I'll be the first to admit it: I was completely shocked by Roma's defeat to Atalanta last weekend. While I hesitated to predict a blowout, given the Giallorosse's recent form, as well as their 2-0 victory over Atalanta from November, I thought that, if nothing else, they could walk away with a one-goal victory; a nail biter, but a win nonetheless. But I'm sorry to say, I was off. Way, way off. After falling behind in only the ninth minute, Roma were ultimately embarrassed by fifth place Atalanta in a 3-0 no-show by Betty Bavagnoli's crew.
While the loss didn't alter the Serie A standings one iota, it was perhaps the worst performance we've seen from the Roma ragazze in months, particularly in attack where Bavagnoli's usually fearsome attack looked pusillanimous and fresh out of ideas. The defense held firm after surrendering that first goal, but were easily exploited down the stretch, conceding two goals past the 80th minute. Still, thanks to that impressive form we just spoke of, Roma still hold a six-point lead over Atalanta and remain firmly in fourth place, so all is not lost.
The problem is, quite simply, that tomorrow's opponents, AC Milan, are one of the strongest sides in the league. With 45 points through 19 matches, Milan sit third in the league, five points behind league-leading Juventus, and with only three matches to play, they'll need every last point to remain in the Scudetto race with Juve and Fiorentina, so they certainly won't be lacking for motivation.
As we've discussed throughout the past several weeks, Roma's success against the three teams ahead of them serves as a constant and moving barometer for their growth and development; are they contenders or pretenders?
While we can't quite answer that question yet, the dividing lines are razor thin.
December 1, 2018: Roma 1, Milan 2
When these two sides met in early December, Roma had already shaken off their 0-3 start to the season, racking up wins against the now-bottom sides in the league, but in their only true test to that point, against Juventus in late October, they were ran off the pitch in a 4-0 defeat. So when they met Mian at the Tre Fontane that afternoon, Roma had a shot a redemption (of sorts); a chance to prove their mettle after browbeating the bums of the league. And in the early moments of that match, Roma looked up to the task.
In what is still one of the finest exhibitions of skill we've seen this season, Agnese Bonfantini put on a clinic, twisting and turning two defenders before playing an absolutely perfect ball across to face of goal to an awaiting Flaminia Simonetti. Bonfantini's skill and creativity earned her an assist of the year nod from the club as a whole, but was unfortunately not enough to win the day as Milan came roaring back thanks to goals Valentina Giacinti and Daniela Sabatino; a duo that has combined to amass 33 league goals this year.
And that's really the long and short of tomorrow's match; Milan can ball. With 47 goals forced through 19 matches, Milan are the leagues third most prolific attack, trailing Fiorentina and Juventus, respectively.
I try not to be too reductive in any of the match previews I write here, but some simple math reveals the secret to defeating Milan—Sabatino and Giacinti have accounted for 70% of Milan's goals this season. So dominant has this duo been that Milan's next leading scorer, Lisa Alborghetti, has all of three goals. There's nothing inherently wrong with that spread of data, or lack thereof, but Milan's lack of a third wheel has been quite glaring and could be the key to containing their attack.
The corollary to that theory is (obviously and necessarily) who Bavagnoli lines up opposite of that dynamic duo. In the weekend defeat to Atalanta, Bavagnoli tweaked her back four a tad, using the central pairing of Emma Lipman and Federica Di Crisicio, a combination we haven't seen since the season's earliest days.
If we can find one fault with Bavagnoli this season, it's simply that; she hasn't found a consistent back four all season long. While Elisa Bartoli has been a mainstay (logging 1,700 minutes in 19 appearances), Bavagnoli has failed to find the proper mix around her captain this season, rotating between Angelica Soffia, Camilla Labate, Heden Corrado, Alysson Swaby and Di Criscio at varying points this season, using the latter as a central defender, full back and midfielder this season as well.
It’s a minor quibble for sure, but when you're facing a duo like Sabatino and Giacinti, not to mention Fiorentina's potent attack in the semifinal of the Coppa Italia next month, defensive cohesion may be the deciding factor.
Following Sunday's disappointing defeat to Atalanta, a side they blanked earlier in the fall, toppling third place Milan could be just the boost Roma needs to propel them to a successful end to their inaugural season.