After seeing their first-half lead over Atalanta disappear like dust in the wind over the weekend, Roma needed a win—any kind of win—over Cagliari today to right the ship ahead of the holiday break. Losing two straight matches wouldn't be the end of the world, but can you imagine how the Romaverse would have reacted with nothing to do over the holidays but stew over a swift and sudden two-match losing skid? Yikes.
One look at the headline tells you that wasn't the case, but the match started off with some head-scratching decision from Paulo Fonseca, who chose to start Pedro for the 12th time in 14 Serie A matches, despite a pretty noticeable dip in form over this past several appearances. And with Leonardo Spinazzola out due to injury, Fonseca opted to play Bruno Peres on the left flank rather than Riccardo Calafiori, who many presumed would get his first start after signing a new contract extension.
Those decisions would factor into the match eventually, but Roma overcame some early sluggishness to grab a lead.
Jordan Veretout: 11th Minute (Roma 1, Cagliari 0)
Lindo gol de Veretout para poner a Roma arriba vs. Cagliari en el Olímpico.— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) December 23, 2020
Pedro rechazó, Dzeko la bajó y pasó de pecho (calidad), Veretout tocó en mitad de cancha (y picó hasta el área rival), Mkhitaryan cambió de frente, Karsdorp mandó el centro y Jordan la embocó de 9. pic.twitter.com/W50rmEkbPj
The first 10 minutes of this match were pretty dull as both clubs poked and prodded each other's defensive setups, but this goal actually stemmed from Cagliari fomenting the game's first real attacking move. After deflecting a Cagliari cross, which in turn took a couple of deflections in Roma’s box, the Giallorossi hit the visitors on a quick counter, with Rick Karsdorp playing a cross in from the right flank (after some great holdup and switches of play from Dzeko and Mkhitaryan), which was brilliantly redirected by Gonzalo Villar into the box. From there, Veretout met the ball on an in-between hop and bounced it over Alessio Cragno.
The ensuing 15 minutes didn't see much by way of genuine chances on goal, but Roma were incredibly poised in all facets of the game, not allowing a single Cagliari attempt on goal and showcasing some of the best buildup play we've seen all season long. Many times throughout the first half, Roma pinged the ball back and forth between Mkhitaryan, Dzeko and Cristante (among others), keeping the Cagliari defense off-kilter with purposeful back passes and well-timed switches of play. It was brilliant to see, even if it didn't produce any cracks at goal.
As it seemingly always does, the match took on new life as it crept towards the half-hour mark. In the 30th minute, Roma had a clear cut chance at goal off a Pedro free-kick. Taking the setpiece from the left edge of the area, Pedro played an in-swinging cross that found Cristante in stride, with the perfect weight, trajectory, and height to give Cristante a free header at the far post, only to be denied by a leaping Alessio Cragno, who pushed the ball over the bar with his left hand. Cragno would make another spectacular save off the ensuing corner, denying Roma twice in the span of 60 seconds.
The match evened out in the final 15 minutes, with Cagliari finally coming to life, but Roma managed to close out the half seeing nearly 60% of the ball and limiting Cagliari to one official attempt on goal. It wasn't the crispest half of football we’ve seen from Roma lately, but they were calm and composed and did well to keep Cagliari’s defense off-balance, passing the ball on both axes to escape and avoid pressure in the transition areas.
With a slim one-goal lead and the memories of Josip Ilicic still haunting us, Roma fans were understandably nervous as the second half began. And with Pedro misplacing a simple pass straight away, calamity seemed like a certainty.
Pedro’s poor play continued in the 51st minute when he wasted a chance off a counter-attack. After Bryan Cristante made a last-man tackle on a Cagliari possession, Pedro quickly found himself on a clean break but wasted the chance, failing to beat Cragno on a virtual one-v-one attempt.
Roma would continue to dance with the devil, wasting another counter-attacking attempt in the 56th minute following a turnover forced by Jordan Veretout. While Henrikh Mkhitaryan did well to corral the rebound and drive towards the edge of Cagliari's area, rather than playing the ball off to either side, he fired an attempt wide of goal.
With a slim lead to protect and the misses piling up, it was only a matter of time before Cagliari came knocking at Roma's door. And with two near misses by Giovanni Simeone, it seemed like Cagliari were tearing a page out of Atalanta's playbook.
And they'd soon find their breakthrough just shy of the hour mark...
Joao Pedro: 59th Minute (Roma 1, Cagliari 1)
Roma probably could have stopped this play, but we have to give credit to Cagliari here. Pedro made a great run in front of Mancini, and with Nandez pulling Kumbulla in the other direction ever so slightly, it gave Pedro enough time and space in-between Roma's two defenders to fire off a shot, beating Mirante low and away. Without Nandez’s run in the opposite direction, Kumbulla likely would have closed out on Pedro; it's so often the small things that make the difference, and Nandez's subtle play certainly paved the way for this goal.
Simeone nearly made his mark again in the 61st minute, finding space in Roma's area, firing a header off the post, sparing Roma the ignominy of another second-half collapse. Sensing his side's frustration and fatigue, Fonseca made two changes in the 63rd minute, bringing on Lorenzo Pellegrini and Roger Ibañez for Pedro and Marash Kumbulla, respectively.
It proved to be a brilliant ploy by Fonseca as Ibañez chipped in to reclaim Roma's lead...
Edin Dzeko: 72nd Minute (Roma 2, Cagliari 1)
Vamos loco! Dzeko siempre ahí, para empujarla, pero había que estar ahí. Gran centro de Karsdorp y mejor cambio de frente de Ibáñez. Los dos goles se abrieron con pases largos. pic.twitter.com/45o0ot9863— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) December 23, 2020
Roger Ibañez started the play and Edin Dzeko finished it, but the star of this play was Karsdorp, who chased down Ibañez's long ball and held off the defender while he drove towards the goal line before playing the ball across the face of goal to set up Dzeko's 113th goal. Great ball from Roger, great effort and brilliant cross from Karsdorp and a simple tap-in from Dzeko; well done all around.
It wasn't all good news following this goal as Mirante limped off the pitch with an apparent hamstring injury, forcing Fonseca to burn a sub on Pau Lopez; Chris Smalling would also enter the match at this point too, replacing Cristante in the 73rd minute.
Gianluca Mancini: 77th Minute (Roma 3, Cagliari 1)
Al toque, Mancini hizo el 3-1 y respiramos. Centro de Pellegrini y pase de cabeza de Smalling. Daje! pic.twitter.com/NuNja0yn5u— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) December 23, 2020
Roma would put the match to bed with less than 15 minutes remaining. Lorenzo Pellegrini played a looping corner from the left side of the pitch, finding Chris Smalling at the far post. Smalling, with no chance at goal himself, wisely headed the ball back into the area, where he found Mancini on the doorstep of the goal for an easy tap-in goal.
The final moments of the match weren't without issue, however. After seeing a fourth goal wasted by a poor header from Borja Mayoral deep in the match, Cagliari won a penalty in the 91st minute when Joao Pedro was clipped in the box by Gonzalo Villar. Pau Lopez guessed correctly on the PK, but Joao Pedro's attempt was simply struck too well and placed too precisely to give Lopez a chance at stopping it.
It was academic in the end, as Roma survived four minutes of stoppage time to end 2020 on a high note.
They gave us a bit of a scare to start the second half (and to end it, quite frankly), but Roma weathered Cagliari's second-half surge to walk away with a rather convincing 3-2 victory, albeit one that came with an unnecessarily nervy ending. We can quibble with the pace of play sometimes, and even Fonseca's lineup decisions (Pedro wasn't great and why not start Calafiori in a match like this?) but the numbers don't lie: Roma won virtually every statistical battle tonight and could have easily had four or five goals were it not for Cragno's heroics.
It wasn't the most superlative performance from Roma this year, but closing out the year with a victory, even one fraught with anxiety, is better than the alternative, right?
Nothing. Enjoy the holidays responsibly. And if you're doing some last-minute shopping, I look good in blue and wear a large.
Man of the match?
This poll is closed
Future Roma Keeper Alessio Cragno