In the build-up to today's match, the first leg of Roma's Coppa Italia Semifinal matchup against Juventus, we spoke at length about the shrinking gap between these two clubs. Sure, Juventus seems set to cruise to their third-straight league title, but Roma were among the hottest teams in the league, winning seven of their last eight matches coming into this semifinal, and took the Old Lady to added extra time in their Supercoppa match in early January. They weren't exactly peers in the strictest sense of the word, but the chasm between these two clubs is closing quickly.
Roma couldn't slide past Juve in that January match, being undone by a 116th minute Cristiana Girelli goal, but it was a signal that this contest was shifting from an on-paper rivalry into a genuine battle of wills between two of the most well-organized and best-supported clubs in Serie A Femminile, which would be a dream come true for the league office.
And all of that came to a head this afternoon at the Tre Fontane in Rome, where the Giallorosse played host to Juventus in the first leg of the Coppa Italia Semifinals. And we didn't have to wait long for Roma to display their newfound confidence.
In only the second minute, Annamaria Serturini found the back of the net thanks to an assist from Paloma Lázaro, giving Roma an early and unexpected lead. Why unexpected? Simple, this was literally the first time Roma ever held a lead over Juventus. In their prior five meetings, Roma never managed to draw first blood, so this wasn't your ordinary goal.
Unfortunately, Roma weren't able to double their lead and spent the remainder of the first half engaged in a pretty taught affair, with Juventus looking more organized and aggressive, both on and off the ball. While their attack was primarily focused on finding Maria Alves through the middle, nearly every player in white swarmed towards the ball while Roma was in possession, resulting in hasty touches and rash decision-making from the women in red; they simply didn't have enough time on the ball to devise anything resembling an orchestrated attacking move.
And that's really how it went for the bulk of the match. It's not necessarily that Juventus held the lion's share of possession (though they did), it was just that they absolutely smothered Roma the minute they took possession. Pinned back deep in their own end, Elena Linari, Allyson Swaby, and the rest of the Giallorosse defense struggled to build play from the back, resulting in a lot of desperate long balls over the top or haphazard clearances up the wings—anything to just evade Juve's pressing. Roma seemed relieved to escape the pressure and lucky to even have the ball; it wasn't pretty.
There were a few occasions when Roma had the freedom to carry out a planned attack, and more often than not that meant feeding the ball through to Serturini on the left and hoping that she could shake her defender, get into the central channels and hopefully find a crack in Juve's defense. But more often than not, she was immediately seized upon by Juve's wide defenders, who were more than happy to deny her access to the penalty area.
This was also one of the chippiest matches we've seen in ages, as seemingly at every turn there was a player on the pitch writhing in agony. Couple that with Juve's pressing on both ends of the pitch and Roma's 1-0 lead felt anything but safe.
With so much international talent spread throughout their roster, it was only a matter of time before Juventus found a breakthrough. And in the 49th minute, the Old Lady found a moment of magic when Barbara Bonansea bullied Angelica Soffia off the ball on the right edge of the area. Soffia seemed to either miss-time the tackle or take an awkward approach angle because even though she met Bonansea at the ball at roughly the same time, her momentum carried her the opposite way, giving Bonansea a clear path to play the ball across the face of goal where Lina Hurtig was waiting to tap it in.
With the match knotted at one with more than 40 minutes to play, Roma's goodwill was in danger of disappearing in the wind. But, as the match wore on, it became even grimier, with players colliding left, right, and center, the worst of which saw Elena Linari and Cristiana Girelli come together on a loose ball, with the Roma defender's leg catching Girelli in the back. Girelli remained down on the pitch for quite a while and had to be carried off on a stretcher—spare a thought for her because she looked to be in exceptional pain.
Despite losing their best player, Juventus had Roma firmly under their thumb for most of the second half. If Roma managed to disrupt Juve's attack in the final third, the Old Lady immediately switched into pressing mode, forcing Roma into a series of hurried clearances, desperate passes up the flanks, and more turnovers than I care to count.
You didn't know when the other shoe was going to drop, but Roma didn't seem capable of holding onto this draw. But time and time again, they managed to get a foot in at the exact right moment, deflecting Juve's final passes with heels, knees, and thighs or whatever they could find, winning loose balls with diving saves and doing just enough to avert a complete collapse.
It wasn't pretty but Roma were hanging tough and their patience would soon be rewarded. Despite Juve running the show in the second half, the few moments of brilliance Roma produced came thanks to Serturini, who looked like the only Roma player capable of keeping Juve's defense honest.
And in the 88th minute, it paid huge dividends. With Serturini cutting in from the left and flashing the ball towards Juve's far post, Laura Giuliani came off her line and made a stretched fingertip save. While it was an impressive effort from Italy's top keeper, the rebound fell right to Lindsey Thomas at the right post, and the Frenchwoman just barely managed to get a toe to the contested ball, poking it in the back of the net to put Roma up 2-1.
Thanks to the Royal Rumble that broke out in the second half, the referee tacked on five added minutes of stoppage time, which eventually proved to be closer to six, but Roma stood their ground and defended till the last second, doing enough to kill the clock and win the match—their first-ever victory over Juventus, marking the first time the Old Lady has lost to an Italian opponent in TWO YEARS!
Hurtig's 49th-minute goal will make the return fixture on April 23rd an incredibly fraught affair, but let's not miss the mark here: Roma defeated Juventus for the first time ever. If their 2-1 last-ditch defeat in the Supercoppa in January was a moral victory, today's actual victory was an indelible mark of progress.
Roma may have stumbled to start the season, but after this victory, the Giallorosse have won eight of their last nine matches and will enter the return leg with a lead. It may be a precarious lead but Roma are achingly close to their first cup final in club history.
Not a bad way to start the weekend, eh?