Dzeko, Roma must fight fatigue vs. Lyon to save hopes of silverware
On Wednesday, Luciano Spalletti arrived in France for Roma's Europa League round-of-16 clash with his side's season in the balance. After taking supporters to the heights as high as the San Siro away end with a stonking win over Internazionale, they were brought back down to earth with a colossal thud following two defeats in three days -- against deadly rivals Lazio and Napoli no less -- that leave their hopes of a 10th Coppa Italia hanging by a thread and the Partenopei breathing down their necks for second place in Serie A.
Derby defeat is often enough to get the Roman rumour mill rumbling, and after losing to Napoli a significant chunk of the public and media have started sharpening their knives, ready to go on the attack should the Giallorossi collapse on Thursday at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais. With a two-goal deficit to make up against Lazio in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal next month, the Europa League is now Roma's best chance for a first trophy in nine years. Another performance like the one at the weekend could see their season effectively killed in the space of a week.
There has been much talk of how tired Roma's key men -- in particular Edin Dzeko, who is goalless in three -- looked against Lazio and Napoli, with some blame being directed at the club for a January transfer window that saw few reinforcements arrive. That talk clearly riled Spalletti.
"Talking about tiredness only makes things worse," said an irritated Spalletti after the Napoli clash, in which but for a monstrous stoppage-time Pepe Reina save Roma would have clawed back a two-goal deficit to draw after a blistering 10-minute siege on the away side's goal.
"At the end of the game there was a reaction," the coach added. "For me the players aren't tired and they showed that."
On Monday, Corriere Dello Sport calculated the number of minutes played by Roma players compared to other teams in Serie A, and Dzeko's 3,384 for club and country was only topped by Sassuolo's Francesco Acerbi, who has played in every minute of his club's season. Rampaging converted trequartista Radja Nainggolan is at 3,126, while midfielder Kevin Strootman has played 3,233 and centre-back Kostas Manolas 3,018.
All of which sounds like a lot of football to have played by early March, but when compared to the effort put in by the game's biggest stars, those numbers start to shrink in significance. Cristiano Ronaldo has played 3,456 minutes since the start of last summer's European Championship, while Lionel Messi has played a whopping 3,715 minutes for Barcelona and Argentina, often traversing half the globe to play for his national team.
Neither superstar is flagging much either; Messi has scored six and set up three more in his past four league appearances, while Ronaldo has four in the same period, and Messi has only been substituted twice since the start of 2017, playing virtually every minute of Barca's 17 matches.
Messi's strike partners Neymar (six goals and two assists since the start of the year) and Luis Suarez (12 goals and five assists in same period) have also racked up 3,305 and 3,517 minutes each. If Spalletti wants to shut down any excuses about being tired, he can simply point to the hours the best in the world put in, year in and year out.
What might be more worrying for him however is the way he was out-maneuvered by Simone Inzaghi and Maurizio Sarri, and how the squad rotation and change of formation he employed against Napoli came to bite him on the behind -- as well as posing the question: if the team isn't tired, why did you make so many personnel and tactical changes for such an important game? No surprise then that he'll move back to his first-choice 3-4-2-1 formation on Thursday.
Apart from the suspended Antonio Rudiger and long-term injury casualty Alessandro Florenzi, Spalletti has his full squad available. The Tuscan will likely switch back to the three-man backline that has served him so well in recent months after his experimental back four was carved open by Napoli at the weekend, with Juan Jesus slotting in on the left of the three alongside sweeper Federico Fazio and Manolas.
Emerson Palmieri and Bruno Peres will return on the flanks, as will Dzeko's preferred strike partner Mohamed Salah, who will line up alongside Nainggolan in behind the 29-goal Bosnian, who doesn't claim to be feeling any fatigue as he faces off against Lyon's own net-busting front man Alexandre Lacazette. A return to goals wouldn't just take him closer to Francesco Totti's best ever season total of 32 and keep in the running for Europa League top scorer, it would also help keep Roma's season from falling completely off the rails.
"At 30 years old, almost 31, I feel like this is the best season of my career," he said on Wednesday. "I definitely don't feel my age: I'm in shape and ready."
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley