While I absolutely hate this tired analogy of comparing field sports to boxing matches, as much as it pains me to do so, I'm going to have to employ it for today's Roma and Inter fixture. The first 15 to 20 minutes of this match were all about feeling each other--throwing a few jabs, dancing around, shucking, diving--all in hopes of exposing a weakness you can exploit in the later rounds. Ultimately, Roma were not done in by any glaring weakness, but rather by some supreme goal keeping from Samir Handanovic and a moment of brilliance from Stevan Jovetic.
Each club's plan was pretty obvious from the outset; Roma was keen on exploiting Inter down the flanks, quickly working the ball to Gervinho and Mohamed Salah early and often. The Nerazzurri, meanwhile, opted to use middle of the park, with Adem Ljajic and Stevan Jovetic exchanging passes and positions in an attempt to shake Radja Nainggolan off his moorings and increase the space between Antonio Rüdiger and Kostas Manolas.
Edin Dzeko had two chances to give Roma the early lead, but was left wanting in both instances—a not so powerful header and rebounded effort that was barely thwarted by Inter-- though one should credit Samir Handanovic and D'Ambrosio for their last ditch attempts at keeping that ball out.
Given the feel-it-out nature of the first half, with both sides sticking to their guns, you got the feeling this half would turn on one simple play, one moment in which either side was able to capitalize on whatever slim chance the match afforded.
This being Roma and all, that moment was gifted to perhaps the least offensively talented man on the pitch, Gary Medel, who unleashed this howitzer from about 25-yards-out.
Although, if we're being honest, that goal was equal parts Jovetic and Wojciech Szczesny—Jojo because of the excellent hold up play and the scintillating layoff and Woj because of his slothlike reaction to a 25-yard-shot.
We'll have a more detailed analysis of this breakdown later on, but suffice it to say, the Wojciech Szczesny experience has taken a turn for the worse lately.
On the balance, you can't really say Roma played poorly in the first 45 minutes. Rudi Garcia's plan, to attack down the wings, did work, as the Giallorossi created five scoring chances in the first half, four of which came from the flanks, two of which were clear cut chances—the ball simply wasn't bouncing their way this time, at least not as fortuitously as it had all month long.
The first half wasn't an indictment of anyone, just further evidence that missed chances can decide matches and ultimately sway title chases.
Much like last week, the second half picked up right where the first one ended. Only in this instance, that meant Roma was pressing only to be befuddled by Inter's shape and defensive cohesion, not to mention Handanovic, who, for the third time, denied Dzeko.
You'll have to credit Roma with this much, they came out firing in the second half, going straight for the heart of the Inter defense—there just seemed to be a more deliberate attempt to work the ball towards Dzeko, who, though he was denied twice in the first half, was Roma's most consistent offensive presence through the first 60 minutes of this match.
Handanovic would strike again in the 62nd minute, denying Roma a full four times in the span of, I don't know, two seconds, first stopping Florenzi's shot then scuppering Salah's follow up, which was, if we're being honest, pretty pathetic. We've seen this a million times before--Roma coming up against a once-in-a-lifetime-performance from an opposing keeper--but usually it's some shit keeper pushing 40, so I suppose the fact that Handanovic is one of the game's best should provide some solace, but I'm not buying that argument, and I'm the one making it, so what does that tell you?
Have a look. This was an amazing display of anticipation and agility by Handanovic, but come on, Salah, you have to do better than that.
Roma kept pressing and pressing and pressing, while Inter stayed tight, kept their shape and frustrated Roma time and time again. Although the Giallorossi were able to find gaps in the defensive shell, they simply couldn't capitalize, as Dzeko was denied once more, while Kostas Manolas and Rudiger put about half a head each on beautifully lofted corner kick that only needed one full cranium to equalize the match.
The half reached a new low when Pjanic was sent off in the 72nd minute for a handball, meaning he will miss next weekend's derby against Lazio, but hey, at least we got to see who Roma's fifth choice captain was!
Roma had a hard enough time breaking down the Inter defense at full strength, but once Pjanic was sent off, the challenge doubled—Inter was just too well organized and too committed to holding the line, and that was ultimately the story and defining aspect of this match.
I'm not so certain there are any grand scheme implications in this match; this simply wasn't Roma's night. Don't mistake this for a devolution to the winter of 2015, Garcia's attack was still swift and decisive (though not nearly as much as the past few weeks), creating more chances than Inter and generally dictating the pace of play. They just couldn't create enough chaos in Inter's backline, and when they did manage to pry them open, Handanovic was more than up to the task.
In a 38 week season, you're bound to run into nights like these, when, try as you might, the ball just doesn't bounce your way or you run up against an all-world performance from a goalkeeper. Gervinho was still dangerous on the wings and Pjanic, despite the boneheaded card in the second half, was as dangerous as he's been all month, contributing a whopping eight key passes. The club even found a way to integrate Dzeko more than at any point in the past month.
They simply weren't up to the task when and where it mattered, in the final third, and were done in by one brilliant pass by Stevan Jovetic. However, make no mistake, Inter put on a defensive masterclass, so let's give credit where it's due.
This isn't the end of the world, nor does it spell doom on Roma's title chase. At worst, they'll wake up Monday morning in fourth place, one point off the pace, which is really only disappointing given their torrid run through October.
Don't dwell on this one too long, we've got Bayer Leverkusen and Lazio on the weekend to worry about.