After ripping off a 6-1 win over Florentia in the Coppa Italia two weeks ago, Roma returns to Serie A Femminile action on Sunday against sixth-place Empoli. That victory, which pushed the Giallorosse through to the semifinals of the Coppa Italia, was Roma's sixth-straight victory in all competitions, a span in which they've outscored their opponents by an astonishing 26-3 margin. Granted, that scoreline was padded by a few cup blowouts, but it's safe to say that Roma have put their 2020 struggles behind them.
Currently slotted in 5th place—17 points behind both second-place AC Milan and league-leading Juventus (who also play Sunday)—Roma will likely miss out on the real spoils this season, the Scudetto and Champions League qualification, but thanks to their recent change of fortunes, Roma have managed to climb back into the upper reaches of the table.
Roma vs. Empoli: February 28th. 12:30 CET/6:30 EST. Stadio Tre Fontane, Roma.
And with a victory over Empoli and some help elsewhere on the table, Roma can move into fourth place, putting third place Sassuolo firmly within their crosshairs. Third place may not seem like much, but it would represent the culmination of a stunning 2021 turnaround for Betty Bavagnoli's squad.
Before we dive into today's match, let's revisit the disappointing first fixture from September
September 5, 2020: Empoli 2, Roma 0
If you want to encapsulate Roma's 2020 struggles in one image, fast forward to the six-second mark of that clip and you'll see Agnese Bonfantini bursting down the right flank after Allyson Swaby sprung her loose. In a flash, Bonfantini blew past her defender, settled the jostling ball, avoided another defender and the keeper closing her out, and somehow still managed to toe-poke the ball towards the far post, only to see it hit the woodwork. And then, as if that miss weren't frustrating enough, Annamaria Serturini's follow-up attempt was thwarted by a diving defender.
Roma then managed to practically recreate this same scenario when Angelica Soffia cleverly dribbled past her defender on the right and played a low cross into the box for Andrine Hegerberg only to be denied by a fraction of an inch.
Things took a dramatic turn for the worse when Roma conceded two penalties to Empoli in the second half, dooming them to an early-season defeat. When you consider the context here—Roma defeated Empoli by a combined 6-1 score last season and were, based on the style of play, aggression, and chances created, the better side in this match—Roma's early-season struggles become clear: they suffered from poor finishing, a bit of bad luck and some rash challenges in the back.
Second Fixture, New Approach
Roma manager Betty Bavagnoli took to the mic ahead of this match, focusing on Roma's new approach in this second meeting against Empoli: (Translations via VoceGiallorossa)
There is a different team that has a different awareness and a desire to show that the work done in the first part of the season was still good even if there were no results. Empoli has proven to be a reality of the Italian championship, it is a team that wants to move forward and is with its feet on the ground. They have always worked well, we know who we are going to meet. Roma are a different team today, it will certainly not be the same match as the first leg... The girls are charged up, we have prepared well. It’s another thing to find ourselves all together, we’re just waiting for the match
Empoli manager Alessandro Spugna also spoke on the differences between the first two meetings:
Repeat the 2-0 first leg? I hope so. But I also think it is a very difficult match. Roma is perhaps the team in the best form in the league. And then, as I have always said, Roma are the team that offers the best football in Serie A. In the first leg, we almost played the perfect match, playing with great attention...And we won with two penalties: there were penalties, but the game was determined by those two episodes and we must be aware of it. One thing is certain: we will play our game as usual, trying to put in place. difficulty a strong team
Spugna was perhaps being a bit generous in that assessment—Milan and Juve have exactly one loss between them this season—but given their form and the sheer disparity in talent, Roma should be prohibitive favorites in this match; if Spugna is waiting for penalties to save Empoli, he's going to be sorely disappointed.
Key to Roma's recent successes have been the sterling performances of Andressa Alves and Manuela Giugliano, who are finally starting to mesh and are proving to be as devastating to opposing defenses as we'd hoped they'd be when Roma signed the pair last summer. With Andressa operating as a defacto trequartista and Giugliano ushering Roma's transition play, the Giallorosse attacking engine has been humming to perfection over the past few weeks.
Expect those two start, with Andressa likely sitting behind Serutrini, Paloma Lázaro and either Lindsey Thomas or Agnese Bonfantini in attack. Giugliano should partner with Claudia Ciccotti, who is newly healthy after dealing with some hip issues, in midfield while the rearguard should remain unchanged: Camelia Ceasar in goal and Elisa Bartoli, Angelica Soffia, Allyson Swaby, and Elena Linari in defense.
With all that talent, Roma will be motivated to prove that last time out was a fluke and that Empoli don't even belong on the same pitch with them. A win would vault Bavagnoli's crew above Fiorentina into fourth place, six points behind third-place Sassuolo.
Regardless of the table, Roma simply needs to focus on improving the product on the pitch through greater efficiency in attack and better decision making in defense—which they've been mastering in 2021.
There were some down moments late last year, but the Roma we've seen over the past few weeks is the real Roma—the one that can contend for a league title. The seeds they plant this spring will bear fruit next season.