Thanks to their dreadful start to the season, Roma enters their round nine fixture mired in 10th place on 11 points, one point behind tomorrow's opponents, Monza. That statement would have been unthinkable back in August for a club featuring the likes of Paulo Dybala and Romelu Lukaku. But thanks to some bad breaks, poor play, and the usual spate of injuries, Roma sputtered out of the gates this season.
But thanks in large part to Lukaku's impressive start to the season, the big Belgian striker has dragged the Giallorossi from the lowest rungs to within a hair's breadth of the upper reaches of the table. Thanks to Lukaku's fine form (four goals in his last three Roma matches), Mourinho's men have stacked up consecutive league victories for the first time this season after toppling Frosinone and Cagliari before the break.
With that in mind, let's look at a few key storylines in this early Sunday fixture.
Keep An Eye On
Mutually Assured Distraction
Typically, we don't focus too intently on off-the-pitch drama ahead of a seemingly simple league match, but with both clubs dealing with distractions, it's worth a mention. For most of the international break, Roma's public relations team has been busy battling allegations of an illegal betting scandal that has roped in several high-profile players, including our very own Nicola Zalewski and Stephan El Shaarawy, with the club issuing a statement of support earlier this week.
While Monza hasn't been implicated in this scandal, they're dealing with a no less thorny situation with their marquee summer signing, former Atalanta playmaker, and World Cup winner Alejandro Gomez. Papu, as he's affectionately known, was given a two-year suspension for doping after testing positive for terbutaline last October while playing for Sevilla.
We can quibble about which infraction is worse; at least Roma will have Zalewski and El Shaarawy at their disposal, while Mourinho has done his best to deflect the story.
Lukaku & Belotti Back at It?
With Dybala likely to miss Sunday's match against Monza, Mourinho was immediately asked how he'd adapt without his gifted Argentine attacker. While the obvious solution would see Andrea Belotti and Romelu Lukaku lead the line in tandem, Mourinho was typically coy when pressed on the matter:
"I don't want to reveal the team that will play tomorrow. Paulo is important for us, for his creativity, for his positioning. We have a good group of players available: Belotti, El Shaarawy, Azmoun: we're in good shape."
Indeed, having El Shaarawy and Azmoun gives Mourinho added cover for situations just like these. Still, with Belotti and Lukaku accounting for six of Roma's last eight goals, Mourinho can prevaricate all he wants, but the choice is clear: Belotti and Lukaku have something cooking right now, so Mourinho would be wise not to mess with success.
Can Roma Score Early?
Roma has only won 50% of its matches in all competitions this season, but when they score early, they come out on top. In four of their five victories this season, Mourinho's men have found the back of the net within the first 20 minutes and have shown a penchant for in the second 15-minute block. Roma's +5 goal differential in the 16th-30th minute is the best mark in the league.
Admittedly, we had to dig deep to find this figure, but it underscores an obvious point for Mourinho: if you score early, the sport becomes much simpler.