Going into this match, the story of the day was understandably the return of Francesco Totti. While he may have delivered the game's first goal and set up another, it was Roma's other elder statesman, Morgan De Sanctis, who would emerge the hero of the day.
Despite rumors indicating he'd make a tactical change, Rudi Garcia ran out the tried and true 4-3-3, giving Rodrigo Taddei the surprise start in between Radja Nainggolan and Miralem Pjanic. Up front, Totti was joined by Gervinho and Mattia Destro, so, at least on the surface, it appeared as though Roma had enough firepower to make this an easy, breezy three points. But appearances aren't always what they seem, are they?
Although Mattia Destro would threaten Simone Scuffet's goal in the third minute, the Roman attack was actually rather listless for much of the first half, particularly the first 20-25 minutes, as Garcia's men were mired deep in their own half and seemed content to spend their day making pointless, lateral passes. We've been down that road many times before, and it's seldom a pleasant journey.
Somehow, in the face of that stagnation, Roma still managed six shots in the first in the first twenty minutes. The problem, as you may have noticed, was that the shots were either too far, were blocked by Udinese defenders, or turned away by Scuffet.
But in the 22nd minute, something glorious happened. Gervinho and Pjanic showed some wonderful syncopation, working a quick two-man game on the right flank, leaving the Zebras confused in their wake. Despite that build up, Gervinho's attempt on goal didn't cut the mustard. Scuffet was initially up to the task, turning away Gervinho's low shot, but the rebound simply proved too much for Scuffet to handle, as it caromed perpendicular to the goal line, right in the thick of Roma's frontline. Waiting in the wings was none other than Francesco Totti, who calmly guided in his 233rd Serie A goal to put Roma up 1-0, which you can see in further detail here.
Udinese would threaten a mere 60 seconds later, as Emmanuel Badu found himself with a golden opportunity, face-to-face with Morgan De Sanctis, not a defender in sight. Despite what could be classified as a clear cut chance, Badu's toe poke towards the lower right corner of the goal was pushed aside by De Sanctis.
We'll call that miracle number one.
Gervinho would make his mark once more in the 30th minute. Francesco Totti picked out the streaking Ivorian from deep, and I mean deep, in the Roma zone, who settled the ball and drove up the right flank, dribbled around Allan, cut inside and delivered a perfectly threaded ball to Destro. The beauty of this play, at least in terms of the finish, is the manner in which Destro skirts around the diving Scuffet, lets it run a few feet, turns his hips to find the proper angle, and buries it far post.
And, really, all three components of this goal were magnificent. Totti found Gervinho in stride from DEEP in Roma's defensive third, Gervinho's moves were precise and effective, while Destro showed the presence of mind and simple balance to put himself back into scoring position.
Roma 2, Udinese 0. This was Roma's first multi goal match since February 5th against Napoli, by the way.
Cakewalk ensues, right?
Although Totti and Destro would put Udinese in danger in the waning moments of the first half, it would actually take a minor mistake from Francesco Totti to put Roma in dispair. Following a dispossession deep in Roma's territory, Giampiero Pinzi would make the Giallorossi pay in the 50th minute, beating De Sanctis on the far post from roughly 20 yards out. There wasn't much MDS could do at that point and, in typical Roma fashion, this was Pinzi's first goal of the year...go figure.
Roma 2, Udinese 1. Minor heart palpitations begin.
In the 55th minute, MDS would be called upon once again. Following a horrifically flubbed clearance by Radja Nainggolan, Antonio Di Natale found himself in prime scoring position; dead center, no more than 10 yards from the goal line. But luck wasn't on Toto's side, as MDS made one of his three saves against Serie A's 10th all-time leading scorer.
MDS miracle number two.
Nainggolan almost atoned for his near mistake, unleashing one from deep in the 66th minute, but it would be the oft forgotten Vasilis Torosidis who effectively sealed the deal for Roma. In the 69th minute, Roma's Greek fullback was on the receiving end of Totti's switch of play, finding himself with acres of space on Roma's right flank. Torosidis took a few touches inwards and immediately drove towards the goal and unleashed a shot with his weaker foot from 20+ yards, burying one in the far corner.
Roma 3, Udinese 1. Crisis averted, right?
Udinese made a quick break on a 75th minute counter, led by Toto himself. Di Natale played a fantastic ball to Allan, who, by most accounts, should have scored, but simply wasn't up to task, sending a shot high, wide and right of goal from about 12 yards out. No harm, no foul.
The Zebras would make life a bit more uncomfortable for Roma five minutes later. On an 80th minute corner, Dusan Basta took a headed pass from a teammate and volleyed it past a helpless MDS. It was a straight-from-the-training-ground play, and there wasn't much Roma's defense could have done differently.
Roma 3, Udinese 2. The seeds of doubt are bearing fruit.
In the 88th minute, Miralem Pjanic seized upon an Udinese turnover, feeding Alessandro Florenzi on the left. Ale, for all intents and purposes, should have buried this and removed all doubt, but his shot sailed well over the cross bar, leading to some tense final moments.
Tagliavento gifted Udinese with three minutes of stoppage time, but thanks to some timely clearances from Mehdi Benatia, Leandro Castan, Alessio Romagnoli and Torosidis, Roma were able to kill the clock and stave off the Zebra's final advances.
Roma: What a Relief
This was a strange match by many accounts. What initially seemed like a Francesco Totti fueled romp, turned into a De Sanctis saved nail biter. The final tally shows that Roma held slight advantages in most statistical categories, but, in what has become the story of late winter, were simply not precise enough in their attack, putting only 45% of their shots on target tonight, which isn't terrible until you consider that Toto & Co put 57% of their shots on goal.
On any other evening, Roma would have paid for their imprecision and lax defense, but, thanks to Morgan De Sanctis' heroics, particularly against Di Natale, Roma escaped with a 3-2 victory and maintain their three point lead over third place Napoli.
Thankfully it's still St. Patrick's Day, so go have yourself a drink.
Man of the Match?
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Morgan De Sanctis-Five saves
Francesco Totti- One goal, One assist
Mehdi Benatia-Ten clearances, four tackles