Early January is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings, but Roma's 2021 began just as 2020 ended: with a rain-soaked pitch and a passive opponent content to drain Roma's will to live by sitting back and absorbing pressure rather than actually playing football. If you ignored the calendar and even the opponent, this could have been any one of seven or eight matches from the tail end of 2020. Between the horribly soaked pitch, Sampdoria's compact defensive shell, and Roma's inability to find a breakthrough in the middle of the pitch, this fell all too familiar for Roma fans.
With a gaggle of minor injuries piling up ahead of this round 15 fixture, Paulo Fonseca was forced to make two small but significant changes: pushing Lorenzo Pellegrini into a more advanced role in the absence of Pedro, and, in turn, slotting Gonzalo Villar in the double pivot alongside Jordan Veretout.
Almost immediately, Sampdoria's gameplan was clear: compact the middle of the pitch from 18 to 30 yards out, cede possession to Roma, and let them pass around the edges to their heart's content and, if possible, force the Giallorossi to work down the left flank via an out of position Bruno Peres.
In addition to the passive opponent and the soaked pitch, the referee's discretion lent further familiarity to this match. In the 5th minute, Henrikh Mkhitaryan got loose down the right side, dribbling all the way into the Sampdoria area only to be taken down with a forearm to the back. However, referee Daniele Chiffi presumably felt that Mkhitaryan went down too easily, but it was a pretty blatant shove in the back.
Nevertheless, Sampdoria's defensive shell continued to test Roma's patience. Seldom will you see a club play this passively, but it's almost as if Roma were a new puppy and Claudio Ranieri was just happy to let the Giallorossi tire themselves out.
Despite the slow pace of this match, Roma were able to find some small cracks of space in the Sampdoria bubble, with Lorenzo Pellegrini and Rick Karsdorp each finding and/or creating opportunities from the right flank. Pellegrini came particularly close on two occasions, drawing a free kick off a long-range effort early in the half and then forcing Emil Audero into a stretched save in the 12th minute after being set up by Karsdorp.
Pellegrini, Mkhitaryan, and Karsdorp would continue to press the issue as the first half wore on, with Pellegrini making a darting run into the box towards a Mkhitaryan cross but Pellegrini wasn't able to get a clean look at the ball, meeting it with the crown of his head and pushing it helplessly over the bar.
Late in the first half, Roma would create perhaps their best chance of the half when Pellegrini drove through multiple defenders down the right flank, splitting two Sampdoria defenders to dive into the penalty area, where he played a beautiful ball across the face of the goal towards Mkhitaryan. Unfortunately, the Samp defense had him blanketed and were able to dislodge the ball from a sliding Mkhitaryan.
With nearly 70% possession and eight attempts on goal, it's safe to say that Roma dominated the first half, but they never really managed to create a clear cut chance on goal. Sampdoria's defensive plan worked to a tee, and in fact, they had the best chance of the half when Antonio Candreva forced Pau Lopez into a leaping save, missing a cracking goal by a matter of inches.
The first half set Roma up for frustration, but Fonseca would eventually find a solution for Ranieri and the rain.
It would have been nice if the rain stopped during the half-time intermission, but as the clubs came out of the tunnel, they were greeted by an even greater deluge, with noticeable puddles collecting all over the pitch and the pattering of rain being picked up by the television cameras. Were this an afternoon/evening kickoff time, one would have expected the match to be postponed—it was that bad.
Despite the inclement weather, Roma came out swinging to start the second half. Starting with an Edin Dzeko header in the 51st minute, Roma ran off a 20 minute period in which they peppered Sampdoria with shots nearly every minute.
Following Dzeko's missed header, which he attempted to bounce off the pitch and fired just wide, Roma fired an additional eight shots at Audero between the 51st and 72nd minutes (more on that in a moment).
Their first near breakthrough came in the 59th minute when Jordan Veretout played a ball into the box, finding Pellegrini in stride but Roma's number seven went for a one-timed effort and completely miss-hit the ball, barely even catching it with his heel, firing the shot wide right.
Pellegrini would continue his aggressive ways three minutes later, playing a near-perfect free-kick into the area, where the ball met Chris Smalling who was flashing towards the far left post. With his momentum carrying him in the opposite direction of the ball (which hung up for a split second), Smalling still managed a decent effort, clanging the ball off the upper right-hand corner of the goal. It was Roma's best chance to that point and with the rain and Sampdoria's defense covering the final third like an amorphous blob, it was fair to question if it would be their only chance.
Pellegrini would continue to factor in the match when, in the 67th minute, Dzeko headed a ball in the area back to Pellegrini at the edge of the box, but his effort was pushed wide of the mark. Dzeko would get a crack in the 68th minute, playing a free header right at Audero, who rose to parry it away.
Roma would continue to knock on the door as the match approached the 70th minute, with Rick Karsdorp getting on the end of a Bruno Peres cross; it was a good effort but he managed little more than hitting the side netting.
But all those good intentions would finally pay off moments later...
Edin Dzeko: 72nd Minute (Roma 1, Sampdoria 0)
Gol carajo. Dzeko siempre está y así, a pase de Karsdorp (buen partido), clavó el 1-0 de Roma ante Sampdoria en waterpolo pic.twitter.com/dv8akA6zgm— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) January 3, 2021
By this point in the match, Karsdorp had played at least four genuinely great balls into the area to no avail, so it was nice to see his efforts rewarded with an assist. After receiving the ball at the edge of the area, Karsdorp took a couple of touches before swinging in a low cross to Dzeko, who did a remarkable job to redirect the ball over Audero and into the far corner of the net.
With roughly 20 minutes remaining in the match, Sampdoria turned up the heat a bit, actually making attacking moves on their own. I know, crazy, right? Even with a one-goal lead, this match was on a knife's edge down the stretch, with Roma desperately seeking an insurance goal and Ranieri's men hunting for an equalizer.
While Roma came close to adding a second goal, the final 10 minutes of the match saw a dramatic role reversal, with Roma sitting back and absorbing the pressure, furiously covering every inch of the defensive third and hoofing the ball up the pitch to clear their lines.
For a second there, this had the makings of a late collapse as Sampdoria were firing from all angles in a desperate attempt to find a late equalizer, but Chris Smalling, Roger Ibañez, and Gianluca Mancini, among others, were able to place a well-timed foot (or head) in the way to avert disaster.
Paulo Fonseca has been heavily criticized for his failure to make second-half adjustments this season, so it's only right that we praise him for flipping the correct switches in the second half this afternoon. Roma didn't see quite as much of the ball in the second half, but they did well to vary their approach, working the ball down both flanks to keep Sampdoria's defense guessing and fired 13 shots on goal in the second 45 minutes alone.
When you consider they were fresh off an 11-day break and were basically playing on marshland, this was a huge victory for Roma. They had every excuse in the book to play Sampdoria to a scoreless draw, but thanks to their second-half surge Roma were able to retain their grasp on third place for one more week.
Roma travels to Crotone on Wednesday the 6th.
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