ROME: Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a race on our hands. With Christmas just around the corner and the midway point of the season only three games away, it’s still anyone’s guess who will end up in the Serie A top four come the end of 2023/24.
AS Roma‘s 1-1 draw with Fiorentina at a boisterous Stadio Olimpico on Sunday ensured that Matchday 15 would end with just one point separating four teams between fourth and seventh.
But it also helped underline the blend of enviable strengths in debilitating weaknesses that is present in each of the teams involved.
None of the close-knit quartet of Roma, Bologna (25 points), Napoli or Fiorentina (24 pts) have managed to pull clear of the pack, while Atalanta (23 pts) moved closer to the Champions League places, and Lazio (21 pts) have fallen even further short of expectations.
Each side is packed with talent but plagued by flaws, and Sunday’s stalemate in the Eternal City provided a good example of this.
Mourinho and Roma have problems
For Roma, the silky smooth link-up that led to Romelu Lukaku‘s opening goal was a reminder of the dazzling attacking talent the Giallorossi possess, but creator Paulo Dybala‘s latest muscular problem midway through the first half was a reminder of how fleeting and fragile any hope of a consistent run of games for the injury-plagued Argentinian can be.
Roma‘s greatest asset this season has been their home form: the draw against the Viola might have ended a five-match home winning run in Serie A, but only Juventus (20) and Inter (19) have mustered a better record than the Lupi’s 17 points on home soil this season.
Another area of strength has been finishing strongly – Jose Mourinho‘s men have scored 24 times in the final 15 minutes of matches this calendar year, including seven of their last nine goals, helping them achieve remarkable late turnarounds against Lecce and Sassuolo.
But any hopes of them repeating that trick against Fiorentina were undone by a second booking for Nicola Zalewski midway through the second half, before Lukaku deservedly earned a straight red late on for a reckless challenge that left them clinging on while down to nine men.
Selection has been a constant headache for Mourinho this season due to injuries to a number of key players, and now he will have to contend with the absence of Dybala – who will reportedly be out for 10 days with a muscle problem – and the suspended Lukaku. Tammy Abraham‘s approaching return to fitness can’t come soon enough.
Another of Roma‘s flaws has been their travel sickness. Mourinho recently joked that it was down to the players “missing their mothers” but he won’t be laughing if the Giallorossi can’t fix the issue soon. They have picked up just two wins on the road all season and face a trip to high-flying Bologna on Sunday, where the Rossoblu could leapfrog them and astonishingly go alone in fourth with a win.
Another area for improvement for Roma is one they share with Fiorentina – struggles in the big games. This issue pre-dates Mourinho‘s reign but hasn’t improved much since the Portuguese tactician’s arrival, and so far in 2023/24 the capital club have two draws and two defeats from their four meetings against fellow sides who finished in the top eight last season.
That is a concerning statistic with a daunting run of fixtures coming up over Christmas and New Year: Napoli (H), Juventus (A), Atalanta (H) and Milan (A) between December 23 and January 14. Gulp.
Fiorentina having problems of their own
Fiorentina have fared a little better, earning wins over Atalanta and Napoli, but defeats to Inter, Lazio, Juventus and Milan before their draw on Sunday give Vincenzo Italiano‘s side a return of seven points from a possible 21 against top-seven teams that they will have to improve on in the second half of the season if they are to seriously challenge.
There were plenty of positives for the Viola to take from their night out in the capital, as they controlled possession, improved after the break and wasted no time in taking advantage of the extra man by equalising through Lucas Martinez Quarta within a minute of Zalewski‘s red.
Italiano‘s team are one of the easiest on the eye in the league, second only to Napoli for average ball possession and behind only the champions and Inter for shots, but that tells a story in itself.
Their lack of a clinical striker has been costly this season and M’Bala Nzola‘s performance against Roma was demonstrative of that.
He did plenty of good work around the park but ultimately failed to convert the one gilt-edged chance he had, when failing to properly connect with the ball from a gorgeous Giacomo Bonaventura assist in the first half with only the keeper to beat.
Nzola and his rival for the No.9 shirt, Lucas Beltran, have two goals between them in Serie A this season and their inability to find a second against 10 and then nine-man Roma was a telling indication of the biggest issue facing Italiano.
Unlike their opponents on Sunday, Fiorentina do at least have a relatively kind fixture schedule over the turn of the year and don’t face another of the league’s big dogs until they host Inter on January 28.
For every side around Roma and Fiorentina, it’s just as easy to quickly identify arguments for and against them finishing in the top four.
Thiago Motta’s Bologna enter the Champions League race
Bologna‘s cohesive and connected side are playing some of the best football in the league and making a habit of upsetting big teams, but they are in uncharted territory and lack the experience of lasting the course, not to mention the squad depth and January resources of their rivals.
Napoli‘s attempt at a title defence has fallen apart and they are already onto their second manager of the season, while Victor Osimhen is about to head off to the Africa Cup of Nations, but Walter Mazzarri still has the best squad of any in this tight-knit pack of teams and largely the same group that won the Scudetto last season.
Atalanta will hope that their dramatic win over Milan can end a dreadful recent run that saw them slide down the Serie A table, but they have struggled for consistency and haven’t strung together more than two straight wins all season. Even that has been beyond them for the last month and a half.
Lazio‘s chronic lack of goals and creativity and their constant slip-ups against lower-table teams has left last season’s runners-up finish feeling like a distant memory, but they are somehow still within four points of a return to the Champions League places – the one competition they have looked relatively assured in so far this season.
The clear strengths and flaws of each side in this European race could make it one of the most memorable for years – and certainly makes it one of the most unpredictable.