With Edin Dzeko in red-hot form, Roma are as exciting as they've been in years
While the Giallorosso half of Rome basks in the glow of Thursday's splendid 4-0 hammering of Villarreal, which fired a warning shot to the rest of Europe, Luciano Spalletti's side are back at work preparing for a clash of attacking titans, with Sunday's visit of free-scoring Torino at the Stadio Olimpico bringing hat-trick hero Edin Dzeko face to face with Toro's own red-hot goal ace Andrea Belotti.
Serie A's top scorer with 18 goals, Dzeko made headlines around Europe with a wonderful 20-minute treble at the Estadio de la Ceramica, taking his all-competitions tally to a barely believable 28 goals in just 34 appearances -- this time last year he had six. All three were superbly taken, but his elegant first, which came in the 65th minute with the score still 1-0 and Villarreal in the ascendancy, truly highlighted the difference between this and last year's Dzeko.
Mohamed Salah was set free down the right, and the Bosnian instantly sniffed a chance to double Roma's lead, darting from outside the box towards the near post to receive Salah's cut-back. All in one movement, Dzeko collecting ball while faking to continue his run, only to let the ball run across his body and shift on to his left foot, putting a flailing Mateo Musacchio on his backside as he tried in vain to turn around and block the striker's precise drive, which had already nestled past Sergio Asenjo by the time the defender had managed to stretch a desperate leg out. La Liga's best defence was completely flummoxed by the feet of a 6-foot-3 prima ballerina assoluta.
In Friday's Gazzetta Dello Sport, Nicola Cecere lauded the "gigantic" Dzeko, but reserved his highest praise for Spalletti, who has "faced down critics by forging ahead with the tactical vision he imagined in the summer" and is now "relishing the explosion of his centre-forward, while his team seems ever more reliable and sure of its own abilities". It's hard to disagree with that analysis, and the bravery with which the Tuscan has persevered with Dzeko in Francesco Totti's twilight season, barely playing his ageing captain all season, can only be applauded.
Just one league strike behind Dzeko (and Gonzalo Higuain) is Belotti, who travels to Rome with an impressive 17 of his team's 46 goals to his name. He's no flat-track bully either; of his 19 goals in all competitions, seven have come in games against Juventus, Napoli, Roma, Internazionale and AC Milan, a big-name set of victims that becomes even more impressive when you see his team jammed in mid-table, 10 points back from the European places. Thanks in part to Belotti, the Granata trail only Juventus, Roma and Napoli in the Serie A scoring charts.
His prolific season has been aided by being part of a thrilling attacking trident -- which also comprises Roma cast-offs Iago Falque and Adem Ljajic -- that has bagged 33 goals between them, putting them ahead of Napoli's headline-grabbing combo of Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne. Belotti and Falque humiliated Roma at the Stadio Grande Torino in September, running riot against a team that in that period was abject on the road and as chaotic at the back as it was dangerous going forward.
It will be a different Roma facing up against Torino on Sunday. Dzeko had yet to find his feet back in September while Federico Fazio was yet to insert himself as the imperious sweeper in the 3-4-2-1 formation that has given Roma such stability that they've taken seven clean sheets from the nine matches they've played in 2017, scoring 19 in the process.
That's without reckoning with Roma's formidable home record -- 11 wins from 11 and 32 goals scored, just two fewer than Juve despite the runaway league leaders having played two games more after thumping Palermo 4-1 on Friday night -- and Torino's porous defence, the worst in the top half of the table after having let in 36. Oh, and Torino haven't won away at Roma for 10 years.
Roma also don't have to worry too much about the return leg with Villarreal coming up on Thursday, meaning that they can put all their focus on Sunday's match and then turn their attentions to the massive seven days coming up after, hopefully making the last 16 of the Europa League. A trip to Inter, then Lazio in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal await, before Napoli come to town on March 4 looking to make second place in Serie A their own. With Dzeko sitting on the throne left by Gabriel Batistuta and Spalletti fully in command on his team, this is the most exciting Roma team in years. Who's to say how far they can go?
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley