With passage to the Round of 32 long since booked and the top honors in Group A claimed last week, Paulo Fonseca let his freak flag fly today, starting the second-youngest lineup (average of 24 years, 318 days) in Roma's European history. It made for some exciting pre-match discussion but Fonseca wisely rounded out his starting eleven with familiar faces like Federico Fazio, Marash Kumbulla, Bruno Peres, and Pedro, who is getting his week's work in now since he's suspended for Sunday's match against Bologna following his red card performance against Sassuolo last weekend.
With nothing at stake and so many new and/or seldom-used faces in the lineup, we weren't quite sure what to expect from Roma on this rainy Bulgarian evening, but one thing was certain: Sofia wasn't simply going to roll over.
Much like the reverse fixture, where Sofia actually held Roma scoreless, the Bulgarian side was compact, well organized, and willing to make a game of it. And with Roma still feeling out the match, Sofia took advantage of the first opportunity presented to them.
Tiago Rodrigues: 5th Minute (Sofia 1, Roma 0)
While Federico Fazio did well to clear the initial ball out of the area, Sofia simply had the right men in the right spot and were able to quickly recycle possession around the 18-yard-box before getting two cracks at Pietro Boer. But you'll notice how laughably poor their first attempt was—the left-footed swinging shot from Younousse Sankharé, who promptly fell on his ass. Thanks to that miss, the ball soon found its way to the edge of the box to a waiting Tiago Rodrigues, who did well to drill the ball into the back of the net.
With nothing at stake and the cold rain beating down on their beautiful cream kits, Roma seemed to be going through the motions, simply biding time until they could head home, so the ensuing 15 minutes were pretty dreary, but Roma would soon find an equalizer thanks to one of the kids.
Tommaso Milanese: 22nd Minute (Sofia 1, Roma 1)
Milanese may get the headlines on this goal, but the top billing should go to Borja Mayoral, who started the play by springing Bruno Peres down the right flank and then, after tracking the play and giving Peres’ a target in the box, did incredibly well to twist and settle the ball, flicking it on to Milanese, who took his own deft touch before beating the keeper.
Undeterred by Roma's equalizer, Sofia would continue to search for any advantage they could find and nearly struck back in the 30th minute when Tiago found space behind Roma's line, but Boer was quick to come off his line to snuff out the chance.
Sofia's second goal would soon come, but not from a moment of tactical ingenuity but rather a grave error from Amadou Diawara, whose attempt to clear the area practically gifted this goal to the home club.
Ali Sowe: 34th Minute (Sofia 2, Roma 1)
Gol /⚽️ Ali Sowe ⏳ 34’— FootGoalss Hesabını Takip Edin (@FootGoalssTkpEt) December 10, 2020
Cska Sofya 2-1 Roma pic.twitter.com/3Iqp45x6JN
That clip doesn't show the initial error from Diawara, which precipitated the chance, but top marks to Sowe, who went top shelf, leaving Boer with no chance to save this shot.
And that was pretty much all the action for the first half. Roma seemed like they cared about the outcome of this match, but it definitely wasn't a high priority through the first 45 minutes. All told, Roma held two-thirds of the possession but Sofia (obviously) fared better with their measly possession, putting 40% of their shots on target and, of course, capitalizing on one ghastly error from Diawara to reclaim the lead.
Fonseca would start the second half off swapping out Kumbulla for Chris Smalling, who made his long-awaited return from some minor knee issues that caused him to miss the club's last eight matches.
Sensing the error of their lackadaisical ways, Roma played with a greater sense of urgency to start the second half, pressing the issue deep into Sofia territory and nearly scoring an equalizer in the 53rd minute when Perez set-up Mayoral in the area. Borja found a bit of space in the six, slipped his man but probably took one touch too many and was closed out by the keeper. Despite the miss, this quick one-two between Perez and Mayoral was perhaps the best bit of action displayed by Roma all night long.
All those good tidings would be undone moments later when Federico Fazio, in a near carbon copy of Diawara earlier, played a lazy, listless pass back to Boer, which was quickly seized upon by Sowe to push Sofia's lead to 3-1; just a horrific and inexcusable gaffe from Fazio.
As the match crossed the hour mark, Fonseca would dip into his bag of subs again, bringing on Gonzalo Villar and Rick Karsdorp in place of Milanese and Bamba. The ensuing 20 minutes saw plenty of possession for Roma—who really did well to maintain and cycle possession around the edge of the 18—but little in terms of clear cut chances.
Fonseca would make another swap deep into the match, pulling off Bruno Peres for another teenager, Filippo Tripi in the 82nd minute.
Roma would create a half-chance deep into the match when Karsdorp played a great low cross towards the point of the 18-yard box, where it was met simultaneously by Pedro, Perez, and a Sofia defender, producing a clattering three-man challenge. Roma won a free-kick but Perez's attempt sailed well over the bar.
And that was that. Due to the substitutions, the refs added three minutes of stoppage time before the final whistle mercifully sounded.
Roma already won the group and advanced. Whatevs.
In all seriousness, though, what conclusions can we really draw here? Nearly 25% of Fonseca's starting lineup probably don't even know what Y2K means and the pitch was soaked from 90 minutes of rain. Chris Smalling was playing for the first time in well over a month. Pedro looked worn out and tired. Bruno Peres played half the match out of position and Carles Pérez was playing 90 minutes of hero ball.
Tonight was the very definition of a meaningless match, but it was still enjoyable to see Milanese, Bamba, Boer, and Tripi get some minutes with the first team.
Roma faces Bologna on the road on Sunday, while the Europa League Round of 32 draw takes place on Monday the 14th.
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