The start of the new year brings the second round of matches for the Giallorossi in Serie A. Although sixth place isn’t where Romanisti hoped their club would be following the winter break, there are still only six points separating Roma from fourth place. With several top four sides looking weakened, January might be Roma’s moment to catapult itself into a Champions League spot.
Along with the weekend match against Juventus, Thursday’s match against Milan will be a true test of José Mourinho’s Roma. Bringing home the three points from the San Siro would fundamentally shift the balance of the top six; winning against the Rossoneri and Juventus in the span of seven days would be even more groundbreaking. Here’s what to watch for as the Giallorossi look to start their 2022 on the right note.
October 31, 2020: Roma 1, Milan 2
Roma’s first match of the season against Milan was a frustrating one to watch, to say the least. The biggest difference-maker between the clubs last time out was the poor refereeing of Fabio Maresca; he handed out eleven yellow cards over the course of the match, awarded a non-existent penalty to Milan, and generally shifted the balance of the match in a way that is inexcusable in top-flight football.
You have to give credit to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his free-kick goal that got the Rossoneri the three points, though. That was an impressive goal for anyone, let alone a man who should be nearing the end of his career. His continued excellence is one of the many things the Giallorossi need to look out for, which we’ll get into in more depth below.
What To Watch For
Can Roma Contain a Post-Injury Zlatan?
As previously mentioned, Zlatan was the separating factor between Milan getting three points versus one point last time out. I don’t have much to add here about his quality and longevity; that topic has been written about so much, there’s no new way to tackle it. However, it is important to note that Zlatan will be playing his first match after recently returning from injury, and that may impact his ability to once again push Milan to a win.
Roma’s defense looks to be in decent shape heading into this match; Gianluca Mancini, Max Kumbulla, Chris Smalling, and Roger Ibañez all look to be available (more on Smalling later, though). If they’re able to contain Ibra appropriately, the Giallorossi will have a much better case for getting three points out of Milan.
Will a Weakened Milan Defense Be The Difference-Maker?
Even though Milan are lucky enough to have Zlatan back in their ranks for Thursday’s match, the Rossoneri are certainly weaker now throughout the pitch than they were last time out. The season-ending injury to former Roma man Simon Kjær is only one part of the equation; Davide Calabria is also either out or barely back from an injury spell, and both Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer are away at AFCON. This incarnation of Roma might not be known for having depth, but Milan are now in a similar pickle, at least for the moment.
The loss of Kjær, in particular, could be a chance for a surging Nicolò Zaniolo and a remarkably consistent Tammy Abraham to make their mark against a giant of Serie A. Mike Maignan is back from injury, sure, but Milan’s defense is likely to be fragile on Thursday. You can bet your bottom dollar that José Mourinho will do his best to exploit that fragility.
Smalling and The Vaxx
COVID-19 has been a thorn in the side of just about everyone on Earth since March 2020, but because of the public nature of their employment, we’ve probably seen the most news about how the coronavirus has affected professional athletes. Whether it was the temporary pause of sports leagues worldwide, playing matches behind closed doors, or more and more players needing to sit out and recuperate after catching the omicron variant, COVID-19 has left an indelible presence on both the world at large and the world of sports.
Regardless of which sport we’re talking about, though, there have been athletes who don’t seem to understand the gravity of the pandemic. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets is the most famous example of a player who has said no to the vaccine to the detriment of himself, his team, and his career; unfortunately, rumors suggest that Chris Smalling might be joining Irving in an ill-advised fight against medical professionals advocating for vaccination.
Smalling has been training with the club recently, and he’s been a revelation in defense now that most of his injuries have been handled. It would be a shame on multiple levels if the English international decides to ignore the advice of his coach, club ownership, and medical professionals the world over by continuing to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine. If he doesn’t get vaccinated, he won’t be able to play for Roma in Serie A on January 10th, making Roma a weaker side; if he doesn’t get vaccinated, he’s also sending the wrong message to Romanisti everywhere about the safety and necessity of fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several reports suggest that Mourinho is working to convince Smalling that he needs to get vaccinated. If he’s unable to convince the Englishman, I’m not sure that it makes sense to play him even before the vaccination deadline. Why give minutes to a player who Is choosing to be unavailable for his employer in less than a week?
Let’s all hope that Smalling is available to play on Thursday, and let’s all hope that he’s vaccinated as soon as possible. The Giallorossi are a stronger side with him than they are without him, and a win is far more likely each week with a vaccinated and healthy Smalling in the starting eleven.