Sitting in third place on 25 points, five back from second-place AC Milan, and eight points adrift of league leaders Juventus, Sassuolo are precisely where we thought AS Roma would be when the season began back in late August. With 26 goals (second-best) scored and a +13 goal differential (third-best), Sassuolo are practically a carbon copy of the Roma side we saw in 2019-2020: balanced, extremely potent in attack, and dancing around the edges of Champions League qualification.
And it all started on opening day against Roma.
August 23, 2020: Roma 1, Sassuolo 1
Roma got the best of Sassuolo twice last season, defeating the Neroverde in a pair of one-goal victories, but with six months in-between matches—due to the FIGC not resuming Serie A Femminile in the summer—this was an incredibly difficult match to forecast, doubly so when the actual forecast brought a deluge of late summer showers.
Despite the sloppy conditions, the Giallorosse raced to a first-half lead when Paloma Lázaro scored on her club debut, delicately placing a header in the far post off a Kaja Erzen cross in the 20th minute. Unfortunately, that would be the last bit of good news for Roma in this match as momentum swung back Sassuolo's way in the second half with Valeria Pirone notching an equalizer in the 67th minute.
Roma vs. Sassuolo: January 23rd. 12:30 CET/6:30 EST. Stadio Tre Fontane, Roma.
Try as they might, Roma couldn't find the back of the net down the stretch and began the new campaign with a disappointing draw; one that, in some ways, set the tone for the remainder of Roma's 2020.
2021: Time For a Turn-Around?
Despite falling to Juventus 2-1 in extra time of the Supercoppa semi-finals earlier this month, Roma found new confidence taking the defending champions to extra time; no small feat when you consider that Juve had outscored them 13-1 in their prior four meetings. With that positive performance under their belts, Betty Bavagnoli's side has won two consecutive matches: a 7-1 beatdown of Roma CF in the Coppa Italia and a gutty 3-2 league victory over Napoli last week, with captain Elisa Bartoli playing the role of hero, scoring a late match-winner.
I've never been one for moral victories, but Roma's spirits have been noticeably lifted ever since taking Juve to extra time, so there is value in the effort. Bavagnoli spoke about her club's new belief and ambitions for 2021 in her pre-match presser:
The aim is absolutely to continue this positive start to the new year. And as part of that to continue our work on our mentality, on our concentration and determination. They are all areas we have improved on already this year, and I would really like it if we are able to continue that progress.
It’s clear that we’ve done well in 2021 so far, in terms of performances, but still at times what we have done has not been quite enough. We still need to push on and deliver that little bit more that is required to get the results we want.
Last-place Napoli gave Roma a tougher time out than anyone imagined last week, but there can be no mistaking tomorrow's opponents. Given their spot on the table and their form at the moment, Sassuolo enters this match every bit the favorites.
Bavagnoli spoke to Sassuolo's underdog status and the challenges of facing a well-drilled team:
Sassuolo, over the last few seasons, have always been a team that has deserved more than they have got, in terms of final results,
They are well-coached, they are well organised and they play good football. And they’ve gained a lot of confidence this season, which naturally comes when you are winning games and doing well. So it really won’t be an easy game
Sassuolo are one of the league’s most balanced sides, but they've been a bit more susceptible at the back in recent weeks, conceding seven goals over their past five matches (all competitions). That may not sound like much, but when you consider they've only allowed 13 goals in 11 league matches, it's nearly a 20% increase.
At the other end of the pitch, Roma should get a boost from new signing Elena Linari, who dressed but did not play last week against Napoli. With summer signing Osinachi O'Hale moving back to Madrid this week, Roma are down to three central defenders now: Linari, Allyson Swaby, and Tecla Pettenuzzo. Even if she doesn't start this match, don't expect Linari to be the third wheel for very long.
Apart from that, it’s business as usual for Roma, as Camelia Ceasar and Agnese Bonfantini have returned to the matchday squad after missing last week due to suspension and injury, respectively. Ceasar should resume her role as Roma's starting keeper while Bonfantini figures to be the first attacking option off the bench as Bavagnoli seems to favor Annamaria Serturini, Paloma Lázaro, and Lindsey Thomas upfront at the moment.
Both of the teams immediately above Roma on the table—Florentia and Empoli—have pretty easy fixtures this weekend, so if Roma wants to keep pace and potentially leapfrog them back into the upper half of the table, a victory tomorrow is essential.
The first half of the season was frustrating and somewhat dispiriting for Roma, who had legitimate Champions League aspirations back in August, but with the first 11 matches in the books, Roma have no choice but to look ahead.
Despite their inverse fortunes this season, Roma are every bit as talented as Sassuolo (perhaps more so, actually), and if they want to re-stake their claim as one of the leagues true powers, they have to prove it on the pitch.
There's still a lot of football left to play this season, giving Roma ample time to restore their confidence and reputation—and it all starts on Saturday.