With nothing short of a victory suiting their ambitions for second place, Roma were always facing a tough away tip to Empoli. Despite their eighth place standing on the table, Empoli have proven to be a challenge for the league's best sides, scoring a victory over Milan and playing Juventus to a pair of one-goal defeats. They may not have the glitz and glamour of the top four sides, but Empoli won't lay down for anyone. Take that formula and throw it in the middle of a muddy...and I mean muddy...pitch and Roma's task was twice as hard this afternoon.
With the pitch at the Stadio Monteboro playing host to some sort of tractor-pull pre match, the pace of play was muted, particularly down the right flank, which appeared to have absorbed most of the abuse. This was among the worst pitches I've ever seen; the players were caked in mud the minute the match started.
To combat this, Betty Bavagnoli continued her tinkering ways, trying out a new central pairing and reinserting Claudia Ciccotti into the midfield:
Despite the lousy conditions on the field, the women in white (which was the worst possible kit to wear under these circumstances) dictated the pace and location of play. Building out from the back through Tecla Pettenuzzo and Petronella Ekroth, who was making her first Roma start, the Giallorosse seemed content to let Kaja Erzen, Andressa and Agnese Bonfantini see most of the ball through the first 45 minutes.
Despite the loose footing, Bonfantini and Amalie Thestrup were able to carve out space in and around Empoli’s defense, the problem was simply that, due to the loose footing and wet pitch, it was extraordinarily difficult to connect through balls to their darting runs.
However, as is often the case in matches such as these, there were plenty of free-kick opportunities, including a golden one towards the end of the half for Manuela Giugliano, which, unfortunately, was just off the mark.
Sloppy pitches slow down play and make it hard for an uptempo team like Roma to truly play their style of football, but they also make life difficult for keepers, with the slurry of mud and grass making it difficult to spring off the line, to say nothing of holding onto a loose ball.
And, as luck would have it, this is precisely how Roma found their breakthrough. Thanks to several stoppages of play, the referee tacked on two additional minutes at the end of the half. With Ekroth unfurling a shot from the left of the area, Bonfantini rushed into the box playing a low effort at the keeper, one she was unable to corral, leaving a juicy rebound to Lindsey Thomas, who had no problem tapping it in, giving Roma a one goal lead just before the stroke of half-time.
Roma came out with guns blazing in the second half, hunting for a second goal from the word go. Following largely the same pattern as the first half—focusing on the right flank—Roma's best chance of the half would come on the opposite side of the pitch. With Lindsey Thomas charging after a loose ball on the left flank, she was quickly and decisively taken down by an Empoli defender, earning a penalty in the process.
Andressa stepped up to the spot and aimed for the lower left hand corner, only she seemingly aimed too well, striking the post rather than tucking it into the corner. The ball then caromed off the post and fell right in front of Elisa Bartoli, who, in a rush to beat the defender to the ball, just got a bit underneath it and lofted it over the cross bar.
It was a miss Roma would come to rue. In the 66th minute a seemingly innocuous challenge nearly upended Roma's fight for second place, as Roma loanee Flaminia Simonetti dispossessed Claudia Ciccotti in the center of the park. It didn't look like much in the moment, but Simonetti just bullied her former teammate (and fellow Roman) off the ball and immediately charged up the right flank, eventually earning a corner, which she then served up on a platter for Marta Varriale, knotting the match at one apiece.
With AC Milan mounting a comeback against Inter Milan, this was a nightmare scenario for Roma. Betty Bavagnoli would make three changes in the final 25 minutes of the match, swapping out Ciccotti for Andrine Hegerberg, Agnese Bonfantini for Annamaria Serturini and perhaps the most muddy player on the pitch, Kaja Erzen, for Angelica Soffia.
Roma would press on for the final 20 minutes of the match, as Serturini provided a noticeable injection of speed and urgency into the match. She may not have the same top-end speed as Bonfantini, but her acceleration and agility is off the charts; she was able to create space where there wasn't any.
And it didn't take long before she made her mark in this match. Following a ghastly turnover from Simonetti deep in Roma territory, Tecla Pettenuzzo played a beautiful left-to-right diagonal ball to find Serturini on the right hand side of the pitch.
From there, Serturini didn't waste a beat, immediately blazing down the right flank. She then she flashed a ball across the face of the goal, one that Hegerberg and Ekroth flailed at but luckily missed because waiting at the far post was Lindsey Thomas, who tapped home the eventual match winner in the 86th minute.
Roma would hold down the fort for the remaining four minutes of the match, securing three absolutely essential points.
We can’t stress enough just how vital it was for Roma to win today. With AC Milan and Fiorentina each grabbing victories this week, Roma risked falling five points off the second place pace had they dropped points this afternoon.
Bavagnoli's starting lineup was still a head scratcher—why Ciccotti got the start ahead of Hegerberg or Greggi is beyond me—but her tactics were spot on outside of that. It didn't take long for Roma to find a weakness in Empoli's defense—their complete lack of quality down the left—and with the pressure provided by Bonfantini, Erzen, Andressa and later Serturini, Roma were able to the Empoli defense on their heels all afternoon.
It was a gutty performance under horrible playing conditions and if ever there were a match that could propel Roma to greater heights, this could be it. Trudging it out in the mud and getting a last minute goal could be the shot in the arm Roma needs to continue their fight for second place.
Roma continue their Coppa Italia campaign against the San Marino Academy on Friday the 7th of February.