A day after the Eternal City celebrated its 2,774th birthday, the city's proper football club welcomed a team that is quickly becoming an eternal nemesis: fourth place Atalanta. Once an overlooked figure on the fixture list, Atalanta has taken Europe by storm over the past few years, earning unlikely Champions League birth after unlikely Champions League birth, to the point where it's no longer shocking to see the Bergamo club running with the continent's best squads.
Part and parcel of their climb up the European ranks have been a flat-out dominance of clubs like Roma; the ones who kept the Goddesses under their thumbs for years, if not decades. Gian Piero Gasperini has gotten the better of Paulo Fonseca at every turn since Fonseca took the Roma gig two seasons ago and hasn't lost to the Giallorossi since 2017.
Ánd Atalanta looked to extend that streak almost immediately this afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico. In only the fourth minute of the match, Gasperini's patented pass-and-move attack nearly ripped Roma to shreds when Ruslan Malinovskyi redirected a ball into the box for Duvan Zapata. The Colombian forward couldn't get a clear shot off but it was a harbinger of things to come in the first half—these two players would loom large in the first 45 minutes.
In the 9th minute, it was Malinovskyi's turn as he brought Pau López into the match for the first (but definitely not final) time, forcing a save from Roma's keeper with a well-struck ball from the left edge of the area.
Roma would start to crawl their way into the match, mostly focusing on long balls over the top trying to find Edin Dzeko off the shoulder of the last Atalanta defender, and while they were getting close, Dzeko just couldn't find that extra little bit of space to unleash a clean attempt on goal.
However, in the 15th minute, we saw the return of Dzeko the creator as he played a somewhat awkward, drooping cross from the left edge of the pitch. With the ball hanging up in the air just a bit too long, Atalanta keeper Pierluigi Gollini was able to intercept the cross before Henrikh Mkhitaryan, its presumed target, could get a head to the ball. But Gollini hit the ball with a glancing blow rather than a direct hit, leaving Lorenzo Pellegrini with a rebounded chance but his rifled attempt was blocked by Berat Djimsiti.
At this stage of the match—roughly 15 to 20 minutes in—Roma and Atalanta were taking similar approaches, trying to find their striker through the middle with timing-dependent through balls past the final defender. Atalanta were getting closer than Roma, mostly because Zapata was alternatively sneaking and bullying his way past Roma's defenders, while Dzeko was just a step too slow to do the same to Atalanta's backline.
The two clubs would trade Dzeko or Zapata blows for the ensuing 10 minutes but eventually, Atalanta's class broke through, thanks in large part to Zapata and Malinovskiy.
Ruslan Malinovskyi: 25th Minute (Roma 0, Atalanta 1)
After Josip Ilicic—who only moments before nearly started a beautiful breakaway only to be denied—played the ball to Zapata at the point of the attack, the Colombian forward did well to buy time and shake off multiple Roma defenders at the edge of the area before playing Robin Gosens into space down the left side of the 18-yard box. After that, there wasn't much Roma could really do as Gosens hit Malinovskyi streaking towards the near post. It was a slow-developing play with a blink and you'd miss it finish but Roma certainly could have done better to prevent Zapata from playing the ball to Gosens, but this is Atalanta their best: quick passing, perfect spacing, and well-timed runs into the box.
The action continued to come throughout the remainder of the half with Atalanta peppering Lopez with 11 shots in total while Roma could only manage two at the other end. While the half started off pretty evenly matches, the pitch definitely tilted in Atalanta's favor after the first quarter-hour as they kept Roma pinned back with attacking wave after attacking wave.
With an almost immediate yellow card to Gonzalo Villar, one that gave Atalanta a free-kick in prime position right the middle of the area, the second half got off to a bit of an inauspicious start for Roma, who seemed doomed to suffer through another 45-minute master class in Gasperini greatness.
To their credit, while Roma were practically getting run off the pitch by the likes of Zapata, Gosens, Freuler, and many others, they did well to deny Atalanta, throwing whatever limbs they had handy in front of Atalanta's many attempts on goal.
Roma received a tasty free-kick of their own in the 57th minute but Jordan Veretout's attempt sailed well over the bar. And with Roma's attacking intent starting to show, Gasperini decided it was time to put the match beyond doubt as he brought Luis Muriel and Mario Pasalic into the match just shy of the hour mark. Gasperini would have been excused had he made a defensive change, but he decided to flex his attacking muscles once more.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan created Roma's best chance of the match in the 61st minute when he drove right through the heart of the defense, cut to his left, and fired a shot over the bar by a foot. With an hour of speculative long balls and passes that missed by a hair's breadth, Mkhitaryan decided to take manners into his own hands and it almost worked.
Undaunted by that effort, Atalanta nearly put the match to bed in the 65th minute. Duvan Zapata, who by this point traded his shooting boots for his creating boots, played Luis Muriel into space down the right flank, leading his strike partner right past Roma's final defenders. And with nothing but an open goal staring him in the face, Muriel missed badly—firing high and wide.
That was likely the match-winner for Atalanta, but it was about to get so much worse for the visitors. With Roma primed to mount a comeback, they received a giant helping hand from Robin Gosens, who was sent off in the 69th minute with accumulated yellows after upending Jordan Veretout in midfield.
With 20 minutes to play and a one-man advantage, Roma suddenly had a spark in their step and threatened Gollini's goal immediately as Gianluca Mancini flashed a header at the near post off a set-piece. It was a glancing effort but Mancini was achingly close to leveling the game.
Dzeko would take his turn in the 72nd minute, receiving a great ball from Rick Karsdorp at the right edge of the box. Dzeko shielded the defense, turned fired only to see his effort narrowly miss the mark.
If the situations were reversed and Roma were planning an assault up the table while playing a scuffling opponent and piled up miss after miss, Roma fans would be fit to be tied, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it did. But for once, Roma was on the better end...
Bryan Cristante: 75th Minute (Roma 1, Atalanta 1)
Just sit back and enjoy as Cristante picks out the lower left-hand corner from 25 yards out. Gollini may have been a tad slow off his mark—and you can see that he actually did get a bit of his forearm to the ball—but Cristante's shot had just enough dip on it to squeeze past the keeper.
Sensing an opportunity for an upset, Roma rushed forward, again and again, seeking a late match-winner. In the 81st minute, Lorenzo Pellegrini found Dzeko streaking down the right as he slipped past the defense but Dzeko's attempt—which was right at Gollini—wasn't equal to the pass or run that preceded it.
Fonseca would make an interesting swap in the 86th minute, moving to a two-striker system when he traded out Mkhitaryan for Borja Mayoral. Dzeko came remarkably close to a match-winner in the 88th minute with a flicked header that barely missed the frame of the goal. Moments later, we caught a glimpse of the Dzeko-Mayoral combo as the elder striker laid off a ball at the edge of the area, springing the young Spaniard into the box but Borja's attempt missed wide left.
With four minutes of stoppage time, both sides were equally primed to find a match-winner and once again Luis Muriel wasted a chance, pushing a shot low and to the left of López. Roma would be foiled at the other end a minute later when second-half sub Carles Pérez saw his low attempt pushed wide by Gollini.
The match wouldn't end without more controversy as Roger Ibañez was sent off in the 94th minute with accumulated yellows of his own. Atalanta would have one final crack at goal via a Muriel free-kick but, once again, he wasn't up to the task, sparing Roma the ignominy of another defeat at the hands of Atalanta.
For the second straight league match, Roma were bombarded with over 20 shots on goal, half of which were on target, but unlike last weekend's defeat to Torino, the Giallorossi were up to the task, putting up just enough resistance to withstand the barrage of shots.
There aren't too many broad-strokes or definitive conclusions we can take from this match—and really, nothing changed for Roma on the table—but they showed great fight in this match, seldom letting their hands hang while Atalanta were running circles around them.
The Giallorossi now have six matches remaining and with a 10 point gap behind fourth-place Juventus, this draw probably seals Roma's fate—their slim top-four chances are all but dead now.
Bring on United, that's our only hope!
Roma travels to Cagliari on Sunday.
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