There’s nothing quite like this time of the year for football fans. Transfer rumors, exciting conclusions to the various title races across Europe, Champions League knockout play, you really couldn’t be more spoiled for choice this time of year. And in the midst of all that, we find the Giallorossi in the middle of an incredible unbeaten run, having not lost in the league since early January.
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought this run would end at the hands of Napoli, a product of being the pessimistic fan that I am, and for the majority of the match that looked to be the case, but as we all know by now, this team seems to have exorcised any ounce of quit in it, ultimately storming back to level the score and earn a point. It was an absolute dominant second half from the Giallorossi, continuing the trend of Roma being able to go toe-to-toe with the sides that used to give them fits in recent seasons.
And having said that, we return to everyone’s favorite series here at CdT, where I examine three things I either noticed, liked, or disliked, from the match.
Koulibaly Is a Cheat Code….
Man, what a player. Look, I know on some level it’s sacrilegious to sing the praises of an opponent, but credit where credit is due, Roma almost certainly win that match had it not been for the heroics of the Senegalese center-back. For those who follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that there’s a collection of players around Europe that are near and dear to my heart, and Kalidou Koulibaly is right up there with the best of them. Not only was the Napoli defender a colossus at the back, he even played a role in doing the unthinkable—that is, shifting the narrative around Nicolo Zaniolo, from Conference League hero to being the culprit behind Roma settling for a draw with Napoli, all in the span of three days!
Zaniolo has been receiving a ton of criticism over social media in the aftermath of the match, with most of the discourse centered around Zaniolo’s penchant for holding onto the ball just a tad too long. There’s one image making the rounds where Zaniolo has runners in space and elects not to pass, instead opting to try and take on Koulibaly, ultimately unsuccessfully. Sure, Zaniolo has plenty of room to grow in terms of his decision-making, but if you’re on the ball and Koulibaly is closing you down after giving you fits all game, I can't really blame you for making the wrong decision, although I will admit passing there was by far the easier choice to make.
….But So Is Smalling
Okay, so I’m not saying Chris is on the same level as Koulibaly—because he’s not. But I will say that on any given night, Smalling can be just as much of a lockdown defender as the best of them. Is it a coincidence that Roma’s current unbeaten run directly coincides with Smalling putting his injury woes behind him and getting some significant minutes on the pitch? Look no further than Monday’s match, where Napoli’s much-vaunted attack was stymied, in large part due to Smalling’s efforts.
To be perfectly honest, for most of the game I was too focused on Koulibaly’s lockdown performance to truly appreciate Smalling’s own performance on the night, but there was a moment late in the match where Victor Osimhen took possession of the ball and just moments later Smalling was all over him, completely shutting him down before he could get going - a moment that made me stop and appreciate just how excellent Smalling had been in the match. I’ve been leery of giving Smalling an extension, in large part due to his injury history. But with more performances like the one against Napoli going forward, the idea of extending Chris is absolutely one that Pinto and Co. should pull the trigger on.
Next Season Could Be Special
It’s no secret that the last few years for Roma have been defined by their inability to keep pace with their rivals for the Champions League spots. What was once a two-horse race for the title between Juventus and Roma, with the occasional appearance by Napoli, has since seen the rebirth of the two Milan sides, as well as the rise of Atalanta and the continued development of sides like Fiorentina and Sassuolo. That's a lot of competition for four precious spots, and it’s a goal that the Giallorossi have struggled mightily in accomplishing in recent seasons.
But that’s exactly why you bring in a coach like Mourinho, to take you back to the promised land that is the Champions League. Unfortunately, Roma seems to have left their push for the top-four just a little too late, as it's unlikely that Juve will drop the number of points necessary for Roma to leapfrog them. However, a strong finish to the end of the season, namely securing the inaugural Europa Conference League trophy, followed by a strong summer transfer window, will set the stage for a campaign where Roma can dare to dream and potentially truly achieve something special.
Well, that’s all from me. I believe the last time I wrote one of these, it was in advance of the Coppa match against Inter, and here we are on the eve of yet another match against them, this time with both Scudetto and top-four race ramifications. Given Inter’s dominance over Roma this season, I’m not terribly optimistic, but the Giallorossi have gone toe-to-toe with every other top side in Italy this campaign, so they’re certainly overdue for a quality performance against Inter. No doubt this iteration of Roma will be up for the challenge.