No matter where you looked, this match was hyped up as an early season top of the table clash. With Roma and Sassuolo both in the middle of a five or six club race for the top four, today's six-pointer would have given either side a tremendous boost in their pursuit of Champions League football next season. Through nine matches, the Neroverdi remained one of the season's best storylines, sitting in a surprising third place with roughly 25% of the season in the books.
Of course, their defeat to Napoli not withstanding, Roma have been one of the hottest teams in the league as well, winning six of their last seven matches in all competitions and came into this match just one point behind third place Sassuolo.
The stakes don't really get much higher in a week 10 fixture, but the fates seemed to be conspiring against Roma ahead of this afternoon kickoff. In addition to a litany of injury concerns, mother nature decided to dump on the Giallorossi today, drenching the pitch at the Olimpico. Even with the surface tarped prior to kickoff, the grass at the Olimpico was noticeably damp, particularly in the wide areas where every toe drag produced a geyser of water bursting from the surface.
Not ideal circumstances when facing a club like Sassuolo that tends to dominate possession and lull opponents into a slumber before striking. But Sassuolo took a bit of a different approach out the gate, forcing Antonio Mirante into a save in the opening moments of the match.
Despite Sassuolo's ball dominance, Roma found a few half chances in the early portions of this match, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan squandering an opportunity on a 5th minute break away, firing his shot wide of the post. Pedro would follow up the Mkhitaryan miss in the 10th minute, firing a left footer over the bar from the edge of the 18.
With Sassuolo holding nearly 60% of the possession in the first half, Roma did surprisingly well with their scant possession, firing five shots at Gianluca Pegolo while actually limiting the Neroverdi to two attempts at their end.
The wet surface was certainly an issue, particularly in the wide areas where the drainage wasn't quite as effective, but Roma struggled to find any consistency in attack, trading off 90 second spurts of brilliant buildup for large swaths of passive play and/or speculative long balls, though Lorenzo Pellegrini played a few accurate balls over the top.
Given the possession battle, the pitch conditions, and the near misses, this match was starting to look like your typical rain soaked draw in the making, but as the match hit the 40th minute, the wheels came off.
With Sassuolo surging up the pitch, Pedro committed what he thought was a tactical foul on Maxime Lopez—a subtle clutch/barge of the shoulder to halt his progress—but was actually booked by referee Fabio Maresca; Pedro's second yellow of the match. And, as a result, he was sent off for accumulated yellows, leaving Roma high and dry with ten men for the next 50 minutes.
Despite the shock of it all, Roma remained remarkably composed and actually took the lead...for a moment.
With Sassuolo wasting a chance deep in Roma's territory, the Giallorossi sprung into action, firing the ball up the length of the pitch to Edin Dzeko, who then dribbled towards the area and played a square ball to Pellegrini on his right. Roma's #7 then played the ball back over to Dzeko but the ball was deflected, eventually finding its way to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. From there, Micki buried it in the back of the net to give Roma a shocking 1-0 lead.
But, as Roma celebrated their good fortune, Maresca was summoned to the VAR booth and eventually disallowed the goal, claiming that Dzeko committed a foul on the loose ball, sticking his leg out and impeding the progress of a Sassuolo defender just before Mkhitaryan's shot.
And that wasn't even the end of the chaos. While the first half carried on for several more minutes, once the whistle blew, Paulo Fonesca ran over to Maresca to voice his displeasure for the Pedro decision and the disallowed goal and was actually sent off after the whistle blew and after the broadcasts had gone to a commercial break.
So, to recap: massive match, torrential downpour, missed chances, little possession, Pedro sent off, coach sent off, disallowed goal.
Showing no hesitancy, Roma came right out and attacked Sassuolo to start the second frame, with Pellegrini playing a great lofted cross into the area that was begging to be smashed home by Max Kumbulla, and even Dzeko, but wound up sailing helplessly across the goal mouth.
That aggression continued in the early phases of the second half, as Roma fired an additional five shots at Sassuolo in the first 10 minutes of the second half, with Edin Dzeko coming a goalpost away from giving Roma a lead in the 58th minute.
Despite being down a man, Roma would continue to apply pressure on Sassuolo and found another chance at goal when Rick Karsdorp found Dzeko at the edge of the box. With Dzeko circling back to his left to shake a defender, he then fired a left-footed shot just past the post.
Sassuolo would quickly hit back and found the back of the net when Lukas Haraslin slipped into the seam in-between Kumbulla and Cristante, firing a laser past a leaping Mirante. However, despite that miraculous effort, Harslin's celebrations were quickly halted as he was judged a shade offside by VAR.
The Giallorossi would counter almost immediately when Pellegrini dispossessed Sassuolo deep in Roma territory, leaving the ball for Mkhitaryan to amble up the pitch. Mkhitaryan then played the ball to Dzeko on the left, who fired a quick shot at the near post, which was easily turned away; he may have had options across the face of goal but seemingly liked his chances at the near post better.
Pellegrini was actually injured on that tackle attempt and was swapped out for Amadou Diawara in the 82nd minute. About this same time, the referee and/or VAR missed a rather blatant handball in the box by Sassuolo, with the ball striking the wrist of a Neroverdi defender as he was turning to deflect a ball—no call and no VAR review at all, adding further controversy to a match that needed none.
Nuno Campos would make two more subs as the match wound down, swapping out Dzeko for Borja Mayoral and Kumbulla for Juan Jesus. Neither really had time to factor into the match, which played to a scoreless draw after four minutes of stoppage time.
All Roma's best laid plans (and most of our match predictions) were laid to waste the minute Pedro was sent off in the 40th minute, not to mention Paul Fonseca five minutes later, but despite seeing only 46% of the ball and being a man down, Roma were far more aggressive this evening, firing 14 shots on goal to Sassuolo's six, while also drawing 12 corners to Sassuolo's five.
Losing a player is one thing, but it's quite another to then lose your manager in one fell swoop; that kind of sudden upheaval can breed chaos and confusion on the pitch. So the fact that Roma were not only able to wrest a point from this match, but arguably play better than their full-strength opponents was remarkable.
There was no let-up from Roma in the second half, and in fact, their shot output increased more than three-fold without Pedro on the pitch, while their defense didn't look stretched, tired, or out of sorts; they did well to effectively remove Domenico Berardi, Jeremie Boga and Filip Djuricic from this match, who combined for zero shots, zero key passes and only four dribbles between them.
On any other day, there may have been an upset in the cards for Roma, but considering the weather, the referee decisions, the red cards to Pedro and Fonseca, we have to be pleased with the results tonight, and doubly so with Roma's effort; they arguably played better down a man than they did at full strength. Roma limited Sassuolo to 57% possession, four points below their average mark, and prevented (with only 10 men, mind you) Sassuolo's usual second half surges.
Bundle all that together, my friends, and you're seeing the fruits of a well-coached team. With a point from this match, Roma will end the weekend no worse than sixth, depending on the outcome of Crotone vs. Napoli later today.
A trip to Bulgaria on Thursday to face CSKA Sofia. Roma are already through to the next round and won the group, so you or I might be able to suit up for that one.
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