It is only the second game of the season and we already have the spectre of a ‘season defining’ game as Roma and Juventus go head to head at the Stadio Olimpico.
In previous years, this fixture may have been known as an early ‘title decider’, as Roma have been Juve’s closest challengers in the last two seasons (close in the sense of being seventeen points behind).
The game has been downgraded (by me) to ‘season defining’, not because of a hysterical media frenzy, but because of both clubs poor start to the season.
It has been an excellent transfer window for Roma. They signed Edin Dzeko, a proven centre forward for a team whose joint top scorers last season (Adem Ljajic and Francesco Totti) scored a miserly eight goals each. Mohamed Salah, who impressed at Fiorentina last season, controversially signed on loan from Chelsea.
Wojciech Szczesny also joined on loan from Arsenal, to replace the veteran Morgan De Sanctis. Vitally, Radja Nainggolan, the one player who impressed in a dismal 2015, signed a long-term contract, fending off rumoured interest from Juventus.
Just this week, they solved a major first team problem by signing left back Lucas Digne on loan from PSG.
Thanks to the €45 million joint sale of Andrea Bertolacci and Alessio Romagnoli to AC Milan, Roma have also made a profit this summer, earning more than €30 million. Roma’s transfer window was so good that people began to talk once again of the Scudetto being Roma bound for the first time since 2001.
There was one problem with this. Roma’s pre-season was so promising people forgot how badly they can play. The first half against Hellas Verona last Saturday showed Roma at their most frustrating; ineffective, uninventive with no cutting edge up front.
Their very talented midfield (Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan) were obsessed with delivering direct long balls rather than building up play with short passes. When they played short, Roma looked relatively dangerous, when they went direct, their passes were over hit and went out of play.
Things got worse for Roma after the break, as Bosko Jankovic pounced on an Emil Halffredson cross to put Verona a goal up on the hour.
After this Roma played better, as Andreas Florenzi equalised, drilling a powerful, bouncing shot past Rafael in the Verona goal. Pjanic suddenly sprung to life with a couple of decent shots, and Nainggolan had a header saved in injury time, only to be denied by the Verona keeper.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Roma were poor. Gervinho, who looked likely to leave this summer, played 82 unsatisfying minutes, showing flashes of skill but no end product (Gervinho, no end product? Surely a mistake?).
Salah was OK at best, whilst Roma’s midfield, especially De Rossi, were not up to their own standards. Roma’s centre backs Manolas and Castan did an effective job of roughly marking Luca Toni out of the game, but it was a Manolas mistake that led to Verona’s goal.
Manager Rudi Garcia’s tactical nous will continue to be questioned, as his Roma side appear incapable of breaking down stubborn teams like Verona.
Garcia’s treatment of two club icons will cause concern amongst the Roma faithful. Daniele De Rossi, captain for the day, was substituted after 65 minutes, which somewhat enraged the Italian midfielder.
Fellow icon Francesco Totti did not even make it onto the pitch, as Garcia brought on Iago Falque and Victor Ibarbo to try and change the game.
Though De Rossi played poorly and Totti is 38, some Roma fans (as with all fans) are susceptible to blind worship of their heroes, and will not tolerate their demotion.
All is not lost however. Despite the poor performance, it was only the first game of the season, to pass judgement on Roma already would be ridiculous. Dzeko also played quite well, as he worked hard all over the pitch, without truly establishing himself in front of goal.
Roma were also helped by other results on Sunday, as Napoli lost to Sassuolo and Milan were beaten by Fiorentina, their next opponents also suffered a defeat.
Juventus lost to Udinese, in itself a shock, but the defeat took place at home. As Paolo Bandini highlighted, this was the first time that Juventus ever lost a season opener at home.
It was a frustrating game for Juve, as they had 66% possession and 21 shots on goal without hitting the target. The defeat will increase pressure on a team that lost Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal in one summer.
The result also, perhaps strangely, put manager Massimiliano Allegri under the spotlight. Despite winning the double and taking Juventus to the Champions League final, there are lingering doubts over Allegri’s ability
Yes he did well in tweaking Antonio Conte’s team, slowly changing their formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-1-2, but can he build his own team? Sunday evening did little to allay those fears, as Allegri made two personnel errors.
Firstly he preferred Simone Padoin to Stefano Sturaro. Padoin is a dependable squad player who is 32 years old, whereas Sturaro is a 22 year old potential first team player.
Allegri also chose Kingsley Coman (talented, but with 1 goal in 21 appearances for the Bianconeri) over €40 million man Paolo Dybala.
As is often mentioned, Allegri allegedly has some form in this. At AC Milan he also won the Scudetto in his first season, before a decline which led to his dismissal in January 2014. This is a highly questionable view. Allegri was thwarted by lack of investment from Silvio Berlusconi.
Big players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold to PSG to cut costs, and quality. AC Milan’s veterans left the stage, as the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta moved onto pastures new by 2012.
Pirlo was also let go on a free to Juventus in 2011. In hindsight a catastrophic move, but he had been largely inconsequential in Milan’s Scudetto triumph, and looked like an injury prone player on the slide.
Allegri’s Milan were also close to a second successive Scudetto in 2011/2012, before Juventus won nine of their last ten games to clinch an unlikely title.
Despite this, the stigma of his time in Milan has lingered, defeat against Roma would only increase doubts about his suitability for the role.
Monday’s game is full of questions. The two managers both have points to prove; Garcia on whether he has what it takes to even challenge for the Scudetto, and Allegri that he can build his own title winning team.
Roma need to prove they can match and beat the best in Serie A, and Juventus need to show whether they can thrive without Messrs Pirlo, Tevez and Pirlo. A fascinating tie awaits.