The Sacking of Roma
It was all going so well as we returned to the shadow of Vesuvius that evening after beating Roma 2-1 at their awesome Stadio Olimpico, with their anthem of ‘Roma Roma Roma’ still ringing in our ears. But it was the silencing of it that we remembered most, when our giant of a centre back Kalidou Koulibaly defied gravity to mute it instantly with a monumental winning header in the 87th minute. What an atmosphere and what a night. Here is a youtube video of the song, watch it halfway through then stop it and you’ll see what I mean, 🙂
Invincible for our first 11 games and with just 2 draws (1 each in the league and our Champions league group) we were riding high as we turned to face the Old Lady in our first duel of the save. After the sacking of Roma could we actually achieve the dream at the first time of asking and pick Juve’s pockets at their mighty Allianz fortress? It would be a tough task indeed but hours of preparation meant we went into the game quietly confident. Our main problem was tiredness, but then for Juve it was the same, with us both playing 3 games in 8 days and while they had Dybala, Ronaldo, Cancelo, Sandro et al they were only human after all, weren’t they? Well, that remained to be seen.
Il preparazione per la Juve
With (not too much) extreme caution then we set up for the game, going for a more defensive variation on our standard 4-1-2-3 wide but changed slightly to accomodate 2 DMs and a few role changes to try to cope with the Juve onslaught. Marking up was the order of the day of course and we tried to play a short passing game with a low defensive line but the same pressing style that we normally used. The team was picked based on form and fitness and our main midfield outlet was Zielinski, who had been deliberately rested for the Roma game. Diawara’s role as the HB was perhaps the most risky and one that I deliberated over for a while – I’ve always found the role a bit hit and miss as it encourages the CDs to push up, but with Allan alongside I felt we would be well covered and he normally performed well in recycling possession for us in that role leading to a quick counter. In terms of other team selection, Robben had become a first pick ahead of Callejon with a 7.62 avg, as had Mertens with 6 goals in 8 games. Zlatan was being rested after Roma but was a fitting super sub if we needed a late goal and with that we were all set (PS: the keeper role is wrong – I changed it to GKdef as soon as the game started).Early doors, we faced the onslaught well, with Juve clearly going for an early kill. Wave after wave of attacks came from all over the field and Paulo Dybala hit the woodwork on the 11th minute. One good thing though was that Ronaldo was pretty much muted by Diawara in that HB role so I was pleased with that. As we know though, simply stopping attacks is not enough and our counters were shocking, with almost all of them ending in misplaced passes for yet another Juve attack. But then, almost inevitably it seemed, our Roma hero Koulibally gave CR7 a cheeky off the ball nudge on the tip of the box and a penalty was given. Our gladiatorial 6’5″ talisman could only hang his head in shame as Ronny stepped up ..
.. and did what he does, nailing the bugger right in the top corner as our keeper Kamezis was left flailing.And that was how it stayed, with us weathering the storm for the next 70 minutes, barely getting out of our own half, with Ronaldo still muted by Diawara but Dybala still running the show and Alex Sandro basically taking the piss out of Robben and Hysaj on our right hand side. Not quite a day to forget and with some positives (such as keeping it just to 1 nil) but sad all the same 😦
I gave the boys the day off on the Thursday to recover and gather their thoughts. It was never easy to lose but with the knowledge that our head to head games were probably our only chance of gaining points over Juve the boys’ heads had gone down, with some clearly feeling that our league challenge was over already. It was clear from this performance that Juve were not just good, but frighteningly good, with Ronaldo the final piece of a puzzle that had already claimed the title 7 years on the bounce.
Slip sliding away
An easy 2-0 home win over Chievo followed with our old boys Zlatan and Robben doing the business with two cracking solo efforts but then the cracks started to appear as our invincible start, destroyed by the Old Lady, faded to a distant memory. While our Serie A form wasn’t by any means abysmal, with just 4 points dropped in 8 games, Champions League away losses to RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg had us placed 3rd in the group and facing an early shower unless we turned things around PDQ. By this point though we were already adrift of Juve by 10pts and let’s face it, despite a miracle our league challenge was over 😦 .
Come the January window it was clear then that we needed to step things up. The aim now became to finish a strong second ahead of (by the looks of it) Milan, Inter or Roma but still without a pot to piss in again budget-wise I knew we had to sell-to-buy.
I was helped in this by Arkadiusz Milik, our CF whom I had high hopes for but had struggled all season with just a 6,73 avg and 1 tap-in goal in 3 starts. With interest from Southampton he wanted away so off he went with our best wishes so I could use the money to buy in a new keeper I had targetted, Fernando Muslera. He had an avg 7.25 for Galatasaray over two seasons and was a star and a half ahead of my keeper Orestis Karnezis, who had clearly been a stop-gap brought in by the Napoli board IRL when Pepe Reina went off to AC Milan. We also badly needed cover for Diawara as I had a glut of creative APs but just him in the DM/HB slot. With that in mind I sent the scouts off and they came back with another aging soul (my 3rd so far) in the form of Javier Mascherano, who was dragged from his Chinese exile with the promise of no more than a game every two weeks, a cosy, 7 bedroom villa in Sorrento overlooking Piazza Tasso and as much Bruschetta as he could eat.But readers, sadly it was not to be and the rot continued with my supposed GK Messiah Muslera the chief culprit with some ridiculous mistakes, including one where he ran back to the line as the ball trickled in then stopped and watched it cross the line as Raul Albiol ran back frantically and tried to kick it out (I kid you not).
January saw us lose another 2 Serie A matches and, while we qualified from our Champions League group with a final home win against Russian side Akhmat Grozny, we now sit at the start of April having been knocked out in the first knockout round by Arsenal 4-2 (despite drawing 2-2 at home). We are also out of the Coppa Italia with a shocking defeat to Chievo and are now 16pts behind Juve (who have two games in hand 😦 ). Oh dear, oh dear.
The good news is that we’ve reached board expectations and will (probably) be good for 2nd place, so I guess it ain’t all too bad. They’ve also give me a new contract, so with that in mind, we rebuild.
Initially I had a short term plan to use our elder statesmen of Zlatan and Robben to bolster our push for a quick title this year but it is clear that I need something more for maybe the few seasons left of Ronaldo’s career as that is where I will end the challenge. In fact, he played until he was 40 in my Newton Heath save so I may well have 5 seasons left. That said, I will also end the save if he leaves Juve so it may come sooner than that, who knows? With all this in mind, here are my actions going forward:
- Bring some loanee youth players back as rotation options (slim pickings but there’s at least 4)
- Target Gianluigi Donnarumma as a replacement for GK for Muslera (I have already unsettled him but we may have to sell someone to raise the funds)
- Improve our away form by hook or by crook
- Lessen the gap between us and Juve to under 10pts for next season.
So there we go, enjoy your Mocca Frappacino and ciao for now,