Roma and Milan are on par in third place entering this monumental clash, which could turn out to be the decider for a Champions League spot at the end of the season.
Serie A Week 32 – Saturday 29 April 2023 – Stadio Olimpico | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Other than some nicks here and there, Roma have had a pretty clean season in terms of injury, but unfortunately, the bug bit them at the most inopportune time. Chris Smalling is arguably one of their most irreplaceable men, so seeing their defense crumble against Atalanta was no surprise. Diego Llorente, who had quickly proven reliable, got hurt as well, so they’ll have to go with a patchwork rearguard in one of the busiest times of the year. Roger Ibanez is already suspect in normal circumstances, even more with a wobblier player like Marash Kumbulla next to him.
It seems Gianluca Mancini not being comfortable in a four-man line is a big obstacle for switching to it, as a matter of fact, he routinely subs out when they do it, but they should definitely consider it in this spot. Nicola Zalewski and Leonardo Spinazzola are indeed better as wingbacks, but the benefits might outweigh the drawbacks. The youngster can easily be deployed as a tactical winger, and Zeki Celik has plenty of experience as a fullback. There’s little point in having more men in the back if you can’t fully trust them anyway.
The way the point deduction against Juventus was handled is a travesty, but rival teams quickly caught up with the fact that the Bianconeri’s tally is temporary. Letting Lazio slip away is an ugly look for the competitors, but Roma are in a reasonably good spot as far as the Champions League is concerned. This week will be crucial since they will face Milan and Inter. It’s do-or-die time for them. While they will be underdogs in both games given their absences, they’ll play at home, where they fare better.
Georginio Wijnaldum picked up an injury just as he had become a key piece and valuable addition to their midfield considering he can play in two spots in their usual 3-4-2-1 and especially his ability to populate the box and score, which is their no.1 problem given Tammy Abraham and Andrea Belotti’s well-documented struggles. He has an outside shot to be ready for this one way ahead of schedule. It’s almost witchcraft that they have been this competitive when their strikers have combined for a mere seven goals in Serie A, with the latter actually doing zilch there, even though his work rate is apt for a José Mourinho side. It’s a testament to the robustness of their defense and their mental fortitude. The first element is seriously dented now, so they’ll have to hold on to the second one, hoping for some Olimpico magic.
Lorenzo Pellegrini finally resumed hitting the net after a prolonged slump. While he’s heavily scrutinized whenever he doesn’t do it regularly, the level of his displays has never been concerning. Availability is a skill, and he pushes through ailments all the time. It’s also Bryan Cristate’s best attribute: he’s not the most gifted midfielder, but he’s a security blanket and holds down the fort considering Wijnaldum’s physical problems and Nemanja Matic not being able to start in consecutive matches with short turnarounds. Even though Edoardo Bove has been serviceable and is a ball of energy, they were too optimistic when they decided not to address the position in January. A live body would have sufficed. It’s also weird that Mady Camara and Benjamin Tahirovic have completely fallen off the radar despite some okay stretches in the past.
The Special One catches a lot of flak for his style, which is surely not aesthetically pleasing, and for his histrionics, but he gets result, and his empathy with the team and city are remarkable. While it was a secondary one, they hadn’t won a trophy in ages before he came to town. Even with Juventus possibly getting KO’d in the courtrooms, snatching a top-four spot over one of the two Milan sides would be a tremendous achievement. The situation isn’t ideal, but they’ll have the chance to defend their position in front of their crowd, so it’s set up to be a fiery encounter.
It looks like Paulo Dybala will be available despite a pair of injuries, but he’s a long shot to start. Either Ola Solbakken or Stephan El Shaarawy would make the XI if that were the case. The latter has been better, but the former allows them to keep the same positions as usual since he’s also left-footed. However, there’s also a chance Mourinho goes in a different direction, deploying Bove to have a sturdier posture.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Patricio; Mancini, Kumbulla, Ibanez; Zalewski, Cristante, Matic, Spinazzola; El Shaarawy, Pellegrini; Belotti.
Doubts: Zalewski/Celik, El Shaarawy/Solbakken, Belotti/Abraham.
Injury Report: Dybala (ankle sprain) – Probable; Wijnaldum (thigh strain) – Questionable; Smalling Llorente (thigh strains), Karsdorp (meniscus tear) – OUT;
Rafael Leao had a long winter where he didn’t perform to the best of his capabilities, but he showed up in the biggest matches of the season, and that’s the hallmark of a true champion. Maybe in a year or two, he will do away with his peaks and valleys, but in the meantime, his current version could be enough to lead them to the Champions League final and already carried them to the Scudetto. Unfortunately, tearing down successful players, or persons, as soon as they run into a sticky patch is a common vice in football and several other fields.
Even when he wasn’t producing, the Portuguese star has never been a problem. Milan’s main issue is that they don’t have enough playmakers, so he has to shoulder a massive creative load, so they falter when he has an off-day. They should ship off most of their current attackers and bring in a bevy of new ones because they have been in trouble whenever they couldn’t field Olivier Giroud. Charles De Ketelaere flopping obviously hurt them. In retrospect, they should have spread the money across multiple purchases. They will have to rectify that costly mistake in the summer.
Stefano Pioli went to a familiar crutch to solve their woes: using a midfielder as a no.10. Franck Kessié did it last season, and his physicality was essential. Ismael Bennacer and Rade Krunic have been covering the role lately. While they are different from the Barcelona star, the gambit jammed up Napoli, and the extra dose of hustle frees up the other attackers, who don’t have to exert as much energy in the passive phase. Even though he has played a ton centrally, with strong success at times, Brahim Diaz is naturally more suited for a wide role, where he’s less at risk of getting lost in the shuffle given his diminutive frame. It’s a tight and malleable formation anyway. 3-4-2-1 had its moment but quickly fizzled out, and they are more familiar with this solution.
While the draining season has taken its toll on other teams, they have gotten healthier and more energetic lately, and that helps them manage their energies, even though reserve-filled XIs were inevitably less competitive. But they achieved their goal and, perhaps they get the benefit of the doubt since they are the reigning champions, it feels like they will get their wish in Serie A too, one way or the other. Prevailing in this one would go a long way, but the Giallorossi won’t be as bold as other sides that faced them head-on, believing they could just overwhelm them with no adjustments. But they arrive at the tilt in better shape and more certainties than their previous lull.
On top of Leao, Theo Hernandez and Sandro Tonali have also been going like gangbusters in recent fixtures. Fikayo Tomori returned to form, while Mike Maignan’s only issue has been health. Simon Kjaer, who had been cast aside to make way for younger teammates, also proved his worth against the Azzurri. Davide Calabria and Alexis Saelemaekers have also been solid after recovering from an injury. That’s the backbone of their title-winning team, and it exudes confidence. They have several top-end contributors if everything clicks at the same time. When that happens, they have to run into a really good and in-form team or something wonky has to occur for them to lose.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kjaer, Tomori, Hernandez; Krunic, Tonali; Diaz, Bennacer, Leao; Giroud.
Doubts: Kjaer/Kalulu, Bennacer/Saelemaekers, Giroud/Rebic.
Injury Report: Giroud (calf injury) – Probable; Ibrahimovic (calf injury), Pobega (ribs fracture), Florenzi (flu) – Out.
Milan Win – Under 2.5 Goals