After the euphoric high of defeating Shakhtar Donetsk to advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League was dashed by the realization Roma would then have to face Lionel Messi and friends, you would have been forgiven if you forgot about Roma’s domestic campaign. After all, reaching the European Elite Eight is quite an achievement, one that, quite frankly, seemed impossible in August. But Roma still has quite the job to do in Serie A, locking down a spot in next season’s Champions League.
A task that came more difficult after Mauro Icardi drank Sampdoria’s milkshake this morning, putting Inter one point behind Roma. Furthermore, with Lazio facing a favorable home match against Bologna later today, Roma needed to cull the sharks of Crotone to collect all three points today.
So, with that in mind, you knew how this match was going to play out. Time after time, Roma wasted possession, desperately trying to unlock the compact Crotone defense. Holding possession and moving the ball weren’t an issue for EDF’s men in the early portions of the first half, but they just could not manage a clear cut chance to save their lives.
Crotone had managed to effectively block the middle of the area, keeping Edin Dzeko out of any high percentage areas—the bulk of his 19 first half touches were well removed from the 18-yard-box—while Roma’s wing play, though voluminous, wasn’t terribly effective. It’s almost as if Crotone has read the playbook on how to stop Roma, almost...
Stephan El Shaarawy: 39th Minute
#ElShaarawy's goal vs Crotone. #CrotoneRomapic.twitter.com/ls5zaBIvCi— SerieAchannel (@SerieAchannel) March 18, 2018
While the 40ish minutes that preceded it were droll to say the least, Roma finally broke through with a lovely sequence between Lorenzo Pellegrini, Aleksandar Kolarov and Stephan El Shaarawy. Prior to this chance, Roma had no issues with controlling the ball in Crotone’s territory—stringing together pass after pass around the 18-yard-box, almost like an NHL team controlling the puck on a power play—but they just couldn’t find a crack or a seam to make a play. But thanks to some calm play from Pellegrini, a great cross from Kolarov and an absolutely clinical finish from El Shaarawy, Roma managed to break the match open shortly before halftime. And not a moment too soon, this was looking increasingly like a 0-0 finish.
The remainder of the first half would play on without issue, though Crotone nearly found Roma napping, but thanks to SES Roma had something to build on going into the second stanza.
Eusebio Di Francesco opted for no changes at the half, and given how much they dominated possession the first half, he was probably correct to remain with the status quo, but Roma remained very much in a window shopping mood—they were looking at the goal, imagining how it would look in their living room, but simply weren’t ready to buy.
EDF finally made a change midway through the second half, pulling off Pellegrini for Kevin Strootman, while leaving the completely pointless Maxime Gonalons on the pitch. Fortunately, Strootman’s presence at least meant that Gonalons would see less of the ball, but something tells me this might me Maxime’s only season in a Roma shirt.
The match would carry on in its usual fashion, save for a few defensive miscues from Federico Fazio that were snuffed out by Alisson, and it seemed like we were destined for a one-nil nailbiter, until Radja doubled the lead.
Radja Nainggolan: 75th Minute
NAINGGOLAN!! GOOOOOOOL pic.twitter.com/APgk8kqLnE— RomaPress (@ASRomaPress) March 18, 2018
You just never know how a one goal lead on the road will hold up, and through the first 30 minutes of the second half, it looked like Roma were going to have to batten down the hatches to preserve this slim lead, but after a rather interesting change—Gerson off for Alessandro Florenzi, with Ale playing on the wing—things seemed to open up a bit, leading to this goal. While it looks rather nonchalant, Nainggolan ripped this one from 20 yards or so out with his weaker foot—pretty impressive stuff.
While this goal necessarily sealed the deal, it didn’t mean the match was without its controversy. Late in the second half, EDF subbed out Stephan El Shaarawy for Cengiz Ünder for no apparent reason (and literally as I’m typing this, he almost scored a goal, so feel free to ignore me) other than to see him run around for ten minutes. Surely, SES needed a full 90 under his belt after a stretch of inconsistent minutes or even Patrik Schick getting a chance to run would have been a better use of that final sub—Ünder may be young, but he’s not immune to fatigue.
Ultimately it proved academic, as Nainggolan’s goal put this match to bed, giving Roma three crucial points and a bit of breathing room in third place.
Roma got the job done, so whatever qualms we may have don’t really matter, but there were large swaths of this match where Roma couldn’t break down the Crotone defense, and with Bologna, two matches against Barcelona and the derby looming over the next three weeks, you would have loved to see Roma iron out some of those wrinkles today against Crotone.
However, as it stands, the Giallorossi have a four point buffer zone between them and fourth place Inter Milan. While Barcelona will never be far from their minds, they can’t make the mistake of assuming anything against Bologna, Fiorentina or Lazio in the coming weeks.
The challenge for EDF will simply be rest and rotation—which matches and which players will he deem most important? Will Kolarov actually get some rest? What about Shick, where does he factor into all of this? Might we see more of Florenzi at right wing?
We’re through the looking glass here, folks. There are only nine matches remaining in the Serie A season, and you’d have to think Roma will need at least 20ish points from that stretch to lock down third place. So while beating Barcelona, or at least making it tough for them, would be amazing, putting Lazio in their place and doing the work against the likes of Bologna, SPAL and Chievo is more important for Roma’s long-term vitality.
With the international break coming up, Roma get a bit of a reprieve to work on the details ahead of their trip to Bologna on the 31st.
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Stephan El Shaarawy