In the buildup to Roma's week 17 match-up against last place Orobica, I opined about the lack of immediate story lines for Betty Bavagnoli's side. With the gap behind second place AC Milan, holders of Italy's final Champions League spot, too great to close down and with a nine point cushion over fifth place Atalanta, Roma are kind of stuck in a wasteland—they probably can't catch Milan and it would take a major calamity to fall out of fourth.
It's a good problem to have in many ways, climbing that far up the table after their horrific start to the season is nothing short of amazing, but it makes for some tough storytelling. However, part of the reason Roma have put me in that editorial limbo is due to their torrid form since late October, a stretch in which the Giallorosse have won 12 of 16 matches in all competitions, the majority of which have seen Roma blow their opponents off the pitch.
For a variety of reasons, I have been very careful not to draw too many parallels between Roma's two senior sides, but the ease with which Bavagnoli's side has swept through Serie A has made that a non-issue. For much of the season, her side was the complete antithesis to Eusebio Di Francesco's. Where EDF's side suffered through multiple winless skids, looking positively uninspired, Bavagnoli's squad was well-drilled, efficient and effective, rolling over opponents in a manner Di Francesco could only dream of.
But today I'm afraid to report those world's collided. Facing lowly Orobica on the road, a side they dominated 6-1 in two fixtures this season (league and cup), the Giallorosse figured to have a walkover ahead of them; bang out a couple early goals and just sit back and enjoy the show.
However, for a variety of reasons, that simply wasn't the case. Faced with multiple injuries to her midfield and some stop and start play from her strikers, Bavagnoli was forced to make a few key changes ahead of today's match.
With Claudia Ciccotti, Manuela Coloccini, and Flaminia Simonetti out with knee injuries of varying severity, Bavagnoli plugged the midfield gap alongside Giada Greggi and Vanessa Bernauer with the 25-year-old Icelander, Kristrun Antonsdottir, who was making her first start in a Roma shirt.
While injuries can easily explain that change, Bavagnoli went full Claudio Ranieri on us all today, shuffling up the defense and frontline trying to find a new spark.
At the back, Bavagnoli went for a completely new quartet, surrounding captain Elisa Bartoli (more on her later) with 19-year-old Camilla Labate at right back and Allyson Swaby and Emma Lipman in the middle, marking the first time Roma's English speaking center backs have started alongside one another.
BB's tinkering didn't end there either, as she went experimental with the tip of her 4-3-3, too. Gone were Annamaria Serturini and Martina Piemonte, replaced by Luisa Pugnali and New Jersey's own Maria Zecca, who made her first league start this afternoon next to Agnese Bonfantini. Removing Serturini robbed Roma of some speed up front, but with Bonfantini, Zecca and Pugnali, Roma definitely had the size advantage in the box.
Bavagnoli's rotation proved masterful a mere 480 seconds into the match.
Luisa Pugnali: 8th Minute (Orobica 0, Roma 1)
Mi dispiace, Luisa. I sold you well short in yesterday's preview, this goal was a fucking work of art. Pugnali, receiving the ball some 40-yards away from goal—FANTASTIC ball from Emma Lipman there, too—Pugnali went right to work, cutting in and juking past one defender, skirting along the edge of the 18 to put another defender on her ass, and then dropping this ball oh so sweetly into the top corner. This thing was perfection from start to finish...yeah, I definitely did not do Pugnali justice; a few more of these and she'll be hard to dislodge from the lineup.
With such a stupendous goal before the match really had a chance to breathe, it seemed like a blowout was in the cards. However, as the ensuing 82 minutes would prove, this match was anything but a walkover.
Pugnali's goal remained the difference through the first half, but Roma were clearly bothered by Orobica's aggressive defense. With Vanessa Bernauer being forced to drop deeper to pick up the ball and orchestrate the attack, the diagonal passes and tight triangles disappeared, and Roma's attack was virtually halted. Sure, they won the possession battle, but with Bernauer dropping deeper, Bonfantini had to respond in kind, and without Serturini to complement her on the other side, Roma's attack was more isolated and one dimensional than we've seen all season—it was, dare I say, reminiscent of the darkest days of EDF.
Shifting into the second half, Bavagnoli pulled off Antonsdottir in favor of Federica Di Criscio, who is nominally a fullback but served as a de facto defensive midfielder for the second 45 minutes.
Once again, it seemed like Bavagnoli's tinkering was spot on. With Di Criscio cleaning things up in the middle, Roma’s attack was better organized and more fluid, resulting in several succinct attacking movements early in the second half.
But it would take an exquisite exhibition of individual skill to double their lead.
Elisa Bartoli: 64th Minute (Orobica 0, Roma 2)
I'm almost afraid to type anything here, for fear of taking away from this stunning effort, but good lord, look at this thing! It's one thing to pull off a bicycle kick, but it's completely another to set it up yourself with a series of juggles, and its yet another thing altogether to have the audacity and skill to do this in the box with one defender draped on your back and another rushing at you—this will be a goal of the year candidate for sure.
Loved the casual "I do this shit everyday" way she undid her hair after scoring that... Pure baller move from Bartoli.— Chiesa di Totti (@chiesaditotti) February 16, 2019
One really cannot say enough about Bartoli's performance today, and really all season long. Roman born and bred, Bartoli spent the prior two season playing for Fiorentina but couldn't resist the call from her hometown, and the Viola's loss has been Roma's gain. Bartoli has the heart and hustle we've come to expect from Roma captains—she really is the perfect complement to Daniele De Rossi in that regard—but she is far and away the most skilled player on this team. She gets stuck into tackles, she busts into midfield to break up attacks, she can beat her opposite numbers on the flanks, and she can do stuff like that.
In Bartoli, Roma have found not only a fantastic player, but an ideal representative of everything we love but can't explain about Roma. Again, I hate making the cross-gender comparisons, but if she's not De Rossi incarnate, then I don't know who is—she'll definitely be the Roma player to follow at this summer's World Cup, much like De Rossi was for many years after Francesco Totti retired from the Azzurri.
Anyway, back to the match...things got a bit dicey after Bartoli's golazo. Di Francesco dicey.
In the 75th minute, Mara Assoni would take advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy defending from Roma, seizing on a lazy clearances and beating Rosalia Pipitone to close the gap to 3-1.
Still, with a two-goal lead, things seemed safe, but with Orobica once again buzzing around Roma's midfield, pushing them further and further back into their own end, Bernauer and company became increasingly frustrated, resulting in some hasty passes and poor spacing.
However, leave it to Agnese Bonfantini to save the day. Charging towards a loose ball in the box, Bonfantini was side swiped by the Orobica keeper at the edge of the six, drawing a no doubt about it penalty in the process, one that Bernauer converted without batting an eye, pushing the advantage to 3-1.
Not ones to lay dormant, Orobica continued pressing and harrying Roma, resulting in another goal from Assoni in the 82nd minute, her ninth of the season.
So, let's run that back. Roma, looking disorganized and lacking precision in the final third, were in danger of blowing a two-goal lead. Hmm, that seems oddly familiar and terrifying, where have we seen that before?
And if that weren't enough, the referees tacked on four minutes of stoppage time. It was full-on Roma crisis mode, and definitely the most anxious I've been watching this team.
But, thanks to a few key tackles by Lipman and Bartoli down the stretch, as well as a few deep corner/stalling runs from Giada Greggi and Serturini, Roma were able to avoid disaster and walk away with three hard-earned points.
We'll keep this brief. Roma may be lacking in linear storylines at the moment, but matches like these are further proof to this team's resolve. In no way, shape or form were they at their best today, but thanks to a few individual moments of brilliance and sheer guts, they walked away with three points.
Moments like these won't win much praise, but these are the type of matches where character and resilience is forged and tested, and those are the traits that ultimately win titles.