While the international break afforded Roma some time to heal their wounded without missing actual match action, it was also an abrupt halt in the middle of a four match winning streak, and with a classic trap game awaiting them upon their return, one simply didn’t know what to expect from Roma today. The afternoon started off well enough, with Daniele De Rossi and Federico Fazio being honored for career milestones, their 600th and 100th Roma appearances respectively, but once the whistle blew, that elation soon gave way to frustration.
Eusebio Di Francesco opted not to mess with success, rolling out the now bonafide 4-2-3-1 that has been so instrumental to their October run, swapping out Aleksandar Kolarov, who is still recovering from injury, for Luca Pellegrini, while giving Kostas Manolas a breather in favor of Ivan “Yes, I’m still here” Marcano. Beyond that it was business as usual.
And through the opening moments of the match, business was good. Roma was breezing past the SPAL defense, with Lorenzo Pellegrini picking up right where he left off, disrupting what little build-up SPAL attempted, then springing Edin Dzeko, Stephan El Shaarawy and Cengiz Ünder on the other end. Roma was looking crisp enough, but one couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
The problem was twofold: First, the attack was horribly off kilter, relying too much on El Shaarawy, who had 36 touches in the first half, most of any forward and twice as much as Ünder, and second, and say it with me now, they simply couldn’t convert. Between Dzeko, SES and Ünder, Roma managed seven attempts in the first 45 minutes but never really troubled Vanja Milinkovic-Savic’s goal. El Shaarawy’s decision making was questionable, to say the least, while Dzeko struggled to get the ball on his stronger foot, firing two noble but otherwise harmless left-footed attempts and VMS.
Despite that lack of fluidity in attack, Roma was dominating the match, seldom, if ever, opening the window for SPAL, who looked content to simply survive without too much embarrassment, but then things took a turn for the worse, as they seemingly always do when Roma wastes chances...
You be the judge: legit call or shameful dive? While there was contact between Luca Pellegrini and Manuel Lazzari, it sure looked like that imaginary log on the pitch was responsible for Lazzari’s fall from grace, not Luca.
That phantom call then led to this...
Andrea Petagna: 38th Minute (Roma 0, SPAL 1)
Not much Robin Olsen could have done about that, Petagna had him fooled and/or guessing the wrong way, but this was a bullshit penalty call any way you slice it—and there didn’t even seem to be an appeal to VAR either. Lovely.
Roma would press on of course, but the ensuing 10 minutes of action produced little more than a stadium full of slack-jawed fans, stunned at what was transpiring in front of them. It was a dominant first half from Roma, but their imprecision in the final third did them in...again.
I wish I could tell you that Roma sorted things out at half time. I wish I could tell you they grabbed an equalizer within 30 seconds. I wish I could tell you lots of things, but the shitshow picked up right where it left off.
If I’m being generous, the opening moments of the second half were neutral at best. SPAL, predictably, were playing conservative, hoping to hang onto their slim lead, but a mere ten minutes into the half, the wheels came off for Roma.
Kevin Bonifazi: 56th Minute (Roma 0, SPAL 2)
Not the best view in that GIF, but Bonifazi rose to that ball virtually unfettered by the Roma defense and buried it past Olsen, who had no chance to stop it anyway.
EDF would respond by swapping out the largely ineffective Bryan Cristante for Justin Kluivert, presumably hoping for an instant injection of offense from the young Dutchman, pushing Lorenzo Pellegrini back into midfield alongside Steven Nzonzi in the process. Pellegrini has been splendid in his advanced role, so while it was an odd change, I think it says more about Cristante’s form at the moment than Pellegrini’s performance to that point; Kluivert hasn’t done much in a Roma shirt yet, but he’s their best attacking bet off the bench, and with the attack floundering, EDF’s hands were tied; this was the only move.
Kluivert nearly delivered around the 70th minute, too, as his cross/shot tested Savic, but his gargantuan frame was simply too, well, gargantuan to be overcome. This wasn’t on the order of some 40-year-old backup keeper miraculously keeping a clean sheet against Roma with the Scudetto on the line, but Savic was huge today, literally and figuratively.
The second half did have one bright spot, though. After toiling away on the bench for months, spending more time on his IG stories than the pitch, Ante Coric finally made his Roma debut, coming on for Ünder in the 70th minute. No idea where he figures in the immediate plans, but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless
Things got really, really weird shortly after this. Savic, who was excellent all day, received a red card (accumulated yellows) when he inexplicably through the ball off the pitch in a fit of mini-rage. This was honestly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Savic was getting ready, presumably, to take a goal kick but there were two balls on the pitch, on at the spot and one in his hand, and with the ref barking directions of some sort, Savic hurled the ball into the stands, drawing a red card almost instantaneously, despite the actual ball being on the pitch waiting for the goal kick. So in essence, he received a yellow for delaying the match, and then the second yellow for pitching a fit.
Sensing a chance to seize the day, EDF swapped out Luca for Javier Pastore, front loading the formation in the process and leaving Fazio, Florenzi and Marcano at the back. With Pastore, Coric, Pellegrini, Kluivert, Dzeko and El Shaarawy all up top, EDF was gunning for a late miracle.
Needless to say, that prayer went unanswered. Roma were a football team in name only for the final 15 minutes or so, with nine-man SPAL generating more of an attack than the fully equipped Roma, who had a full complement of attacking players on the pitch at that point.
In case you haven’t been scoring at home, Roma have now dropped points to the following clubs: 17th place Atalanta (3-3), 20th place Chievo (2-2) and now 14th place SPAL. So, if you find yourself wondering how Roma missed the Champions League next season and why Cengiz Ünder is playing for Bayern Munich, there’s your answer.
That’s a bit of hyperbole of course—there is still plenty of time to crack the top four—but Roma’s record at home, particularly against these middling sides, is pitiful and could very well be the dividing line between the Champions and Europa League next season.
How they can get it so absolutely right against Empoli, Lazio or Plzen one minute and look so completely clueless against SPAL the next is a mystery. We can’t fault EDF for being complacent—he made the necessary broad changes in late September and changed formations and roles midstream in this match—but their inexplicable penchant for playing down to opponents, again particularly at home, could very well be his undoing.
And that’s not an anti-EDF rant, it’s reality; they’ve invested so heavily over the past two summers, so one has to wonder how long they can sustain performances like these, particularly if it means missing out on the Champions League. Heads always roll in Rome, but never as swift as when you cost them money.
There’s not much else we can really say, Roma were pitiful today. Dzeko wasted several chances, El Shaarawy moved well enough but made some errant passes, Cristante was invisible, Lorenzo started off well enough but didn’t make a mark in the second half, Ünder was nowhere to be found and the defense once again failed to mark a set piece.
This was, in every way, shape, and form, a nightmare post-break scenario, and it doesn’t get any easier next week—the Derby del Sole at Napoli, which I’m sure, given the nature of this club, they’ll win, like, 4-2, right?