Edin Dzeko never did turn into Marco van Basten at Manchester City. That is what some predicted would happen when he joined from Wolfsburg for £27m in January 2011 having scored 66 goals in 111 appearances for the German club. Aged 24, he appeared to have the strength, speed and skill to become a world-class centre-forward. Van Basten’s image adorned Dzeko’s bedroom walls growing up in Sarajevo and, in the Bosnian’s own words, he was “very flattered” to be seen as a modern-day version of the Dutch legend upon his arrival.
As is often the case in football, however, the hype failed to match reality, and while Dzeko hardly bombed at City – he scored 72 goals across four-and-a-half seasons, helping the club win two Premier League titles – he failed to match the loftiest of expectations that surrounded him. He joined Roma on loan in August 2015 and it is telling that City were more than happy for the deal to become a long-term one within two months. In with a bang, out with a whimper.
But if that was then, this is now, and having taken his time to settle in Italy Dzeko is once again a player catching the eye and causing a fuss. He has 12 goals in 16 games this season, making him Serie A’s joint top scorer, and on Saturday evening is seen by Roma supporters as key to their chances of taking a giant stride in their pursuit of a first league title in 16 years. The Giallorossi travel to Juventus for a battle between first and second. Win and Roma cut the gap to the leaders, and champions, to one point with more than half of the campaign left to play. For Dzeko, now aged 30 and plying his trade in the country where Van Basten shone so brightly, this feels like a defining moment.
“Maybe I needed some time [to settle] but now I feel I have learned so much about Serie A,” Dzeko said in a recent interview with Corriere della Sera. “The defenders, the stadiums and the club. I feel I understand them now.”
In the same interview it was pointed out to Dzeko that his manager, Luciano Spalletti, wants him to be more cattivo – naughtier, dirtier – on the pitch, to which he replied: “If you miss two chances is that because you haven’t been dirty or aggressive enough? To me being cattivo means that you have to use all the chances you get and that you have to concentrate all the time. And I am learning to do that. This is who I am. I was born this way .”
For Roma that is no bad thing given Dzeko’s scoring return and all-round contribution, using his 6ft 3in frame to get hold of and keep possession, allowing team-mates such as Radja Nainggolan, Diego Perotti and Mohamed Salah to get forward and join him in causing harm in the opposing area. And it has worked, with that trio having scored three, five and eight goals respectively.
That is not all down to Dzeko but he is clearly pivotal in more ways than one for a Roma side with the Scudetto in their sights.
That was far from the case during Dzeko’s early days in Rome, when his finishing was so poor his nickname among the Stadio Olimpico faithful became Edin Cieco – Edin the blind. Between mid-November 2015 and February 2016 he went almost 12 hours without scoring and against Palermo on 21 February contrived to miss the target from a position practically on the goal line.
All that has changed, however, and before on Saturday evening’s encounter Dzeko can take great heart from having secured three more goals from the same number of league games played as Gonzalo Higuaín, the man Juventus spent £75.3m to acquire this summer.
As Dzeko also told Corriere della Sera, the experience of securing the title with City in 2012 and 2014 fills him with confidence he can do the same with Roma, and there is no doubt that winning on Saturday would boost the belief among every member of Spalletti’s squad. They could even take something out of a draw given Juventus have won each of their last 24 games on their own turf, a remarkable run that testifies to the strength of Massimo Allegri’s side as they pursue a sixth successive championship.
The two teams go into the encounter having won standout fixtures – Juventus beating Torino 3-1 in the Turin derby and Roma overcoming Milan 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico 24 hours later. And while separated by four points, there is little to split them in goals scored (Juventus 35, Roma 36) and goals against (Juventus 14, Roma 16).
It is extremely tight and for Roma, without a title since 2001, when Gabriel Batistuta and Francesco Totti were in their pomp (the latter recently turned 40 and remains part of the club 24 years after his debut), this is a golden chance to get one over opponents for whom there has been little love lost since the gol di Turone in May 1981.
A victory in that encounter would have taken Roma top with two games of the season left – instead they finished runners-up after Maurizio Turone’s header at the Stadio Comunale, Juventus’s home until 1990, was debatably ruled offside.
“We need the fans,” Dzeko said before the visit to the Juventus Stadium. Increasingly, they also need him.
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