Although the Stadio Olimpico was as quiet and cavernous as ever during the pandemic, with a sizable group of Roma faithful making noise outside, including popping off a series of impressive fireworks displays, the importance of tonight's match against Ajax wasn't lost on the city of Rome. The stands may have been empty but the intensity and urgency with which Roma greeted this match ensured that the weight of the moment wasn't lost on the men in white either.
Rather than resting on their laurels and protecting their lead, Paulo Fonseca's men matched Ajax stride for stride in the early phases of this match, passing and moving with as much intent and vigor as their Dutch visitors. While Ajax had every reason in the world to come out swinging, Roma actually conjured the first chance of the evening when Lorenzo Pellegrini went on a slaloming run down the right flank. It was an impressive solo counter but Pellegrini seemed to run out of steam in the end, firing a harmless shot right at former Roma keeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
It was a disappointing miss but Roma nearly brought the (empty) house down moments later. In the ninth minute, Jordan Veretout got loose in the Ajax end and beat Stekelenburg with ease before being flagged offside by the referee. It was a goal that likely would have ended the quarterfinal right then and there but it was a pretty blatant offside call.
Ajax would respond moments later, with Dusan Tadic finding Nicolás Tagliafico off a 10th-minute corner, but Tagliafico couldn't get a clean look at it and the ball sailed harmlessly over Pau Lopez's head.
Roma would temp fate several minutes later, giving Davvy Klaassen—who scored Ajax's lone goal last week—a bit too much space in the area. Fortunately for the Giallorossi, Amadou Diawara was in a prime position to snuff out Klaassen's clear-cut chance, blocking the Dutchman's last-ditch effort.
15 minutes into the match and the m.o. was clear: Ajax was going to dominate possession and Roma, despite their best-attacking intentions, had no choice but to channel their inner Muhammad Ali, playing rope a dope in the final third, taking shot after shot on the chin but never allowing their knees to buckle.
Whether it was Tadic, Klaassen, or Antony, Ajax found great success attacking down their right, frequently swapping roles and overlapping in an effort to confuse Roma's defense but Roger Ibañez and Gianluca Mancini weren't easily fooled, as they took turns getting the last foot in to disrupt Ajax's passing in the final third.
In the 36th minute, Antony played a beautiful pocket pass down the left, springing Tagliafico into Lopez's area, but the ball just sort of escaped them and slipped right through to Lopez for an easy save.
There was a moment of controversy in the 37th minute when Riccardo Calafiori and Tadic collided in the box, with the Ajax man going over like a lead balloon, but a quick VAR check revealed it was incidental contact.
In the waning moments of the first half, Ajax ripped off a free-kick/corner-kick/corner-kick sequence but didn't manage to make a dent in Roma's defense, leaving the match scoreless as the half-time whistle blew.
With 45 minutes remaining and a two-goal deficit to erase, Ajax manager Erik ten Hag wasted no time going to his bench, making an immediate attacking substitution to start the second half: swapping out Antony for 19-year-old forward Brian Brobbey—a move that would pay immediate dividends.
Brian Brobbey: 49th Minute (Roma 0, Ajax 1)
19-year-old Brian Brobbey gives Ajax the lead pic.twitter.com/epevz85Vqc— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 15, 2021
I wouldn't dare say that Ajax caught Roma napping here—they were simply biding their time setting up their next attacking move, not really passing the ball with any sense of urgency—but Perr Schuur's ball over the top seemed to catch everyone by surprise; he just dropped it right between Cristante and Mancini. And sensing the danger, Pau Lopez came well off his line and nearly disrupted the play but Brobbey did extremely well to skirt around the Spanish keeper for the tap-in goal; it was remarkably similar to a goal Borja Mayoral scored against Bologna.
Conceding a goal certainly wasn't optimal but Roma still held the technical lead thanks to Roger Ibañez late goal last week, which preserved Roma's away goal advantage. Newly invigorated by that surprising goal, Ajax really put their foot on the gas and nearly ended Roma's Europa League run in the 56th minute.
Brobbey once again forced the issue, drawing Lopez off his line to make a save but Pau's rebound fell right to Dusan Tadic, who had a wide-open gimme goal to put Ajax over the top on aggregate. However, before Tadic could finish celebrating, the officials consulted VAR and found that Tagliafico had committed a foul on Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the buildup, erasing Ajax's would-be match-winner.
Still, in the span of 10 minutes, Ajax took the lead in this match and almost booked their ticket to the semi-finals; troubling was definitely brewing for Roma now. Sensing a shift in momentum, the Giallorossi did the best they could with what little possession they were afforded, nearly grabbing a goal in the 65th minute when Pellegrini carved out a bit of space in the area, firing a low cross intended for Dzeko only to see it deflected away by Lisandro Martinez. Edin Dzeko flashed a header over the bar off the ensuing corner kick, but Roma were at least countering Ajax's moves.
Tadic made his presence felt again as the match moved past the 70th-minute mark, springing Klaassen into space down the left wing off a free-kick but Klaassen's header, much like Dzeko's a moment earlier, was well off the mark.
At this point in the match, Ajax were coming at Roma in waves, desperately trying to claw back another goal, but their aggressive positioning on the pitch came back to haunt them.
Edin Dzeko: 72nd Minute (Roma 1, Ajax 1)
Edin Džeko doing what Edin Džeko does pic.twitter.com/lxvO9keuOR— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 15, 2021
Dzeko finished this play off, but let's give proper credit to Cristante, Mkhitaryan and Calafiori—Cristante for kick-starting the counter-attack and Mkhitaryan for the great through ball to Calafiori on the left. From there, Calafiori charged down the left flank, hit the brakes to shake the defender, dribbled around him, and then cut into the box to find Dzeko. He got a bit lucky that his final ball was actually deflected closer to Dzeko, but props to Calafiori for making this play happen.
Both managers would make a series of changes in the final 10 minutes, with ten Hag bringing on multiple attackers while Fonseca swapped out Dzeko for Mayoral and Calafiori for Gonzalo Villar.
The referee tacked on five added minutes, and Ajax made the most out of every single one, but Roma did exceptionally well to continually deny Ajax's sweeps down the flank and their speculative balls over the top.
It was a harrowing stretch but Roma survived almost 96 minutes of football to secure a place in the semifinals, where they'll face Manchester United.
I'm not sure how you'd classify this match, but Roma did a remarkable job absorbing and deflecting Ajax's pressure in the attacking third, and thanks to some brilliant defensive work from Roger Ibañez, Bryan Cristante, Gianluca Mancini, and Amadou Diawara, Jordan Veretout and Rick Karsdorp a little further up the pitch, Ajax managed only 10 shots despite holding over 70% possession.
Roma turns their attention back to the league when they travel to Torino on Sunday. The Europa League semifinals will be contested over two legs: April 29th in Manchester and May 6th back in Rome.
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