Standing alongside the 2013 Coppa Italia finale against Lazio and last season's disaster against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals, the first leg of tomorrow's Coppa Italia semifinal against Fiorentina serves as one of the organization's most important matches of the past decade. Over the past few weeks we've bemoaned the lack of tangible objectives remaining for Betty Bavagnoli's Roma side, but not this time. This time they have a chance at something truly historic.
In their first season of existence, Roma's women's team has done well to hang with the true power players in the league, Juventus, AC Milan and Fiorentina, but thanks to a sluggish start, they've been on the outside of the Scudetto chase looking in. Not only that, the gap between fourth place Roma and third place Milan/second place Fiorentina is enough to forestall Roma's European ambitions for at least another season—Serie A currently only sends two clubs the Champions League.
Roma vs. Fiorentina: March 13th. 13:00 CET/8:00 EDT. Stadio Tre Fontane, Roma.
In short, Roma's rise to fourth place has been amazing, but, due to the factors we just discussed, it's sort of capped their list of objectives. All of which makes the Coppa Italia even more important.
Whether they've channeled that fourth place frustration into their Coppa run or not we cannot say, but Roma ran roughshod through the prior two stages of the competition. By dusting off Orobica 3-1 in the Round of 16 and whitewashing city rivals Roma CF 9-4 in the Quarterfinal, Bavagnoli's side as been as potent as any of the remaining Coppa Italia combatants.
Given how the domestic season has unfolded, I suppose it's only right that the final four teams in the cup mirror the league table. Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, and Roma may be the class of the league, but in the Coppa Italia the slates are wiped clean, putting the Giallorosse on level pegging with the league's top three sides.
Considering Roma's scorching form in 2019, they have as good a chance as any of the final four to bring home the Coppa Italia title. And not only would this be a remarkable achievement during their inaugural season, it would break a decade-long trophy drought for the organization as a whole.
However, before we celebrate, there is the small matter of second place Fiorentina to contend with, a club Roma played as tight as any this season.
December 23, 2018: Roma 0, Fiorentina 0
This match came smack dab in the middle of Roma’s first surge of the season, a spell in which they won five of six matches, helping to dull the pain of their 0-3 start to the season. While that turnaround was impressive, the lone blemish during that run was to AC Milan, one of the league's top sides. Critics would claim that Roma were padding their resume like a legacy applying to Stanford, so when the fixture list swung towards Fiorentina—Roma's first real test since the Milan defeat—it was a chance for Roma to exhibit and test that growth.
And by playing Fiorentina tough, holding off a barrage of attempts and barely missing a few of their own, Roma managed a moral victory. While I hate that term and concept, it does apply here—Fiorentina were (and are) that good, and to play them as well as they did was a huge sign of progress for a still developing team like Roma. Besides which, this scoreless draw catapulted Roma to another neighborhood, one in which they have won seven of eight matches.
While moral victories are all well and good, they won't do a damn thing to advance Roma's cause in the Coppa Italia; Fiorentina are mighty side. With 43 points from 17 matches, the Viola would be running away with the league were it not for Juventus, who hold the slimmest of margins over Fiorentina, one solitary point.
Despite that margin, Fiorentina have been the league's best side by a host of metrics. Their 59 goals are best in the league, ditto to their I-can't-even-believe-I'm-typing-this +50 goal differential. Thanks to that overwhelming record, it should come as no surprise that Fiorentina has only three blemishes on their record, the draw to Roma and losses to Juventus and Milan in the league.
The Viola boast four of the leagues top ten scorers, reaping 40 goals from the quartet of Tatiana Bonetti, Lana Clelland, Alia Guagni and Ilaria Mauro. So potent is Fiorentina's attack that they've only been held below one goal three times, and have failed to score only twice—one of which was the draw against Roma in December. Maybe there is something to moral victories after all.
Facing such a difficult opponent is always a daunting task, but it can look downright impossible when you haven't played in three weeks, a point Bavagnoli addressed late last week:
After a break there is always a little bit of difficulty in getting go again – but this break has allowed a few players to come back from injury, and for the rest to regain a bit of energy mentally and physically. Clearly it won’t be an easy first game back, as we will be in a semi-final against a top team like Fiorentina. But we have been preparing well and will give our best. We want to push until the very end in the league, we have some tough games and our rivals have improved like us – but we want to underline how far we have come.
Fortunately for Bavagnoli, Roma's players, in particular Elisa Bartoli, Annamaria Serturini and Vannessa Bernauer, strode the perfect line between over and under used during their three week international break, and should be in perfect game shape for this critical fixture.
Speaking on her expectations for the final stretch, Bavagnoli preached continued improvement and their main goal, reaching the finals:
We want to ensure we finish in the top four, as that would be a positive achievement. But along with that we want to keep improving and developing, which you always need to do in football. We still have the three best sides ahead of us – Juventus, Fiorentina and Milan – and it’s hard to see them dropping many points. But we want to make sure we do our part and see what happens. And, naturally, we want to reach the final of the Coppa Italia. We will give everything for that.
I can only assume Bavagnoli wants to also, you know, win the Coppa Italia, so we can chalk her final comments up to basic restraint, but she's done a masterful job this season so she can say whatever she wants.
With that 0-0 draw in December, Roma proved they weren't afraid of clubs like Fiorentina, but the manner in which they've bowled over nearly everyone since then proves they belong with the likes of Fiorentina, and a quick start tomorrow might prove they've surpassed Fiorentina.