Coming into this season, I was expecting the Giallorossi to find success in the Europa League and in Serie A. I know I’m the optimist of the Chiesa di Totti writing staff, but the amount of depth Tiago Pinto had provided José Mourinho in the offseason, combined with star signings like Paulo Dybala and Gini Wijnaldum, all indicated to me that this was a Roma side that could truly compete on all fronts.
The first few months have been unkind to the Giallorossi’s depth, however, as injuries to everyone from Wijnaldum to Nicolò Zaniolo to Rick Karsdorp to Zeki Çelik (man, Roma has a tough time with right-backs, don’t they) meant that rotations became harder and harder to perform successfully. Throw in the mediocre form of Tammy Abraham and the necessary adjustment period for new signings like Andrea Belotti, and it makes sense that Roma’s season isn’t deserving of an A+ just yet.
We’re a ways away from pulling any fire alarms about Roma’s potential this season; it’s still possible for the Giallorossi to make it out of their Europa League group despite two losses in their first three matches, and all that depth that is currently injured or out of form will return to the pitch eventually. Still, losses to sides like Real Betis and Ludogorets sting even more because of wins against sides like Inter Milan. Romanisti know that this side can beat any team on its day; the question is (and always has been) whether or not the Giallorossi will play down to the level of their competition for any given match.
To make sure that Roma’s midweek loss to Betis is a blip and not the start of a worrying trend, Mourinho’s men simply must take all three points against Lecce tomorrow. The match is at the Olimpico, the gap in quality is enormous, and it is imperative for Roma to step up in the league while clubs like Juventus and Inter are faltering. I may be the most optimistic writer here at CdT, but anything other than a win tomorrow will see me enter an Eeyore Era.
What To Watch For
Will The Dybala Magic Continue?
One of the biggest reasons to expect a win tomorrow is one person, and his name is Paulo Dybala. The Argentine forward has been nothing short of sensational since he joined up with the Giallorossi—even in losses, La Joya has often been the brightest jewel on the pitch for either side. His goals against Inter and Betis were instrumental in keeping Roma in both matches, and even though the rest of the Giallorossi squad didn’t seize on that opportunity against Betis, it is critical for Roma’s long-term hopes that they finally have someone who provides Totti-esque attacking magic wearing a Giallorossi kit week in and week out.
Of course, even the best players in the world have peaks and valleys in their form, and Paulo Dybala is no exception. For Roma to have sustained success over the course of a season, Mourinho needs to get more from his other attacking talents, especially Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini. Pellegrini won’t be available for tomorrow’s match, and rumors indicate that Andrea Belotti might get a chance to start after Abraham’s uninspiring performance in the midweek game; those tactical realities will likely place a large burden on Dybala to be the difference maker yet again against Lecce, but a goal from the likes of Belotti or Nicolò Zaniolo would do wonders to make sure that when Dybala supplies the magic, it isn’t for absolutely nothing.
Kumbulla’s Time To Shine?
Roma’s attack outside of Paulo Dybala has left a lot to be desired to start this season, but its defense has been practically otherworldly. Chris Smalling has been one of the best defenders in Europe, Roger Ibañez has rediscovered his form to the point where the superclubs are sniffing around yet again, and clearly, someone has replaced Gianluca Mancini with a clone who has all of his talents without the tendency to pick up yellow cards at every opportunity.
While that’s undoubtedly good news for Roma (and a big reason why the Giallorossi are still only four points behind first), it’s left Roma’s fourth center-back, Marash Kumbulla, without very much playing time.
The sheer amount of depth that Roma has had at center-back throughout Kumbulla’s time at the club has not been kind to the Albanian’s hopes for becoming a starter. When he gets consistent minutes, Kumbulla has shown himself to be quite the footballer, and he has the potential to be worth the exorbitant transfer fee Roma paid for him and more. My pet theory is that Kumbulla was signed with the expectation that one of Smalling and Ibañez would be departing the Giallorossi soon, and since that hasn’t happened, Mad Max has been stuck in the “definitely not a prospect, but definitely not a starter” purgatory.
Fortunately, it looks as if Kumbulla will get a real start tomorrow against Lecce, and although he’s not playing an opponent like Inter Milan or even Real Betis, I hope he uses the opportunity to make Mourinho’s life just a little bit harder when he’s putting together his starting eleven for each match. If he does, it can only mean good things for the Giallorossi in the long term.
Will Lecce Seize On Roma’s Tiredness Post-Betis?
I hate Thursday matches for several reasons. First, it’s impossible for me to watch them in real time, so the enjoyment I normally get out of watching football is replaced with the anxiety of hoping that the push notification I just got is positive, not negative news for the Giallorossi. Secondly, and more importantly for the players actually on the pitch, Thursday matches are often less than 72 hours before the weekend match, and that’s simply not enough recovery time to be back at full strength for anyone, even a professional footballer.
Lecce coach Marco Baroni clearly knows this; in his pre-match presser, he was very complimentary of Roma, José Mourinho, and the Stadio Olimpico but noted:
“It is going to be very difficult to play against a very strong team, they have great quality and are hurt by the recent defeat against Betis. We absolutely have to make a good impression and try and put up a fight.”
“Roma are a very solid team, with crazy physicality, just look at the solutions at their disposal from set-pieces.”
“We must not fear this and with great humility we will try to put you in difficulty. I have to tell the truth: I know it will be a complicated game. They have spent a lot of effort with Betis and have a decisive return leg in Seville.”
“Mourinho wants to win even when he plays bingo, they have many players at their disposal and they will be looking to bounce back.”
Those two matches against Betis will undoubtedly be at the front of every Romanisti’s mind even as the Giallorossi play Lecce this weekend. The key for Mourinho and his players has to be that they treat this Lecce match as just as important as either Betis match. As I said at the outset of this article, I think it’s completely feasible for Roma to advance past the Europa League group stage, even with their poor form to start the competition.
Still, not only would a loss or draw against Lecce tomorrow provide poor form for the club heading into that crucial second match against Betis, but it would also make it that much harder for the Giallorossi to claw their way into the top four this season. Both matches have to be priorities, and Mourinho has to find the proper rotations to make sure that both matches can result in wins.