There were distractions aplenty this weekend as Roma prepared for their first return fixture of the Serie A season; a home match against a deceptively difficult Hellas Verona side. Led by the next big thing in Serie A coaching, Ivan Juric, the Mastiffs of Verona have become one of the best defensive sides in the league, conceding the joint-fewest goals in the league through the first 19 matches.
And as if the Paulo Fonseca vs Edin Dzeko feud weren't enough drama to whet your appetite, this fixture dredged up the season's first controversy: the dreaded Amadou Diawara listing error, which cost Roma a point in the standings last fall when the Giallorossi were dinged for inadvertently listing the 23-year-old Diawara as a youth player.
Drama, intrigue, distractions, the thought of Alexis Sanchez suiting up for Roma; the universe really brought their A-game to the Eternal City this week. But when the opening whistle blew, it was back to basics for Fonseca's crew.
While Roma have been conceding goals at a frightening rate (11 over their past four matches) lately, they've been scoring in near equal measure (if you count the goals they actually scored against Spezia in the cup tie before it was deemed a 3-0 defeat thanks to the sixth and illegal substitution), but the early phases of this match likely gave you deja vu, as Roma and Verona seemed headed for another scoreless draw.
With both sides lacking attacking fluidity and the match feature more miss-hits, long-balls, and deflections than you can count, it felt like we were heading for a long and dull evening at the Olimpico.
But that all changed—quickly.
(These goals will probably be stripped by the time of publication, so stay tuned for the highlights)
Gianluca Mancini: 20th Minute (Roma 1, Verona 0)
Immediately after their first real crack at goal, Roma won a corner after Pawel Dawidowicz deflected Borja Mayoral's shot over the end line. With Pellegrini playing a lofted outswinger, Mancini made his run into the middle of the box and dropped an incredibly tricky header Silvestri's way. You can't quite see it from that clip, but the ball took an awkward in-between hop right as Silvestri made his move, but that little change in momentum seemed to fool him and Roma were able to reverse the course of the match, setting up a free-flowing finish to the first half.
And before you had a chance to compose yourself, they doubled the lead.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan: 22nd Minute (Roma 2, Verona 0)
Mkhitaryan gets all the credit for the goal, but this was an excellent counter-attack from Roma, who advanced the ball up the pitch in a three-touch move, taking advantage of a lazy Verona pass through the midfield. After Ibañez intercepted the ball (that might be a tad generous, it was practically given to him), he quickly found Veretout to his left, with the Frenchman playing a picture-perfect long ball to Mayoral down the left flank.
And with Silvestri charging off his line, Mayoral did a great job to pull him out even further, and while he couldn't quite carve out space to either slip it underneath or chip it over Silvestri, Borja did well to quickly reverse the ball back to Mkhitaryan at the edge of the box. And from there, it was just pure class—Mkhitaryan buried it at the near post, leaving Silvestri zero chance to make a save.
The quick tempo continued as the match moved towards the half-hour mark with the man filling Edin Dzeko's shoes taking advantage of another Silvestri mistake.
Borja Mayoral: 29th Minute (Roma 3, Verona 0)
While this wasn't a setpiece goal in the strictest sense of the word, it all started from a Roma corner forcing Silvestri into a punched save, which produced a long, looping rebound that fell right to Pellegrini. Roma's new captain put a one-timed effort straight back at Silvestri, producing another juicy rebound, one which—again—fell right to Roma, leaving Mayoral an easy tap-in.
It's hard to accurately describe just how quickly this match flipped on its head after the 20-minute mark. Everything prior to that point was slow, labored, and deliberate, lacking any intent, to say nothing of entertainment value. Perhaps Roma just needed a few moments to gather themselves, but the difference in approach and energy was palpable for the final 25 minutes of the first half.
With a three-nil lead at the half, Roma would have been excused if they let off the gas a bit to start the second half. But any worries of a more relaxed Roma were quickly allayed as the Giallorossi created three chances in the first 10 minutes of the second half, with Pellegrini forcing two turnovers that nearly produced a clean look at goal while Mkhitaryan played Veretout into the box with a chipped through-ball, but Veretout couldn't settle it quickly enough before Silvestri forced him to fire it over the bar.
Verona would get their moment in the sun shortly after the hour mark thanks to a headed goal from Ebrima Colley. By this point in the match, Roma continued to flex their advantages over Verona, moving quickly up and down the pitch, spraying vertical passes all over the place, so we can't really say Roma were resting on their laurels. But, Verona weren't exactly trying to make a game of it either, but they caught Roma napping here and stole a goal back thanks to a great cross and an even better header from Colley, who was able to slip past Mancini at the far post.
Colley had another chance at goal in the 68th minute when he was at the vanguard of a Verona counter-attack. With Colley charging down the left flank into the box, it seemed like things were ready-made for a quick snapshot at goal, but he made the odd decision to attempt a 360 turn on the ball—the problem was that he was blanketed by two defenders. Despite that hasty Messi imitation, Verona were inching their way back into this game, bit-by-bit and Colley had another crack at goal moments later.
Fonseca would attempt to quiet the noise by bringing on Bryan Cristante for Gonzalo Villar in the 71st minute, but Verona would continue to exert pressure in Roma's defensive third, putting five shots on Lopez's goal by the 80th minute. That may not seem like a complete reversal of fortunes, but Verona managed only one attempt in the first half, and given Roma's flair for the dramatic lately, there was cause for alarm.
With the clock ticking past the 80th minute, Roma did all they could to stall, play keep away, and generally while away the minutes until the final whistle. Fonseca would make a triple swap deep in the match, bringing on the seldom-seen duo of Carles Perez and Amadou Diawara, with Bruno Peres completing the triple change.
Verona put up a good fight but seemed to run out of steam by the 80th minute or so and were clearly no match for an organized and surprisingly spirited Roma side.
Whether they ran Verona off the pitch or won by a last-minute squeaker, Roma did exactly what they needed to do this evening: tune out the noise and play fast and aggressive football. And apart from the opening 15-minute lull, that's precisely what they did this evening. The ten-minute stretch before the half-hour mark was the epitome of this approach, but Roma did well to keep Verona under their thumb for nearly the entire match.
All told, Roma nearly doubled Verona's shot output despite seeing less than 50% of the ball. But stats aside, this was definitely an eye-test match for Roma. Would the off-the-pitch distractions rear their ugly head on the pitch, diluting Roma's attack and distracting their defense, or could the club possibly use the chaos as a motivator?
That switch they flipped after the 20th minute? That was the motivator. After Mancini's headed goal, Roma found new life, attacking Verona with a clearer purpose and far more energy. This was exactly the performance this club needed after a week of controversy and conjecture—and not a moment too soon with a trip to Juventus waiting next weekend.
Roma faces Juventus on the road on Saturday, February 6th.
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