In their first match of the 2020-2021 season—and their first official match since February 26th—no one was quite sure what to expect, especially when it came to Betty Bavagnoli's team selection. While she didn't go too crazy, she made a few surprising selections in her starting eleven, particularly in midfield where she gave a rare start to Claudia Ciccotti, who served as the deepest of Roma's three midfielders this evening. Up top, Bavagnoli threw new signing Paloma Lazaro right into the deep-end, leading Roma's line in her very first appearance with the club.
Predicting lineups for opening day is always a risky proposition, but a torrential downpour prior to kickoff nearly rendered Bavagnoli's tinkering moot. Whatever advantage the Giallorosse had in speed and agility was nearly erased thanks to a completely saturated pitch. In a league not exactly known for top notch playing conditions, the wet track didn't bode well for Roma's high octane attack.
And that's exactly how it played out in the early stages of this match. With the ball squirting every which way but loose and players struggle to gain footing, the opening 10 minutes or so of this match were bereft of any, well, football; it was a series of hasty clearances, water logged passes and head tennis as far as the eye could see.
Despite the inclement weather, Roma's athletic advantages eventually shone through. With Lazaro sandwiched in-between the blazing fast duo of Agnese Bonfantini and Lindsey Thomas, Roma's front three was running circles around Sassulo's backline. With Lazaro serving as a point of reference for Manuela Giugliano and Vanessa Bernauer, Roma were able to draw out the Sassulo defense, giving Bonfantini and Thomas time and space to make off the shoulder runs and even swap positions on the pitch.
It was a beautiful and dizzying display, especially when all three got forward. With Giugliano surging through the middle, Roma were free to play give and goes at the edge of the box, be it through Giguliano and Lazaro or even Lazaro and one of Roma's wingers—basically whatever training ground series Roma wanted to attempt, the could.
But Roma’s first breakthrough came via a good old fashion header.
Paloma Lazaro: 20th Minute (Sassuolo 0, Roma 1)
While Kaja Erzen misplaced a few passes, and even had a throw in go right to Sassuolo, nearly kick starting a counter in the process, she was all aces here. Playing a perfect cross into the area, Erzen found Lazaro in the area. And once Lazaro got position on the Sassuolo defender, it was game over for this goal—with a flick of her head, Lazaro put the perfect trajectory on the ball, giving it enough oomph to get over the keeper and enough technique for it to drop right underneath the cross bar. Just a beautiful play from start to finish.
The pitch was tilted towards Sassuolo's end for the remainder of the first half as Roma continued to outrun, outwork and out-create their opponents. The problem for Bavagnoli was simply that all that leg work didn't result in any goals, or really any clear cut chances, if we're being honest.
For all the good work Giguliano, Lazaro, Bonfantini and Thomas did in the middle ground, they didn't manage a single shot on-target for the remainder of the first half.
Couple that with the rain and things didn’t bode well for Roma.
The second frame got off to a rather inauspicious start for Roma. With Sassuolo look invigorated and playing a more direct, attacking style, they put the Giallorosse on the back heel from the word go.
With Sassulo pressing deep into Roma territory, Camelia Ceasar made her first save of the evening but left a rather juicy rebound for Sassulo, one that Elisa Bartoli cleared with relative ease thanks to her stellar positioning. But Roma continued to dance with the devil.
Not more than 30 seconds later, Bartoli bailed out her hometown club again, making a split-second goal line clearance, covering for Ceasar who couldn't regain ground after attempting a stretched save. It was a bang-bang sequence but thanks to Bartoli's heads-up play, Roma's one-goal lead was safe...for the moment.
Despite Bartoli's heroics, by the hour mark it was clear who this half belonged to. Suddenly all the loose balls Roma won in the first half, all the attacking space they carved out and all the tidy give and goes at the edge of the area started to tilt in Sassuolo's favor.
The rain certainly didn't help matters, but neither did Bavagnoli's substitutions—both Lazaro and Bonfatini were swapped out early in the second half for no real apparent reason. Bonfantini didn't factor on the score sheet, but losing that threat on the right effectively removed any balance from Roma's attack, while losing Lazaro's off-the-ball positioning and hold up play put even more pressure on Giugliano and Serturini to create something out of nothing.
But then the levee broke...
Valeria Pirone: 67th Minute (Sassuolo 1, Roma 1)
In the run of play, it was easy to call out Erzen's inability to close out the defender or Ceasar's desperate diving attempt at the ball, but outside of Pettenuzzo's failure to body-up Pirone, there wasn't really much Roma could do to stop this goal—this goal was emblematic of each team's approach in the second half. Sassuolo were quicker, more aggressive and more direct than Roma in the second half, never more so than this run of play.
With roughly half an hour left, Roma seemingly had all the time in the world to reclaim the lead, but outside of Bartoli and Giugliano, no one in a red shirt seemed to want the ball, let alone know what to do with it once they had it.
From lazy clearances up the middle from Ceasar, Erzen and even Swaby on one or two occasions, to half-hearted throw-ins to simply stumbling over the ball on the touch-line, Roma looked uncharacteristically sloppy and ineffective in attack and absolutely exposed and disjointed at the back.
I wish I could say that Roma mounted a comeback, or at least clanged a few shots off the posts, but outside of a wonderfully struck left-footed effort by Andrine Hegerberg from 25 yards out, Roma didn't manage a single shot on goal in the second half.
And that was really that. Sassuolo deserved to win this one, and would have were it not for Bartoli's two clearances, so as gutting as this draw was, Roma should consider themselves lucky to even walk away with a point.
Four points and one point. Those were the margins between second place—and Champions League qualification—and third place over the past two seasons. So, call us hyperbolic if you must, but this match absolutely will factor into Roma's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, to say nothing of competing for the Scudetto.
We'll have to wait and see what Bavagnoli says about this match, but removing Lazaro and Bonfatini really cut Roma's attack off at the knees. Blame the weather if you must, but it was almost as if someone cut off the power off in the second half—all the wonderfully connected play we saw in the first half completely disappeared. And as if that weren't worrying enough, Sassuolo completely outworked Roma in the second half; it was hard to tell which club was the contender and which club was a midtable dweller.
Without Bonfantini's speed and Lazaro's dirty work, Roma's attack had no reference point and no one capable of putting consistent pressure on the backline. Making matters worse, Roma didn't really receive any compensatory efforts from midfield—Giugliano was effectively penned in by Sassuolo while Hegerberg and Greggi never really got into the match.
Things should get a bit easier next week against Pink Bari, but by dropping two points here, Roma essentially put themselves in a must-win position against AC Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus. They have to make up for these two points somehow and in order to do that and gain ground on the table, they have to claim victory over at least two of those sides in their first matchups later this season.
Between the rain, the ineffective play and the results elsewhere in the top four, this was a 9/10 on the worst possible case scenario scale.
Roma host Pink Bari on Sunday the 30th of August.