A lot can change in a month. Saturday marks one month since AS Roma‘s 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Genoa, an alarming result of such magnitude that reports of Jose Mourinho‘s imminent departure soon started spilling into newspapers.
The Giallorossi coach himself responded to the Marassi mauling by calling it “the worst start to a season of my career.”
Roma were slumped in 16th place in the Serie A table after winning just one of their opening six league games, and the Portuguese admitted his trump card had vanished from the pack: “We’ve lost defensive solidity.”
Fast forward four weeks, and the red side of Rome is rocking again.
Roma rocking after recovery
The Giallorossi’s response to that setback has been admirable: five games, five wins, four clean sheets.
Roma have recovered from a stuttering start to rise to seventh in the standings, three points off the top four, and head to pace-setters Inter on Matchday 10 having rediscovered their defensive steel – the only goal they have conceded this month was a late consolation penalty in a 4-1 win over Cagliari.
Of course, they were heavy favourites to beat all the teams they have come up against: Frosinone, Servette, Cagliari, Monza and Slavia Praha.
The performances haven’t always been convincing either, not least the laboured 1-0 win over 10-man Monza that required a stoppage-time winner from Stephan El Shaarawy.
But these matters pale into insignificance when lined up against the context of a desperate need for points in the wake of that Genoa result, made harder by an injury crisis that stopped Mourinho from fielding a settled side.
On Thursday, five of the eight outfield players on the Roma bench were Primavera teenagers due to the absences of Marash Kumbulla, Chris Smalling, Leonardo Spinazzola, Renato Sanches, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Sardar Azmoun, Tammy Abraham and Paulo Dybala.
You can add into the mix that Mourinho has been suspended for every European game so far, as he sits out a four-match UEFA ban for abusing referee Anthony Taylor after last season’s Europa League final.
The Portuguese will be denied a return to his former stomping ground on Sunday after a ‘cry-baby’ gesture aimed at the Monza coaching staff earned him yet another suspension.
All eyes, then, will be on Lukaku.
The Belgian returns to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza for the first time since managing to upset his former fans and team-mates by reportedly entering talks with bitter rivals Juventus in the summer.
Inter ready to welcome Lukaku
Inter‘s Curva Nord have already promised 30,000 whistles will be handed out to fans specifically to be blown whenever Lukaku touches the ball.
That would be enough to make most players wilt, but Roma don’t need him to touch the ball too much, so long as he makes those moments count.
Thursday’s 2-0 Europa League win over Slavia was a fine example of this.
Only Edoardo Bove, who was replaced at half-time, made fewer touches than Lukaku‘s 30 of the starting players.
But the Belgian battered home his side’s second with a great run and finish, and came inches away from another in the second half.
The former Inter man has given Roma the killer touch that they so badly lacked last season when Paulo Dybala wasn’t around, and he has hit the ground running in the capital.
Lukaku heads north full of confidence with five goals in his last five games and eight in 10 appearances overall this season in Rome.
What’s more, he has found a good foil recently in El Shaarawy, who also heads into the Inter clash in quietly fine fettle.
The Italy international followed up his last-minute heroics against Monza with a display of creativity and industry against Slavia, setting up both of Roma‘s goals.
The first assist was the fruit of working hard to win the ball back high up the pitch, the second from a perfectly-weighted through ball to Lukaku.
El Shaarawy was inches away from getting his own name on the scoresheet too when he rattled a shot off the bar in the second half.
Whether it will be enough to earn a starting spot on Sunday is another question, but with all of the Stadio Meazza wrath pouring down on Lukaku‘s shoulders, he could be Roma‘s secret weapon to fire some shots from the shadows.