The squad rotation wasn't quite as extensive as we thought it might be, but José Mourinho still trotted out several seldom seen faces today for Roma's final Europa Conference League group stage match, including starts for Borja Mayoral, Edoardo Bove, and Daniel Fuzato, who made his first-ever appearance for Mourinho. Apart from that, it was business as usual for The Special One, who still relied on Tammy Abraham, Roger Ibañez, Bryan Cristante, and several other regular starters as the Giallorossi looked to wrap up their Group C commitments today in Bulgaria.
No matter who Mourinho selected today, Roma had more than just CSKA Sofia to worry about. With sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures at kick-off and a pitch that looked like a bunch of barnyard animals held a square dance on it late last night, the Giallorossi were walking the razor's edge. We've come to expect the unexpected whenever Roma venture into these far-flung European fixtures, but having to deal with frigid temperatures and a shoddy pitch was just another headache Roma could ill afford.
While neither the pitch nor the weather seemed to affect Roma early on, the pace of this match was dreadfully slow. With Roma holding the lion's share of possession and CSKA Sofia content to watch as the Giallorossi stitched together well-intended but fruitless passes, neither club really gave neutral observers much reason to continue watching.
Roma caused a little ruckus early in the match when Jordan Veretout sent a free-kick into the heart of the Sofia area but the defense was able to deflect the ball away from harm without batting an eye. And that’s just kind of how it went for the first 15-20 minutes or so: Roma had an air of superiority about them but didn't play with any real sense of urgency, so the match just...existed. Roma were racking up the kilometers but didn't seem bothered by their inability to create any scoring chances.
With the match creeping towards the quarter-hour mark, Roma's best chance came via setpiece when Jordan Veretout weighed and measured a free-kick from about 20 yards out. With the CSKA wall standing in his way and his teammates eagerly anticipating Veretout's service, the French midfielder decided to finesse the ball to the far post only to see it sail harmlessly over the end line.
And just when it seemed like Roma were destined for another frigid draw far from home, Tammy Abraham rose to the occasion, finishing off a lovely team move to give his side an early advantage.
Tammy Abraham: 16th Minute (CSKA Sofia 0, Roma 1)
After Borja Mayoral received the ball at the edge of the area, this sequence was nearly rendered moot when he almost collided with Edoardo Bove, but Mayoral managed to retain possession, quickly playing the ball to Rick Karsdorp on the right. From there, Karsdorp flashed the ball across the face of the goal to the waiting Abraham, who tapped it home cool as you like to put Roma up 1-0.
With their guests up 1-0 and with nothing to lose themselves, one would have thought CSKA would have just said “fuck it, let's do this” but rather than pushing forward in an attempt to equalize, Sofia remained passive participants in the match, managing little more than a corner in the 19th minute, their first of the match; Roma already had four to that point.
CSKA would get their first genuine look at goal shortly thereafter—a headed attempt from Jordy Caciedo that was easily snapped up by Daniel Fuzato—but that was really the sum total of Sofia's good news in the first half.
However, as they so often say, a one-goal lead is seldom safe. While Roma weren't exactly playing with the throttle wide open, the pace picked up a bit as the match approached the half-hour mark and Roma would eventually find a second goal thanks once again to Borja Mayoral.
Borja Mayoral: 34th Minute (CSKA Sofia 0, Roma 2)
Top marks to Borja Mayoral for a cheeky back-heel/side of the boot goal, but Roma owes this entire sequence to Edoardo Bove. With CSKA attempting to build from the back, the young Roman forced a turnover before galloping up the pitch and firing the ball across the face of goal—and we mean across the face. While his intended target was likely at the near post, Bove's whipped-in cross ran all the way to the other side and out towards the edge of the area, where Matías Viña scooped it up, finding Mayoral in the middle of the box. And with his leg fully extended, he was able to make something out of nothing, deftly steering the ball inside the far post to put Roma up two-nil.
Borja nearly doubled his haul down the stretch when he burst through the middle of the defense but wasn't able to get a clean hit on the ball, getting just a bit underneath it and firing over the crossbar.
Nevertheless, after shaking off a slow start and battling the freezing temps and choppy pitch, Roma's class broke through, setting up an easy second half for the Giallorossi.
With a two-goal lead in his pocket, Mourinho would have been forgiven had he emptied the bench to start the second half. However, rather than turning to his subs, Mourinho stood pat but Roma didn't wait long before compounding CSKAs misery.
Tammy Abraham: 53rd Minute (CSKA 0, Roma 3)
Just as they did nearly 40 minutes earlier, Karsdorp and Abraham teamed up to push Roma's lead to a healthy (but not insurmountable) 3-0 just shy of the hour mark. After Karsdorp whipped in another killer cross from the right flank, Abraham showed an impeccable sense of timing and space, settling the ball and giving the briefest of stutter steps/hesitations to throw off CSKA keeper Gustavo Busatto's timing before burying the ball in the back of the net.
The ensuing 10 to 15 minutes were pretty stilted as Roma were content to see out their three-nil lead while CSKA struggled to mount a comeback. Mourinho would make his first change of the match in the 57th minute, swapping out Bove for Gonzalo Villar.
Sofia would finally put Daniel Fuzato under a bit of pressure, forcing the young keeper into a save in the 62nd minute when he parried a CSKA shot over the crossbar. He made a bit of a show out of it, but Fuzato sprung into action after nearly an hour of, well, nothing.
Two goals in his pocket and the sight of Eldor Shomurodov stripping off his tracksuit seemed to motivate Abraham, who was chasing a hattrick despite Mourinho's looming substitutions. And for a second, it looked like Abraham would get that third goal, as he was played into a near one-v-one against Busatto, who came off his line in a shot, practically picking the ball of Abraham's toe. Though, to be fair to him, the pass was just a tad too heavy for Abraham to get a clean look at it.
Abraham would eventually make way for Nicolo Zaniolo in the 68th minute, with Shomurodov coming on in place of Borja Mayoral at the same time. With 20 minutes remaining and a three-goal lead, it may have seemed odd to make two like-for-like attacking changes, but, while it wasn't intentional, Mourinho's decision proved quite prescient: CSKA Sofia made a match out of this down the stretch.
With 15 minutes left on the clock and three goals to erase, Roma fans everywhere were on edge as CSKA finally mounted their comeback. In the 75th minute, CSKA found a breakthrough when Hamza Catakovic pulled a page out of Abraham's playbook, setting up camp in the box, giving his wide man a target, and pulling off a bit of his own trickery—slyly taking a step back to create space before settling the ball and blasting it past Fuzato.
Despite that strike, with a two-goal lead to defend and only 15 minutes remaining, Roma's victory was in safe hands, or so it seemed. With four stoppage minutes tacked on, the Giallorossi were doing just enough to ensure those 240 seconds ticked away without issue, but CSKA wouldn't relent. In the 90th+ minute, Yanic Wildschut made Fuzato look foolish, rifling a 20-yard strike from the left edge of the area, somehow making Fuzato leap in the complete opposite direction. Fuzato was either napping or completely lost sight of the ball, but whatever it was, the sight of the goalkeeper leaping in nearly the total opposite direction of the ball's flight path was...interesting.
In the end, Roma's near heart attack became a mild case of agita, and thanks to Zorya drawing with Bodø in Ukraine, Roma ended the evening as Group C champions, albeit with a slightly bruised ego.
A win is a win is a win, right? Roma managed to shake off their sluggish start before building a three-nil lead before the hour mark, only to see that advantage nearly snatched away from them at the death. In other words, it was a typical Roma evening. Despite the nervy ending, there were plenty of bright spots for the boys in yellow this evening, including an impressive run from Bove, Tammy Two Goals reappearing, and two assists for Karsdorp.
With their victory this evening, Roma took the Group C honors, sparing them the knockout stage playoff round; a 16-team draw featuring the eight group stage runners up plus the eight third-place clubs dropping down from the Europa League.
Roma hosts Spezia on Monday Night Calcio
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