Betty Bavagnoli repeated her new 4-3-3 formation for this away trip to the Stadio Ricci, reasoning that what wasn’t broken didn’t need fixing. Rosalia Pippitone was the sole change in Roma’s lineup,with no official word on why regular goalkeeper Camelia Caesar had dropped to the bench. Maybe Pippitone was simply owed an appearance.
Meanwhile, Tecla Pettenuzzo returned to the stomping ground of her old club; the moment was a mini-coronation of her rise to Roma first-team player at the heart of Bavagnoli’s backline.
Sassuolo had already engineered two wins against high-flying Juventus and Fiorentina, defeating both giants in their own home. This Neroverde side, led by legendary number 9 Daniela, were more than capable of throwing a spanner in Roma’s season here.
Only 2 minutes elapsed before Roma found the breakthrough, with Agnese Bonfantini immediately finding the opening goal. In my eternal lack of wisdom, I’d gotten out of bed a few minutes too late to catch the goal live, but the assist came from Allyson Swaby - of all people - pinging in a cross from the right wing that was met by Bonfantini, on the far side, to tap past Sassuolo’s keeper for 1-0.
Agnese Bonfantini: 4th Minute (Sassuolo 0, Roma 1)
From the 7th minute onward, I tuned in to Sassuolo trying to press Roma like mad and trap the Giallorosse with double-teams all up and down the wings. When Roma were caught playing it too slow at the back, Sassuolo also pressed high up with relentless determination.
Perhaps for that reason alone, Roma’s midfield three decided to rotate and give Sassuolo no references for tight marking in the middle.
Giugliano began to relieve the pressure on Roma with some direct football. Her pinpoint long-balls made Sassuolo think twice about the high press. First Roma’s number 10 hit a perfect pass to put Thomas through to the left-side byline and, a few minutes later, Giugliano hit an exquisite 40-yard pass to release Bonfantini into space on the opposite wing.
The commentator went nuts over this pass; Giugliano not only hit it with the perfect power but put some designer-made counter-spin on the ball to make sure it would bounce back into Bonfantini’s path while the Roma forward ran onto it at full speed. But Giugliano wasn’t done there.
She soon began to swap positions with Hegerberg and find a lot of space on the left flank, for Roma to hit the ball to her instead. And the versatility had the intended effect on changing the nature of the game. Sassuolo began to drop deep, with Roma now creating chances on Sassuolo’s goal.
In the 35th minute, a Sassuolo corner went awry and the ball came to Bonfantini inside Roma’s half, seizing a chance to launch a counter attack. Bonfantini had time to put Giugliano clear through on goal ahead of her, but instead hit the ball too close to Orsi, much to Giugliano’s visible frustration.
Then play stopped, as Sassuolo’s Jansen came on for Tomaselli, who had problems moving about after picking up an injury.
Moments later, Andressa found herself in space in the middle of the park with enough time to hit a cutting vertical pass to find Giugiano on the left-wide edge of Sassuolo’s box. Giugliano immediately backheeled the pass into Thomas to run in on goal, but Thomas decided - probably to the surprise of everyone including Giugliano - to play a 1-2 back out wide to Giugliano that came to nothing.
On the very next action, Andressa was back at it. This time the ball came to her in space 30 yards out from Sassuolo’s goal and the Brazilian hit an indecipherable, sumptuous chipped pass that bounced dead on the spot 6 yards out from Sassuolo’s goal. It was begging to be hit by Giugliano running through on goal, but Roma’s number 10 looked like she was afraid of any impact with the keeper and could only get a tentative toe to the ball, sending it wide.
Andressa created another chance before the half, hitting a long pass across field for teammate Thomas to knock-down back across the 18-yard line. Maybe the shot would have been blocked by Sassuolo’s covering defenders, but it was waiting to be taken by Thestrup who completely mistimed and hit air instead.
The first half provided us with a constant shift in momentum. Roma showed several good invidivual moments and pockets of 1-2 play, but it wasn’t convincing enough to look like a game plan and it didn’t look like the kind of game where 1-0 would be enough on the day.
The second half had a real “whoever scores the next goal has a big say in this game” feeling in the air. But it would wind up flattering to deceive.
The second half got underway with Sassuolo looking like they’d spent all their gas in the first half; a half-time substitution from the home side was testament to that fact. It wasn’t a raging Neroverde side looking to get back in the game, but more of a tentative back-and-forth between the two teams for the opening ten minutes. Then came an innocuous-looking ball bouncing into Sassuolo’s box, between keeper and left-back Molin to revive this game.
Both players collided to take everything but the ball, which left Agnese Bonfantini to peel off Molin, evade the keeper and slot the ball into the net. But the goal was disallowed as the referee bailed out Sassuolo on a very dubious foul call against Bonfantini.
On first viewing, it really looked like Bonfatini had done nothing wrong but I’ll leave it to the replays to tell the story.
A couple of substitutions, one for each side, came on the hour mark. Sassuolo spent their last substitution bringing on 17-year old midfielder Veronica Battelani. Meanwhile, Roma made a very telling change bringing on speedy forward Annamaria Serturini to replace defensive forward Amalie Thestrup. Evidently, Bavagnoli felt Sassuolo’s depleting stamina could be caught out by injecting even more pace into Roma’s attack.
The change immediately paid off as Lindsey Thomas held up the ball on Roma’s left flank, to lay it off to for the onrushing Serturini to pick up the ball and carry it through to Sassuolo’s goal. Serturini was only just wide with her cross-goal shot, perhaps giving herself a little too much work trying to open up her body and take the chance early.
Meanwhile, Sassuolo came alive at the other end with Daniela Sabatino’s first real chance of the match. The Neroverde topscorer contested a high ball in Roma’s area and collided with keeper Pippitone, who looked like she’d come off worse for wear from shutting down the danger and was left on the ground to recover for a few moments.
Another chance came at the other end for Roma, as captain Elisa Bartoli found herself with enough space just outside of Sassuolo’s box to try a whipped shot on goal that deflected wide.
Then Bonfantini gave cause for concern on 75 minutes, trying a kick-and-rush ball past her opponent but pulling up before she run back onto the ball. Bonfantini immediately signalled for a change to Roma’s bench, and kept glancing to the sideline for the substitution to come. It’s unclear whether she picked up an injury or simply ran out of steam.
Sassuolo were on the cusp of equalising moments later, as Sabatino made a run between Pettenuzzo and Swaby waiting for a through ball. Pettenuzzo anticipated the danger by pushing up to cut out a pass, but immediately lost possession herself that let Sassuolo feed the ball into Sabatino. Fortunately, Pippitone was alert enough to rush out and smother the ball.
Then came a Roma double substitution, with Giada Greggi come on for Agnese Bonfantini and centre-half Petronella Ekroth coming on a limping Kaja Erzen at full-back.
Perhaps both Roma players being subbed off looking worse for wear was a testament to the frenetic nature of this match - a game of chess that sometimes fell into spots of head-tennis among all the back and forth play, with few moments of genuine chemistry and fluidity to it.
With less than ten minutes to go, Giugliano again popped up on the left side and took the ball into the box to try a shot on goal that was cleared for a corner, itself coming to nothing. But the Roma threat was always shading this game in the closing moments.
Moments later, Swaby would lose Sabatino, who enjoyed one of the few touches she’d get in Roma’s half before she was immediately shut down by Roma’s Ekroth choosing to dabble in the dark arts, flying in with a high knee that just missed Sabatino’s face. Sabatino went down to the ground, and Ekroth picked up a booking. Then Roma’s Hegerberg went down clutching her back from a collision, just as the assistant official was raising the board to signal only 2 minutes of injury time.
That didn’t sit well with Sassuolo coach Piovani, who blew his top and shouted enough expletives for the referee to immediately run across the pitch and show the red card to Sassuolo’s head coach. Then, as if to further punish Sassuolo, the injury time was retrospectively cut down to one single minute (maybe that’s what the coach was incensed over).
Of course, Roma weren’t putting up any arguments with the flow of the game at all. Some more midfield exchanges came to nothing, before the referee blew for the final whistle.
Sassuolo’s limp second half performance was as unexpected as Roma’s indecision when it came to attacking the Neroverde goal. It never looked like 1-0 would be enough on the day, and yet here we are: Job done.
Roma win all 3 points in one of the hardest fixtures left on the calendar.
Player of the Match: Allyson Swaby
It was very tempting to give the POTM award to Manuela Giugliano who, for the first half in particular, showed a return to form that’s been sorely lacking from her first year in a Roma shirt. In Giugliano’s defence, she’s spent a large part of the 2019-20 season trying to put injury behind her to recover full fitness.
Very few players have the intelligence and ability to change a course of the game and their own in Italy’s top flight. Giugliano is, even at her young age, already established as one of those very players. Today, she manipulated the midfield in such a way that Sassuolo genuinely changed their whole gameplan around her sapping confidence from their physical approach to the game. And what came out of that, for the second half, was a match descended into a war of attrition.
Out of the that attrition came the near-immaculate performance of Allyson Swaby at the back. Tasked with shadowing lethal scorer Sabatino, Swaby kept Sassuolo’s number 9 quiet all game long. Chances were at premium for Sabatino and, on the only two occasions where the striker eluded Swaby, thankfully the rest of Roma’s backline had Swaby’s back.
To top it off, Swaby racked up an assist to carve out Roma’s winning goal on the day. The 4th-minute assist was enough for Bonfantini’s winner to bring home a crucial away victory.