On Sunday, Roma travel to the San Siro with a chance to show the rest of Serie A that they're for real and a team to be reckoned with. A run of four straight wins in all competitions has steadied Eusebio Di Francesco's ship after early criticism following three fiendishly difficult opening fixtures, but the clash with AC Milan will offer a true assessment of both sides' progress, with each looking to get revenge on the other's city. Roma in particular want to fully sweep away the doubts that crept in after their defeat to Inter Milan last month, while the Rossoneri's recent walloping at the hands of Lazio means that the team from Italy's "moral capital" has a score to settle with decadent, wasteful Rome.
That taking 12 points from a possible 12 in Serie A and the Champions League hasn't completely convinced the sceptics is down to the quality of opponent over the last fortnight. Roma's last three league contests were strolls against three of the weakest sides in the division, while Wednesday evening's scrappy 2-1 win at Azeri minnows Qarabag FK in the Champions League highlighted how far they still have to go in Europe's top competition. The quality on display during Group C rivals Chelsea's pulsating victory at Atletico Madrid put that in stark relief.
"The important thing was the result," said an unsatisfied Radja Nainggolan after Wednesday's match. "We know that we didn't play well but we took home three points. That's the only thing we can be satisfied with...we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and do better."
Dumped by Belgium yet again, the "Ninja" will be able to throw himself wholeheartedly into Sunday's contest. The San Siro was the scene of Nainggolan's best display last season, albeit against Inter, and he will relish the chance to show Roberto Martinez what the Red Devils are missing in what is easily Serie's A biggest game of the weekend. His team also want to send a message to the rest of the league that they've got their act together after a stumbling start, and that it wasn't just the weakness of the opposition that made them look good. With Napoli and a trip to Chelsea coming up after the international break, a good showing in Milan is essential.
For Milan, Di Francesco has to shuffle his pack again after yet another muscle injury to one of his starters, this time to Gregiore Defrel, who was subbed off for Alessandro Florenzi an hour into that hard-fought win in Azerbaijan. It will most likely be Florenzi, himself only feeling his way back in after 11 months out with cruciate ligament damage, who will replace the Frenchman, as Diego Perotti will be out until at least the Napoli game thanks to a thigh muscle injury. Defrel meanwhile, is out for a month with a harder knock to the same thigh, and joins fellow right-siders Patrik Schick and Rick Karsdorp on the treatment table.
Milan meanwhile come into the game at a similarly delicate moment in their season. Last weekend's defeat at Sampdoria prompted CEO Marco Fassone to declare that Milan shouldn't "become accustomed to losing and can't lose two matches from six in the league against opponents that on paper are weaker than us." While they made it two wins from two in the Europa League on Thursday, the manner in which the victory was attained -- chucking away a two-goal lead against Rijeka in the final minutes only for youth team product Patrick Cutrone to save the day in stoppage time -- was far from encouraging.
Fassone's judgement of Milan's start isn't fair on the other team to beat them, Lazio, who have shown themselves to be a fine side since Simone Inzaghi took over the Biancoceleste last summer. Nonetheless they find themselves level on 12 points with Roma, a club they significantly outspent and have been tipped to overtake, despite having played a game more. The way Milan lost in Rome and in particular at Samp raised eyebrows, with new captain Leonardo Bonucci -- after being torn asunder in 10 minutes by Lazio's on-fire Ciro Immobile -- looking like a Juventus plant for Duvan Zapata's opener.
That's not what was expected from Milan after a €230 million summer transfer spree, and after losing twice to Roma last season the 65,000 fans expected at the San Siro will want to see a performance that shows that they're ready to take back what Milanisti see as their rightful place above the Roman teams and as the true challengers to Juventus' superglued-on Serie A crown. For Roma, a repeat of last year's 4-1 clobbering at the La Scala of football would do very nicely indeed.