Midfield masters provide the class and goals in title chase
Having become the first team in Serie A history to win their opening 10 matches, AS Roma headed for Torino looking to equal the 11 straight wins achieved by the Tottenham Hotspur side of 1960/61 - the best-ever start to a campaign in any of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues.
In overcoming a stubborn Chievo on Thursday evening thanks to a single goal from Marco Borriello, Rudi Garcia’s pace-setters also improved on their impressive stats in the goals for and against column, to 24 goals scored and just one conceded.
Until Borriello replaced the injured Francesco Totti in the early stages of the 2-0 victory against Napoli in round eight, the Giallorossi had not played with an out-and-out striker. Totti had led the line, but from a deeper position, leaving Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi to attack from wide positions.
When Gervinho also picked up an injury in the Napoli game, Adem Ljajic took over the former Arsenal man’s role on the left of the attack, leaving Borriello to battle on through the middle.
His physical qualities came to the fore when he headed home against Chievo, but who needs strikers when you have the likes of Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic breaking from midfield to arrive in goalscoring positions? This was how the former scored the opening goal midway through the first half of Sunday evening’s match in Turin.
However, Alessio Cerci became the first player to beat Morgan De Sanctis in 774 Serie A minutes when he equalised early in the second period, a goal that would ultimately end the Giallorossi’s hopes of continuing their remarkable run.
That certainly wasn’t for want of trying on Roma’s part. Garcia’s side continued to enjoy most of the possession and their quick passing - not to mention the sparkling footwork of Pjanic and substitute Ljajic - had the home side hanging on for dear life towards the end.
Much has been made of Roma’s solid defending, but it is the fluency of the midfield, where Daniele De Rossi is back to his dominating best, that has really been the foundation for Roma’s early-season success.
It has certainly been midfielders who have most caught the eye this season, with both Juventus and Napoli relying on their men in the middle to overcome their own tricky weekend opponents.
Napoli coach Rafa Benitez claimed he was far from happy with his side’s win over Catania, despite peppering the away goal for most of the match. The Azzurri maintained their excellent form at the San Paolo with a 2-1 success against the Sicilians - they’re now unbeaten on their own patch since January - but the coach felt that the match should have been closed out after his side ran into an early 2-0 lead.
Instead, they allowed the visitors back into the game. The Spaniard admitted that there was room for improvement and that he had only seen his team operate at 75 per cent of their potential so far.
The hosts did get off to a blistering start and Jose Maria Callejon gave Napoli the lead in the 15th minute with a stunning strike, curling the ball into the top corner from 20 yards. The winger had also scored a wonderful goal in midweek at Fiorentina and the former Real Madrid man is beginning to find his feet in Serie A. Napoli doubled their lead five minutes later when Lorenzo Insigne rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty area for Marek Hamsik to hit first time into the top left corner.
The moment that left Benitez angry, however, was a piece of tame defending which enabled Lucas Castro to score and get the visitors back into the game, thus forcing Napoli to start all over again when they should have been conserving energy for their Champions League tie with Marseille on Tuesday.
When it comes to ruthlessly finishing off sides, one need look no further than Juventus. Antonio Conte must be confident that, over the long haul, Juventus have the strength and depth to retain their Serie A crown. The coach made a number of changes for the game at Parma but still managed to come away with a 1-0 victory.
Paul Pogba scored the only goal of the game with 13 minutes remaining, but it was substitute Fabio Quagliarella who set it up with a stunning shot that came back off the bar for the midfielder to tuck home.
The result more than satisfied Conte, not least as it was achieved without the rested Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Pirlo, who only came on after the hour mark. Of course, when the midfield maestro was introduced, his very presence gave the Bianconeri the lift they needed and at the same time enabled Pogba to get further forward.
Up until then, Carlos Tevez and Sebastian Giovinco had toiled away to no great avail against much more physical opponents, and if Pirlo’s introduction had tipped the balance of power, then Quagliarella’s arrival swung it completely in Juventus’ favour as he took less than a minute to crash the crossbar for Pogba’s winner.
Fiorentina also had their midfield to thank for the 2-0 win at crisis-hit Milan. Juan Vargas opened the scoring, albeit with a deflected free-kick, and the ultra-impressive Borja Valero sealed the victory with a well-timed run into the area to head home unimpeded.
Inter only had one fit striker for their trip to Udinese, so Walter Mazzarri pushed Fredy Guarin forward to support Rodrigo Palacio to great effect. The Colombian was a constant threat as the Nerazzurri ran out 3-0 winners, although it was the genuine frontman Palacio who grabbed the first and set up Ricky Alvarez to round off the scoring in between a close-range volley from defender Andrea Ranocchia.
In total, Roma and Inter have now found the net with 11 different scorers, Juventus and Fiorentina 10, and Napoli eight. The title race is starting to take shape and the midfield masters are providing the class and goals which could make the difference.