It’s agony waiting for Serie A to start each year, a couple of weeks or more after everyone else in Europe, but FINALLY, this Saturday at 4am New Zealand time, Italian club football kicks off once again with Chievo vs Juventus followed by Roma vs Fiorentina. As it’s getting rather close now, it’s long past time I spewed forth some of my thoughts on what can we expect from the season, and in particular from my one true footballing love – Associazione Sportiva Roma.
All the talk is that this is going to be the year of the Lupo. We have significantly strengthened the squad that finished runners up last season, while retaining most of our hot talent. Meanwhile last season’s league champions, Juventus, appear for all intents and purposes to be in complete disarray having lost the coach that guided them back to dominance and with a few key players rumoured to be moving on as well. With the transfer window still open for a few more days, Juve still have the opportunity to throw their considerable resources at more signings, but time is running out fast. For the moment, with no other obvious challengers looking likely to emerge, things are looking very promising for Roma. This is a bit of a worry.
As far as starters go, we are notoriously of the slow variety. I would have preferred something a touch more gentle to kick things off than Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina, but not too much more gentle. Our opening match will potentially tell us a lot about the season ahead, much more than pre-season friendlies which as Manchester United have discovered to their horror don’t mean a heck of a lot. All Romanisti are rightly nervous to discover if last season’s ten game winning streak to open our account was an aberration, or are we really and truly witnessing an all new improved version of Roma? Have we really replaced our idiosyncratic Alfa Romeo squad with a more reliable and true Chevrolet? I’ll believe it when I see it…
The other question we haven’t had to grapple with in a while is how we will compete on more than one front? For the first time in what seems like an age, my early morning alarm clock will be set for eff off AM a little earlier in the week even than Sunday morning with the Champions League group stage draw taking place at 3:45 tomorrow morning. It is beyond a relief to be finally back in this competition for no other reason than it should mean we get some games on normal old regular good old fashioned scheduled TV in this country!! Luxury. While it does mean that regular midweek games could potentially stretch us a bit, fear not, our transfer GOD Walter Sabatini has got this covered.
Romanisti can no longer afford to get too attached to any players, let alone start loving them. Because everyone (unless their name is Francesco) is for sale at the right price. Our American President and his team have a background in New England sports franchises that utilise the ‘moneyball’ strategy of buying and selling players for maximum profit without sentiment. An approach I wholeheartedly endorse. The sale of Mehdi Bentia, the rock that spearheaded arguably the best defence in the league last season, to Bayern Munich for 30 million Euros including bonuses (a profit of 17) has already been keenly felt by the fans. However we all well remember thinking the sky was falling in when our 2012/13 defensive rock Marquinhos was sold to PSG (for a 28 million profit). We have to put faith in Saint Sabatini, Patron Saint of the Transfer Market, to repeat the same miracle. The only difference between Marquinhos and Benatia is Mehdi behaved like a brat, demanding his exit. He treated us like a stepping stone, and fair enough because ‘moneyball’ dictates we should treat him as a commodity. But I would say this to him nonetheless: Many like you in the recent past have thought themselves to be too good for Roma. Where are they now?
In addition to needing to replace Benatia, Roma have, on the face of it, added an entire new first XI for the third season in a row, but despite that, as in previous years, we are hardly splashing the cash. Sabatini has been very frugal apart from the big signing of Iturbe for serious coin. Most of the new players are simply adding depth for the upcoming European challenge. It’s hard to see many of the new players being regarded as first choice apart from Cole filling a long-standing hole at left back and Iturbe bolstering the front line.
In terms of our first choice line-up, it fairly well picks itself. Morgan De Sanctis in goal is obviously a given with the former Napoli man one of the surprise top signings of last season. Maicon at right back is also there considering the form he was in last season. Leandro Castan gets one centre back spot with the other going to Benatia’s replacement “The Greek Wall” Kostas Manolas, newly signed from Olympiacos. The best midfield in Garcia’s 4-3-3 can hardly be anything other than the all international trio of Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic. The front three is almost sure to be Gervinho, Juan Iturbe and Mattia Destro, depending on what kind of role is in store for Er Purpone – starter or impact player?
I am usually a glass half empty kind of guy, but you know, even I have to have supreme confidence that if that team stays injury free it will be very hard to see them not winning the league.
What about the competition? Well from what I can see, the threats to Roma’s inevitable march to our 4th scudetto will be the usual suspects – Juventus, Milan, Napoli, Fiorentina and perhaps after a long night on the wacky backy, Inter.
Juventus have gained Patrice Evra from Manchester United (ooooh I’m so scared!), Álvaro Morata from Real Madrid, and not a heck of a lot else. Leaving so far are the likes of Dani Osvaldo, Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella and the biggest loss of all coach Antonio Conte. Their replacement Max Allegri will hardly send too many shivers up anyone’s spines. They still have a killer defence in the all Azzurri trio of Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini plus the excellent Swiss wing back Lichtsteiner. Much will depend on the wile and wit of Andrea Pirlo and the mood of marksman Carlos Tevez. Add solid international midfield class like Marchisio, Vidal and Pogba if they all stay at the club, and this is still a very strong side that you would be a fool to write-off. They will finish either first or second. Bet your house on it.
Fiorentina are set to improve with a rather settled squad oozing with talent. They haven’t had much transfer action but they don’t need it. All they need is better luck with injuries than last season. The big question mark is around their top marksman Giuseppe Rossi – if he can shrug off his reputation as being made of glass la viola will do very well. I’m expecting a big year in Florence – 3rd.
Milan have picked up former Roma starley Jérémy Ménez from PSG, Alessandro Matri from Fiorentina, and Diego Lopez from Real Madrid. As far as outward goods is concerned, there’s only really one to discuss – one monsieur Balotelli. Some might say losing Super Mario is a blessing but he was actually a fairly reliable source of goals. They will be hoping that El Sharaawy can go back to the devastating form he was in before Balo left, or else they will need to bring someone else in pronto. I’m still predicting improvement for the Diavoli. My predicted finish for them is 4th.
Last season’s third place getters, Napoli, don’t have a great deal of talent coming in for Rafa Benitez and where outgoings are concerned while they have lost a few solid players I don’t think there’s anyone uber essential heading out the door. Not making it to the Champions League group stage may be a blessing in disguise but despite that I refuse to believe that any Rafa Benitez coached team is capable of kicking on. My prediction for il Partenopei is 5th.
Inter have picked up Osvaldo from Juventus (problem child), Dodo from Roma (not that highly rated), and Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United (see Patrice Evra) and not a heck of a lot else. They weren’t much chop last season, it’s hard to see them improving much with what they have brought in, although they are the sort of club who could surprise. Hard to imagine them finishing any higher than 6th though.
With my top six duly predicted, I only want to add in one more team who may not finish in the European places, but is sure to entertain. Cagliari have made the gutsy call to appoint all out attacking, chain smoking, raving madman, Zdeněk Zeman as their coach. This is the man who Andrea Pirlo described in his recent autobiography as “on the fringes of reality”. Cagliari under Zeman!! By golly I’m going to be taking an interest in that. I might even start liking Daniele Conti! Just kidding… My prediction is they will finish in the bottom half. Probably closer to the bottom three than mid table. But by golly they will do it with panache.
Enough silliness however. Back to Roma –because that’s all we really care about, right? The key for the giallorossi will be what it always is – consistency. We can have the best team on paper but if they don’t hold their nerve and take all three points every time they are there for the taking we will not be winning the league when our main opponents are Juventus. ‘The old lady’ is known for her brand of ruthless consistency that just piles on the points and leaves you for dead in no time if you have an off-day or two.
But whether we win the league or not, it’s the little things that are the big things for me this season: A replica shirt that actually fits! Thanks Nike. And Champions League games that are on the auld telly. I am all prepared. The cupboard is stocked with coffee, the stovetop espresso is cleaned out of last year’s dregs, and I’m all set for late nights, early mornings, and co-workers forewarned to expect ‘four out of Seven Dwarves Enzo’ (sleepy, happy, grumpy and dopey depending on time and result). Because them’s the breaks.
Categories: Roma/Italian Calcio
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/