In her pre-match press conference, Roma manager Betty Bavagnoli, while being careful not to overlook San Marino, spoke about this match as a potential turning point for her Roma squad. With mixed results and too many missed chances to count through their first five matches in the new season, the Giallorosse were in dire need of a spark; of a definitive, no holds barred victory that would set them on the right foot. No one can question the talent on this squad, nor the investment the club has made over the past two years, but the results simply haven't been up to snuff.
And making matters worse, it's not just the results that have been letting Roma down, it's been the scattered, uneven and inefficient play we've seen through five fixtures. We're talking about a side laden with attacking talent—the same squad that finished second in goals scored last season, the same squad that finally added a legitimate number nine (29 in this case)—that's barely managed to keep their heads above water. With only six goals through five matches, Roma's output hasn't exactly matched the hype.
As we mentioned in the match preview, Roma were not only in dire need of a victory, they were hunting for a lop-sided, no doubter of a win; the kind they manufactured against San Marino in last season's Coppa Italia when Roma ran them off the pitch by a combined 10-1 scoreline over two fixtures.
With only one goal scored and 18 conceded heading into this match, San Marino seemed like the perfect foils for Roma's much needed comeback. A four, five or even six-nil offering seemed in the cards when you considered the talent disparity at play in this afternoon's match.
(Here comes the but)
But that's not exactly how it played out. The corner Bavagnoli hoped her side would turn today quickly became a frustrating and rather arduous trip around the block. The lopsided laugher we envisioned never materialized today in San Marino.
With her side missing Brazilian playmaker and all around salve Andressa Alves, Bavagnoli reinserted Vanessa Bernauer into the lineup, giving the Swiss metronome her first appearance since Roma's 2-0 loss to Empoli in early September.
Apart from that change, it was business as usual for Bavagnoli's 4-3-3. With a fast pitch and an inferior opponent, Roma encountered little resistance in their build up play this afternoon. With Manuela Giugliano running the show in the middle of the pitch, Roma's wide players—particularly Elisa Bartoli, Angelica Soffia and Annamaria Serturini—were free to change positions and roles throughout this match, stretching and bending the San Marino defense as they saw fit.
So when Bartoli (playing on the right instead of her normal left) found Paloma Lazaro with a right-to-left cross to open the scoring in only the 10th minute, it seemed like the rout was well and truly on. Roma were bigger, faster and more aggressive in the early phases of this match so Lazaro's goal seemed like only the beginning.
Despite being outmatched and outrun to nearly every 50/50 ball, the San Marino defense held firm, ceding Roma the first two-thirds of the pitch before coalescing around their own 18-yard-box to deny Roma any clear cut chances in the attacking third.
And so it went: Roma breezed up the pitch, moving the ball with the ease and grace of Johan Cruyff and the Oranje teams of the 1970s, but just couldn't find a break through in the final third. With no crevices availing themselves to Roma, the Giallorosse had no choice but to rely on longballs over the top, which, given how fast the pitch was, were practically impossible to settle. The fast conditions had a similar effect on Roma's ability to spread play at the edge of the 18, where simple layoffs proved incredibly difficult to connect, picking up too much speed and more often than not rolling out of bounds.
Nevertheless, with Roma dominating possession, it only seemed like a matter of time before they doubled their lead. But with the first half winding down, disaster struck in the 42nd minute when Roma conceded a penalty in the area, which was converted with ease by Raffaella Barbieri in the 42nd minute.
And for a moment, it seemed like Roma’s lack of precision in the final third would be their undoing once again. We've seen it too many times to count, but when you let a smaller side like this hang around, they'll make you pay one way or another; be it through open play or an untimely error.
Roma would find another break through two minutes later when Bernauer played a pinpoint free-kick into the area towards Lazaro. Atoning for her mistake last weekend, Lazaro left no doubt, rising to meet the ball at its apex, heading it past the hapless keeper to regain the lead in the 44th minute.
But the chaos didn't end there. Moments before the stroke of half-time, San Marino made Roma pay for another unfortunate mistake. With a relatively harmless shot directed right at her, Roma keeper Rachele Baldi chose to parry the ball back out into the area rather than simply catching it, leaving Barbieri with a juicy rebound, which she was all too happy to tuck into the back of net, levelling the match at half-time.
The shock of the 2-2 scoreline could be seen on the faces of all 11 women wearing red, and with each missed chance, each errant pass and each frustrating block, the Giallorosse grew increasingly agitated and visibly frustrated by their lowly opponents.
Bavagnoli would make a series of changes early in the second half, desperately hoping the fresh legs of Agnese Bonfantini, Kaja Erzen, Alice Corelli or Claudia Ciccotti could provide the breakthrough they so desperately needed now.
Unfortunately, for much of the second half, the song remained the same: Roma could do whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted and whenever they wanted; San Marino was simply no match for Roma in the run of play.
But outside of a missed header by Erzen, the Giallorosse didn't really create any genuine scoring chances. To borrow a line from The Bard, Roma were full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
And with the minutes ticking away and the misplaced passes piling up, it seemed increasingly likely that Roma were going to drop two points (or worse) to a club more accustomed to leaking goals and losing matches than gutting out draws.
With only two minutes to spare, Roma finally found a match winner thanks to Annamaria Serturini, who received a ball from Giugliano on the left flank before cutting in quickly to slot it past the keeper, rescuing Roma at the death.
Well, we were a Serturini match winner away from a decidedly different match review. If we're being honest, Roma were incredibly lucky to take all three points this afternoon. That's not to say that San Marino did anything particularly impressive—it's not like they had missed chances of their own—but the same demons that have been haunting Roma all season long—missed chances, rash challenges, shaky goalkeeping—were on full display in this match.
But that's exactly what makes a player like Serturini so special; she's a game changer. Based on pure athleticism and agility alone, she may be Roma's deadliest weapon in attack; the type of player who can flip a match based on individual gifts alone. But throughout this young season, we've seen a more mature Serturini; a player who has curbed her excesses to fit within the broader team approach, someone who looks to pass almost as often as she looks to cut in.
In this moment—the 88th minute—it was her agility, intelligence and nose for goal that won the day. She didn't equivocate, she didn't hesitate, she just cut in and let ‘er rip. Football can be a complicated game if you let it be, but moments like these remind us that, despite all good tactical intentions and sound planning, matches often come down to one moment, one decision and one shot.
Annamaria Serturini took a bit of a backseat last season, but with three goals in six appearances, she's once again staking her claim as one of Italy's brightest young talents.
And thank god for that, otherwise we'd be mourning a disaster class of a match.
Roma go on international break before returning to the always rare Roma vs. Roma derby when they take on Roma CF on November first.
Highlights to come as soon as they're available.