Thanks to Atalanta's victory earlier today, Roma entered this round 24 match outside of the top four but had a chance to vault as high as third with a win over Milan. However, with their backline still beset by injuries and the pitch at the Olimpico noticeably damp from recent rains, not to mention tattered by last night's Italy vs. Ireland rugby match (with the shadow of a Guinness logo lingering at midfield), the conditions for a Roma victory were far from optimal.
However, unlike their form for, oh, the past year, AC Milan came to the capital licking wounds of their own. After ripping off nearly a year of positive results, the Rossoneri hit a bit of a rough patch in February, losing three of their past five matches, including a 3-0 defeat in the Milan derby.
Given that bit of bad luck, Milan looked incredibly motivated from the opening whistle and put Roma's backline under pressure almost immediately. In only the third minute of the match, Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his presence known, forcing Pau Lopez into a quick save at the near right post. Lopez was up to the task and quickly parried the ball over the goal, conceding a corner to Milan in the process.
After that, things got, shall we say, unsettled.
Off the ensuing corner, Milan created a chance through Sandro Tonali, who found Zlatan at the far left post. Zlatan fired immediately, forcing a save from several Roma players in the box, but the ball hung up just enough to give Fikayo Tomori a clean look at the goal, which the Chelsea loanee scored with ease but was quickly ruled offside, erasing the result.
And that was only after 180 seconds of football. Things got even crazier moments later. In the sixth minute, while attempting to clear a bit of danger, Federico Fazio played a simple ball back to Lopez, but the Spanish keeper's first touch let him down, which then gave Ibrahimovic a clear look at goal. Ibra's first attempt was saved by Lopez but the ball immediately fell back to the Milan man, who, with his back to the goal, opted for an audacious back-heeled attempt rather than turning and firing. Luckily for Roma, Zlatan's need to show off cost Mian a goal as the ball struck the woodwork and went out of bounds.
Zlatan has a great opportunity to score but tried a backheel instead pic.twitter.com/20WWtzwyUi— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 28, 2021
Pfew. Catch your breath. At this point, only six minutes had ticked off the clock, and somehow things got even more chaotic.
In the 14th minute, following another sloppy touch from Roma, Ante Rebic seized on a loose ball and immediately sprang into action, darting down the right flank and rather than taking the shot himself, he played it across the face of goal to Zlatan, who tucked it in the back of the net only to be judged offside...again.
15 minutes into the match, Roma committed multiple ghastly errors but Milan still couldn't capitalize, losing two goals via offside calls. Rebic would get another chance in the 17th minute, forcing Lopez into another early save.
And then, in the 22nd minute of the match, Roma managed their first attempt on goal: a side volley from Jordan Veretout in the box, which Gianluigi Donnarumma smothered with ease.
Five minutes later, Milan came agonizingly close to scoring when Simon Kjaer's header hit the crossbar off a setpiece, sparing Roma yet again. The Giallorossi then had an almost moment of their own off a corner. With Gianluca Mancini heading the ball onto to Henrikh Mkhitaryan at the near post, Roma's #77 slotted the ball past Donnarumma with ease only to see the goal disallowed due to a Mancini foul on the header.
At this point, we're at the half-hour mark, or at least I think so; this was, like, three matches worth of action jammed into 30 minutes. Rebic would force another save in the 33rd minute, while Alexis Saelemaekers would test Lopez in the 35th—Lopez was up to snuff both times (and then some).
Roma would jab pack and created arguably their best chance of the half when Mkhitaryan rolled a ball into the box for Lorenzo Pellegrini on his left. Roma's captain couldn't get off a genuine attempt but forced two harried blocks from Tomori and Tonali in the 38th minute.
Roma came straight back the very next minute when Rick Karsdorp lofted a ball into the area, finding Mkhitaryan in stride on the left edge of the box. And with Donnarumma coming off his line, Mkhitaryan tried to chip the ball past the massive Milan keeper but his attempt sailed high and wide to the left.
Despite all the chaos, all the turnovers, and all the times Roma tempted fate, this match was shockingly still scoreless, but that would change in the 42nd minute. With Milan in possession deep in Roma territory, the Rossoneri played the ball into Davide Calabria at the edge of the box with Federico Fazio not far behind.
In fact, one could argue that Fazio, Calabria, and the ball all arrived at the same time, but when Fazio placed a foot in to intercept the ball, he inadvertently took Calabria down and was given a rather controversial penalty.
While there was a brief debate between Ibrahimovic and Franck Kessie over who should take the spot kick, Kessie stepped up and cooly converted the penalty to give Milan a one-nil lead at the half.
And what a half it was. From a personal perspective, this half tested the limits of my ability to take notes, start forming sentences, watch the match, and Tweet all at the same time.
It would have been great if the two sides decided to feel each other out to start the second half, but when Theo Hernandez got loose and fired a shot Roma's way in only the 49th minute, it was clear as day: there would be no let-up from Milan in this match.
But it would be Roma and not Milan who drew first blood in the second half.
Jordan Veretout: 50th Minute (Roma 1, Milan 1)
While it's a bit tough to make out from this Zapruder film footage, Roma hit back thanks to a wonderfully struck ball from Jordan Veretout, who side-footed a shot from the edge of the area to beat Donnarumma at the opposite post. Wonderful effort and technique from Veretout who became only the second French midfielder to score 10 goals in Serie A, joining Michel Platini in that exclusive club. And Veretout nearly did his countryman one better moments later only to see his attempt intercepted/blocked by Tomori.
Veretout and Roma’s glory would be fleeting, however, as Milan struck back less than 10 minutes later.
Ante Rebic: 58th Minute (Roma 1, Milan 2)
Ante Rebic goal.— Penalti Sheva (@diavolocalcio) February 28, 2021
Mancini pasrah gitu kena puter pic.twitter.com/1sIiH3Eu9p
While you can't see it from that clip, this goal took root thanks to an error from Pau Lopez, whose clearance to the left missed its mark and sort of just hung up in the air, dying in no man's land between two Roma players. Milan then immediately seized on the opportunity, finding Rebic at the edge of the box in a two-touch move. From there, Rebic pulled off a text-book turn and shoot maneuver in front of Gianluca Mancini to put Milan back on top.
We're an hour deep into the match at this point and, sensing the need to punch back at Milan, Paulo Fonseca made his first sub: bringing off the maligned Federico Fazio for Bruno Peres. Roma would scrape together another half-chance in the 70th minute when Borja Mayoral got loose in the final third and had a clean look at the goal, pulling Donnarumma off his line, but was...you guessed it...offside.
But credit to Roma. Despite the continuing gaffes in possession, they kept coming and in the 72nd minute almost grabbed an equalizer when Mkhitaryan nearly scored a carbon copy of Rebic's goal, turning and firing in front of Kessie only to see his shot sail high and wide—the shielding of the ball, the turn, and the attempt were exquisite, but he just couldn't seem to get enough bend on the ball.
Peres would have his chance in the 74th minute when he slipped to the back post and fired a header off a Mancini lob, only to see Donnarumma make a rather clumsy save at the post.
Fonseca would make a double change in the 79th minute, bringing on Amadou Diawara and Pedro for Veretout and Pedro, respectively. With Edin Dzeko injured and watching from the stands, Fonseca had no other striker on the bench, so this change of formation was his only choice down the stretch.
Shortly after this swap, Mkhitaryan once again forced the issue, firing a shot at Donnarumma, which he easily saved, but what ensued was...interesting. With Donnarumma's save loose in the box, Mkhitaryan and Theo half collided, half hugged and half engaged in a Sumo contest (I know three halves don't make a whole), with Mkhtiaryan bearing the brunt of it and being dragged down to the pitch. However, rather than rewarding Roma with a penalty, or even checking the tape, the referee actually booked Mkhitaryan for simulation.
And shortly thereafter, Milan almost caught Roma napping when Rade Krunic attempted to chip Lopez from halfway up the pitch and would have succeeded if Lopez didn't parry the ball over the bar with the very tip of his gloves—incredible concentration and effort from Pau.
With the match now in added time, Roma had one final chance to level it in the 92nd minute. With Leonardo Spinazzola starting a quick passing sequence on the left, one that found Mkhitaryan at the edge of the box, who quickly laid it off to El Shaarawy, Pedo was the ultimate recipient but flubbed the final attempt, missing the goal almost entirely.
And that, sadly, was that (more or less). Mkhitaryan would fire another attempt Donnarumma's way in the 94th minute, but Gigi was more than up to the task, closing the chapter on another frustrating Roma defeat against a top side.
With 33 combined attempts, nearly half of which were on target, this was perhaps the most wide-open match we've seen all season long. And nearly the entire Roma experience was on display tonight: we had shaky possession balanced with some truly beautiful passing sequences; turnovers and takeaways galore; Lopez miracles and Lopez catastrophes; justified fouls and bogus ones; moments of individual brilliance and moments of incredible frustration and more missed chances than I care to count.
In the end, the stats show this was a pretty even contest, but, on any other day, Milan could have scored at least four goals and would have been comfortable 3-1 winners if Zlatan didn't feel the need to be Zlatan on that early practically open-goal backheel shot.
With this defeat, Roma are now outside of the top four, stuck in fifth place, two points behind Atalanta and Juventus, while Fonseca continues to be vexed by top of the table opponents—at least in terms of results; I'm not sure he shoulders the blame entirely on his own here.
Roma travels to Firenze to face Fiorentina on Wednesday before hosting Genoa on Sunday.