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Roma’s 2018/19 Star Defender: Elisa Bartoli

As the only defender to play all 22 league games, Bartoli’s all-action style is a call for reinforcements this summer.

Juventus Women v AS Roma - Women Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

They say you should never go back to the place you once left, but I wonder if Elisa Bartoli looks at Rome as the same city today. In all her years away, she’s built a reputation as a warrior on the pitch; ‘Gladiator’ was her moniker when she played up north in Bergamo for one unhappy season. All the other seasons were laden with silverware. Watching Bartoli’s all-action performances in a Roma shirt this season, it’s easy to understand how she’s racked up the accolades.

A Scudetto and two Supercup won in Sardinia with ASD Torres; another Scudetto and two Italian Cups won in Florence. Maybe inheriting her idol Gioia Masia’s number 13 jersey for the Azzurre is the one honour Bartoli holds just as close as the winner’s medals. The only short-term aims facing Bartoli in her playing career are this summer’s World Cup, and doing the one thing eluding many Romans in football: winning with your home club.

Bartoli has already achieved the latter in a sense, winning the second division with Roma CF in her first stint in the capital. I personally thank James Pallotta for taking over rival club RES Roma instead, and signing Bartoli in the same summer. RES has the back-to-back-to-back title-winning culture at Primavera level, and it meant the new AS Roma side could put Primavera champions like Giada Greggi in the same starting lineup as captain Bartoli.

As a fan on the sidelines, it’s been worth it to watch those two players embrace the weight of this side’s mental wellbeing on their shoulders.

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Women Coppa Italia Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

In February’s away game against Orobica, Roma were cruising at 3-0 with 20 minutes left to go. Then came creeping doubts as Orobica hit back with 2 goals of their own, and 8 minutes of normal time left on the clock. Were we witnessing a Roma side masochistically chuckng away a 3-goal lead on the road? Not if Greggi and Bartoli had any say in it.

The two covered every blade of the left wing, fighting for the ball and holding onto possession to run down the clock. The improvised game of mini-football between the two worked, and Roma took home the three points. Bartoli has been that emotional fulcrum for this very young Roma side all season-long, and even made a personal change in February to allow herself recognition for it.

The Roma captain began lacing a personalised black, Lupetto armband at the tailend of her side’s spellbinding winter run. There’s a dedication to Bartoli’s dog Cocco stitched in, alongside a Russell Crowe quote from Gladiator: ‘Strength and honour, everything else is air and dust.’

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Women Coppa Italia Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Bartoli is one of the many women in the professional game who credit the decision to train in men’s teams as crucial to her youth development. She first began as a nine-year old amateur, talking her away out of being fielded as a goalkeeping afterthought and gradually conquering an outfield position with her local Tor di Quinto men’s team for six years. Then she took a transfer to Roma CF as a teenager, and never stopped climbing the women’s game since.

This season has exemplified the physicality she brings to the pitch. Bartoli has relentlessly driven the ball up Roma’s left flank by simply riding tackles and brushing past opponents. And then there were the runs off the ball, always looking to provide a spare option in midfield or in the box when she felt her team needed it.

Her all-action style also fed into her biggest weakness: positional indiscipline. Bartoli breaking the team’s shape has rarely backfired on Roma this season, so it remained a non-issue. But it’s still a call for Roma to reinforce this side before it becomes a problem in the future.

If Bartoli feels she has to break rank to play shadow midfielder or striker then she never hesitates to do so. And she probably does it with Bavagnoli’s blessing, too. That betrays a lack of trust in teammates and how this Roma side has been built until now.

In the recent home game against Mozzanica, Bartoli’s former team, Roma were down on the scoreline. Bartoli pushed forward chasing the ball over 70-80 yards in one single spell of Mozzanica possession, dragging her out from left-back all the way to Roma’s right wing. Neither Bartoli nor her teammates won the ball back despite the effort, and Roma’s captain had no gas left in the tank to get back when Mozzanica tried to hit the Giallorosse on the break for a fourth goal.

Roma’s backline is where the club have sensibly looked towards the experience of Bartoli and Lipman to keep control of the ball. The club could do with signing more experience further up the pitch, so that Bartoli finds more trust in her side to get the job done collectively. That’d leave Bartoli with more time to focus on winning the ball back, driving the ball up field and laying off assists. All of which she’s done this season, along with her goalscoring feats from defence.

Let’s not forget that, when she agreed to move on from her success at Fiorentina last summer, Bartoli was promised a Roma team that would compete for the title. Roma’s spring form betrayed the inexperience throughout this squad, and left them some way short of Scudetto contention throughout the season.

Only a successful World Cup campaign with Italy can bring some kind of silverware for Bartoli in 2018-19, and we’ll be staying tuned to see how far Roma and Italy’s number 13 can go this summer.