Roma’s first away match to SPAL 2013 in 50 years was always meant to be fraught with peril. The Giallorossi’s record (no matter the manager) against small sides on the road has always been a cause for worry. Between the compact defenses and the raucous and intimate crowds, one simply never knows how Roma will react in such inhospitable surroundings. Making matters worse, Roma had no choice but to approach this match with Tuesday’s clash at Anfield in the back of their mind—semifinals of the Champions League don’t come around everyday, so Eusebio Di Francesco’s every move this afternoon was made with Liverpool in mind; you can’t really admonish him for it either, it was a necessary evil.
Having said all that, the early returns on this match were rather worrisome. Through the first half hour of this match, SPAL managed to recreate the “frustrate Roma” blueprint—park the bus some 20 to 25 yards out and just absorb, absorb and absorb. Furthering their woes, Roma simply couldn’t establish any sort of momentum through the first half hour, and while they were dominating the stat lines, there was no evidence of cohesion and the few chances they did create were either snuffed out by Alex Meret or curled just beyond the post. (I swear, El Shaarawy has been maybe 18 cumulative inches away from doubling his goal tally this year).
So it was quite fitting that this match broke open on, and was eventually won by, an own goal.
Francesco Vicari (OG): 33rd Minute
Own goal or not, this was a nice, little succinct give and go between Kevin Strootman and Lorenzo Pellegrini, both of whom were quite effective on the afternoon. This is precisely the sort of quick exchange in tight spaces that has been missing so often this year, so it was nice to see it work to some effect—again, the own goal is immaterial, the initiative and the execution was a welcomed sign.
Roma would press on for the remaining 12 minutes of the first half, with Pellegrini, Radja Nainggolan and Stephan El Shaarawy each threatening Meret as the match approached the 45th minute. Again, great signals of intent but Roma was lacking in precision, a problem that has plagued them all season long, and as we all know a one-goal lead on the road is seldom safe, so the second half was far from a sure thing.
As is his custom, EDF opted for no changes at the half, instead hoping that his chosen eleven could ice this match before SPAL struck back with a sneaky goal of some sort. Through the first five to ten minutes of the second half, it looked like Roma would, if nothing else, toy with SPAL and wince their way through to a one-nil victory. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but they’ve done it before.
Thankfully, Nainggolan was having none of that...
Radja Nainggolan: 52nd Minute
No own-goal needed here, as Nainggolan did his very best Francesco Totti impression, delivering a powerful grass-skimmer from from 20-yards out—he struck this thing beautifully; perfect weight, perfect trajectory, if either of those factors were off, this thing would have died on the ground or sailed too high. And while it looked like Patrik Schick may have deflected it towards the goal Brendan Shanahan style, Nainggolan was credited with the goal, but Schick would not be denied his moment in the sun.
Patrik Schick: 59th Minute
It sounds incredible to say, but this was Schick’s first league goal of the 2017-2018 campaign, but what a goal it was! After Lorenzo Pellegrini played in an inch-perfect inswinging cross with his left foot, Schick snuck behind the defense and lashed his head onto this one, burying it past Meret. One look at the fist pumps from Federico Fazio lets you know how much Schick’s teammates are invested in his success.
With a three goal cushion to protect him, EDF used the remaining half hour of this match to prepare his squad for Tuesday’s trip to Anfield, the first leg of the Champions League semifinals against Liverpool. From the 67th minute on, Di Francesco ensured that Kevin Strootman, Radja Nainggolan and Lorenzo Pellegrini got some rest, while getting Cengiz Ünder, Diego Perotti and Gerson a handful of match minutes to whet their appetite before the club’s biggest match in three decades.
Well, we sort of just said it all right there, didn’t we? EDF once again flexed his tactical muscle, opting for the Christmas Tree formation headmanned by Shick and supported by Nainggolan and El Shaarawy, and while the results didn’t come straight away, this was the correct move as it not only put Shick center stage, but gave Nainggolan and El Shaarawy room to run into space on either side of Schick.
Sure, the results didn’t come straight away, but Roma showed up in the second half, putting the match to bed around the hour mark. And what’s more, EDF did a wonderful job managing the match minutes of his most important players, getting Ünder and Perotti some late run while preserving Nainggolan and Strootman’s legs for the week ahead.
Following Roma’s thrilling comeback over Barcelona, we warned that they mustn’t be torn between two minds—Serie A is Serie A and the Champions League is the Champions League, and never the twain shall meet. While Roma’s march through Europe has been exhilarating, it will become a distant memory if they don’t qualify for next year’s competition, and if Roma were caught daydreaming while playing the likes of Genoa or SPAL, they might awake to a Europa League nightmare in the fall.
And outside of their scoreless draw against Lazio, they’ve done a remarkable job of compartmentalizing their remaining competitions. Sure, there’s been a few nervy moments, but EDF has made great use out of his limited depth, pressing Maxime Gonalons, Gerson and even Jonathan Silva into service the past two rounds.
But now comes the real test, a week in which they’ll be front and center on the global stage as they storm into Anfield, hoping to topple Mohamed Salah and the rest of the Reds, but make no mistake, their return to the Olimpico on the 28th against Chievo is an extremely, extremely dangerous fixture.
The week ahead promises to be the most thrilling we’ve experienced in decades, and should Roma slip up, it won’t be chalked up to lack of preparation. EDF has mastered the runup to Tuesday’s Liverpool match, and today’s 3-0 waxing of SPAL should serve as a final shot in the arm before the first leg against Liverpool.