve doesn’t win a tenth on the trot.
Let’s take things off the pitch for a second. How worried are Milan fans about Gianluigi Donnarumma’s future with the club? Is there any chance he could be moved if they can’t agree to a new contract?
ACMO: Gigio has always expressed his willingness and desire to stay in Milan. He’s grown up a fan, he’s a fan-favorite, and is the best player to come out of the academy since Paolo Maldini in all likelihood. That being said, Mirabelli giving him that lucrative contract a few years back really screwed us long-term. We haven’t had Champions League revenue in years, and Gigio has established himself as a top 5 shot-stopper in the world at this point. He needs to play in the Champions League to really further his career, so I think there is cautious optimism he stays, but under some absurd Raiola clause where he can leave for 40 million euros if we can’t secure a top 4 finish this term or next.
Lastly, give us a prediction for Sunday
ACMO: I’m of the mind that while we can get ourselves back to scoring form, Romagnoli and Kjaer aren’t syncing at the moment which will lead to opposing goals. I’ll go 2-2 with goals from Zlatan and Leao and then Veretout and Borja netting for Roma.
Big thanks to our friends at the AC Milan Offside for their time and insight. Make sure to join us for tomorrow's match in our Game Thread!