Roma and Genoa had the pleasure of starting the Serie A slate today with a lunchtime kick-off but for Paulo Fonseca, this was anything but a Sunday stroll through the park. With his side once again beset by injuries, Roma's manager was forced to make four changes from the side that narrowly defeated Fiorentina midweek, including the first start for English defender Chris Smalling in nearly five weeks.
Of course, for those of us watching in North America, an Italy lunch-time kickoff means we're up with the sunrise to get our Roma fix, and based on the first passage of play at the Olimpico, we weren't the only ones struggling to find consciousness on this early Sunday morning.
Roma had the first bit of possession in this match, but quickly turned the ball over to Genoa, resulting in the slowest counter-attacking move the game has ever seen, led by the not so fleet afoot Mattia Destro. Whether it was 12:30 pm or 6:30 am in your corner of the globe, it's tough to be energetic on a Sunday.
Despite the early kickoff, Roma would continue to press on and generated the game's first chance off an early corner but Chris Smalling's fifth-minute header looped over the crossbar; a feat Roma would repeat shortly thereafter with Gianluca Mancini's header following a nearly identical trajectory.
Roma were dominating possession and encountering very little resistance from Genoa but simply couldn't create any genuine chances on goal. So when Genoa started to find the slightest bit of space in this match, you were right to worry, especially since it seemed like Mattia Destro was destined to sneak into the tiniest crevice in Roma's backline, poking one past Pau Lopez.
While Destro was able to worm his way into a few tight spaces, Smalling, Mancini, and Bryan Cristante did well to limit the damage. At the other end of the pitch, Roma was forced to rely on long balls over the top to El Shaarawy and Borja Mayoral.
It wasn't exactly working, but Roma was knocking on the door and a breakthrough seemed imminent. But it wouldn't come in the run of play...
Gianluca Mancini: 24th Minute (Roma 1, Genoa 0)
Gran centro de Pellegrini, mejor salto y cabezal de Mancini, el puño de Zaniolo, la sonrisa de Dzeko. Todo Roma. Daje! pic.twitter.com/FSX3E7VlXB— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) March 7, 2021
When you can't generate clear-cut chances in the run of play, you better execute those damn set-pieces and that's exactly what Roma did here. While there's nothing extraordinary about this play—Pellegrini teed it up and Mancini buried it—it was a perfectly executed corner from Roma and unlocked what had previously been a pretty tight match.
Roma wouldn't rest on their laurels, though. In practically their very next breath, Roma created another chance when Pedro unleashed a left-footed effort from the edge of the box, forcing Federico Marchetti into a diving save to his left. It was a perfectly placed ball from Pedro and were it not for Marchetti's Herculean effort, Roma would have doubled their lead with ease.
But that was about it for genuine action in the first half. Despite the fact that Roma reeled off 11 shots in the half, only two of those attempts were on target: Mancini's 24th-minute goal and Pedro's 27th-minute lefty stinger.
With only two attempts of their own and a measly 40% possession, Genoa didn't really offer much resistance to Roma, but they effectively kept the Giallorossi confined to a few narrow channels in the middle of the pitch. Ordinarily, this would be what Roma craved but they just couldn't string together many multi-pass moves; they had no issue threading the ball into the box to Stephan El Shaarawy or Borja Mayoral, but the second pass/check-back options just weren't there in the first half—the combination play that has delighted us all season long simply wasn't there in the first 45 minutes.
While Paulo Fonseca stood pat to start the second half, Genoa made a pair of changes to start the new half, bringing on Eldor Shomurodov and Francesco Cassata, the latter of whom nearly made an immediate impact, forcing Pau Lopez into a save shortly after the whistle, bursting into space after Mattia Destro held up play at the edge of the area.
Genoa would bring Lopez into the match again when a pair of former Roma players teamed up in the 51st minute with Kevin Strootman finding Davide Zappacosta down the left flank, forcing Lopez to make another unexpected save.
Sensing the momentum shifting a bit, Fonseca made his own double swap at the hour mark, exchanging El Shaarawy for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diawara for Gonzalo Villar. El Shaarawy had a few nice touches in the box and Diawara had a relatively solid afternoon but neither player was really instrumental for the Giallorossi to that point.
Maybe it was because he's become so accustomed to starting and was, therefore, a bit restless, but Villar looked like a man on fire once he got into this match, charging ahead at a moments notice, and in the 68th minute we were treated to an unusual sight: Villar leading a fastbreak on his own.
With Roma's #14 corraling a loose ball, Villar sprang up the pitch, dribbling the ball right through the middle of the park but as he came closer and closer to the edge of the 18-yard-box, you could almost sense his hesitance to shoot but with no outlets available, Villar ripped off a beauty, pinging the ball off the right post, missing a goal by a matter of inches.
The two sides traded mostly benign blows for the next 10 minutes or so but Roma did manage a relatively clean look at goal in the 74th minute. With Mkhitaryan possessing the ball at the left edge of the box, Roma's first-half MVP weaved through traffic before playing the ball to Karsdorp on the right. From there, Roma's right-back quickly whipped the ball across the face of goal where Pedro attempted a one-timed back heel that got caught up on the pitch, leaving a juicy tap-in for Mayoral. However, after a quick appeal, the goal was disallowed due to an offside call.
And that was really the end of the action. Fonseca made one final change late in the match, bringing on Leonardo Spinazzola for Bruno Peres and Federico Fazio for Mayoral, effectively changing Roma's shape in order to kill off the match with as little drama as possible.
Genoa would find one final chance through Gianluca Scamacca but thanks to a series of late corners and free-kicks, Roma was able to grind this match down to a nub, walking away narrow winners but winners nonetheless.
This was an odd match in many ways. On the surface, it felt like Genoa were ripping a page from the well-worn book of how to beat Roma, but their passive low-block approach wasn't really that passive, nor was it particularly low. Roma still managed 17 shots, with nearly 50% of those coming within 20 yards of the goal, while, apart from Lorenzo Pellegrini, they never really resorted to crossing for the sake of it.
For the third straight match, Roma has struggled to create and finish genuine chances, so while a two or three-goal victory would have soothed some of those concerns, for the second time this week, the Giallorossi did just enough to win and that's really all that matters, right?
Another busy week as Roma hosts Shakthar Donestk on Thursday before traveling to Parma on Sunday.
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