With victories in six straight matches against Empoli, on the surface, Roma shouldn't have much to fret over when they welcome the Azzurri to the Stadio Olimpico tomorrow. Then again, this is Roma we're talking about, and if there's one thing to know about the Giallorossi, it's this: they seldom make things easy.
Embroiled in yet another controversy (make that two, actually), José Mourinho's men have been plagued with questions about Nicolo Zaniolo's future with the club, as the would-be star player requested a transfer, only to refuse the few viable offers that arrived. And while this drama was unfolding behind the scenes, Roma laid an egg against Cremonese in the Coppa Italia, prompting Mourinho to storm into the tunnel several minutes before the halftime whistle.
And yet, somehow, despite all that, Roma remains alive and well in the chase for Italy's final Champions League place, entering this round 21 fixture one point behind fourth-place Atalanta and fifth-place AC Milan, respectively. While Atalanta has a relatively easy fixture this weekend (on the road vs. 16th-place Sassuolo), Milan will square off with their city rivals, second-place Inter Milan.
However, before we dive into the particulars of Saturday's match, let's take a quick trip back to September.
September 12, 2022: Empoli 1, Roma 2
In keeping with this season's theme (more on that in a minute), Roma lived and died by Dybala in this surprisingly close match. After coming close on a follow-up effort early in the first half, Dybala found paydirt in the 17th minute, using his magical left leg to drop the ball in the upper left-hand corner past Guglielmo Vicario's outstretched arms.
Roma would concede shortly before halftime, but Dybala saved the day in the 71st minute, peeling away from two defenders on the right edge of the box before setting up Tammy Abraham's match-winner at the opposite post. A pure Dybala masterclass, any way you slice it.
We may expect more of the same tomorrow, but with ground to gain for the Giallorossi, let's look at a few key details ahead of Saturday's fixture against Empoli.
Keep An Eye On
Empoli's Unbeaten Run
While the unprecedented mid-season World Cup break makes it look more impressive than it actually is, Empoli has not lost a match since November 8th, a two-nil defeat to Napoli at the Stadio Maradona—and there's certainly no shame in that.
Since that defeat, Empoli has gone on a bit of a run, carrying a six-match unbeaten streak (3W, 3D) into the new year. Now, don't get it twisted; Empoli is by no means bowling over the competition. Still, they've shown remarkable fortitude, gutting out draws against Lazio, Udinese, and Torino while defeating Cremonese, Sampdoria, and, in the shocker of all shockers, Inter Mian two weeks ago.
And a key figure in that streak has been young midfielder Tommaso Baldanzi.
The Next Dybala
Baldanzi, a 19-year-old attacking midfielder from Siena, is the latest teenage sensation to take Serie A by storm. While the black-and-white numbers won't cause an arrhythmia, his four goals have come in little more than 600 minutes, effectively meaning this prodigious prospect has been good for a goal every other game—and as a midfielder, no less.
Thanks to his winter surge, Baldanzi was quickly linked with Jurgen Klopp's suddenly struggling Liverpool side. At the same time, some in the Italian press have compared him to none other than Paulo Dybala, a comparison Baldanzi handled with maturity and self-deprecation, saying simply, "On a scale from one to ten, he is a ten and I'm not even on the scale yet."
Roma's defense is stubborn enough to contain Baldanzi, but he appears to be hitting his stride as we head into the doldrums of winter, so Mourinho would be wise to devise a way to counter his threat.
Hey, speaking of...
The Actual Dybala
Since returning from injury (and winning the World Cup with Argentina), Dybala continues to prove his worth to the Giallorossi. With his club struggling in his absence, Dybala has been a godsend since returning last month, scoring two goals and providing two assists in his last five matches in all competitions.
It's no stretch to say that as Dybala goes, so goes Roma. The problem, as you may have noticed, is that when Roma has the ball in attack, Dybala remains options A through Z. Admittedly, Tammy Abraham appears to be waking from his slumber, but we haven't seen a team so dependent on one player since Francesco Totti was forced to slum it with a gaggle of less than impressive strikers for most of his career.
This is an odd criticism because this is precisely why you pull out all the stops to sign Dybala—he is, much like Totti before him, the straw that stirs the drink and the drink itself—but one man alone can't lift Roma out of this funk. So whether it's Abraham, Andrea Belotti, or Ola Solbakken, Mourinho has to scheme a way to get Dybala help.
But hey, if the match remains scoreless in the 85th minute and Roma needs a Dybala golazo to win the day, we won't hesitate to dust off (and paraphrase) another Chiesa di Totti aphorism... We have Paulo Dybala, and you don't.