With everything to play for this week against Atalanta, Paulo Fonseca opted to make several key changes to a Roma side in desperate need of a spark. Bryan Cristante's suspension gave Fonseca license to tinker with his squad, changing pieces in every section of the pitch. Rolling with a 4-1-4-1, Fonseca placed Gianluca Mancini just in front of the defense with Federico Fazio taking his spot on the backline, while Lorenzo Pellegrini played in a more reserved role, making way for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to serve as the de facto number ten this evening. Up top, Edin Dzeko was flanked by Justin Kluivert and Diego Perotti.
It was a surprising number of changes given the importance of this match, but Fonseca had to do something, right? Roma have been reeling for the past few matches, desperately seeking new sources of inspiration, so leaning back on Mancini the midfielder or putting Miki in the hole could have done the trick.
But this was no gimme match. With only three points between them, Italy's final Champions League spot was likely at stake in this match as an Atlanta victory would have put Roma six points behind their Bergamo counterparts.
It's still a bit hard to adjust to this new reality in which Roma are a deserved underdog against Atalanta, but the importance of every touch through the first 15 minutes or so was akin to Roma's bygone Champions League matches against Barcelona. Playing against such a highly tuned and well-trained opponent, there is practically zero room for error or complacency; one poor touch or missed assignment and Gasperini's men can put you flat on the canvas.
Despite their contrasting performances of late, Roma did well enough to hang in there with Atalanta through the first half. I wouldn't dare say they were playing as well as the home club, but they were at least averting disaster: Pau Lopez made a charging save off his line on Papu Gomez while valiant efforts from Rafael Toloi and Illicic narrowly missed their targets.
And just when it seemed like the first 45 minutes would end without either side finding the back of the net, luck final broke Roma's way:
Edin Dzeko: 45th Minute (Atalanta 0, Roma 1)
Edin Dzeko had the good fortune to be next to Palomino when he inexplicably coughed up the ball, but full marks to the Bosnian Batistuta for holding off the defender and dribbling some twenty yards to the goal before burying it in the back of the net.
We've seen what happens to Roma when they concede a late goal before the stroke of half-time, and for once they got the bounce. It may have been an undeserved lead, but it was a lead nonetheless.
Atalanta are an extremely entertaining side for neutral observers, as the ESPN commentators so often mentioned throughout this match, and a large part of their “must see” value stems from their ability to score goals in bunches...and you know where this is going.
Palomino would atone for his error, leveling the match in the 50th minute, but Gasperini's next move proved to be genius. Moments...literally...after bringing on Mario Pasalic for Duvan Zupata, Pasalic struck a beautiful lofted volley with his right foot, beating Pau Lopez from 15-yards out. It was a stunning goal—one of those ones you knew immediately was going to settle deftly in the back of the net—and it came on Pasalic's first touch of the match.
Roma's unexpected 1-0 lead quickly became a predictable 2-1 deficit—things have gotten that bad for Roma in 2020. There was simply no pattern or logic to their attacking play tonight and, outside of Chris Smalling, no real sense of urgency at the back.
I wish I could write more, but the match was really that simple. Atalanta were well-organized, dangerous, and inspired, while Roma looked confused, apathetic, and completely toothless in all phases of the game.
Atalanta deserve to be in the Champions League, Roma do not. It may still feel weird, but the boys from Bergamo are just a better club. Full stop.
With this defeat, Roma now have three losses in a row and six losses in their last nine matches; 2020 has been a *%!#$ for the Giallorossi. The worst part, however, is their body language; they look like they just don't give a shit. Did they really look like a club fighting for the Champions League tonight or just a bunch of guys waiting for vacation? The moment something goes wrong, they hang their heads or throw their hands up in frustration, seemingly waiting for that final whistle to end their misery.
We've seen this from Roma sides before, but Daniele De Rossi ain't walking through that door, folks; there is no general, no leader, or no hero coming to the rescue. This is who Roma are right now and no one involved seems to have any clue how to lift them out of this funk, and until they do, we can expect more nights like this.
Roma return to the Europa League when they host Gent on the 20th.