Say this much for AS Roma, they're seldom lacking drama. Just a couple days ago we speculated on what it would take for Robin Olsen to lose his job in net, focusing mostly on his deplorable form in 2019. While keepers are seldom entirely to blame for conceding goals, the fact of the matter was simply this: Olsen has been beat a lot this year. Like, a lot, among the worst in the league. Despite our speculation, I still didn't really expect Claudio Ranieri to make such a dramatic change so late in the season, but he did, and as we discussed earlier this week, it was probably long overdue.
But Roma's changes didn't end there. For the umpteenth time this season, the Giallorossi monkeyed with their staring 11, opting for a 4-2-3-1 led by Edin Dzeko up top supported by Justin Kluivert, Diego Perotti and Nicolo Zaniolo, who served as sort of a roaming trequartista, covering large swaths of the pitch through much of the first half.
And since this is Roma we're talking about, Claudio's changes had an almost immediate impact on the match...a bad one. Outside of being perhaps a bit taller, and maybe being able to defend entire set piece himself, there wasn’t much Antonio Mirante could do to stop German Pezzella's headed goal in the 10th minute.
Pezzella had a virtual free path towards the area, rose up and snapped a header into the grass, and the subsequent bounce simply skied over and past Mirante. It was kind of like when you rush the net in tennis and your opponent smashed an overhead volley that lands right in front of your feet and bounces over your head and racket in the blink of an eye, rendering your positioning useless.
Still, Ranieri made the change in goal and here we were, barely 10 minutes into the match, and Mirante was victimized. Things didn't look good.
But then came The Kid.
Nicolo Zaniolo: 12th Minute (Roma 1, Fiorentina 1)
In de 12e minuut kwam Roma 0-1 achter, doelpunt van Pezzella. In de 14e minuut maakte Roma gelijk. Doelpunt van Zaniolo, op aangeven van Justin Kluivert. @justin_kluivert#RomaFiorentina pic.twitter.com/hDtdRVFrlf— BALCIO ⚽ (@Balcio17) April 3, 2019
It seems like so many of Roma's recent struggles were due, in part, to the tired and aging legs occupying so much of Roma's roster, so it was refreshing to see their two teenagers team up to level this match. Kluivert did a wonderful job putting his defender on skates, carving out space to loft the ball over to Zaniolo, who rose above the fray to beat Lafont at the far post. And isn't it nice when those go the other way?
The ensuing half hour played out without any real issues or heart stopping moments, and for the first time in several rounds it seemed like Roma actually had a chance to take three points.
Things looked okay for the first five minutes or so of the second half, but Fiorentina wouldn’t take long to hang another on Roma. With the Viola stretching the Roma defense from right to left, Cristiano Biraghi played a swooping, out-swinging cross towards the edge of the 18, which bounced off Marco Benassi's shoulder, falling right to Gerson, whose shot then deflected off Juan Jesus, giving Mirante no hope of stopping it.
I can't really emphasize that enough: this goal took at least two deflections, and it was beginning to look like it just wasn't in the cards for Roma tonight.
However, just as they did in the first half, Roma would bounce right back thanks to some nifty passing from Kluivert,
Diego Perotti: 57th Minute (Roma 2, Fiorentina 2)
While he may have been actually looking to setup Dzeko, Kluivert's pass had enough mustard on it to find Perotti on the opposite wing, who absolutely buried it past Lafont; this was a no-doubter and I'm surprised he didn't bust the net in the process.
Ranieri would make his first swap of the match, pulling off Kluivert for Lorenzo Pellegrini, who very nearly setup Zaniolo moments after coming on the pitch, finding Zaniolo through the middle with a tidy little pocket pass, but Zaniolo simply couldn't curve the ball enough to skirt it around the far post.
Fiorentina would counter that substitution by bringing on their own wunderkind, Federico Chiesa just before the hour mark, who proceeded to nearly tear Davide Santon's hamstring from the bone in the 67th minute when he was streaking down the right flank.
With Santon in a crumpled heap, Ranieri had no choice but to bring on Rick Karsdorp, who may or may not be injured; one can never tell with him.
Roma would make a bit of noise in the Viola end when Zaniolo and Dzeko teamed up deep in the Fiorentina final third, working a give and go of sorts, but Dzeko's final attempt was eaten alive by the grass and easily saved.
Ranieri's somewhat odd substitution patterns continued midway through the second. After taking Kluivert off earlier in the half, he was forced to move Zaniolo out wide, where he was somewhat less effective, which in turn forced Ranieri to take him off for Cengiz Ünder in the 75th minute. It's hard to argue with this move completely, especially since Pellegrini found a few pockets of space in the second half, but Zaniolo and Kluivert were among Roma's most persistent threats this evening, so it was still puzzling he removed them so hastily.
Nevertheless, Roma looked surprisingly sharp from the 75th minute onward, with Pellegrini, Cristante and Ünder each threatening Lafont's goal late in the second half.
Pellegrini would nearly set up a match winner ten minutes later when he evaded Jordan Veretout down the right flank, but simply didn't have enough time/space to put in a precise cross to Dzeko, who had to fade away and crane his neck to even get whiff of the ball. You could say that Dzeko made a poor break, but it was yet another example of the lack of chemistry in Roma's forward lines.
The match would peter out with four minutes of stoppage time, four minutes that never really produced any viable threat on either end, and the match ended in a disappointing draw.
This was a particularly tough loss (let's just call it that, because ostensibly that's what it was) because Fiorentina's both goals owe as much to the immutable laws of physics as they do to intuitive football, particularly the second goal that required multiple deflections. However, with Kluivert's second assist sort of finding Perotti by default, I suppose we don't have too much ground for complaint.
Despite the dropped points, Roma looked crisper than they have since Ranieri came to town, with Pellegrini, Perotti, Zaniolo, Cristante and Kluivert logging impressive shifts tonight. The problem is, quite obviously, that Ranieri doesn't have enough time to sort out that rotation; there are only eight matches remaining, and constant tinkering, particularly with the enormous amount of pressure they're enduring, won’t generate enough effective chemistry under those conditions.
Of course, that mixing and matching wouldn't weigh so heavily if Monchi knew how to construct a defense. I'm not even sure a 30-year-old Francesco Totti could counter the collapsing star that is Roma’s defense. We saw it once again this evening—the slow, flatfooted and decidedly poor duo of Federico Fazio and Juan Jesus struggling to contain Federico Chiesa, German Pezzella and even the slightly husky Luis Muriel.
If Roma does, by some miracle, finish in fourth place, rest assured it will be in spite of that backline.
While a draw is certainly better than a loss, Roma are still four distant points off the Champions League race and may fall even further down the pecking order should Atalanta defeat Bologna tomorrow.
So, do whatever you gotta do to send some good juju Bologna’s way. Roma needs all the help they can get right now.