Chelsea return to Champions League competition this week, as last year’s second place finishers in the Serie A, AS Roma, come to town. Ahead of Wednesday’s night football under the bright European lights, I exchanged a few questions and answers with Bren, Lord Commander of SB Nation’s Roma blog, Chiesa Di Totti — be sure to check out the reverse version of this over there. Thanks, Bren!
WAGNH: Serie A is looking like a stronger league this season, with many teams looking capable of challenging Juventus's dominance. What are Roma's prospects in that regard? Can they repeat or better last year's second place finish?
CDT: At the outset of the season, I would have said there was a legitimate five-horse race for the top two spots, with Juventus holding a slight edge simply due to their dominance on and off the pitch, but now that we're two months into this thing, it's shifted a bit. Juve is now level with Lazio for third place, trailing Napoli and Inter Milan, respectively. Roma, meanwhile, are in fifth place, four points off the top three with a game in hand. So at this point, it's looking like a dead heat for the Scudetto between Inter, Juve and Napoli, with Roma and Lazio likely fighting for that Champions League qualification spot. Roma simply had too much upheaval where it mattered most (on the touchline) and haven't really pasted together a run of strong form yet, at least not against opponents of any note, so barring some massive reversal of fortune, I don't see another second place finish. Which is fine by me, it's a tormenting existence.
WAGNH: Edin Dzeko, Ballon d'Or nominee. Thoughts?
CDT: I'm at a loss for words honestly. On the one hand, it shouldn't be a surprise because he put up some prolific numbers with Wolfsburg and City, but his debut season with Roma was so woeful that the turn around has caught many of us off guard. Having watched him so closely over the past few seasons, he's really so much more of a complete player than I ever imagined. Passing, play making, hold up play, he does it all. He doesn't have a chance in hell of winning the award, but the recognition has value in and of itself; a 39 goal campaign is nothing to sneeze at.
WAGNH: How much is Mo Salah missed? Is El Shaarawy ready to be the star I always believed he could be?
CDT: Ugh, don't get me started. If you've watched much of Liverpool, which I'm sure you have, you've no doubt seen the swings and roundabouts associated with Salah--he misses a lot of chances--but he's just so incredibly athletic that he puts himself in promising positions so frequently that the good often outweighs the bad; he's one of the best right wingers in the game, one who Roma sold dramatically short. So, yeah, we miss him; he certainly hasn't tactically replaced by Eusebio Di Francesco yet. As far as El Shaarawy is concerned, he's getting there bit by bit. He's been around so long, we tend to forget he's only 24-years-old, and while the chances of him being a global icon have vanished, he can certainly carve out a nice career as a 10 to 15 goals per year type of player, which, even though he's not a superstar, has tremendous value. He's a game changer based on athleticism alone and EDF seems to prefer him, so his production should pick up soon.
WAGNH: What is going on with Radja Nainggolan's hair? Do you think his transfer to Chelsea will ever materialize as it's been rumored since Conte had been confirmed as our new head coach?
CDT: Well, he's had a variety of hairstyles since coming to Roma a few years ago. In fact, I challenge you to find a "normal" looking picture of him. My personal favorite is either the standard bleached mohawk or the spiral hairdo he had three years ago, which I hope was a nod to Flea from the Soul to Squeeze video. He'll also be 30 in the spring, so I'm thinking that transfer is dead in the water. While I wouldn't doubt some English teams would pay a hefty sum for a guy with only a few years of peak production left, it would pale in comparison to what they could've gotten for him the past two summers, and he just means so, so much to the fans of Roma, I have a hard time seeing that marriage dissolving.
WAGNH: How big of a problem is losing Kostas Manolas for this game? Does it prompt a tactical reshuffle? What is the likely strategy for Di Francesco in this game?
CDT: It's big, real big. Federico Fazio had a bit of a rebirth last season under Luciano Spalletti, largely due to the amorphous three-man backline, but Di Francesco is a firm 4-3-3er, a formation that doesn't suit him, making Manolas' contributions all the more important. Making matters even worse, Roma has, like, no other alternative. Juan Jesus, a reserve utility man at best, will likely lineup alongside Fazio, which is a living nightmare. Daniele De Rossi has been pressed into service as a centerback before, and desperate times call for desperate measures, so I'd opt for that...but yeah, it could be a bloodbath.
WAGNH: Prediction for Wednesday's game?
CDT: I really want to predict a Roma victory, believe me, but I just don't see it, they're simply too injured at the moment. With men missing in attack and defense, they're weakened at both ends. Couple that with a frustrating loss over the weekend and traveling to London, this could go sour real soon. However, just as they did against Atletico, Roma can still stifle an opponent and play for a draw. Between De Rossi, Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman, Roma's midfield can strangle even the most fluid of attacks.
Roma 1, Chelsea 1.
Thanks again to Bren! Be sure to visit Chiesa Di Totti for all your AS Roma needs.