With a decidedly tougher opponent on the docket this week, Roma manager Betty Bavagnoli made three key changes to her lineup; two expected and one rather surprising. Outside of a pinpoint cross in week one, right-back Kaja Erzen has struggled to make much of a difference going forward and was replaced by young Angelica Soffia. Bavagnoli's second change, inserting Rachele Baldi in goal, was a bit of shocker since incumbent Camelia Ceasar was arguably the league's second-best keeper last season and has been pretty solid through two matches.
Bavagnoi's third change, starting Paloma Lazaro over Lindsey Thomas, was probably bound to happen at some point since Lazaro has arguably been Roma's most effective player in this young season.
Despite those changes, Roma stuck to the same script this evening: using their athletic advantage to create chances out wide and maintaining possession through the middle thanks to the ball-winning of Vanessa Bernauer and the close control of Andressa.
Unfortunately, part of that script has also included a flurry of half-chances and narrow misses. It haunted, and ultimately undid, Roma against Sassuolo in their opening round draw but the Giallorosse were able to solve that riddle in the second half against Pink Bari, earning and converting a penalty early in the second half before Hegerberg setup Lazaro for the club's second goal.
With Manuela Giugliano acting in an almost sweeper-like role and long-ball after long-ball springing Bonfantini and Serturini into space down the flanks, this was practically a carbon copy of Roma's first two matches.
And just like the first two rounds, Roma very nearly grabbed early leads only to be thwarted by the opposing keeper or simply miss-hitting or miss-timing the final ball deep in the penalty area. In this instance, Agnese Bonfantini flashed a shot from a tight angle on the right wing, only to see it smack against the far post...BUT it left a juicy rebound for Serturini, who wasn't able to track the ball down before the Empoli defense collapsed on her.
And so it went for much of the match. Roma were able to outrace Empoli on either flank and were able to pump a few low crosses into the area, but the finishing touch to those moves was a split second too late.
It was precisely the sort of frustrating performance we talked about in the preview, the kind that can sometimes force a team into hasty passes or desperate long-balls over the top—in a word, it can cause a team to abandon it's identity.
While Roma may have wasted and/or missed a few chances in the attacking third, they effectively put the clamps on Empoli at the opposite end, wiping out any attack before it even approached the final third. With Tecla Pettenuzzo and Allyson Swaby sweeping back and forth in the defensive third, Empoli seldom got closer than 25 yards to Baldi's goal—the speed, touch and strength of Roma's two central defenders was just too much for Empoli to handle.
But, despite those glad tidings, the match was scoreless at the break.
With the match knotted at zero, Bavagnoli opted for two changes early in the second half: Andrine Hegerberg for Bernauer and Lindsey Thomas for Bonfantini. And Bavagnoli's tinkering nearly paid immediate dividends when Hegerberg got on the end of a low cross, but seemed to outrun the ball just enough to where she could only lash at it with her heel.
Undaunted, Roma would continue to hunt for the matches first goal, and very nearly found it when Serturini fired a rocket from 20-yards-out in the 47th minute. And what seemed like a surefire goal was snuffed out at the last minute when Empoli keeper Noemi Fedele plucked the ball out of the air a split second before it tucked into the upper corner.
Disaster struck a mere five minutes into the second half when Pettenuzzo made a rash challenge in the area, conceding a penalty in only the 50th minute, one Cecilia Prugno converted with ease, giving Empoli a lead they probably didn't deserve on the run of play.
It was an unfortunate error from one of the club's steadiest players, but the look on her face said it all: she knew the weight of her error. And, given how much Bavagnoli stresses focus and limiting errors, it looks even worse.
Roma would continue to press on, but the tension in the air was palpable. With every passing minute and every desperate foray forward, the pressure continued to mount on the women in red. Empoli are a decent side, but Roma had every advantage you could think of: speed, height, strength, depth and yet none of it mattered this evening.
Bavagnoli would practically empty her bench searching for an answer to the malaise that was suddenly enveloping her squad, bringing on Erzen, Alice Corelli and even giving a debut to Serena Landa in the 91st minute.
Even in the dying moments of this match, Roma still managed to come close to an equalizer—earning two consecutive corners and a free kick in stoppage time—but the site of Giugliano's miss hit corner (which sailed all the way to the opposite sideline) and Andressa's free-kick (which had the right bend but just a bit too much weight) were emblematic of Roma's luck on the evening—they had none.
Call me a pessimist if you must, but this loss pretty well puts the nail in the coffin for Roma's hopes of finishing in the top two and grabbing one of Italy's two Champions League places. In each of the past two seasons, the club that finished second earned an enormous share of all possible points, with Fiorentina winning 83% of all possible points in ‘18-’19 and 77% in ‘19-’20.
All of which is to say, if Roma stand a snowball's chance in hell at landing in second place, they have to be practically perfect over the next...oh...19 matches, including what are now must-wins over Fiorentina, AC Milan and Juventus.
Not an easy task, but it's really besides the point: Roma's once vaunted attack has run dry. Even with last season's abrupt finish, the Giallorosse's 41 goals trailed only Juventus and were nearly as many as they scored the prior season, in six fewer matches. However, through the first three matches of this new season, Roma have managed only two goals from the run of play—both from Paloma Lazaro.
So, what gives? How can a team with so much speed, so much agility, and so much talent struggle so mightily thus far?
Without the benefit of an actual heat-map or average position charts, we can really only speculate, but when your number ten/2019 League MVP spends more time closer to her own goal than the opponents, then you know something is amiss.
Giugliano can probably pick a fly off a plate from 40 yards out, but far too often this season she's been seen doing just that—playing long balls over the top rather than working in concert with Andressa and the full-backs to advance play up the pitch. With the speed of Roma's forwards, it can work intermittently, but it's not exactly a sustainable plan going forward.
And speaking of forwards, given everything that happens behind them, Bonfantini and Serturini spend most of their time as passive outlets, simply waiting for that long ball over the top. By doing so, they're effectively being cordoned off from the rest of the attack, being forced to work in incredibly tight spaces along the touchline where their only real recourse is to fire speculative crosses at the face of goal.
Bavagnoli has to figure out a way to make better use of the talent at her disposal, otherwise she may be out of a job. Roma are simply too talented to play like this for very much longer.
There's a break in league action, but Roma return on October 3rd when they host Hellas Verona.