Roma’s next game is rather ho-hum by all appearances; Udinese aren’t that intriguing of a club this season, and despite some absences that Roma will have to endure, the sheer quality of the Giallorossi side should be enough to handle their opponents tomorrow. Still, this match holds significance as yet another make-or-break moment for Roma’s aspirations of Champions League football next season. Another win combined with continued poor form from Atalanta and Juventus will make the fight for fourth place even more intense than it currently is; a loss would likely condemn the Giallorossi to the Europa Conference League and its terrible pitch conditions yet again, assuming they’re unable to win their first trophy in over a decade and gain entry to the Europa League that way. Romanisti everywhere will be watching the table this weekend just as much as they’re watching the pitch, or at least I know I will.
Here’s a fun fact: if I had supported an Italian football simply based on where my family comes from, I’d be an Udinese fan today. My Nonna was born in Trieste and my Nonno was born in Arba, a small town that is also in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. Fortunately for me, neither my Nonno nor my Nonna were rabid about calcio back in the day, so it was the star play of Francesco Totti for the Azzurri in the early 2000s that hooked me on football, and therefore the Giallorossi. I still hold a bit of love for the club’s from my family’s home, though, and I’ve always enjoyed watching when Le Zebrette are able to hold their own in the top half of the Serie A table. Given all of that, I hope that Roma are able to comfortably win against Udinese, but if my “hometown club” is able to avoid completely embarrassing themselves, I’ll be happy too.
September 23, 2021: Roma 1, Udinese 0
Roma’s last match against Udinese was a Roma-Era Mourinho Special: a 1-0 win featuring a goal from Tammy Abraham. Gianluca Mancini put in another feisty defensive effort, the woodwork once again proved to be Roma’s greatest nemesis, and the midfield was thoroughly mediocre. I don’t like matches that play out like this; like all of you, I’d much rather see Roma run rampant on smaller sides. Still, my long-held belief is that the Giallorossi first need to get used to winning consistently before they can win beautifully, and even teams that win beautifully on a regular basis sometimes need to eke out an ugly win. I won’t mind too much if we add yet another 1-0 win to the record tomorrow against Udinese.
Here’s what we had to say post-match in September, which largely echoes my sentiments:
It wasn’t pretty by any means, but we’ll take it! As I mentioned previously, Roma’s first half is exactly the response you wanted to see following the Verona defeat. The work rate and intensity right out of the gate wasn’t necessarily a surprise given the strides we’ve seen the team make this season in terms of their mentality, but you still tip your hat to the players and Mourinho for getting the approach right.
The second half, in which Udinese more or less dominated the run of play, continues a worrying trend of coming out flat at the start of the second half, but you’re going to have to win some ugly games if you want to qualify for the Champions League, and that’s exactly what Roma did today. Of course, Roma may not be so fortunate against some of the better sides in Serie A, but securing the three points is probably all that matters to Mourinho following the Verona result.
What To Watch For
Who Controls Gerard Deulofeu?
Udinese aren’t the most exciting offensive team in Italy this season; their goal differential of -9 is far better than the likes of relegation-bound Salernitana, but compared to the days of Antonio Di Natale wearing Serie A’s other black-and-white striped kit, this incarnation of I Friulani lacks firepower. One of the few examples of actual goalscoring ability in the squad is Gerard Deulofeu, former Barcelona starlet and a name that even a casual follower of European football has heard at least a couple times. At age 28, Deulofeu certainly isn’t at the level of ability many expected from him as a teenager, or even at the level expected from him when he was at Watford. Nevertheless, his eight goals and two assists with Udinese the season make him the club’s joint-top goalscorer, and if Roma wants to try to eke out another 1-0 win on Sunday, they’ll need to make sure the Spaniard doesn’t find the net.
This Roma defense has felt comfortable neutralizing star-level attacking talent this year; Roma’s wins against Fiorentina, Atalanta, and others largely came from the ability of Gianluca Mancini and Roger Ibañez to turn players like Dusan Vlahović and Duvan Zapata into afterthoughts. Neither Deulofeu nor Brazilian striker Beto are at Vlahović’s or Zapata’s level, but unless Roma wants another embarrassing draw or loss to a squad clearly below them talent-wise, Roma’s defenders need to approach controlling Deulofeu with the same intensity as they approach controlling some of the best strikers in the world.
More Chances for El Shaarawy and Zalewski?
Nicola Zalewski and Stephan El Shaarawy are on the opposite ends of their careers in Rome. Zalewski is the shiny new toy, a prospect who has been willing to play out of position for his manager and even managed to find success in that left-wing-back role. Meanwhile, El Shaarawy is on his second stint in Rome, and his high salary and poor form (Vitesse match aside) make it seem as if he’s not long for the Eternal City. Despite their differing career trajectories, or perhaps because of them, it looks as if they’re both jockeying for a spot in José Mourinho’s side tomorrow.
Both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marash Kumbulla will be missing from Roma’s starting eleven tomorrow because of suspensions picked up against Atalanta, and Il Tempo believes that Sergio Oliveira and Roger Ibañez will take their places in the lineup. The sole question mark in the lineup appears at left-wing, where Mourinho has been trying out both El Shaarawy and Zalewski.
My take? Even though Zalewski is recovering from an ankle sprain, he should get the start. I haven’t been impressed with El Shaarawy this season at all, while in my book Zalewski has the building blocks to become a great attacker, arguably more so than other Primavera graduates like Felix Afena-Gyan. It won’t be the end of the world if either forward starts the match tomorrow; it’s highly likely that if one player starts the match, the other will finish it. Even so, another start for Zalewski would be yet another signal that the Friedkin/Pinto/Mourinho era in Roma is an era where promising youth is nurtured, not discarded.