We could chalk it up to being a Monday night fixture, but the energy around the Olimpico seemed like an odd mixture of emotions. While most fans were understandably excited by the return of Claudio Ranieri, given the sheer amount of injuries Roma suffered this week plus the utter lack of acclimation time for Claudio and his new squad, that excitement was mixed with a healthy dose of nervous energy; call it an Arnold Palmer of anxiety.
That melange of emotions carried over the pitch as well, as Roma seemed nervous, hesitant and overly cautious through the early moments of the match. Back passes, sideways check downs and restrained lob balls were on the menu through the first five minutes of this match. Roma didn't look lost per se, just unsure of what avenue to pursue.
However, as he so often does, Stephan El Shaarawy pulled a new illusion out of his back of tricks, scoring yet another highlight worthy goal for Roma, in this his 100th appearance for the club.
Stephan El Shaarawy: 9th Minute (Roma 1, Empoli 0)
El Shaarawy scores but Empoli level almost immediately pic.twitter.com/SNzTPkxDFy— RomaPress (@ASRomaPress) March 11, 2019
While it wasn't a flying scissor kick with his eyes closed, El Shaarawy still scored a stunner to crack this one open. Following an unsuccessful set piece (there's definitely a drop off from Pellegrini serving those up to Florenzi), SES seized upon a loose ball/poor clearance from Empoli and wasted no time whatsoever in firing it right back at them, just burying it in the upper 90; Dragowski would have needed a step ladder and a rocket up his ass to stop that one.
Despite the slow start, Roma were riding high after only 540 seconds, until Jesus struck.
Juan Jesus: 12th Minute (OG) (Roma 1, Empoli 1)
If you ignore the Roma defender being knocked down in the box and focus on Jesus, this was actually a text book header—he rose up, got above the defend...I mean attacker, turned, cocked his neck, and fired it home past a helpless Robin Olsen. I still think Rruan has been, on the balance, better than we ever could have hoped when Inter fleeced us for his services several years ago, but then he does something like that.
Roma didn't completely capitulate after that, but the reserved, almost deferential play resurfaced not long after Rruans howler. Rather than players moving and manipulating space, play simply ran from Florenzi through Kluivert on the right while Zaniolo and Schick waited desperately for the ball to tilt their way, but those crosses seldom came their way.
It was just a series of anti-Zeman cycling of possession, kind of like this....
Roma woke up a bit as the match moved towards the half-hour mark, but squandered their best opportunity of the first half when Nicolo Zaniolo uncharacteristically missed an open net. Despite the miss, Roma's plan of attack became more apparent—stretch Empoli wide and open channels in the middle for Schick and Zaniolo to exploit.
But a miss is a miss, and just when it seemed Roma would limp into the locker room tied 1-1, everyone's favorite headband model, Patrik Schick, broke the deadlock.
Patrick Schick: 33rd Minute (Roma 2, Empoli 1)
Schick channeled his inner Juan Jesus here, rising high to snap home a header. Actually, watch it in slow mo and he appears to have out-jumped it, but he beat his man to the spot and gave this thing a hell of a whack, precipitating a chorus of Patrick...Schick calls from the stands—it was quite a site to behold. If Ranieri can unleash this beast, Roma might be sitting pretty.
Despite the nervy start and despite Jesus’ horrific blunder, Roma improved markedly throughout this first half. No matter which wing they chose, Roma were able to find pockets of space for Zaniolo or El Shaarawy to dart into with diagonal runs, or little caverns in the middle through which Bryan Cristante could make late runs. It was succinct and purposeful. It was a relief.
You were right to be worried after that own goal, but the manner in which they kept plugging away, actually working the ball better and more intricately, was perhaps the most encouraging sign and noticeable difference we saw from Di Francesco's last half of football to Ranieri's first.
The flow of the match to start the second frame was really no different than the first; Roma looked sharper than they did an hour earlier, but Empoli showed no signs of worry or self doubt. With Roma content to play on the counter, Empoli got forward with relative ease.
The matches first substitution was made by Roma because of...you ready for this?...a muscle pull. With Zaniolo clutching at his quad, Ranieri quickly subbed him off for Diego Perotti, who nestled in behind Schick as Roma's de facto number ten.
Empoli would counter that move by bringing in Matteo Brighi, bringing the Roma ten-year reunion full circle. While it wasn't directly inspired by Brighi, Empoli had a golden opportunity around the 64th minute, as they stretched Roma's defense with some quick crosses and nearly scored as the ball was centered back to the middle, but the shot was more heel than toe and ultimately fell flat.
Roma very nearly made it 3-1 when El Shaarawy was gifted a turnover at the edge of Empoli's 18-yard-box, and while he made his move instantly, Empoli had enough men back to force SES into a tough attempt—one of those ones where attempts to curl it to the far post with his instep angled; it was a hell of an attempt, but just didn't have enough English on it.
Empoli would miss a sitter of their own moments later, but continued to hold most of the attacking possession if not momentum. Ranieri seemed to prefer bottling Empoli's attack rather than going for a third goal, at least outwardly, resulting in some nervous defending from Roma's back line.
When Roma did manage to move the ball forward, they just couldn't find that final pass. Kluivert and Cristante played remarkably well together this evening, pulling off multiple give and gos and mini-overlaps, but more often than not, they simply couldn't link up with SES or Schick darting through the middle.
With the match creeping towards the 80th minute, Ranieri continued to sit on his remaining two subs, presumably because he wasn't terribly emboldened by any one of them in particular. I say presumably because several Roma players were visibly gassed and/or clutching their legs.
Making matters worse, Florenzi was given a yellow card in the 82nd minute for pulling out of a challenge and accidentally shoulder barging an Empoli player. It was an extremely touchy call—by the point of contact, Florenzi had already pulled out of the challenge and whatever contact there may have been was minimal. Foolish of Florenzi to put himself in that situation, especially after his gaff in the Porto match that led to a penalty, but that hardly merited a card.
With Patrik Schick coming up lame, Zan Celar made his professional debut in the 86th minute. What ensued was ten of the most tense minutes you've ever witnessed as a Roma fan.
Juan Jesus would rear his ugly head once more as he lost possession in the 18-yard-box, gifting Empoli with a goal. However, upon review, Jesus’ clearance, such as it was, hit Oberlin's hand, culminating in a VAR review...which, get this, was actually called correctly and the goal was disallowed.
This could have broken Roma and single handedly tanked their hopes for Europe next season, and given how VAR has worked at times this year, it seemed like one needed divine intervention to get a correct call, but the referee mercifully nullified this goal.
Unreal. But make no mistake, Empoli OWNED the final 20 minutes or so of this match, and sure, they were helped by Roma's tactics and Florenzi's poor judgement, but Roma did not look sharp, or quite frankly fit, during this stretch.
Thanks to the review, the substitutions and injuries, the referee tacked on an additional six minutes at the end. Six!
And, no hyperbole intended, those were six of the most excruciating minutes I've seen in ages, six minutes were you get more upset about a corner not being called than you every would about a penalty or a shot hitting the woodwork. But with only ten men on the pitch, a quarter of whom were dragging ass, and with so much at stake, every touch and every second hung on your shoulders like bags of cement.
Roma were able to avert disaster and walk away...limp away...with three points.
Relief. All I feel right now is complete and utter relief. Had the Ranieri rescue era started with a draw, or even worse, there's no telling how the psyche of this team would have held up, but during those six minutes of stoppage time the people of Rome rallied behind their team, rocking the Olimpico with chants, cheers and whistles—it was glorious.
Given that this was Ranieri's first match in charge, one in which he was robbed of several key players, and lost one more thanks to Florenzi, we can't really draw any substantive conclusions, but there were several subjective lessons to be drawn.
First off, the team looked recharged. Despite the injuries and exhaustion piling up throughout the match, I'm not sure the last time we saw so many guys hustling and digging just to cover ground. Patrik Schick was busting his ass like he was on his first trial with a professional club, Kluivert flew around like a dart, and hell even Steven Nzonzi and Ivan Marcano looked reinvigorated.
And it wasn't as if the tactics were dramatically different than before—we've certainly seen this formation, albeit with different personnel selections—but something was noticeably different. Call it spirit, call it energy or call it determination, whatever it was, it was different.
And, in the end, that's really all you want from a caretaker manager—a fresh voice and someone who can stir something within the players his predecessor could no longer conjure.
Claudio Ranieri will have easier and prettier matches no doubt, but this was the gut check Roma needed in the worst way, and thanks to the gentle old man on the sidelines, they passed it.
But yeah, relieved. We should all be relieved.