While the pairing of Steven Nzonzi and Bryan Cristante have had their ups and downs since being forced into their arranged marriage in the double pivot, the duo has solidified into an odd but effective unit for Eusebio Di Francesco. However, with both men suspended for this match, EDF was forced to tinker with the core of his lineup. Fortunately, the return of Daniele De Rossi took a bit of the sting out of that forced change.
De Rossi, despite suffering a jab to the eye early in the first half, had a calming effect on Roma's midfield, and while he wasn't 100% fit, he still hit on 78% of his long balls and was instrumental in moving play from back to front—certainly an encouraging sign for the season's final months.
For much of the first 20 minutes or so, this match was pretty much a stalemate. Roma, working the ball through Nicolo Zaniolo, had several nice forays towards the final third but either couldn’t pick out the final pass at the right time or were completely denied by Gianluigi Donnarumma, who looked every bit the future of Italy in this match.
However, as has so often been the case this season, Roma were done in by careless mistakes and lack of focus at the back.
Krzysztof Piatek: 26th Minute (Roma 0, Milan 1)
This was another ugly effort from Roma defensively. Starting with Lorenzo Pellegrini's inability to clear the ball and/or keep it away from Paqueta, Roma was just a step behind this entire sequence. After freeing Pellegrini from the responsibility of caring for the ball, Paqueta beat two defenders off the line to play the ball in towards Piatek, who waltzed around the flat footed Federico Fazio, who may or may not have deflected the ball slightly, making a save-able shot for Robin Olsen maybe 5% less so.
Not only was this goal a study in effort, it was an indictment of the club's divergent approaches to the winter transfer market:
MIlan's two new players teamed up there...its almost like making moves in the winter when your team needs them is a good idea or something— Chiesa di Totti (@chiesaditotti) February 3, 2019
Throughout the month of January we pleaded with Roma to sign a centerback, and what was borne out of a need for added depth, should have been packaged as a desperate cry for help; not only do Fazio and Kolarov need assistance, they may need to be completely replaced.
Roma would nearly grab an equalizer thanks to Nicolo Zaniolo, and later from Alessandro Florenzi and Edin Dzeko, but Milan's defense, not to mention a few stellar saves from Gianluigi Donnarumma, ensured that the Rossoneri maintained their lead heading into half time.
On the balance, Roma weren't that bad in the first half—they put six of seven shots on target and only conceded two efforts—the problem was at their own end, where they folded at the worst possible moment.
But statistics won't save the season, Roma needed production, so what would the second half bring?
Well, they got production...immediately.
Nicolo Zaniolo: 46th Minute (Roma 1, Milan 1)
This one was tough to see in the run of play: After Rick Karsdorp played it in towards Patrik Schick—who may or may not have cheekily redirected it towards the back post—Nicolo Zaniolo pounced on a series of mistakes by the discombobulated Milan defense. Following Schick's redirection, Milan defender Matteo Musacchio deflected the ball right at Donnarumma, who, while quick to react, couldn't help but parry the ball right towards the on-coming Zaniolo. From there The Kid just fucking buried it;there's no other way to describe it.
Roma's best player is a 19-year-old kid who hadn't appeared in Serie A prior to late September. Incredible.
A little luck fell Roma's way moments later at the other end when Kolarov literally tackled Paqueta in the box, and not only did he avoid the card and PK, Paqueta got a yellow for arguing. Brilliant. On the order of Bruno Peres’ toe save, it wasn't that lucky, but Kolarov very nearly gifted Milan the lead.
The ensuing block of action was your standard back and forth, with neither side really threatening the goal until Edin Dzeko nearly broke the deadlock in the 71st minute, but Donnarumma was once again up to the task, making a fantastic stretched save at point blank range to thwart Dzeko's headed effort.
The next ten minutes or so weren't much to write home about, but as the match creeped towards the 80th minute, Lorenzo Pellegrini almost brought the house down. Taking a cross from Kolarov, Pellegrini lashed a headed attempt towards the near post, and with Donnarumma two steps behind, Pellegrini had him beat, but the ball just had too much spin on it and caromed off the corner post. It was such an unexpected attempt, the Olimpico would have lost their minds; shame.
Roma repeated that feat moments later when Nicolo Zaniolo found a streaking El Shaarawy at the edge of the 18-yard-box; it was a lovely ball from Zaniolo, but SES had just over run it by about two feet, leaving him no other recourse than an ill-advised/audacious back heel attempt that never really bothered Donnarumma.
Still, the final ten minutes of this match were wide open, and when Milan brought on Patrick Cutrone you were probably right to reach for your blood pressure pills; he turned the tide in the first fixture with a late...and I mean late...match winner, toppling Roma with a 95th minute goal back in August.
But it would be Milan's other late sub, Diego Laxalt, who nearly saw his name in lights. Cutting in from the left flank, Laxalt had a golden opportunity to win the match only to see his worm burner smoothly smothered by Robin Olsen; given how stellar Donnarumma was, it wise nice to see Olsen rise to the occasion when it mattered most.
And that was about it, as the three added minutes played on without issue, barring a late yellow card to Milan.
Not the best result, nor the worst—either way, Di Francesco should be safe for another week.
I mean, where to begin? This was an incredibly difficult match to predict given Roma's recent run of form, to say nothing of losing two of their starting midfielders, and with Milan surging thanks to their new signings, this one could have been ugly.
If you missed the match and judged Roma purely on statistics, you would have expected at least two goals, if not three. Roma peppered Donnarumma with 17 shots, all but four of which came within the 18-yard-box, and with 41% of those attempts on target, Roma were fairly precise in their attack—though I'd be curious to see how many xG they tallied and ultimately missed—and their intent was spot on even if their execution wasn't.
On the opposite end, Roma did well enough suppressing the volume of Milan's chances (only eight shots total) but the Rossoneri made exceptional use of those shots, putting five on target, one of which beat Olsen in the first half.
The problem was, quite simply, Donnarumma was outstanding today, making seven saves, with nearly every single one leaving you slack jawed.
So, what do we do? Do we chalk this up to another keeper playing out of his gourd against Roma (though to be fair, Donnarumma is one of the best) or do we decry Roma's finishing and lackadaisical defending?
To tell you the truth, I'm not sure. It would be one thing if Piatek's goal was a masterclass, but had Pellegrini just conceded a throw-in or if Fazio had just, you know, moved, we'd be talking about a tight 1-0 victory rather than a disappointing 1-1 draw.
At the end of the day, nothing really changed; Roma are still a point behind Milan for fourth place, so if nothing else, this was an opportunity lost rather than a calamity.
And that's nice for a change, right?