In the buildup to this match we spoke of two things: Roma's need for efficiency ahead their looming Coppa Italia semifinal against Fiorentina and, of more pressing concern, how they'd break down a suddenly stout Atalanta defense. While Roma had a nine point cushion over fifth place Atalanta, the Goddesses have been surging as of late, winning three of their past four matches, pitching four shutouts along the way. Of course, the Giallorosse had bagged three wins in their past four while scoring 12 goals, so this really was the proverbial meeting of the immovable object and irresistible force.
Unfortunately for Roma, the force of their attack couldn't make a dent in Atalanta's immovable defense, but it wasn't from lack of effort. With Giada Greggi, Vanessa Bernauer, Flaminia Simonetti, Agnese Bonfantini, Annamaria Serturini and Martina Piemonte starting, Betty Bavagnoli brought out her heavy hitters in this match.
Hoping to improve on their 2-0 victory from November, Roma's A-lineup seemed poised to make a dent in Atalanta’s defense, but in a reversal of fortunes, Roma found themselves on the back foot after Melania Martinovic broke the match open in the ninth minute.
Not deterred by that strike, Roma kept pressing throughout the first half, but the synchronicity and balance with which they usually play was conspicuously missing. Darting runs through the middle that ended with incisive passes out wide or deft give and gos were suddenly replaced by stilted and isolated wing play.
In a word, Atalanta's defensive plan worked to a T. While Bonfantini and Serturini garner most of the acclaim in Roma's attack, the real driving force behind Bavagnoli's wide open style of play sits just behind those two dynamic wingers. With Bernauer building from the back and Greggi diving through the middle, Roma is very often able to expand and contract space in the attacking third, opening seams to find the wingers in space, who in turn can check it back to the point of attack, further confusing opposing defenses. It's beautiful when it works well, but when it doesn't, well, today happens.
With Atalanta collapsing on them, Greggi and Bernauer simply didn't have that extra half-second to make a decision, and were more often than not forced to make hasty passes out wide. In and of itself this isn't a problem, Serturini and Bonfantini can certainly create their own space, but there was simply no counter point in the middle.
Time and time again they would push the ball well out wide and check the ball back to Piemonte, who simply could not hold up play long enough for the attack to reorganize, and when she did manage to spread the ball back out wide, her passes were often well off the mark. It's something for which Edin Dzeko catches a lot of flack (his lack of goals), but we've seen numerous times how instrumental his possession and distribution from 30+ yards can be—Piemonte simply could not replicate that this afternoon, and when coupled with the defensive pressure on the midfield, it left Bonfantini and Serturini on an island.
Still, despite all that frustration, Roma had a few half-chances through out the match. Bonfantini nearly had a one-v-one late in the first half but simply couldn't put enough space between herself and the last defender, who was able to close her out just as she attempted to chip the splayed out keeper.
But Roma's best chance came late in the 80th minute. With Serturini cutting in from the left, Roma's #15 very nearly registered another goal of the year candidate but her dipping effort just missed the top-left corner of the net.
With ten minutes to play, Roma seemed like they were poised to find an equalizer, but Atalanta put the match to bed the very next minute when Maegan Kelly (Hmm, I don't think she's Italian) headed one home. The Goddesses would add another in stoppage time, finishing the match off 3-0.
It was an oddly frustrating afternoon for Roma, one we haven't seen in months.
You can accuse me of rationalizing a loss, but in a sense this could be a good thing. Roma have been rolling for months, seldom challenged by a defense outside of the league's top three, so while we focused so intently on hewing off the rough edges prior to their Coppa semi-final, this stinker should serve as a final wake up call for Roma.
Roma retain a six-point lead over fifth place Atalanta, but with AC Milan and a league encounter with Fiorentina remaining on their docket (with lowly Bari sprinkled in between) they can't relent. Assuming anything or resting on their laurels could doom them to a fifth place finish, especially since Atalanta have relative gimmes against bottom feeders Chievo Verona and Bari remaining on their schedule, though they also face Milan.
While the difference between fourth place and fifth place is largely academic, settling in alongside Juventus, Fiorentina and AC Milan among the league's pecking order does have intrinsic, psychic value. Heading into the summer knowing they're just a notch below the title contenders should give them that extra bit of motivation they'll need to truly make an assault on the top of the table next season.
However, ending the season on a whimper could be a damaging blow, especially when you consider they've been among the best sides in the league after brushing off that 0-3 start. With three league matches remaining, two of which come before the second leg of the Coppa semifinal, Roma have to muster every bit of energy to finish the season off strong.
We have been able to explain away some of their early hiccups this season simply because the team was brand new, but that is all prologue, and as they say, what is present is paramount. And at present, Roma have two important milestones to accomplish, one mental and one tangible.
Finishing fourth—and a solid fourth—would be an important psychological benchmark ahead of next season. With a year under their belt and a few new recruits, Roma could be poised to make a run at the title next season, so finishing off the season with a flourish, particularly if they can beat the two sides immediately ahead of them on the table, would be STRONG signal of intent for next season.
Intrinsic motivation is all well and good, but Roma still have a chance to get something shiny this season. If they can dust off this defeat and reorganize ahead of Wednesday's match against Milan before yet another break in the schedule, and then return to blow away Bari, they should be in good shape ahead of the Coppa Italia semifinal on the 17th, and if they can get past Fiorentina there, then anything can happen in the final.
There's less than a month to play for the Roma women, but the manner in which they navigate the remainder of the season could not only net them a trophy but set them up for success next fall.