At the beginning of Roma's Europa League campaign, Paulo Fonseca's plan was clear: lean primarily on the reserves and wait until absolutely necessary to bring in the heavy hitters. And after bowling through the group stages with a 4-1-1 record, Fonseca's A-Team vs B-Team approach worked like gangbusters. Young players like Borja Mayoral and Gonzalo Villar got valuable match experience while Roma's veteran players received some much-needed rest.
Of course, much has changed since then, with players like Mayoral and Villar moving up to the A-Team at the expense of names like Edin Dzeko and Pedro, but Fonseca's group stage tactics wouldn't necessarily fare as well in the knockout rounds.
And that was the biggest question as Roma headed to Braga today—how would Fonseca approach this match? Would he rely on his regulars, rush out to an early lead and then bring in the kids or would he take the opposite approach?
The truth was somewhere in between. Fonseca brought Pedro, Edin Dzeko, and Amadou Diawara back into the starting lineup but otherwise fielded his regulars, with the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jordan Veretout, and Roger Ibañez taking the pitch at the stunning Braga Municipal Stadium, which looked as if it was hand-hewn from the surrounding cliffside—a truly stunning backdrop for a football ground.
And we didn't have to wait long for Roma's old faces to make their presence felt...
Edin Dzeko: 5th Minute (Braga 0, Roma 1)
After shaking out the rust to begin the game, Roma took the early initiative here thanks to two forgotten players: Dzeko and Amadou Diawara. Roma's overlooked midfielder started the play from deep in Roma territory, springing Leonardo Spinazzola with a beautifully lobbed ball over the top. From there, Spinazzola charged down the left flank before firing the ball into Dzeko, and Roma's former captain was up to the task, slotting the ball home to give Roma the early lead.
Of course, since this is Roma, something bad immediately happened: Bryan Cristante was forced off the pitch due to an injury, depleting an already short-staffed backline and forcing Paulo Fonseca to turn to the bench before his players even broke a sweat. With Cristante off, Fonseca juggled his backline, bringing on Bruno Peres for Cristante and shifting Roger Ibañez into the center of the back three.
Despite that unexpected change, Ibañez, Gianluca Mancini, and Bruno Peres kept Braga's attack under wraps for most of the first half, swallowing up nearly every final ball the Archbishops played into Lopez's box. Braga were as patient as advertised—slowly working the ball up the pitch with pass after pass—but they were lacking any real punch in the area and were easily turned away by Roma's backline.
Like any football match, there were typical attacking ebbs and flows and as the match crawled towards the half-hour mark, Braga showed a few signs of life, moving the ball up the pitch with a greater sense of urgency, but Roma responded in kind, finding acres of space in between the Braga defense with Mkhitaryan and Pedro keeping their heads on a swivel, looking for Dzeko at every opportunity.
Roma nearly got their second goal in the 37th minute when Pedro got on the end of a through-ball/dummy and had a one-v-one against the keeper from nearly 40 yards out. After deking the keeper, Pedro tapped the ball into the goal but was quickly ruled offside. Pedro was denied again moments later by an extremely close offside call, but he was finding space in Braga's area at every turn—a welcome sign for an older player coming off a string of minor injuries.
Braga would mount a mini-surge to close out the first half, playing a dangerous ball into the box that had every Roma defender beat by a hair's breadth, but the Giallorossi were able to avoid disaster...barely.
Fonseca didn't make any changes at the half, but Braga definitely changed their approach—taking multiple direct paths at Roma's backline in the opening stages of the half. Roma very nearly blew their slim one-goal lead when Roger Ibañez knocked Braga striker Andraz Sporar down in the box. There was no attempt on the ball whatsoever, Ibañez just leveled him and was lucky to avoid a card.
And, once again, bad luck immediately struck Roma as Ibañez was forced off with an injury due to this collision. With Juan Jesus and Federico Fazio watching from home, Fonseca had no choice but to bring in midfielder Gonzalo Villar, forcing yet another unplanned change to the Giallorossi backline, which now consisted of Mancini on the right, Spinazzola in the middle, and Peres on the left.
Roma caught a bit of luck moments later when Ricard Esgaio picked up his second yellow of the match after elbowing Villar in the face, sending Braga down to ten men in only the 55th minute.
To recap the first 10 minutes of this half: Ibañez was lucky to avoid a red card after taking down Sporar in the box, and then had to come off with an apparent leg injury. And the man brought on for Ibañez, Gonzalo Villar, was slapped in the face by Esgaio, who picked up a second yellow and was sent off.
With the match approaching the hour-mark, Roma had their third goal of the evening called off due to an offside call, with Mkhitaryan miss-timing his run into the box by a fraction of a second. Despite the close call, it was a signal of intent from Roma, who were giving Braga a bit too much space at this point in the match and needed to wrest back control from the home side.
Despite being down a man, Braga didn’t relent and continued to hunt for an equalizer. With Roma content to take a bit of gas out of the match and play the counter, the Giallorossi nearly found a second goal just shy of the 70th minute when Spinazzola found Dzeko at the far post. The ball seemed to die on the grass, giving Matheus ample time to smother the ball before Dzeko could get a boot to it.
Fonseca made his first uncoerced sub of the match, swapping out Dzeko for Mayoral and Pedro for Stephan El Shaarawy, who was making his first appearance since signing with Roma in January.
Mkhitaryan had a clear-cut chance in the 78th minute as he shook off multiple defenders and got a bit lucky with a loose ball falling back into his path only to fire the ball well over the crossbar.
The match became a bit unglued at this point, with the referee giving Braga manager Carvalhal a yellow card for protesting too much but the final ten minutes of the match were all Roma, as the Giallorossi were able to grab a second goal in the 86th minute when Jordan Veretout played a right to left cross to Mayoral for an easy tap-in goal.
Borja Mayoral: 86th Minute (Braga 0, Roma 2)
Golazo de la Roma. Por fin pensó, aprovechó el hombre de más y resolvió en tres cuartos de cancha.— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) February 18, 2021
Veretout, El Shaarawy, Mkhitaryan, otra vez Veretout y Mayoral la mandó a guardar.
Es por ahí. Tocar para lastimar, moverse para distraer y picar para encontrar espacios. Daje! pic.twitter.com/VzGzgK3RHa
This well-orchestrated five-touch move is emblematic of what happens when your coach and team have ample time to work together. This entire sequence just oozed planning, preparation, and chemistry. Lovely work here from Roma.
Due to the cards, the spate of substitutions, and some minor knocks, the referee added seven minutes of stoppage time to this match—SEVEN.
Despite not knowing exactly how Paulo Fonseca would approach this match, and with a somewhat patchwork starting lineup taking the pitch, the precision and fluidity with which Roma played were testaments to the power of patience—you don't get that kind of seamless performance if the coach and players aren't on the same page.
With a spate of minor injuries and a completely foreign opponent staring them in the face, Roma didn't skip a beat, and what's more, Dzeko and Pedro looked incredibly sharp during their time on the pitch, while the inclusion of El Shaarawy gives Fonseca even more options in attack—a very encouraging performance from Roma under some slightly adverse circumstances should set them up well for a rather busy end to February, where they face Benevento, Braga, and AC Milan in a seven-day span.
Roma faces Benevento on the road on Sunday.
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