Roma needed a win to both keep pace with Juventus and to create some separation from third place Napoli, while Cagliari needed a win simply to survive another season in Serie A. So, why, then, did this match play out like both sides were gunning for a draw? Through the first twenty minutes or so, the passes were backwards and much of the possession was pointless. It looked as if Roma was set to play out another stilted draw. The only question that remained was would they cough up a lead, or storm back in the second half to save one point.
But then something strange happened. Thanks in part to some inspired play from Daniele Verde (of all people), Roma started to look dangerous. Not 2013-level danger, mind you, but Verde's pace and acceleration began to cause problems for the left side of Cagliari's defense, as he was frequently seen taking on opponents, providing service from the flank and forming tidy little triangles with Adem Ljajic and Miralem Pjanic. Although the names and faces weren't quite the same, Roma's movements began to look awfully familiar.
Hey, speaking of which, check out the match's first goal, one that featured some succinct movement and tight passing from those same three names. I'm nothing if not clever.
Adem Ljajic: 37th Minute
Starting with a simple Pjanic pass, Ljajic and Verde worked a quick and clever little one two, with Verde sending Ljajic into the area with a deft 12-yard running chip, which Ljajic barely latched onto to beat Zeljko Brkic to give Roma the early lead.
Thanks to that moment of brilliance from two of Roma's youngest players, the Giallorossi went into the dressing room with the slimmest of margins, but could they hold it?
Neither Zola nor Garcia made any changes when the second 45 kicked off, though that didn't prevent the Sardinians from pressing the issue straight away. In only the 47th minute, Cagliari was awarded a free kick from 25ish yards out, one which Radja Nainggolan was quick to snuff out. Generally speaking, though, Zola's side dictated the pace and direction of play in the opening moments of the second half; out hustling, out passing and out moving Roma, throwing further shade upon Rudi Garcia's substitution patterns and Roma's ability to simply put together 90 complete minutes of football.
Despite Cagliari's statistical advantage through the first twenty minutes or so, the second half was quite stilted, with several injuries and set pieces removing any semblance of flow from the match, a fact that may have either delighted or terrified you given Roma's recent penchant for the one pointer. Results don't come from second half ambivalence, that's for sure.
Garcia, perhaps in an attempt to shed his "I hate children" label, subbed on Antonio Sanabria for none other than Francesco Totti in the 62nd minute, perhaps indicating his desire to push forward for a decisive second goal, or perhaps because Totti simply can no longer stomach the way this team is playing. We may never know, but for the young Paraguayan, it was his first official league action.
Despite that apparent accentuation on offense, Cagliari remained in control of the match, keeping Roma on her heels, forcing Morgan De Sanctis' into a match saving...well, save. MDS' outstretched hands were all that prevented Duje Cop from levelling the match in the 65th minute. Cagliari would threaten several more times as the match creeped towards the 75th minute, looking more eager, more efficient and more desperate than Roma.
Sensing the need to clamp down on the midfield, Garcia swapped out Ljajic for Leandro Paredes, effectively shifting the tactical balance back towards the midfield, leaving the inexperienced tandem of Verde and Sanabria alone up top. Rather than trying to steal a second goal, Garcia seemed to prefer clamping down and congesting the midfield to grind out a one-nil victory.
Despite that shift in tactics, Cagliari nearly drew one back in the 78th minute, as Duje Cop once more got behind the Roma defense, only to push the ball over the crossbar. Zola would heap further pressure upon Roma by brining on Marco Sau in the 79th minute.
Despite Cagliari's relative dominance, Roma would nearly ice this match in the 80th minute following a counter attack sprung by Sanabria and Torosidis, which ultimately went for naught as Verde couldn't quite get a grip on the ball before Brkic closed down on him. It was perhaps Roma's liveliest moment of the match, which is a testament to how poorly they really played, because, as far as counter attacks go, it was slow and woefully executed; they had the numbers and the space, but simply couldn't capitalize.
The BT announcers were correct, Roma were reckless and disjointed in the second half, in part, perhaps, because of the patchwork nature of their lineup. Sanabria and Verde seldom played, while Seyou Keita and Vasilis Torosidis were gone nearly a month, while the less said about the defense, the better...but then, Roma happened, the good kind.
Leandro Paredes: 85th Minute
Verde used his acceleration to get on the end of a wonderfully played long ball from Jose Choelbas. Verde then played the ball across to Paredes, who played it off the hop before calmly redirecting it towards the far post. In the run of play, it looked like a golazo, but as you can see, it wasn't exactly textbook keeping from Brkic. However, let's give young Leandro proper credit. Keeper cock up or not, it took a fair amount of skill to guide that ball into the far post from 18-yards out. Any way you slice it, Paredes' first career goal was enough to put away this match and give Roma a much needed victory.
Despite giving up a horrid goal in stoppage time, Roma escaped Sardinia with three desperately needed points, ones which close the Scudetto gap to seven points, but more importantly keeps Napoli four points adrift of second.
Roma jump back into the fray next week when Parma comes to town and, given how crucial they were to today's effort, it will be quite interesting to see how Garcia utilizes Daniele Verde and Leandro Paredes going forward.
But for now, let us all rejoice in Roma's victory, their first league victory in over a month.