With everything in the world on the line, Eusebio Di Francesco stuck with what he knew—a 4-3-3 headmanned by Edin Dzeko, Diego Perotti and Cengiz Ünder, with the three man wrecking crew of Kevin Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan supporting them. Front to back, EDF opted for familiarity, and with this much at stake, you can’t really blame him.
For much of the first half it seemed like Roma were bound to be frustrated. While they didn’t play poorly per se, the forward forrays and litany of crosses just couldn’t find the right angle or the right millisecond to work, and so it goes. We’ve been through that nightmare so many times, you would have been forgiven if you climbed into your parent’s bed for comfort.
But with Roma needing only one solitary goal, there were far worse circumstances in which they could have found themselves than a 0-0 halftime score at the Olimpico. Despite their lack of chances and being on the wrong side of the possession battle, their sense of urgency was palpable. The looks on their faces, the rage with which they chased down loose balls and their general gesticulations all had an added oomph tonight—and win, lose or draw, that’s the kind of grinta we’ve seen disappear sporadically this season.
By now the usual EDF substitution pattern has emerged—stand pat and half-time and let the first ten to fifteen minutes unfold before making a swap. And outside of perhaps Kevin Strootman (I’ll eat my words momentarily) for Lorenzo Pellegrini, there wasn’t any obvious switch afoot, so Di Francesco was probably best served standing pat.
Yeah, about that...
Edin Dzeko: 52 Minute
GOAL! Edin Džeko scores a crucial goal for #Roma in #UCL. The timing of the run and the finish was top class! Dijamant. pic.twitter.com/1CMNbS5FzK— BIH SPORT LIVE (@BIHSPORTLIVE) March 13, 2018
This goal was so completely unexpected, it almost seemed as if the only two men who noticed it were Kevin Strootman and Edin Dzeko. It was such an amazing yet nonchalant pass from Strootman, who covered nearly a quarter of the pitch with one little deft touch, finding Dzeko completely wide open, where all he had to do was slot it past the keeper.
Actually, now that I get a second look at it with a longer clip, this thing was far more premeditated than it seemed live—the build up to this was slow and methodical, but fuckin’ hell, Strootman’s pass was so unexpected; he used his instep to find Dzeko some 25 yards up the pitch in perfect stride. Remarkable.
If the sheer elation with which he celebrated this goal didn’t clue you in, this one was massive—the entire team exploded into celebrations, with Daniele De Rossi and Alisson falling to the ground in a sweet embrace.
Roma’s goal certainly seemed to push Donetsk off the deep end, as they drew two...umm, shall we say, different....cards. The first, a straight red to Ivan Ordets was somewhat understandable—Dzeko had a clear path to the goal, so Ordets made the smart foul—but the second one, well, let’s just say Donetsk better have a good attorney on retainer.
Shortly thereafter something incredibly strange happened, something that, quite frankly, I’ve never seen in any sport outside of the Ron Artest melee.
A Ferreyra se le ha ido la olla y ha tirado por encima de la valla a un recogepelotas. Le están atendiendo al chaval. Para Undiano solo amarilla pic.twitter.com/ye1QH6b1Bb— Mikel Recalde (@MikRec) March 13, 2018
That right there is Donetsk forward Facundo Ferreyra, presumably upset at losing the aggregate lead and a shot at the quarter finals, hauling off and pushing Roma’s ballboy over the advertisement board, which resulted in a bit of a scuffle between the two teams. Remarkably, Ferreyra managed only a yellow for this blatant act of child abuse. In a bittersweet act of Romaness, the ball boys further agitated Donetsk by delaying their throw-ins. Petty? Yes. Childish? Yes. Appropriate passive aggressive response to child abuse? Absofuckinglutely.
The remain ten minutes (plus four of stoppage) were perhaps the most tense we’ve witnessed in a decade, or the last time Roma made it this far in the Champions League. With Donetsk down to ten men, and with nothing to lose, they were hell bent on stealing an equalizer and running off with an aggregate lead of their own.
With wave after wave of desperate attacks coming down Roma’s right flank, Donetsk nearly stole the tie when Dentinho found himself open in Roma’s six. Fortunately, he simply couldn’t get any portion of his foot on what was otherwise a playable ball. Roma weren’t lax in defense by any stretch of the word, but Donetsk were simply a dog backed into a proverbial corner—down a man and down a goal, they literally had nothing to lose by throwing caution to the wind.
With one last desperate push snuffed out, all it took for Roma to advance to the quarterfinals was a gloriously punted ball from Alisson. The whistle blew, the crowd went into hysterics, Grazie Roma starting blaring and my blood pressure normalized.
Speaking of which...
No dissections and no conclusions today. Just enjoy this one, Roma fans.
Oh wait, one thing...could you have imagined this when Roma was drawn into the group of death!?
It’s moments like these that you remember why you love this god damn club. Through all the nonsense, through all the upheaval, all the rumors, all the shouting at one another, when that Grazie Roma chorus hits after a win like this....oof. There aren’t many vicarious feelings like that.