Serie A: Roma in danger of losing touch of relentless Juventus
Before Sunday’s game against Verona at the Juventus Stadium, a banner was unfurled in the stands. “The years and seasons pass but once again we’re winter champions.” The Old Lady had been anointed with a week to spare following a 3-1 win away in Naples and she showed no mercy on fair Verona. Two-nil up inside seven minutes - it was the sixth and seventh time she has scored in the opening quarter of an hour this season - there was no reprieve for the team she had eliminated from the Coppa Italia 6-1 three days earlier.
“Ciao a tutti!” declared Tuttosport on Monday morning. “Bye everyone.” Juventus are leaving them all behind. The 4-0 victory sealed against Verona extended their lead at the top of the table to five points. Completing the first half of the campaign in some style, the champions ended on a total of 46, the fifth highest in history at this stage of a Serie A season. It must be of some satisfaction to coach Massimiliano Allegri.
Neither his predecessor Antonio Conte , Marcello Lippi  nor Fabio Capello  posted such numbers in their first season on the Bianconero bench. The caveat here of course is that they didn’t enjoy such a great inheritance: a championship winning team and all-time record breaking one at that. But credit where it’s due. Allegri beat the personal best  he established upon guiding Milan to the Scudetto in 2011 and can even claim to have out-performed Inter and Jose Mourinho in the year they won the treble .
Juventus are Serie A’s most potent goalscorers  - outscoring Napoli by 8 - but it’s the backline that merits particular attention. Despite being without Andrea Barzagli all season and transitioning from a back-three to a back-four, the defence has allowed only 9 goals. Not once since Serie A became a 20-team division has a side conceded so few mid-term. To add another layer of perspective, it has happened on only five occasions in Juventus’ history, the last time being 15 years ago.
Through to the last 16 of the Champions League and the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia, which the Old Lady seriously covets after going without it for two decades, Allegri has, so far, converted a number of the sceptics who derided his appointment back in July.
Roma, meanwhile, risk losing touch. That might sound exaggerated. After all, there is still a full girone di ritorno to go and 57 points to play for. Juventus have still got to visit the Olimpico and the gap is closer than it was a year ago . Nevertheless, there is fear it could widen further this weekend. The league leaders host relegation battlers Chievo at the Juventus Stadium where they haven’t lost in Serie A in more than two years. The pretenders to their title instead travel to Fiorentina, a team still in the conversation for that third and final Champions League spot.
I know who I’d rather play. Juventus do too. They lost in Florence last season and were held to a stalemate at the Franchi this season. Roma’s record is much better there. Indeed, over the last couple of years, they’ve enjoyed a purple patch when facing the Viola, winning all of their last six meetings. Approaching this encounter, however, their form is a cause of preoccupation. If the season started in December, Roma would be seventh in the table. They have drawn four times in that time, going in at half-time 2-0 down to Sassuolo and Lazio and a goal behind in Palermo, where, it must be said, they were missing several players.
“Recently we’ve been starting games poorly,” Rudi Garcia admitted to RAI on Saturday. Paulo Dybala’s goal, punishment for a mistake by Davide Astori, was the third Roma have conceded in the opening three minutes this season, the worst record of any team in that regard. It has taken character, astute changes after the interval, flickers of their class and a little luck [like against Sassuolo] to rescue those situations.
Roma’s couple of wins over the last month have not been particularly convincing either, nor without controversy. Genoa coach Gian Piero Gasperini thought play should have been called back for a dive by Adem Ljajic in the build up to Radja Nainggolan’s clinching goal while Udinese felt Astori’s ghost goal shouldn’t have stood and that they deserved a penalty after a foul by Urby Emanuelson on Panagiotis Kone.
How do we explain the rough patch they’re experiencing then? Well, Roma have had a complicated season. You might say they’re doing well to still be hanging in there. No one expected anything of them last season. This season expectations are sky high.
Goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis, who was matched only by Lille shot stopper Vincent Enyeama in the number of clean sheets  he kept last term, has had a wobble. The defence in front of him is almost completely different. Mehdi Benatia left for Bayern Munich. Leandro Castan has had to undergo brain surgery.
Federico Balzaretti is ruled out indefinitely with a potentially career-ending injury while Maicon is no longer playing to get himself into the Brazil squad ahead of a World Cup. Although the backline has only conceded four more goals than at this stage last season, it gives the impression of being a little less secure.
As a consequence, the midfield isn’t playing with the same abandon and freedom of expression as it did last season. Daniele De Rossi is coming deeper. Further forward, Francesco Totti has had some big moments. The goal away to Man City and his brace in the derby spring to mind. But those were the only goals he has scored from open play this season.
Without Gervinho, who, for now is at the African Cup of Nations, Roma lack elasticity, unpredictability and a sense of anarchy in attack. And besides, he hasn’t scored away from home in the league since March last year.
The issue of Mattia Destro also remains a discussion point. Saturday was his first appearance from kick-off in a month and his first goal since October. He has scored five in his last seven starts, averaging one every 113 minutes. Shouldn’t he be playing more given Roma’s attack is ‘only’ the fourth best in Serie A? It’s a tricky one when you consider Totti occupies his position. It’s also understandable when thought about in these terms: he’s a finisher and that’s more or less it. Destro, prolific though he is, doesn’t participate enough in Roma’s general play.
Then there is the physical and mental strain of this season. We’ve touched upon the pressure of expectation. Roma have to deal with it while playing on three fronts going into the spring for the first time in four years. Juventus are used to it by now. Roma are still adjusting. Injuries have taken a toll. It hasn’t helped that the depth Roma added in the summer has been shallow. While Kostas Manolas, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Seydou Keita have been successes, Ashley Cole, Urby Emanuelson and Juan Manuel Iturbe, the most expensive signing of the summer in Serie A, have disappointed. Even Astori is beginning to look shaky.
That ‘short bench’ - Garcia replaced Iturbe with youth team player Daniele Verde on Saturday - has been felt in midfield as well as the defence. Covering already for Kevin Strootman while he recovered from the knee injury he suffered a little less than a year ago, Nainggolan and Miralem Pjanic have clocked up 3597 minutes between them. Fatigue is inevitable.
Participation in the Champions League not only brought greater exertion, but pain too. The psychological effects of losing to Bayern 7-1, conceding that injury-time equaliser to CSKA in Moscow then being eliminated by City must have knocked Roma’s confidence and made them a little less sure of themselves.
Poised to overtake Juventus at various stages this season, they’ve not been able to pull off the manoeuvre. That’s been more down to circumstance than a lack of personality. Roma have to stay on Juventus’ wheel. Come through Sunday’s game in Florence and they have Empoli, Cagliari and then Feyenoord either side of Verona before a top of the table clash with the Bianconeri.
This period will tell us a lot about the Wolves’ ability to stay in the hunt for the Scudetto. Otherwise, they could end the season with their tail between their legs.?
Can Roma make up the five-point gap and steal the Scudetto from Juventus?