Trading their usual stomping grounds at the Tre Fontane for Roma HQ at Trigoria, Betty Bavagnoli and the Giallorosse faced a must-win match in only week two. While Roma were dominant in the early stages of last week's opener against Sassuolo, they relented just a bit too much in the second half, paving the way for Sassuolo to grab an equalizer. A 1-1 draw after a five month layoff isn't the end of the world, but given that Juventus, Fiorentina and AC Milan each won their fixtures, Roma dug themselves a hole to begin the season. With no room for error at the top of the table, every point counts—even in the first week.
Against that backdrop, Bavagnoli decided to focus on mental strength and intestinal fortitude in her pre-match comments. No one in the league can doubt Roma's talent, but their ability to string together 90 solid minutes of high intensity football has been up for debate over the past two seasons.
Facing Bari, last season's 10th place squad, the betting odds were in Roma's favor, but Bavagnoli took no chances, running out a lineup featuring Agnese Bonfantini, Lindsey Thomas, Annamaria Serturini, Manuela Giugliano and the newly returned Andressa, whose return to Roma was delayed by several weeks. That quintet is arguably Roma's best attacking combination, as it gives Bavagnoli an ideal mix of speed, agility, vision and playmaking.
Bavagnoli rounded out her eleven with the usual cast of characters: Allyson Swaby, Tecla Pettenuzzo, Kaja Erzen and Elisa Bartoli in defense while she rounded out the midfield with Vanessa Bernauer alongside Giugliano and Andressa.
We'll certainly see some variations throughout the year as Paloma Lazaro and Osinachi Ohale get up to speed, but this was pretty much Roma's A-Team. And it definitely showed in today's match.
Much as they did last week against Sassuolo, Roma were thoroughly dominant in the first half. With Bernauer serving as an anchor, Giugliano and Andressa had free-reign in the midfield, and with Giugliano sitting just a bit deeper than Andressa, Roma's two play makers were free to sweep from sideline to sideline, winning loose balls, maintaining possession and setting up passing networks with Roma's wide players.
With such composure and close control in the midfield, Roma were able to work the ball up in the pitch in a flash, finding Bonfantini and Erzen with balls over the top on the right while Bartoli, Serturini, Swaby and Pettenuzo took a more delicate approach on the left, working triangles up and down the flanks.
Throw all the tactics aside and it was clear as day: Bari couldn't run with Roma. Time and time again in the first half, Bonfatini and Serturini would blaze past Bari's fullbacks while Giugliano and Andressa put on a dribbling/possession clinic in midfield, dancing around Bari defenders like so many training cones...here comes the but.
But...they had little to show for their efforts. Despite dominating possession in the attacking third, Roma simply couldn't find a breakthrough. The Giallorosse's two best chances in the first half came from a Bernauer chip over the top to Serturini who, despite her best efforts, simply couldn't settle the ball on an in-between hop in the area. And later in the half with Andressa driving into the area on the left, she opted for a shot and completely missed a wide open Bonfantini on the right.
And so it went for the first half. Roma had a hall pass up the pitch but just couldn't find that final ball in the area and went into the dressing room scoreless. It's a movie we've seen far, far too many times with the men—dominant possession, shots at the ready, but no goals.
Roma's fast and loose style was a joy to watch in the first half, but in a sense it was almost too fast; if Roma were an engine, they needed to close the choke a bit. Enter Paloma Lazaro. While Roma’s new signing is no slouch in the athletic department, her ability to slow things down and hold up play gives Roma a point of reference none of the other forwards can provide.
And she didn't waste time making her mark. After only two minutes on the pitch, Lazaro had two attempts on goal, including one that narrowly missed tucking into the upper left hand corner on a scrum.
It was a brilliant tactical stroke from Bavagnoli, but the song remained the same through the first 20 minutes or so of the second half: attack, attack, attack but no result. However, unlike last week against Sassuolo, Roma continued to hunt for a goal, never letting their foot off the gas.
But as the clocked ticked away, it was tough to shake that anxious “oh no, not again” feeling that happens when Roma do everything right but fail to convert in the area. And, as luck would have it, their first breakthrough had nothing to do with ball movement, tactics or passing.
But it did have something to do with Lazaro, whose impact was immediate and profound:
Pretty clear cut foul there, but the most impressive part about this was that Bartoli literally pointed to Lazaro before the throw-in, so there was no secret where the ball was going. Andressa would convert the penalty with a left-footed strike to the lower right hand corner of the goal, giving Roma much deserved lead.
But, as the saying goes, nothing is quite as tenuous as a one-goal lead in football. And with 20 minutes remaining, Bari had ample time to rain on Roma's parade. Fortunately for Roma, Lazaro came up huge once again.
Paloma Lazaro: 88th Minute (Roma 2, Bari 0)
Phenomenal work from all three players involved in this run of play: Bartoli, Hegerberg and Lazaro. First there was Bartoli's throw in, which was, dare I say it, Dan Marino-esque. From there, notice how Lazaro keeps the ball and play and flicks it towards the empty bit of space that was quickly occupied by Hegerberg.
But that's when things got really nooice—Hegerberg does a fantastic job settling the ball while continuing to move forward and then she plays a beautifully weighted through ball with her left foot, giving Lazaro acres of space to run into. And finally, kudos to Lazaro for chasing it down and narrowly avoiding the oncoming defender.
Throw-ins are often an overlooked part of the game, but Roma showed here that, when taken quickly and in the proper position, they can be just as dangerous as any set-piece.
And that was that—Roma's frustration in the first half soon gave way to some much needed elation.
If Roma caught a few more breaks, this could easily have been a four-nil rout, but as it stands, they still walk away with the thoroughly dominant performance they needed after last week's disappointment against Sassuolo.
From back to front, Roma ran the show tonight. While she wasn't called on more than once or twice, Camelia Ceasar made the saves and smart passes when needed, while Swaby and Pettenuzzo snuffed out any and all attacks Bari managed and moved the ball from defense to attack in a blink of the eye.
In the midfield, Roma received solid turns from Giugliano, Bernauer, Andressa and later Hegerberg. Giugliano still looked for a few too many homerun passes, but she was quicker and more decisive on the ball than last week and could be seen starting attacks from the edge of Roma's own area all the way to the final third. Meanwhile, Bernauer was her steady self, Hegerberg provided one of the silkiest assists we'll likely see all season long while Andressa showed the close control, vision and passing that we came to love in the second half of last season.
But the real star of this show was Lazaro. From the moment she came on, Roma's attack was transformed. What was fast and loose in the first half soon became fast and composed in the second half. Functioning much in the same way as Edin Dzeko on the men's side, Lazaro picked the ball up anywhere in the middle and final thirds, served as a reference point at the edge of the area and was seemingly always in the right spot in the penalty area and almost had a brace this evening. She is the perfect complement to the speed of Roma's wide attackers and one has to wonder how many more matches she'll start on the bench.
Roma needed this win and this performance in the worst way after last week's draw. Kudos to the Giallorosse for getting the job done and keeping the distance behind Juve and Milan to a far more manageable two points.
Roma hit the road to face Empoli on Saturday.
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