Early season matches against newly promoted sides, particularly ones you haven't faced in several years, are always tense affairs. So little is known about the opponent, that larger clubs tend to assume too much, thinking they'll coast by on reputation alone. However, as we saw in this afternoon's Roma and Empoli reunion, those assumptions proved false.
For the first 44 minutes of the match, Roma played down to the level of their competition, looking disjointed in all facets of the game, lacking any sense of direction in the middle of the park and looking weak and powerless on the flanks, falling to take advantage of Empoli's narrow shape. And if we're being honest, they probably played below Empoli's level. However, as is often the case with successful sides, sometimes you find a way to win and sometimes the way to win finds you.
As stoppage time in the first half wound down, Radja Nainggolan continued his hot start to the season, unleashing a lovely low angled shot from nearly 30 years out, beating Empoli keeper Luigi Sepe low and to the left. Nainggolan's shot caromed off the left post and glanced off of Sepe's head, maintaining just enough momentum to skirt across the goal and tuck inside the right post giving Roma a 1-0 heading into half time.
While this was ultimately scored as an own goal, as you can see below, it was a hell of a strike from Nainggolan, as he placed it in the only conceivable place he could've beaten Sepe. Through the season's first 180 minutes, Nainggolan has undoubtedly been Roma's finest player; he has completely controlled the midfield and has shown some impressive strides in his offensive game, picking out six key passes through two matches.
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That was really about it, apart from Maicon nearly beating Sepe from point blank range and Levan Mchedlidze almost drawing a penalty on Kostas Manolas, the second half saw Roma hang on for dear life, desperate not to drop two points to lowly Empoli.
Everybody's Working For Wednesday
Whether they'd admit it or not, it was clear as day, Roma was more focused on Wednesday's Champions League opener with CSKA Moscow. How else could you explain such an aimless effort from one of Italy's top teams? Roma was outshot 17 to 5, they were poor in the air, poor in tackles, conceded seven corner kicks while taking none of their own, and committed 10 fouls. Whether it was due to the international break, the ad hoc starting XI or the looming match with Moscow, something seemed amiss from minute one.
To Roma's credit, when they did manage to mount an attack, they were able to drive deep, firing off four of their five shots inside Empoli's final third. However, it was the emphasis on wing play that ultimately let them down, as they just weren't able to create many genuine chances from the perimeter, nor were they able to exploit the space they found behind the Empoli defenders.
Ultimately, this match wasn't much to write home about; nothing terribly exciting or terribly bad happened. It looked precisely like what it was; a club with a lot of new faces coming off a two week break and playing only its second match of the season. So we shouldn't have expected fireworks, but given the amount of talent that was still on the pitch, we shouldn't have been bailed out by a stoppage time own goal either.
But, hey, three points is three points, and at the end of the day you need a little luck.