A week after nearly doing the unthinkable, stealing a point from first-place Inter Milan on the road, Roma will find a slightly softer land place than a hostile San Siro as they welcome 11th-place Lecce to the Stadio Olimpico for the penultimate fixture of Matchday 11. With Roma down several key players last weekend, they nearly stole a point from league-leading Inter Milan. And even with Paulo Dybala and Renato Sanches returning this week, Roma Happened logic dictates that Sunday's match against 11th-place Lecce will be a barnburner.
However, curses and hexes notwithstanding, Roma hasn't lost to Lecce since the spring of 2012, so the Giallorossi should walk all over Lecce tomorrow. Of course, we likely thought the same thing last February when the sides last met, only to be left frustrated by a 1-1 draw on the road thanks to a Roger Ibañez own goal.
If Roma wants to remain within shouting distance of the top four, a win tomorrow is essential, so let's examine a few key storylines in Sunday's fixture.
Keep An Eye On
Paulo Dybala & Renato Sanches
Given how important they are to Roma's success, it's only fitting we lead off our preview with the potential returns of Paulo Dybala and Renato Sanches. While neither player is fully fit, according to José Mourinho, both are theoretically available tomorrow:
"Renato and Paulo return to the team, they are not in optimal conditions, but according to the medical staff and the trainers they return without risk, and that is what we and the players need to feel, it gives them the right confidence. Tomorrow they will be with us and can give us a hand."
With 20 goals scored through 10 matches, Mourinho has managed to keep the ship afloat without Dybala, who hasn't played in nearly a month. Certainly, folding Dybala back into the mixture will ease some pressure off Romelu Lukaku, but adding a healthy Sanches to the lineup could make everything easier for Roma.
Although he's played little more than 90 minutes this season, there were brief pockets of time in which Sanches had a Kevin-Strootman-in-2013 impact on the Giallorossi, boosting the midfield with an enticing melange of power, pace, and precision.
Even if Sanches makes the cut tomorrow, he's not likely to play significant minutes, meaning the midfield battle may fall on a young Roman's shoulders.
Edoardo Bove's Time to Shine
The 21-year-old Roman midfielder's C.V. remains short. Still, Bove has already shown a flair for the dramatic in his young career, scoring critical goals in the Europa League, including the lone strike in Roma's 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in last season's semifinals. However, to effectively replace what a healthy Sanches brings to the table, Bove doesn't need to score match-winning goals; he just needs to do everything else.
In his best performances this season (Empoli, Frosinone, Servette, and Slavia Prague), Bove has functioned like one of those old-timey ball and paddle toys, wildly stretching forward to pump passes into the final third before quickly snapping back to erase threats at the other end. It's an exhausting existence, but in Bove's best matches, he's become a master of this back-and-forth lifestyle.
Lecce's Last-Minute "Heroics"
After scoring only 33 goals in 38 league matches last season, Lecce was among the most inept scoring sides—a trend that's continued this season, with the Apulian side notching only 10 goals in 10 matches. Admittedly, that puts them slightly ahead of last season's pace, but Lecce is still among Serie A's dregs, ranking 5th from the bottom in goals forced.
And while Lecce doesn't score in great numbers, they've shown a penchant for scoring late. Out of their 10 league strikes, six have come in the final fifteen minutes alone, the third-highest mark in the league. The tale of the tape is stacked in Roma's favor, but if Lecce can keep it scoreless through the first hour, then all bets may be off.