Just a few weeks ago, Roma's match against Atalanta looked like, not necessarily a title-deciding affair, but certainly a pivotal moment in both club's chase for a Champions League place next season. However, with Roma surging over the past several weeks and Atalanta struggling and dealing with a rift between Alejandro Gomez and Gianpiero Gasperini, what once looked like an epic six-pointer between two top four clubs suddenly became a bit of an old school encounter between a Europe-chasing Roma side and an Atalanta outfit that would be content with a top eight to ten finish.
And Roma wasted little time in supporting that narrative, running out to an early lead thanks to Edin Dzeko's 112th goal in a Roma shirt.
Edin Dzeko: 3rd Minute
Gol!!! Dzeko controló un centro de Mkhitaryan y la mandó a guardar. Toma le gana al Atalanta desde los 3’. Daje!— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) December 20, 2020
While he didn't quite equal Leao's goal six seconds into Milan's match earlier today, Edin Dzeko found the back of the net in the third minute thanks to a lovely low cross from Mkhitaryan. From there, Dzeko settled the ball and took a miniature pause before turning and firing; great presence of mind from Dzeko, but a curious bit of defending from Atalanta, who didn't seem to sense the urgency of the moment. Either way, goal number 112 from Dzeko gave Roma an early lead.
Roma nearly made it two-nil moments later when Leonardo Spinazzola streaked down the left flank, pulling Pierluigi Gollini well off his line (like, all the way to the edge of the box) before attempting a left-footed chip over Gollini's head, which unfortunately struck the outside of the near post. Spinazzola may have had a better angle had he slotted it towards the far post with his right foot; an unexpected opportunity, but a missed one nonetheless.
Atalanta would settle down as the match rushed towards the 15-minute mark, passing and moving with impressive speed and purpose through the neutral areas and into Roma's 18, forcing Chris Smalling, Ibañez, and even Lorenzo Pellegrini into hurried challenges and clearances. Roma were able to weather this period, but it was nevertheless a reminder that Atalanta are always a threat.
With the match getting bogged down in midfield and a pause in action due to an Antonio Mirante injury, the next 15-minutes were somewhat subdued. Things would ratchet up as we pushed past the half-hour mark, though, with Duvan Zupata desperately seeking a penalty as he collided with Gianluca Mancini in the box, which was quickly followed up by a Marten de Roon effort that likely would have produced a goal had he not fired it directly at Mirante.
The final moments of the first half saw Roma pinned back more often than not, as Atalanta continued to hunt for an equalizer, using the speed and technical capabilities of de Roon and Malinovskiy for inspiration. From zero attempts on goal to five in the final 15 minutes, Atalanta closed out the first half with more attacking intent than Roma and would have grabbed an equalizer were it not for a great block from Ibañez on Malinovskiy late in the half.
Roma saved some face during stoppage time when Lorenzo Pellegrini forced Gollini into a stretched save off a free-kick, but some of the attacking/tactical imbalance we saw throughout this half may have been intentional, as Roma were really looking to counter-attack, but the pitch was noticeably tilted in Atalanta's favor during the latter stages of the first half.
Atalanta immediately made their intentions clear when Gasperini brought on Josip Ilicic to start the second half in place of Cristian Romero, who was booked earlier in the first half. But Malinovskiy actually created the first chance of the second half, firing a slicing volley just past the far post—though he likely had Mirante beat, so Roma were lucky (again) not to concede an equalizer.
And so it went for the first 10 minutes of this half: Atalanta were firing on all cylinders, forming tidy passing networks throughout the final third and limiting Roma's chances in reverse. The Giallorossi would finally find a counter-attacking chance just shy of the 55th minute when Pedro—who moments before halted the match due to a knee he took in the lower back—found Veretout with a lovely ball, with the Frenchman firing a spectacular long-range effort, forcing Gollini into a diving save from 25ish yards away.
But the tide would quickly swing back Atalanta's way.
Duvan Zapata: 59th Minute (Atalanta 1, Roma 1)
Atalanta's attacking insistence finally paid off just shy of the hour mark when Josip Ilicic set up Duvan Zapata in Roma's penalty area, threading a pocket pass to Zapata who gave Mirante absolutely no chance, blasting the ball into the back of the net. Roma had an opportunity to clear it away when Atalanta lost possession at the edge of the 18, but Ilicic pounced on it and played a beautiful ball through to Zapata, who fired in the blink of an eye. You'll also notice fine work from Freuler to set up the play to begin with, skirting around two Roma defenders before centering the ball towards Malinovskiy.
Fonseca would counter by swapping out Spinazzola for Bruno Peres; a curious change when you consider how much Roma were struggling in the final third and lacking punch on either side of Dzeko.
But Fonseca's curious substitutions were quickly rendered moot.
Robin Gosens: 70th Minute (Atalanta 2, Roma 1)
With Roma getting outworked and outclassed all over the pitch, Josip Ilicic delivered the killing blow in the 70th minute, setting up Robin Gosens with a right to left cross into the box. With Karsdorp's feet planted on the ground and Mirante miss-timing his punch, Gosens had an easy look at the goal.
Atalanta would officially pull the plug on Roma two minutes later...
Luis Muriel: 72nd Minute (Atalanta 3, Roma 1)
Luis Muriel definiendo a lo Ronaldo Nazario. pic.twitter.com/8boYnZmzLK— Fútbol Vertical (@futbol_vertical) December 20, 2020
Here we see Roma struggling to break through Atalanta's neutral zone press, and while they did well to keep Atalanta scrambling for a few seconds, you'll notice Luis Muriel, who had been on the pitch for all of 50 seconds at that point, intercepting a back-pass from Jordan Veretout and racing in-between two Roma defenders before breezing past Mirante to put the icing on the Atalanta cake.
Fonseca would make two more subs in the 74th and 81st minutes, bringing on Bryan Cristante and Carles Perez for Pedro and Verteout, respectively. He'd add a third swap as well, adding Gonzalo Villar to the mix in place of Pellegrini.
But it was all too little too late and the man of the match finished the victory with a flourish...
Josip Ilicic: 85th Minute (Atalanta 4, Roma 1)
Ilicic would add another one to the highlight reel in the 85th minute, dribbling past Ibanez and Peres like a hot knife through butter, then avoiding Smalling's challenge in the box, pushing Mirante towards the far post in the process, before slotting it in at the near post. Just a sensational effort from a player who can only be described as a Roma killer.
And that was all she wrote. Mercifully, there was no stoppage time for this match.
Things certainly started off well enough for Roma, grabbing a lead in the third minute and nearly going up 2-0 moments later, but Paulo Fonseca's decision to focus on counter-attacking was ultimately Roma's undoing. The ESPN commentators were keen to paint this as a “what would Atalanta do without Papu Gomez” story, but Atalanta saw more of the ball, passed it more accurately, and peppered Mirante with 12 shots; they didn't need Gomez this evening, Roma's passive approach was all the inspiration Atalanta needed.
By ceding control of the match to Atalanta, it was only a matter of time before they broke Roma's backline. But once Gasperini's group knotted the match at one, Fonseca didn't do Roma any favors, waiting until the 66th minute to make a change...a defensive change; a decision that looked more ominous with every errant pass through midfield and every lumbering step from Dzeko and Pedro, who were noticeably exhausted as the match moved towards the final 20 minutes or so.
Given that he's essentially been the face of Atalanta's turnaround over the past few years, labeling this match as a tale of Papu's absence was certainly understandable, but it was a slap in the face to Ilicic, who completely changed the tenor (and the outcome) of this match in only 45 minutes. With only 42 touches and 26 passes, Ilicic was nearly as effective as Roma's entire attacking unit, and in half the time no less. Ilicic pulled off three dribbles, hit on three of five long-balls, dished out two assists, and added a splendid goal of his own as a capper. If you were nervous when he came on to start the second half, consider your fears justified.
Depending on the outcome of Lazio vs. Napoli later today, Roma may be no worse for the wear on the table, but this was further evidence in the mounting case against Fonseca vs. Italy's big clubs.
Roma closeout 2020 with a home fixture against Cagliari on the 23rd.