Late in the week, when attempting to burrow my way into the mind of Betty Bavagnoli, I predicted that she'd roll with an all-out attacking lineup against 11th place Bari today. With the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals against second place Fiorentina looming on Wednesday, it would make sense to get your top players back in form after a two-week international break, but there's a reason I'm not a professional football coach.
Rather than using her A-Team for the full 90 minutes, Bavagnoli did a bit of shuffling with today's lineup, saving Agnese Bonfantini and Martina Piemonte for the second half. While the defense remained relatively unchanged—Elisa Bartoli, Federica Di Criscio, Emma Lipman and Jenny Bitzer—Bavagnoli went with Maria Zecca, Luisa Pugnali and Annamaria Serturini up top, with Flaminia Simonetti, Giada Greggi and Vanessa Bernauer rounding out the XI in midfield.
Despite those changes in attack, one of Roma's defenders (in fact their best defender and arguably best player) nearly broke this match open in only the 8th minute. After winning a free kick, Annamaria Seturini played in a low(ish) cross from right to left, and with Bartoli charging in from the left and seizing upon the loose ball, she very nearly cracked this match open, but her chipped shot hit the very upper corner of the goal...like, literally the 90 degree angle at the upper-left of the goal; you can't get much closer than that.
There wasn't much by way of clear cut chances for either side through the remainder of the first half. Bari's semi-zonal marking seemed to do the trick; Giada Greggi was a virtual non-factor in this match, and any time Roma attempted to set something up outside the 18, the ball carrier was instantly collapsed on by two defenders. It was a pretty impressive, and one would presume deliberate, setup by Bari.
The visitors would open the scoring via set piece midway through the second half when Paloma Lazaro converted a corner by beating Rosalia Pipitone on the near post, though she was pretty much unmarked.
Simonetti would have a half chance late in the first half, but Roma entered the dressing room down 1-0 to lowly Bari.
Sensing the stagnation in attack, Bavagnoli made two critical changes for the second half: swapping out Vanessa Bernauer for Claudia Ciccotti and removing Luisa Pugnali for Agnese Bonfantini.
Ciccotti did well enough in her shift, but Bonfantini showed her true worth in the second half. From the minute she stepped on the pitch, Roma's attack had the speed, balance and precision they were missing in the first half. Whether she was nutmegging defenders in her own half to jump start an attack or beating defenders down the wing and playing in dangerous crosses, Bonfantini changed the entire tenor in the second half.
She was quite simply a game changer for Roma, setting up Maria Zecca with a virtual gimme in the 54th minute, unfortunately the New Englander couldn't covert Roma's best chance to that point.
Roma would get their equalizer thanks to their leading scorer in the 67th minute. After Di Criscio drew a penalty off a corner kick, Serturini wasted no time in blasting the PK past a hapless and helpless Roberta Aprile to level the match.
Bavagnoli's final change of the match would see Martina Piemonte come on for 10 minutes and change for Serturini, but that last gasp effort from Bavagnoli did little to change the match. Piemonte simply didn't have enough time to get fully ingrained in the match, though she did play a beautiful cross with her left foot late in stoppage time, but Simonetti couldn't get the timing down and the chance went wasted.
In the end, Serturini's penalty was all she wrote and Roma walked away with a disappointing draw, though the second half should give them a boost as they head into training for Wednesday's massive fixture.
While Roma will be disappointed with the scoreline, they should be encouraged by their second half performance; this was the Roma we've grown to love this season. As we mentioned, the inclusion of Bonfantini was instrumental in flipping the script. Without her there was simply no balance and no real game-breaking threat out wide, so Bari, not really having to worry about Pugnali beating them out wide, could marshal their forces towards the middle, where they effectively rendered Greggi and Bernauer moot.
Assuming Bavagnoli starts Bonfantini and Piemonte from the jump on Wednesday, along with Greggi and Bernauer, Roma shouldn't suffer a similar tactical fate against Fiorentina, whom they also play in the season's final fixture on the 20th of April.
With 21 of 22 league matches in the book, and with a six point cushion over fifth place Sassuolo, Roma have officially secured fourth place in their maiden Serie A season. And while there was a stretch in which they looked they like could threaten the top two, and by extension secure a Champions League spot, fourth place is probably a fair result given their slow start to the season and this recent swoon.
However, thanks to their progression in the Coppa Italia and their draw with Fiorentina in the first leg, Roma still has a chance achieve something tangible this season, something the organization as a whole hasn't enjoyed in over a decade; an actual honest to goodness trophy!
We'll have gavel-to-gavel coverage of Roma's quest to make the finale of the Coppa Italia next week. Needless to say, Wednesday will be MASSIVE.
Don't miss it.