There have been plenty of stellar performances so far this season in Serie A. Lorenzo Insigne and fellow team mate, Gonzalo Higuain have started in impressive fashion for Napoli; after a slow start Paul Pogba has displayed flashes of the player that we have seen rise over the last two seasons; Mohamed Salah, before his unfortunate injury, has shown plenty of flair and attitude, as has his attacking companion, Edin Dzeko.
But this season, one player has been head and shoulders above everyone else in the league, and now, this weekend, he has the opportunity to make Irish Eyes start crying as he helps guide his country through the play offs and into next year’s Euros.
Miralem Pjanić’s performances this year have been impressive to say the least, as his form this autumn has helped Roma stay near the summit of what should prove to be an interesting title race in Italy.
The stats do not lie – five goals and five assists in 10 Serie A appearances, and a couple more goals in the Champions League, means that Pjanić is well on course to enjoy his most prolific campaign so far.
Of those seven goals, four have come from direct free kicks, with the pick of the bunch coming in the early season defeat of Juventus. Pjanić was superb that game, dictating everything that came through the Roma attack, and orchestrating, along with Dzeko and Salah, wave after wave of Roma pressure in one, sustained period of the game which meant Roma remained strong and killed off the game.
The free kicks have been special to witness, each one different in its application and trajectory. Top corners, bottom corners, Pjanić has left the goal keepers facing Roma this season not knowing where the flight of his fancy will end up. Praise has been heaped upon him, by another sensational free kick taker, Juninho, who calls him the best in the world at the moment.
Few would argue against such a knowledgeable player, who Pjanić notes taught him how to become one of the world’s best, whilst they were together at Lyon.
Not blessed with electric pace or physical presence, Pjanić more than makes up for these by bossing games with a calm and poise not seen in Serie A since the illustrious beard of Pirlo departed the Italian league. He ghosts his way past opposition midfielders, and has that knack of always being in enough space to be able to pick a pass, which all great players possess. Give this player time and half a yard, and he will punish you.
The talk has been that finally Pjanić is fulfilling the potential that he has been threatening to display all these years. That he will finally be the heir to Totti’s throne and guide Roma to the glory years. I wouldn’t be so sure of him sticking around long enough to enjoy that success.
His performances this year and a strong showing at next year’s Euros will see Europe’s elite sniffing around him with big money bids and promises of building a team around him. Pjanić is a talent that deserves to be playing at the highest level, and Roma could be waving goodbye to him come next summer.
Could he be the player to replace an unhappy Eden Hazard at Stamford Bridge? Or join Luka Modric, another slight playmaker in a similar vein at the Bernabeu?
For Ireland, the task sounds simple. Stop a mercurial talent in the best form of his career, by not giving him time and space on the ball to kill your hopes and dreams.
Inter Milan were able to do this to some effect last month, by packing the midfield which restricted opportunities for Pjanić to get on the ball and play. Frustrated by the lack of cohesion by Roma that night, he allowed himself to pick up two silly yellow cards, and was dismissed from the game, meaning he missed last weeks Rome Derby, where Roma, ran out 2-0 victors., without him.
If there is a weakness to Pjanić’s game, it is that he doesn’t have a natural ability to tackle and impose himself on physical opposition when he needs to. Already booked a number of times this season, he does have the tendency to lose his cool when things aren’t going according to plan, and I’m sure the Irish players will be well aware of this lack of discipline which creeps into his game every so often.
The other part of the simple task for Ireland, is that they’re not to give away any silly free kicks around the 18 yard box. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane will have drilled into his players, the importance of staying on their feet and not commit unnecessarily.
If they do, it doesn’t matter where Irish keeper, Darren Randolph, organises his wall. He will have to pray that he catches a glimpse of the phantom ball coming towards him, otherwise it could be a long night for Ireland.
Dzeko as the target man, is an obvious threat, and can’t be ignored, as he too is in fine form, but the one pulling the strings for Bosnia, is his 25 year old club mate. Stop Pjanić, and you stop Bosnia.
If you allow him to play and dictate the two legs at his own pace and rhythm, and don’t close him down quickly and find yourself giving away a set piece around the 25 yard range, then the writing will be on the wall for Ireland, and another of Europe’s brightest stars will be given the chance to show what he is all about on a large stage next Summer.