January hasn’t been kind to Romanisti so far. While many entered the new year with optimism about where the Giallorossi could go with the right squad adjustments, losses to both Juventus and A.C. Milan (for very different reasons, to be fair) have made the mood quite dour around the Romaverse. The signings of Sergio Oliveira and Ainsley Maitland-Niles look to be a step in the right direction, as do the club’s adieus to both Gonzalo Villar and Borja Mayoral. Beyond a night-move signing of a star defensive midfielder like Boubacar Kamara, though, the best thing that Roma could do to turn some frowns upside down would be getting a big win tomorrow as they host Cagliari.
Unfortunately, even with their new signings on board, Roma won’t be heading into this match at full strength. Chris Smalling, Roger Ibañez, and Bryan Cristante will all be out due to suspension, and Rick Karsdorp appears to be out as well. That means that I Lupi will be working with a defense that is far from first-choice, with new boy Maitland-Niles likely paired up with Max Kumbulla, Gianluca Mancini, and Matias Viña. Cristante’s suspension will similarly throw Sergio Oliveira right into the fire of the Giallorossi starting eleven, so it’s safe to say that although this match won’t be as difficult as either of Roma’s two previous outings, the sheer lack of depth available could pose some problems over the course of ninety minutes.
Cagliari aren’t in great shape either as we reach the halfway point of the winter mercato. Prior to the winter break, DS Leonardo Capozucca announced that some players had “played their last match in a Cagliari jersey. Some don’t have respect for anyone,” and sure enough, players like Uruguayan international Diego Godin have already left the club for greener pastures (specifically Brazilian ones, as he moves on to Atletico Mineiro).
With injuries sidelining three key starters (including our former midfield hero Kevin Strootman) and with Nahitan Nández only testing negative for COVID-19 earlier this week, neither side will be entering this match at full strength. The good news for the Giallorossi is that even a weakened Roma side should be able to beat a weakened Cagliari, at least on paper. Unfortunately, we all know how much “good on paper” has meant for Mourinho’s men to date, so I fully expect to be on pins and needles throughout the full ninety.
October 27, 2021: Cagliari 1, Roma 2
Ah, October. Back when the leaves were on the trees, Omicron was a figment of our collective nightmares, and the Giallorossi were looking solid to start the season. Although Roma’s unbeaten start to the season was over by the time I Lupi traveled to Sardinia, they still managed to get the three points against Walter Mazzarri’s men in a come-from-behind victory.
The difference-maker here was Lorenzo Pellegrini, as it usually was at the start of this season. Capitano’s free-kick goal in the 78th minute finished a comeback started only seven minutes prior by a Roger Ibañez free-kick, more than making up for a dull first half with no goals and little of interest on the pitch.
What To Watch For
Will The Sergio Oliveira Effect Save Roma’s Skin?
Sergio Oliveira certainly entered the Giallorossi world with flare, as you can see from his announcement photo above. The midfielder certainly seems quite excited to start his new chapter in Rome, telling the press that “Roma has great players, players with personality, and I feel like another one of those – with the task of helping us to improve and to reach the targets we have.” I doubt that even Oliveira anticipated that he would be starting his new gig in Rome as a midfield starter alongside Jordan Veretout, however; the confluence of suspensions that have piled up practically guarantees that the Portuguese international will be on the field from minute one against Cagliari.
Bren already wrote a great introductory article on Oliveira’s signing, so be sure to head over there when you have a moment. I’ll just add that although Oliveira is definitely not the defensive midfielder Roma has been searching for since José Mourinho was hired, he does have more defensive ability than most of our other midfielders who see the pitch with any regularity. If I was a betting man, I’d suggest that Oliveira might be insurance for an eventual Jordan Veretout sale more than anything else, but until that big-money offer from Newcastle comes, it’ll be interesting to see how well he pairs with the Frenchman and Bryan Cristante. If Oliveira is able to provide more defensive ability on the pitch than either of his midfield compatriots, it might be just what Roma needs to get out of this disappointing stretch of losses.
Can This Match Be Zaniolo’s “Turning Point?”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: according to rumors, Nicolò Zaniolo is very tired of how long it’s taking him to get back to his pre-ACL tears greatness, and he’s targeting this next match (yes, this next one!) as a chance for him to truly announce his return to the world. What, you’ve heard that before? Practically every week? Oh. Well, even still, I’m going to argue right now that out of all of Roma’s matches in January, this is without a doubt Zaniolo’s best chance to turn things around.
On the most basic of levels, relegation-battling Cagliari are not Juventus and Milan. They may try to play a far more defensive game than either of those clubs because they have less talented players, and that can certainly cause problems for a player like Zaniolo who thrives on open space. Despite that, playing Cagliari means that at the very least, when Zaniolo slaloms forward with the ball he won’t be shooting the ball towards a Mike Maignan or a Wojciech Szczęsny. Instead, it will be Alessio Cragno, a good goalkeeper on his day but not one who gives attackers nightmares. That enough should be encouraging for all the Nicolò fans out there, but beyond that, there’s also the idea that everyone in Roma’s camp knows just how badly the Giallorossi need a win tomorrow.
Prior to his ACL tears, one of Zaniolo’s defining traits as a player was his ability to perform in high-stakes matches, to be a difference-maker when it counted. His first match was a Champions League game against Real Madrid, for Totti’s sake, and although this match is clearly not as much of a showstopper as that one, the pressure of expectations for the club right now does feel similar.
The ability to shine in difficult situations isn’t something you learn on the training ground, and it isn’t something that disappears after an injury. Despite his frustrating form this season, I have faith that Zaniolo has that ability still. Even one goal from The Kid tomorrow would do a lot to repay that faith.