Fresh off their 2-0 victory over Braga in the Europa League Round of 32 on Thursday, one in which Roma produced some eye-catching attacking movements, the Giallorossi were riding high. And with the weekend's results falling in their favor, including AC Milan falling in the derby to Inter, if they played their cards right, Roma could set out on a path that would see them move into second place by the end of the month.
But, in many ways, today's outcome was a lesson in the danger of assumptions. With Chris Smalling, Roger Ibañez, Marash Kumbulla, and even midfielder-turned-defender Bryan Cristante absent, the pre-match narratives focused solely on Roma's ability to cope with their decimated defense; there was nary a mention of what Benevento could actually do to frustrate Roma.
And while that narrative proved true to an extent—Benevento were certainly active albeit lacking bite—the remaining two-thirds of Roma's lineup produced more headaches than the stitched-together defense, which actually held together quite well.
Federico Fazio looked a bit shaky in the opening moments of the match but quickly settled down, seemingly treating every touch as an audition for more playing time. But rather than being let down by his defense, Paulo Fonseca's high-octane attack struggled to get in gear against Benevento.
With Rick Karsdorp and Bruno Peres struggling to provide much width and unable to string together the same passing triangles that gave Braga fits last week, the attacking onus fell on Gonzalo Villar and Jordan Veretout, who were tasked with priming Roma's transition game.
But rather than blazing past Benevento in midfield, Vertout and Villar were uncharacteristically sloppy, committing multiple turnovers in the opening 15 to 20 minutes, including one egregious turnover from Villar, who nearly gifted Gianluca Lapadula a goal in the 16th minute. After seizing on a listless pass from Villar, Lapadula had a veritable one-v-one against Pau Lopez, beating the Spanish keeper with a shot low and away only to be flagged offside at the last moment.
Roma could breathe a sigh of relief, but their play in the first half was anything but inspiring. Benevento weren't really doing much to stress Roma in the final third, but the host's defensive shape and ability to absorb and react to Roma's movements was practically flawless.
Whether Roma took the direct route or tried to force the action from the wings, Benevento seemingly always had a man in the right spot at the right time, closing out space, intercepting passes, and deflecting crosses with ease—very impressive composure from the hosts, who were on the short end of the possession stick by quite some margin.
Despite barely seeing the ball, Benevento managed six attempts in the first half, half of which were on target. And while none of those attempts genuinely threatened Lopez's goal, Benevento were playing with more life, more verve in the first half than Roma, who seemed equal parts frustrated at the lack of space afforded to them and simply exhausted after the quick turnaround from Braga on Thursday.
And so, for the first time in a few weeks, Paulo Fonseca had to divine some sort of inspiration at half-time.
Rather than making personnel changes to start the half, Paulo Fonseca was simply hoping for a change in approach, or, at the very least, a change in energy. After a sluggish and, at times, sloppy first half, Fonseca would have been pleased by some early attempts on goal—and he got just that.
Five minutes into the new half, Roma generated perhaps their best chance of the game when Lorenzo Pellegrini played a quick diagonal through ball into the box, springing Mkhitaryan into action. While Micki was able to run onto the ball, he was quickly collapsed upon by the defense and didn't get a clean look, lashing at it with his toe rather than really laying into it. Either way, Benevento keeper Lorenzo Montipó smothered without batting an eye.
While the match was still lacking in goals (or even clear-cut chances), it wasn't bereft of action—and controversy. In the 57th minute, Kamil Glik was booked for taking Mkhitaryan down, drawing his second yellow of the match and giving Roma a man-advantage for the final 30 minutes of the match. But rather than dutifully walking off the pitch, Glik hunkered down along the ad boards, giving referee Luca Pairetto a not-so-subtle sign of insubordination.
Sensing a budding stalemate in Campania, Fonseca made the change many Roma fans have been begging for all season long, pairing Edin Dzeko with Borja Mayoral in attack...
TWO strikers??? pic.twitter.com/WgPPNq4PS9— Chiesa di Totti (@chiesaditotti) February 21, 2021
While Dzeko didn't get any looks at goal early on, the weight of his presence did have a noticeable effect—Roma suddenly had a reference point and someone capable of holding up play, stifling the swirling Benevento backline if only for a moment.
And in the 64th minute, Roma nearly found their big man in the middle. After Spinazzola played a floating left-to-right cross to Karsdorp at the far post, Dzeko planted himself in the middle of the area—shaded slightly towards the right—waiting for a redirection that never came; Karsdorp simply couldn't settle and redirect the cross, but Dzeko had a gimme goal waiting for him.
Fonseca would make another, even more, significant change in the 72nd minute, swapping out Fazio and Karsdorp for Juan Jesus and Pedro, respectively. With Peres now on his more familiar right-hand side and Spinazzola serving as an actual left-back, Roma were effectively playing a 4-4-2 with Jesus and Mancini anchoring the backline.
With the minutes ticking away and the tension rising, Fonseca made yet another attacking change in the 82nd minute bringing on Stephan El Shaarawy for Mkhitaryan.
Where the first 82 minutes of this match were dreadfully dull, the final eight minutes plus stoppage time was pure chaos: we had a goalkeeper (Montipó) carded for wasting time after being cautioned at least three times, Inzaghi was booked again for dissent, drawing his second yellow and being sent off in stoppage time. We had Roma throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Benevento in a desperate search for a match-winner, but the final seconds of this match was unlike anything I've ever seen.
With seconds remaining in the game, Roma took a page out of an NFL playbook and lofted a Hail Mary to Dzeko at the edge of the box. Rather than settle the ball and try to beat the defender, Dzeko headed the ball further into the box, where it was cleverly (and quickly) back-heeled by Pellegrini, who somehow found El Shaarawy waiting on the left. El Shaarawy made an immediate move towards the goal and was taken down by the Benevento defense in a clear-cut penalty—or so we thought.
With the Benevento squad practically apoplectic, referee Luca Pairetto could be seen cupping his ears with his hands in a desperate attempt to communicate with the VAR officials. Something was definitely amiss as he took his time pointing to the spot, and for good reason—Dzeko was offside to begin the play.
It was the correct call but it was still a bitter pill to swallow as the final whistle blew seconds later, damning Roma to a scoreless draw—the third-straight league match in which they've failed to sore on the road.
It will be interesting to see how this performance is digested by the press and fans alike. When Roma rolls over smaller opponents, stacking up consecutive compelling victories and shrinking the gap in the top four, Fonseca is hailed as a genius. One who has trouble against the big clubs, sure, but one who gets everything else right and manages to keep Roma in the thick of the action. But when he loses, which is quite frequently against the masters of Serie A, it's doom and gloom: he's a charlatan who should be driven out of town, if not tarred and feathered.
But this? This will be an entirely new litmus test for Roma's manager. A scoreless draw on the road is one thing, but it's an entirely different ball of wax when they can't even put a goal past lowly Benevento while having a man-advantage for over 30 minutes. Remember, this is the same club they walloped 5-2 back in the fall.
At the end of the day, Roma is no worse for the wear on the table—still clinging onto third place by a mere point—but there is definitely an opportunity cost to this draw. Had Roma won this match, they would have had a chance to go into second place with a victory over AC Milan next Sunday at the Olimpico, potentially trailing league-leading Inter by only four points.
So, spare a thought for Paulo Fonseca tonight. He's going to have a hell of a week at work.
Roma hosts Braga on Thursday before welcoming Milan on Sunday.