As we've discussed for the past week, Roma are at the point in their developmental curve where their collection of talent is now being confronted with actual expectations; high ones at that. No longer can they simply fall back on the excuse of “Well, we're a new team, hiccups were expected, we'll figure it out.” Not that anyone associated with the club relied on such weak-willed platitudes, but Roma no longer have the luxury of talking about tomorrow; the present is here and Roma are a part of it.
With a uniquely talented lot of U-23 talent and a handful of experienced international veterans, Roma are no longer a curiosity, they're a legitimate contender. A surprise fourth place finish was amazing in their first season, and while they repeated that finish in last season's pandemic shortened calendar, they did so while cutting the gap behind third place from an enormous 15 points to a tantalizing one point.
Sassuolo vs. Roma: August 23rd. 20:45 CET/2:45 EDT. Stadio Ricci, Sassuolo.
Entering their third season in existence, fourth place is no longer acceptable. The club did the necessary legwork to develop and improve the squad and nothing short of European qualification should be their stated goal—a task that begins later today in Sassuolo.
Just as they did during their inaugural run in 2018-2019, Roma will kick things off against the Neroverdi of Sassuolo. Last season's sixth place finishers have served as sort of a litmus test for the league over the past two seasons, standing as the veritable dividing line between the top four and the rest of the table. If Serie A Femminile were a layer cake, Sassuolo was the cream in the middle, separating the delicious frosting from the blasé bottom layer.
Having lost Daniela Sabatino and her 12 goals to Fiorentina in the offseason, Sassuolo may struggle to maintain their status as Italy's middle class club, but overlooking any opponent is a fool's errand, doubly so when it's the first match of the season.
While Roma are favored on paper, Betty Bavagnoli is facing a few crucial questions ahead of this match, namely: who is she going to start? Roma weren't terribly active in the summer transfer market, but two of their biggest purchases will inadvertently give Bavagnoli two of her biggest headaches.
Camelia Ceasar was a revelation in goal during her first season with the club, keeping six cleansheets last season, the league's second highest mark. While the job should have been hers on merit alone, Roma went out and signed 25-year-old Rachele Baldi, an Azzurre veteran who has made 24 starts in net for Fiorentina and Empoli over the past two seasons. She's not your average backup, and she saw some pretty heavy minutes during the pre-season, so Bavagnoli's selection today could give us a glimpse of this season's plans in goal.
Roma's other marquee signing was in defense, where Osinachi Ohale arrived from Madrid. A 28-year-old World Cup veteran herself, Ohale didn't make the switch to the capital to ride the pine and will likely press 20-year-old Tecla Pettenuzzo for playing time. Pettenuzzo, our sixth ranked U-23 talent, has made 33 starts over the past two seasons and won't simply fall over at the sight of Ohale. There are certainly more minutes to share in defense than in goal, but we should get a look at Bavagnoli's preferred central pairing this evening.
Outside of that, it's likely business as usual for Bavagnoli and her 4-3-3. Andressa, who only just arrived in country this past week, will likely start on the bench, meaning we'll likely see an Agnese Bonfantini, Annamaria Serturini and Lindsey Thomas frontline—though watch out for Paloma Lazaro to start in the middle.
In midfield, chances are we'll see Andrine Hegerberg, Manuela Giugliano and one of Giada Greggi or Vanessa Bernauer, while club captain Elisa Bartoli and Kaja Erzen should resume their roles at the fullback spots.
As in any opening match, seizing the initiative early will be the key to victory. Sassuolo doesn't have the horses to run with Roma, but any slip-ups in the first 15 minutes or so could doom the Giallorosse. But, if the ball is moving quickly from the front to back and if Bonfantini and Serturini can find space behind the fullbacks, Roma can put Sassuolo on the back heel early and often.