With a distant yet manageable seven point gap standing between Roma and Serie A's final Champions League qualification spot, the ragazze faced yet another must-win as they welcomed seventh place Verona to the Tre Fontane. Despite yet another layoff for international duty and/or holiday binge eating, the Roma women didn’t miss a beat against Hellas Verona this afternoon, as they flat-out dominated the Gialloblu in a wide open affair that wasn't decided until the final minutes.
In the run-up to the match we discussed Betty Bavagnoli's masterful personnel management skills. While she has several stalwarts at her disposal, most notably club captain Elisa Bartoli and stars in the making Agnese Bonfantini, Annamaria Serturini and Giada Greggi, the manner in which she has infused the rest of the squad has been nothing short of brilliant.
By rotating the likes of Martina Piemonte, Flaminia Simonetti and Luisa Pugnali in attack, Bavagnoli seemingly always has an ace up her sleeve when the time calls for it, using all three interchangeably depending on the game state. In a sense it's just managing 101, but she's struck the perfect balance between over and under reliance, developing chemistry with her key pieces and keeping the bench players involved regularly.
In this instance, Bavagnoli made two changes to the lineup that so effectively waxed Tavagnacco prior to the international break, reintroducing Emma Lipman and Angelica Soffia into the lineup in place of Allyson Swaby and Camilla Labate, while the rest of the lineup remain unchanged.
And this is where I wished the usual football sites would provide the same level of statistical coverage for the women's game, because if you told me Roma held 70% of the possession in this match and had two dozen shots, I wouldn't bat an eye; they were that dominant in attack.
However, much like the first fixture, despite Vanessa Bernauer's gentle manipulation of the defense and Claudia Ciccotti's ball-winning in midfield, Roma's possession resulted in, well, nothing. While they didn't produce the same quality of chances as they did in the first match, there were several flurries where Roma nearly broke the deadlock, but the chances were either swallowed up by the keeper or were lacking that little extra oomph to skirt around the defense.
And, as is so often the case with Roma (any Roma), when the squandered chances pile up the opponent is quick to capitalize on Roma's profligacy. In this case the error was about as egregious as they get. After snuffing out a rather disjointed Verona attack, Roma began cycling play through their end, playing the ball back to goalkeeper Rosalia Pipitone, and rather than hoofing up the pitch or spreading it out wide, Pipitone made a rather nonchalant clearance that was pounced on by Elena Nichele, who just barely chipped it over the now-out-of-position Pipitone to give Verona an early lead.
Pipitone has been solid for Roma this season, but this goal was completely avoidable, and when coupled with their wastefulness on the other end, this was beginning to look like a carbon copy of the first fixture; Roma's dominance on the stat sheet ultimately meaning nothing.
The second 45 started with no changes, as Bavagnoli kept her starting eleven in tact, but the mood in the room was markedly different. Down a goal to a decidedly inferior side, Roma came out of the locker room with a palpable sense of urgency; given the way they dictated the match in the first half, they simply could not lose this match—not again.
Fortunately, Roma wouldn't have to wait long for that acute sense of panic to pay off.
Annamaria Serturini: 56th Minute (Roma 1, Verona 1)
This was just a picture perfect, textbook goal from start to finish. With the Verona defense firmly focused on right hand side of the pitch, Roma quickly switched play, finding Serturini in isolation on the left flank. From there, Serturini eviscerated the defender, settling the ball and setting up a series of jab steps before unfurling an absolutely perfect dipping shot from some 20-yards out; the ball had just the right amount of top spin to drop underneath the diving keeper. I mean this without an ounce of hyperbole, she's the best finisher in the entire organization, full stop—she's a star in the making.
The rest of the match played on like the hour that preceded it; Roma had their way with the Verona defense but simply couldn't find that final inch of space to beat the keeper. Vanessa Bernauer struck the post, Giada Greggi nearly scored from the wing, while Federica Di Criscio had two headed attempts, in quick succession, thwarted by the keeper.
Serturini's equalizer was thrilling, but Roma seemed doomed to draw this match. But, in keeping with the theme of our last two pieces, Bavagnoli's ability to make exactly the right personnel calls paid dividends in the second half.
Swapping out two of her go-tos, Agnese Bonfantini and Giada Greggi (neither of whom were on the mark today), for Martina Piemonte and Flaminia Simonetti proved quite fortuitous for Roma.
Piemonte made her presence known almost immediately, narrowly missing two match winners (one headed and one bombastic attempt right at the keeper), while Simonetti linked up with Bernauer multiple times in the final third.
However, with the match dwindling down, it seemed like one point was all Roma could salvage from this one, but Bavagnoli's substitutes would prove their worth in the 91st minute.
Flaminia Simonetti: 91st Minute (Roma 2, Verona 1)
After Elisa Bartoli won a corner, defender Angelica Soffia played a looping header to Piemonte in the area, and with a powerful flick of her head, she set in motion a series of events that would eventually win the match. Piemonte's header was so powerful and so precise, striking the 90 degree angle on the upper/far post, that it caromed right to Simonetti, who wasted no time burying the ball into the pitch, keeping it low enough to avoid two diving Verona defenders and the keeper, sending the Roma bench into hysterics and sealing three points in the process.
Thank god for those two subs, because Roma in every way, shape, and form deserved to win this match. Roma were stronger, faster and more tactically intelligent than Verona, yet for much of this match it seemed like they were destined to walk away frustrated. But if this victory proved anything, its that this team is incredibly deep and absurdly talented.
With Greggi and Bonfantini not up to snuff, Serturini and Bernauer picked up the attacking slack throughout this match, providing an effective point and counterpoint for Bavagnoli's attack. Bernauer put in a vintage-Pirlo like performance today, calmly dictating the pace and location of play, winning the ball in the defense third, spreading play in attack and, at one point, literally pushing one of her teammates into the correct defensive position. She's sort of the unsung hero in this team, but they would be lost without her.
For Serturini's part, it was business as usual: incisive diagonal runs, purposeful yet tricky dribbling and surgical-like precision in the final third. Her ability to stretch the defense out wide and turn defenders around when she cuts in is the perfect complement to Bernauer's brilliance in the middle, and fortunately for all of us, her finishing is probably the best aspect of her game.
But when things got really desperate, it was the bench players that pulled Roma's ass from the fire. Martina Piemonte has struggled to find goals this season, which is presumably part of the reason she's been relegated to reserve status, but when she comes on, she has an immediate impact on the attack, not only holding up play, but providing a focal point from which Bernauer and Greggi can operate. She's agile, athletic and intense as the day is long, so if she can start chipping in some goals and/or assists, it shouldn't be long before she reclaims her job.
Thanks to Fiorentina getting demolished by the other Verona side (Chievo), Roma now have a six point cushion in fourth place, and have temporarily cut the gap behind third place AC Milan to three points.
I hate to keep harping on this, but were it not for that rough start to the season, Roma would be right in the Scudetto hunt with Juventus and Fiorentina.
The ragazze are legit, my friends, and today they showed the mettle and perseverance of champions.