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Lukaku-Less Roma Face Bologna on the Road in Battle for 4th Place

Nobody thought Bologna would compete for a top-four spot this year, but Roma needs a win here to fend off Thiago Motta’s men. And they'll have to do it without star striker Romelu Lukau, putting pressure on Andrea Belotti and Sardar Azmoun up top.

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

It’s safe to say that Roma has had a season of unexpected highs and lows. Their horrible form to start the year made many call for José Mourinho’s head, and their ability to somehow right the ship over the past two months has many of those same people calling for The Special One to receive a contract extension. In contrast, their opponent tomorrow has had a season of unexpected highs — and that’s about it. Bologna has only notched two losses so far, garnering them a spot in the top five despite being seen as a typical midtable side prior to the season.

The Giallorossi can’t think of tomorrow’s match as against a side many thought was destined for 10th place, though; they have to play the match as if it’s against their direct rival for a top-four finish because it is. Bologna and Roma are on equal footing after fifteen matchdays, and while Bologna got there through more draws than wins, the league table doesn’t give a hoot.

A win for Roma tomorrow, despite the bevy of injuries and suspensions the club is managing following their draw to Fiorentina, would be a strong indicator that the squad can have hope for a top-four finish this year, even with matches against Juventus and Napoli looming. A draw or a loss, and you better hope that I Lupi can actually win the Europa League this time around.l

What To Watch For

Can Roma’s Defense Survive Until January?

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Roma’s defense has been solid this season, but it hasn’t been quite as good as usual because of the long absence of Chris Smalling. There’s clearly something going on behind the scenes between Smalling and Mourinho, as José hasn’t been shy with the snide comments about the English international’s condition, and Smalling hasn’t seen the pitch for quite some time. It’s thanks to the play of Evan Ndicka, Gianluca Mancini, and Diego Llorente that Roma’s defense hasn’t completely imploded in Smalling’s absence, but the open question is for how long that will last.

Rumors already indicate that the Giallorossi are looking to sign Oumar Solet from Salzburg in January, and a signing like that would do wonders to make sure it’s not Roma’s defense that keeps them from Champions League qualification. Given that, the main duty for Roma’s defense, until those reinforcements arrive, is to simply survive. It will likely take several stints of Bryan Cristante at center-back, or at the very least the continued use of fullbacks as centerbacks, but this Bologna match will be a good test to see if the makeshift defense Roma is operating with can handle important matches until the January window opens.

Is This Sardar Azmoun’s Time To Shine?

AS Roma Training Session Photo by Fabio Rossi/AS Roma via Getty Images

Compared to many other backup striker signings, Sardar Azmoun has had an easy integration into Roma’s squad this season. The Iranian forward has provided a great alternative up front to Romelu Lukaku and Andrea Belotti, providing creativity and a pass-first mentality that is often needed when the playstyle of Lukaku or Belotti isn’t getting the job done. Add in the fact that José Mourinho has had nothing but praise for the former Leverkusen player since he came to Rome (unlike fellow new signing Houssem Aouar) and it seems as if Azmoun will be a long-term resident at Trigoria.

With Romelu Lukaku out suspended and Paulo Dybala injured, tomorrow’s match will likely see Azmoun get the start. Despite his strong start to his time with Roma, Azmoun hasn’t received that many starts; he’s largely been a sub option, albeit a strong sub option. If Azmoun is able to perform well in a starter’s role against Bologna, it may indicate that José Mourinho should feel more comfortable with rotating his forwards, particularly as the Giallorossi juggle multiple competitions. That kind of flexibility will be critical in 2024, particularly with the knowledge that 1) Roma needs Paulo Dybala to achieve their goals and 2) Paulo Dybala needs to avoid being played constantly to avoid injury.

Can Roma Stop the Joshua Zirkzee Show?

Bologna FC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

While Bologna’s success this season isn’t down to one player exclusively, I’d be remiss to ignore the strong play of Dutch forward Joshua Zirkzee when discussing Thiago Motta’s side. The 22-year-old former Bayern man seems to have found his stride in top-flight football, as he’s scored eight goals in 16 matches across all competitions this season. Beyond that, Zirkzee’s dribbling and passing have been a joy to behold under Motta’s tutelage, and while that creativity has only translated to two assists so far, his 1.4 key passes per game suggest that the real issue stopping him from having more assists is the simple fact that outside of Zirkzee, Bologna’s offense just isn’t that potent.

Milan, Napoli, and Roma have all been linked to Zirkzee as he’s started to prove himself as a Serie A star, but for the purposes of tomorrow’s match, the Giallorossi need to hope that the Dutchman can be made to look as inconsequential as he was last season for Bologna. That job will likely come down to Gianluca Mancini and Bryan Cristante, and while their defensive prowess does give me confidence that Roma can win this match, if Roma were going to lose this one, it would likely be because Zirkzee put in yet another player of the match performance.

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