Welcome back to the one football tournament where empty stadiums come off as entirely appropriate. Sure, some may say I’m looking down on the Europa League and I guess I am. But you out to take a look at the sheer amount of portrait-aspect pictures (instead of the preferred landscape aspect) that Getty Images provide us on Thursdays, underlining the pitch-side photographer’s utter contempt for the Europa League.
Tonight’s task was drumming up enthusiasm for Roma’s home game against CSKA Sofia, where Paulo Fonseca fielded a near-identical starting lineup to last week’s Europa League fixture. All this being said, there were legit reasons to be enthusiastic if you’re a fan of any of Roma’s peripheral players, Villar or Mayoral getting their name in lights could be just the tonic for tonight.
The first half began with a Chris Smalling goal ruled out for offside, and Sofia getting a couple of flash-chances on Roma’s goal, but neither really threatening Pau Lopez. At the other end, Carles Perez began to ask questions of Borja Mayoral’s ability to play close-control football on the edge of Sofia’s penalty box. The early signs weren’t promising, but there was plenty of time left in this game to get into game rhythm.
At the end of the 16th minute, Spinazzola tried a cross-cum-shot that Sofia’s keeper watched to the very last moment and tipped over his crossbar. Fazio glanced a header wide from the resulting Roma corner. The Sofia started to find joy slicing open Roma’s midfield and getting right onto the Giallorossi backline, where other a last-minute decision from Chris Smalling to step up meant that a dangerous Sofia goal-chance effectively went wide under Smalling’s pressure.
Sofia weren’t done there however, almost immediately threatening again as Mazikou went body-to-body with Bruno Peres, who meekly fell to the ground and Mazikou accepted the free ball to run in on goal and try a shot deflected off goal by a Roma defender at the last minute. From the resulting Sofia corner, they got in a free header that found Sofia captain Zanev offside from 3 yards out and steering the rebound over the Roma crossbar. Roma tried to relieve the pressure by getting up the other end, but Roma’s attacking unit showed no real chemistry in the final third.
Only a brief Henrikh Mkhitaryan through-ball to Gonzalo Villar began to turn that chemistry around, but the Sofia keeper was quicker to smother the ball on that event. Roma began stringing together a lot of pressure around Sofia’s box for a good ten-minute spell, before Villar and Miki once again linked up for a Miki volleyed, deft and looping goal-attempt that bounced off the Sofia crossbar.
Moments later, with Kumbulla caught in possession and Sofia believing they were on for a break, Fazio cleaned up the loose ball, and Roma worked it across the pitch to Spinazzola, who sent a hanging ball over to the far side but Roma couldn’t get a player on the end of it. I’m personally very confused by this modern trend of attackers hanging at the far side of goal for crosses.
Whatever happened to attacking the near post? Or hanging around inside the middle of the goal area for a rebound? Ever since the days of Destro, through to Dzeko and now Mayoral, there’s often a wide open gap there.
Moments later, Roma worked the ball down the right flank before passing it into the box to Fazio, who beautifully backheeled it into the middle for a Roma teammate to finish, but Capitano Europa Bryan Cristante saw the ball intercepted at the last moment, before he could put his foot through it. A couple of minutes later, Fazio undid his good work by getting caught pushing up too late on his opponent, and Sofia working the ball behind him which forced Bruno Peres into getting booked for a professional foul to snuff out the Sofia break.
That was it, in terms of any meaningful action from the first half. Roma struggled for goal chances and team moves in the final third. Leonardo Spinazzola now becoming an exclusively right-footed player has reduced the pace of his game to something slow enough that it makes all teammates’ runs off the ball redundant. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Federico Fazio looked like the only two trying to give that something extra to shift this scoreline. But this one had 0-0 written all over it, headed into the break.
The second half began with Spinazzola subbed off for Rick Karsdorp who, by all intents and purposes, was meant to start this game but evidently told Paulo Fonseca he didn’t have the full 90 minutes in him before kick off. Whatever the case, Bruno Peres shifted to the left side now. Pedro also came off the bench to give Henrikh Mkhitaryan some mid-week relief.
With Sofia having at least seven men back defending their goal, Roma were struggling to pick up the pace and resorted to Villar lofting a cross-ball all the way to Rick Karsdorp, who controlled it well before checking back to Fazio. The Argentine sent in a beautiful cross into Mayoral, who headed over. Almost immediately at the other end, Sofia won a corner and launched it to the far side, before the ball was sent back in for a Sankhere free-header in the middle that Pau Lopez parried from point-blank range. Sofia sent the rebound well over the bar.
The ball then went up the other end of the pitch, but Roma were faced with the same problem all evening long: At least seven Sofia players narrowly defending their final 18 yards of pitch, and Roma playing too slow to really open them up. A Fazio long-range shot typified the lack of short-range options the Giallorossi weren’t making for themselves on the night. Fazio and Pedro kept the pressure on Sofia, who gave up a loose ball to Villar, and the Spaniard tried his luck on goal from long-range, but the ball went deflected for a Roma corner. Paulo Fonseca used the moment as a chance to sub off Chris Smalling for Juan Jesus.
On the hour mark, Gonzalo Villar tried an unorthodox, golf-like chip of the ball into the middle of the pitch, which Carlez Perez failed to shoot on target with space and time on the edge of Sofia’s penalty area. Paulo Fonseca was faced with a crossroads: Do you trust this young, Roma B-team to show their desire and grind out a result with the pressure ramping up on the home side? Or do you once again turn to your big guns from the bench? There was less than half an hour to find out.
A further nine minutes went by before Fonseca’s answer began to lead towards the latter road; the Roma coach brought on Edin Dzeko for Borja Mayoral, though ironically immediately after Mayoral showed some nice link-up play under pressure with Pedro to win a Roma corner. But that was it for the Spanish protégé, and it was up to Dzeko to try and crack open this game and inch himself closer to Amadei’s club scoring record.
However, Sofia weren’t counting themselves out the game, first threatening a chance where their striker Sowe was snuffed out at the last minute by Pau Lopez, then Sofia worked another chance by crossing the ball to their far right side, where Kumbulla was beaten to the header by Yomov and Pau Lopez was forced into another save, clutching the ball out of the air on that occasion.
To change the tone of the match, Edin Dzeko decided to pick up the ball on the edge of Sofia’s box and dribble through 4 Sofia players by himself, but he lost possession before he could get any kind of shot off on goal. Fonseca made another change, subbing off Carles Perez (who was clutching his hamstring as he limped off the pitch) for Lorenzo Pellegrini.
The sharpness of Roma’s attack began to pick up as, minutes later, Pedro linked up with Dzeko and Pellegrini to cut open Sofia’s backline and rip off a blocked shot. It was finally the kind of quick, one-touch, team play around Sofia’s area that had been missing all evening. But this game had just ten minutes of regular time left for Roma to find a goal. Roma took a corner, but lost possession and Rick Karsdorp was forced into muscling a Sofia player to the ground to snuff out the danger, picking up an identical booking to Bruno Peres earlier in the game, for a similarly professional foul.
Roma once again lost the ball under the same circumstances minutes later, forcing Gonzalo Villar to haul down a Sofia player for another professional foul and booking. Though Sofia were incensed that the referee didn’t play the advantage on this one. A minute later and Roma again lost possession under the very same circumstances, but this time Villar was adjudged to have won the ball back cleanly, before feeding Rick Karsdorp clean through on the right flank with only a sliding Zanev steaming in to send Karsdorp to the ground.
And now Zanev was booked, followed moments later by Sofia’s keeper Busatto getting booked for time-wasting in this late flurry of yellow cards, but there were only five minutes left on the clock.
Then Roma worked another chance from the right side, with Bryan Cristante playing a through-ball to Pedro, who cut the ball back across the face of the goal to the far side for Dzeko, but the Bosnian couldn’t connect with Pedro’s pass rolling off the top of his foot, and the chance went begging. Was that the moment gone by? Sofia reacted by killing some more time, subbing off Sankhare and Vion for Turitsov and Ahmadev.
Five minutes of extra time were announced around an empty Stadio Olimpico, in a game where Roma saw a lion’s share 62% of possession but were mired at 0-0 on the scoreline. And that was how the game finished, after yet another Bryan Cristante giveaway of possession in the middle of the pitch that released CSKA onto another break, this time with Cristante having to chase down his own loss of possession, since every other Roma player around him was on a yellow card from hauling Sofia players down. Full time.
We mentioned how much room for error the Giallorossi have been given in this Europa League group, so the goalless draw to Sofia isn’t a disaster. Plus CSKA have come off a bad run in their domestic league and a change of coach, so this game was their chance to make a point about turning their own season around.
That being said, there are few goal chances to reflect on from the ninety minutes just gone by. There are probably more Roma fouls on Sofia to talk about, in truth. Cluj drew their home game 1-1 with Young Boys this round, so they top the table on the same number of points with second-placed Roma. It’ll be down to Cluj and Roma for dominance of this group on Matchday 3.
In the meantime, we go back to Serie A action this weekend, where Roma will welcome Fiorentina to the Olimpico on Sunday afternoon.
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