With not a cloud in sight and the sun beaming down on glowing green pitch at the Stadio Tre Fontane in Rome, the stage was set for a beautiful afternoon of football contested between two beautiful but frustrated clubs. Harboring genuine title aspirations for the first time in their three year existence, Roma have been waylaid by some poor results in front of goal, slipping down to a frustrating fifth place after six rounds of play. Not to be outdone, Fiorentina—who were arguably closer to title contention than Roma—have seen their hopes dashed thanks to a suspect defense that conceded 12 goals through six matches.
This match wouldn't instantly propel either club back into title contention, but the stage was set. With a victory today, Roma had a chance to climb up to fourth place, potentially closing the gap behind second place to a mere four points. For Fiorentina, the stakes were almost as high, as a win would have vaulted them over Roma on the table.
On the men's side of the aisle, we've spent a lot of time discussing the merits of Paulo Fonseca's A-Team (the lineup he nominally uses each week during Serie A) and his B-Team (the predominantly backup oriented Europa League squad), and while Fonseca disavowed that notion, you can't argue with the facts: he's definitely playing both sides of the table.
Roma haven't started their Coppa Italia adventure yet, so there is no such dichotomy on the women's side, but Betty Bavagnoli definitely trotted out her prime lineup today:
With the possible exception of Rachele Baldi in goal, this is Roma's best lineup front-to-back. You have two nimble and dynamic full-backs in Elisa Bartoli and Angelica Soffia, two astute and silky smooth center-backs in Allyson Swaby and Tecla Pettenuzzo, creativity in the middle through Andressa and Manuela Giugliano, with Andrine Hegerberg doing all the dirty work in possession, while the front trident of Annamaria Serturini, Paloma Lázaro and Agnese Bonfantini is about as dangerous as they come.
Bavagnoli's prime time lineup was quickly rendered moot by the pristine finishing of Fiorentina hitwoman Daniela Sabatino, who collected her seventh goal of the season in the 11th minute, slipping (which might be a generous term—she waltzed) behind Roma's defense on a set-piece, tucking the ball past the oncoming Baldi to give the Viola an early lead.
It truly was a magnificent finish from Sabatino, but one can't help but think Baldi could have been a tad more aggressive coming off her line. Nevertheless, Roma pressed on, sticking to their plan: build from the back through Giugliano and quickly exploit Serturini's athletic advantages on the left. And Roma wouldn't have to wait long for this approach to pay dividends.
In the 19th minute with Fiorentina attempting a counter attack of their own, Giugliano pulled off what can only be described as the most nonchalant/badass tackle you've ever seen. Sitting dead center in midfield, and with Fiorentina coming right at her, Giugliano calmly stuck her foot in and stripped the ball from the defender. It's almost hard to put to words, but she side skirted the dribbler like a bullfighter, taking the ball away without even making contact.
From there, Giugliano immediately sprinted up the pitch and had two outlet options: Serturini to her left and Lázaro to her immediate right. After driving for a few yards, Giugliano slipped the ball to Serturini on the left, who then quickly crossed the ball to the far post on the right, where Lázaro was ready and waiting to head home the equalizer. It was a bang-bang play made entirely possible by Giugliano's incredible technique, presence of mind, and vision.
The two Italian internationals nearly doubled Roma's lead in the 33rd minute when Giugliano again found Serturini on the left. Rather than crossing it this time, Serturini cut in to her right and attempted to bend the ball towards the right post—a move we've seen her execute countless times—but her shot was lacking just that last little bit of swerve and bounced helplessly past the right hand post.
Serturini had another half chance shortly before half-time, but as it stood the two sides went into the locker room level on goals, though you'd be hard pressed to say the Viola were playing as well as Roma, who were winning nearly every 50/50 ball, passing and moving with greater speed and efficiency and had more attempts on goal.
Bavagnoli didn't make any changes at the half and Roma were all the better for it, picking up right where they left off in the first half. In the 54th minute, the Giallorosse came excruciatingly close to taking the lead when Agnese Bonfantini's left-footed curler from 20 yards out clanged off the cross bar. Despite the miss, it was a good signal of intent from Roma's right-winger, who had been overshadowed by Serturini to that point.
Fiorentina would claim their own woodwork just past the hour mark when Sabatino struck the upper 90 of Roma's post—a miss they would soon rue.
In the 66th minute, Serturini struck what will surely be a goal of the year candidate come spring.
The club's new broadcast format makes it exceedingly difficult for me to screen record and GIF things in real time (and the playback option has been removed), but trust me when I say it: this goal was a jaw dropper. Serturini lashed at one from 20-25 yards out on the left, giving it enough weight and spin to drop it gently into the upper right hand corner. It was a blink and you miss it kind of shot, but it was yet another in a long line of highlight worthy goals from Roma's 22-year-old forward.
Roma would continue to press their advantages as the match crawled towards its conclusion, with Bavagnoli making several substitutions including Lindsey Thomas, Alice Corelli and Claudia Ciccotti.
With 10 minutes remaining, it seemed like Roma were going to gut out a narrow 2-1 win, but then disaster struck. The Viola won a free kick deep on Roma's right flank—the kind that might as well have been a corner kick—and rather than flinging in a speculative cross into the area, Tatiana Bonetti went straight for goal, dropping a sublime effort into the upper left hand corner, just past the leaping arms of Rachele Baldi.
And that, unfortunately, was that. With 10 minutes plus a further three in stoppage, Roma weren't able to find a late winner and walked off the pitch with a disappointing draw.
Roma have now scored eight goals in their past four matches, so complaints about finishing are pretty granular, but this was a prime example of how missed chances can doom you, despite an otherwise exemplary all around effort.
If Serturini could have curled that shot a few degrees more or if Bonfantini's long range effort dipped a few inches sooner, this is a completely different discussion and Roma's lax set-piece defense wouldn't have been an issue. In many respects, that's just the nature of the beast—not every shot goes in and sometimes your opponent just executes better—but at what point do coincidences become trends? Can you constantly dismiss the same concerns over and over again without looking for solutions?
Roma had a chance to reinvigorate their European dreams with a victory today, but once again, their inability to rise to the occasion against a top club was their undoing. They had the lead with 10 minutes to go but thanks to two poor challenges deep in their area (first on Martina Piemonte carrying the ball on the right and then deep in the corner to set up the equalizing free-kick), their efforts were wasted—this was like scoring a 99% on a science test rather than a 100% because you forgot to put meters/second on your answer.
So, rather than closing the gap behind second place to a manageable four to five points, Roma will likely end the weekend six points behind second place AC Milan (or seven points behind Sassuolo if they can upset Juventus). There are still 15 matches remaining, so anything can happen, but by dropping points here Roma have effectively removed any margin of error they may have had against the likes of Juventus, Milan, Sassuolo or even Empoli.
It's not impossible, but these little mistakes—these little moments where they lose focus or fail to execute—are making Roma's job far harder than it should be.
A massive one as Roma travel to Milan on November 15th.