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Serie A teams enjoyed a rare feat in European competition this week: an unbeaten opening week. Over the years, even when Serie A was at the height of its European dominance, clubs from the peninsula in continental competition could be slow movers in the early stages.
With seven clubs playing across three competitions this week, most expected an Italian team to lose. Lazio, hosting Atletico Madrid, where the likely candidates. Yet the rest of the fixtures seemed winnable for Italian sides. By Thursday night, Serie A ended the week of European games with three victories, four draws and no defeats.
Of the three victories, Roma, Atalanta and Napoli won; Inter surprisingly failed to best Real Sociedad and Milan somehow contrived to not score against Newcastle at San Siro. Moreover, Lazio’s goalkeeper Ivan Provedel showed Milan were the goal is by rescuing a point for Maurizio Sarri’s side in the last minute of stoppage time, channelling his inner Olivier Giroud by rising high to meet Luis Alberto’s in swinging cross.
Roma’s victory was sealed with a finish from Romelu Lukaku, and the Belgian has now netted two goals in three games for the Giallorossi. Roma, away to Moldovan side Sheriff FC, went ahead before being pegged back in the second half through defender Cristian Tovar. Lukaku’s goal was the result of beautifully combined and intricate football with Paulo Dybala and Bryan Cristante on the edge of the Sheriff penalty box, with Dybala and Cristante displaying beautiful one touches in tight areas. Lukaku latched on to Dybala’s final touch before showing brute strength to a calm finish to restore Roma’s advantage and, eventually, all three points.
The Lukaku-Dybala partnership, or at least the potential of it, will influence just how successful Roma’s season will be under Jose Mourinho. The pair are already proving to show some level of understanding, despite both only starting one game together: the 7-0 thumping of Empoli last weekend.
Both players, who have endured the highest highs and the lowest of lows over the past several years at professional level, could be the most productive pairing in Serie A this season, granted they stay fit. This is something that will be easier said than done considering their track record in recent years. Lukaku suffered an injury-hit 2022/23 while on loan at Inter, and he struggled to win back his place in the Inter starting XI, which in turn lead to a frustration and flirtation with Juventus and Milan, burning bridges with Inter permanently. Dybala has become a byword in the Italian game for injury prone, with the slender Argentine incapable of making it through 90 minutes in the majority of games. Dybala only completed a full 90 minutes seven times in Serie A last season, and the 29-year-old has to be carefully handled by Mourinho.
And yet, there is the tantalising prospect of Dybala and Lukaku bringing the best out of each other and firing Roma into the top four, the minimum objective for Mourinho in what could be his final season at the club. In theory, they can elevate each other, Dybala could be to Lukaku what Lautaro Martinez was to the Belgian at Inter: the creator-in-chief, the player to drop deep and play the ball in behind, utilising Lukaku’s pace and power.
When at Juventus, Dybala was at his best when he was partnered with a striker, with first Mario Mandzukic and Gonzalo Higuain the beneficiaries of Dybala’s brilliance. The beginning of the end of Dybala at Juve was when various managers switched to a 4-3-3 system to get the most out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival. Similarly, Lukaku has also been at his best when in a pairing, as evidenced in his first stint at Inter alongside Martinez.
Lukaku’s goal against Sheriff, and the role of Dybala in it, has showcased the huge potential of what can be achieved between the two this season. Moreover, with Andrea Belotti suddenly finding the net again in Serie A after a year or firing blanks and Tammy Abraham on the way to recovery, Mourinho suddenly has options in attack, something that wasn’t the case last season.
But Roma’s success will hinge entirely on Lukaku and Dybala. Keep them fit and there’s no telling where Roma’s season may end. Yet history tells us that it’ll be easier said than done.