Roma got a decent result against Milan, but they need to rev up to keep their competitors at bay. Fiorentina are pretty distant from the top positions, but they have been in a groove in recent matches and are always a nuisance to deal with.
Serie A Week 18 – Sunday 15 January 2023 – Stadio Olimpico | Preview by Enrico Passarella
The late comeback in a tough game like the Milan one was a testament to Roma’s resiliency, as they are never truly down and out in any since their defense keeps things close most of the time. Still, it leaves a hint of dissatisfaction because there’s a lingering feeling they could go places and play with much more pizzazz by removing the shackles and activating their offensive weapons with a bolder and more fast-paced style.
That was normal in the last fixture, given the prowess of the Rossoneri, but this game plan has cost them in easier bouts, even recently versus Bologna, where Tammy Abraham had a goal-line clearance in the final minutes. They settle for a narrow lead all too easily, and their backline is good, but not the ’85 Chicago Bears, so they have dropped points along the way. With Milan and Inter looking less than formidable and having inscrutable issues of their own, the door is open for a Champions League berth, but they need to take care of feasible matches with more consistency and command.
Not having Paulo Dybala for a month was a legitimate excuse and a big problem, and he’s mighty precious even when he’s not having his best performance since the opponents always key on him, even more so when he busts out gems like in the Coppa Italia fixture versus Genoa. Now they have to exploit that two of their top forwards are up and running and string together a few convincing results before the next roadblock hits.
After the first two matches of the year, the arrow points upward for Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini, whose issue was being close to 100 percent physically due to his ever-sore thighs, as his class is unquestionable. They’ll be hoping the key goal versus the Rossoneri finally gets the Englishman going for good. He tends to be streaky one way or the other, but he struggled to snap out of the funk in the second half of 2022. Despite that, he has been very engaged, and scoring was a nice reward.
Instead, Nicolò Zaniolo has been trending in the wrong direction despite the ample opportunities and the trust of the coach. It’s normal to need time to be 100 percent after two major injuries, but he has mostly been healthy in the last campaign and a half, but he hasn’t been able to accomplish much on the pitch besides some good displays in the European Conference League. His number and especially lack of gravitas are worrying for such a gifted player. One has to wonder whether he’ll ever get back to the levels and potential he had shown in the past. It’s a question with hefty ramifications considering that his contract expires in 2024, and they’ll have to make a decision one way or the other next summer.
Another weird element is that Leonardo Spinazzola has been MIA despite being technically available. He gets a bigger pass than Zaniolo since his injury was more recent, but the fact that he’s not even getting minutes is surprising, mainly because they rode him hard in the first half of the season when they arguably should have counted more on Nicola Zalewski, who was brilliant in relief. The hierarchy might have changed at this point, plus Stephan El Shaarawy has become a true weapon on the left wing.
Pellegrini is a question mark due to a thigh problem, and it will come down to how serious the risk of worsening it is. He has generally played through these situations in the past. Among the possible replacements, Edoardo Bove likely has an edge over Benjamin Tahirovic and Mady Camara for his recent showings, while they rarely ever use Bryan Cristante and Nemanja Matic together.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Kumbulla; Celik, Cristante, Pellegrini, Zalewski; Zaniolo, Dybala; Abraham.
Fiorentina have been on the up and up in the final few matches of 2022 and the recent ones. They have found decent equilibrium, and the coach has learned how to best use the players at his disposal. It might be too late to mount a serious comeback toward a European berth, as the gap is sizeable and none of the top sides are spiraling, but you never know.
Oddly, they had adjusted to life after Dusan Vlahovic better last season, while it took them a while to get going offensively in the current one, even though they were technically better equipped. Luka Jovic and Arthur Cabral are very different than their former ace. While they had their moments and stretches where they seem to have finally put it together, their go-to scorer of the future might not be either of them.
The Brazilian apparently had a strong winter break and flipped the hierarchies, but he just went down with a severe injury. His teammates will have some time to prove his worth while relatively unchallenged. Sometimes the competition brings the best out of those involved, but that didn’t seem to be the case for them, as both have fared better when playing consistently. The Serb has strong technique in the box, but the problem has been getting clean feeds to him since he’s not particularly explosive or proficient in combining with his teammates. In general, as is the case for most forwards, he benefits from the team having a very high center of gravity, and they did in most of the last few fixtures. Roma don’t have an incessant pressure, so they should manage in this one as well.
The slight tweak from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 has been instrumental in their surge. Moreover, it has helped Sofyan Amrabat, who’s a beast in a two-man midfield, Giacomo Bonaventura, who’s a great playmaker but too worn down to run after opponents up and down the pitch, and Antonin Barak, who’s in his element as a no.10. The pity is that they usually have to pick between one of the two inventive midfielders, while their best possible XI would comprise both. They might get there eventually, and Giacomo Castrovilli is a wild card. He too would be better closer to the box, so there’s a logjam.
As often happens with the Viola, the transfer market is a big threat, as they have reportedly received a strong bid for Nicolas Gonzalez and Amrabat is on the radar of elite clubs after a marvelous World Cup. It’d be a shame to sell either. The Argentine has missed most of the season due to multiple injuries, but, when present, he proved that he’s still their most dangerous attacker. His lengthy recoveries, probably eyeing Qatar, were a source of tension in previous months, but he’s fine and improving physically now. Instead, they had to wait for a long time for the Moroccan star to adjust to his new surroundings and their tactic. Actually, they eventually tilted it to better accommodate him.
Cashing in on linchpins would be par for the course, unfortunately. The price tag of the former Verona midfielder is at an all-time high, so this would be the right moment if they don’t think they can keep ahold of him for a few seasons. It’s the opposite for the winger, as his value would easily go up if he played at his usual levels for the next six months. On the other hand, even though they’d have to replace him, they have gotten used to not having him, so his departure would be less hurtful than in normal circumstances. It’ll also be telling about how they view their season, as they might consider it lost already and take the money. But if they aren’t ambitious and are forced to rebuild every year, at some point they’ll have to do it without Vincenzo Italiano, who’s always looking to level up.
The emergence of Christian Kouamé, a very intriguing player in the minnows in the years past that never found his footing with them, has contributed to weathering the storm. He provides a ton of pace and unpredictability either wide or as a false-nine, and he’s a one-man wrecking crew on counters. Without their offensive centerpiece, Jonathan Ikoné faced a sink-or-swim situation after being underwhelming for a long time, and he delivered. Even though his numbers don’t jump off the page, he has become a major and effective creative hub.
They don’t have the same upside and zing of their most exciting stretches, but they have stayed true to their modern and aggressive style, they have a solid backline, anchored by Nikola Milenkovic, the two fullbacks contribute a lot in the final third, and weapons across the formation. They are searching for what would be the top one, a striker that scores in bunches, which would allow them to make the leap to another tier.
Pietro Terracciano seems fit after picking up a wound in the past game, and that’s good news because Pierluigi Gollini’s confidence is shot, and he’s doing whatever he can to leave after losing the starting job. Cabral and Riccardo Saponara being shelved reduce their ability to rotate following a midweek Coppa fixture, and it should be too early for Gonzalez to start. Sofyan Amrabat is also being closely monitored after going deep in the World Cup. Youngster Alessandro Bianco has been decent when called upon.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Terracciano; Venuti, Milenkovic, Igor, Biraghi; Amrabat, Duncan; Ikoné, Bonaventura, Kouamé; Jovic.
Milan: Martinez Quarta, Saponara (ankle sprains), Cabral (thigh strain), Mandragora (thigh injury), Sottil (back hernia).
Roma: Wijnaldum (tibia fracture), Darboe (ACL tear); Ibanez (suspension).