The shared history between Roma and Spezia may not be long, but it's sure as hell been frustrating for Roma supporters. From bouncing the Giallorossi from the 2015-2016 Coppa Italia, and putting the penultimate nail in Rudi Garcia's Roma coffin in the process, to repeating that feat in last season's competition (the infamous six-substitute match) and playing the capital club to a pair of surprisingly tough league fixtures last season (a 4-3 Roma win and a 2-2 draw), Spezia just seems to have Roma's number.
Pair that with yet another depleted squad at their disposal, and victory was far from assured for José Mourinho and Roma this evening. With several key squad members missing, Mourinho trotted out a 3-5-2 formation that featured a new strike duo up top: Tammy Abraham and Borja Mayoral.
Despite the inclusion of Mayoral in the lineup, Roma drew first blood thanks to the quick thinking of center-back Chris Smalling, who gave the Giallorossi an extremely early lead.
Chris Smalling: 6th Minute (Roma 1, Spezia 0)
After winning the first corner of the match in the sixth minute, Jordan Veretout lofted an outswinger towards Tammy Abraham, who quickly set up camp in the middle of the area. While Abraham managed to fire a solid header towards Ivan Provedel's goal, given the sheer distance it had to cover, the attempt was far from a sure thing—Abraham appeared to be aiming for the far corner. And with Smalling in the direct flight path of the ball, the veteran English defender left nothing to chance, giving the ball a final nudge to ensure it went in the back of the net.
That goal, Smalling's first league strike since July of 2020, also marked the first time an English player provided an assist for another Englishman, according to Opta Stats; or at the very least, it was the first Englishman-to-Englishman goal-assist duo on record since they began tracking data in 2004.
Not content with that early goal, Roma very nearly doubled their pleasure moments later when Borja Mayoral received a ball at the edge of the area from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. And with Abraham darting into the box on a picture-perfect diagonal run, this passage of play had all the makings of a spectacular one-two goal. Unfortunately, Mayoral's first touch let him down and the play went for naught, but it looked as if it was torn straight from Pep Guardiola's pass-and-move manual. This definitely would have gone in Roma's 2021 scrapbook.
Borja very nearly had his name called again when Provedel turned the ball over while trying to clear his lines. Mayoral, seemingly shocked to receive a pass from the opposing keeper, managed to react quickly—charging right back towards the goal—but was quickly dispossessed by the Spezia defense.
After a raucous start to the match, the pace soon slowed down as both sides struggled to create any clear-cut chances. In the 25th minute, Matías Viña nearly found the back of the net after he was set up by Abraham only to be denied by Provedel's quick reflexes.
Next up was Abraham, who attempted an audacious bicycle kick in the 31st minute off a Mkhitaryan cross. Top marks to Abraham for even having the guts to attempt that, but this would have been a miracle of the highest order given the pace of the ball and his location on the pitch.
And that was really it. The final 10 to 15 minutes of the match carried on without issue until the bitter end when, for what feels like the 20th time, Abraham hit the woodwork. In this instance, with Viña carrying the ball up the pitch and doing a masterful job of changing speed and directions, he soon picked out Mkhitaryan who served the ball up to a ready and willing Abraham, only to see his shot strike the upper right-hand corner of the goal. And with the ball quickly caroming off the uprights, Jordan Veretout lashed a follow-up attempt only to see it strike the defender's chest/shoulder area.
While Roma pleaded for a call, the VAR saw nothing untoward and the whistle blew without issue. Despite the early lead, Roma seemed to let up as the match crossed the half-hour mark. But could they compound Spezia's misery in the second half?
Holding a narrow one-goal lead over a club that has given his side fits over the past few years, José Mourinho didn't mess with success, keeping his starting lineup intact to begin the second half. Although, with a more energetic Spezia greeting them on the pitch, maybe The Special One wished he'd parked the bus. Within minutes, the visitors tested Rui Patricio as Rey Manaj tried to catch Roma napping in the 46th minute, only to see his shot miss the mark.
It mattered little in the end, but Spezia approached the second half with a renewed sense of purpose and, quite frankly, just more energy. In an effort to feed that fire, Thiago Motta made a triple swap in the 53rd minute, including former Roma player turned Roma killer Daniele Verde, who scored in all three contests between these two sides last season.
Spezia's refreshed approach marched on unabated as both Manaj and Kevin Agudelo tested Patricio as the match crawled towards the hour mark. Agudelo's attempt nearly caught Roma off guard but Patricio, who was almost caught leaning the other way, managed to drop quickly to the pitch to smother the ball underneath his rib cage.
Roma's lead hadn't vanished, but given the history between these two clubs, and the simple fact that Verde was on the pitch, that one-goal lead felt anything but safe. And just as they did nearly an hour earlier, Roma found success via the setpiece.
Roger Ibañez: 56th Minute (Roma 2, Spezia 0)
Another set piece, another goal!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) December 13, 2021
Roger Ibañez double's Roma's lead pic.twitter.com/r6z0CsQy2s
This setpiece was a manager's dream come true: just a clean and accurate hit from Veretout and a powerful and direct run to the ball from Ibañez, who broke for the goal line the minute the ball left Veretout's foot, never lifting his gaze from the ball and burying it home with a powerful header.
Spezia appeared to pull a goal back a few minutes later when Roma failed to clear their lines, with Manaj getting loose in the box and tucking one past Patricio. However, after a quick VAR appeal, the goal was disallowed thanks to multiple players offside. Bullet dodged.
Sensing the momentum slipping between his fingers, Mourinho made a double change in the 64th minute, swapping out Borja Mayoral and Chris Smalling for Felix Afena-Gyan and Amadou Diawara, respectively. As one would imagine, the sight of Felix sent the forty-thousand strong in the stands into hysterics.
And after only a few moments on the pitch, Felix won his side a corner, one Veretout nearly served up for Roma's third goal of the evening. With Veretout's initial attempt being sent back out by Spezia, Mkhitaryan seized on the rebound but wasn't able to beat Provedel.
With a two-goal lead to protect, Roma played it safe down the stretch but still managed to make life uncomfortable for the Spezia defense, with Abraham, Mkhitaryan, and even Max Kumbulla threatening in the game’s dying moments.
Spezia wouldn't leave the match without causing a bit of chaos in Patricio's area, though. In the waning moments of the match, Spezia seemed to conjure a scoring chance out of thin air, baiting Roma into a manic sequence that featured multiple deflections, a slide tackle from Karsdorp, and a harried diving save from Patricio, who smothered what would have been a sure-fire goal for Spezia, who were once again chalked off for offside.
And it got even worse (for Spezia) when Kelvin Amian missed a free header in the 82nd minute, but the Spezia full-back completely flubbed this gimme goal, preserving Patricio's cleansheet in the process.
Of course, this being a Roma match and all, the game wouldn't end without a bit of controversy. In what amounted to the final action of the game, Felix beat his marker down the right channel and fired a shot past a hapless Provedel. The secret to his success? A blatant handball; like, he literally swung at it with his left arm to create space in the box—a youthful mistake but one that got him booked for the second time, meaning he'll be suspended next weekend.
Despite the chorus of boos raining down from the Olimpico stands, Roma was all smiles tonight.
With 12 shots on goal, Roma weren't at their most prolific but with 50% of those hitting their intended targets, they were definitely efficient. Despite all that, when the shots aren't going in from the run of play, you have no choice but to rely on setpieces. And thanks to Veretout, Smalling, and Ibañez, Roma did exactly that, winning the day thanks to two perfectly orchestrated corner kicks.
Thanks to tonight’s victory, Roma vaulted back into sixth place, ahead of Juventus on goal differential, and should face a quieter week in the press as they prepare to face third-place Atalanta this weekend.
A trip to Bergamo is on the docket as Roma faces Atalanta on Saturday the 18th.
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