The big question heading into Roma's round 33 trip to Cagliari was simply who would Paulo Fonseca trust against the relegation-battling Sardinian side? Normally when facing a side 10 places below you on the table, that's not a question we have to ask but with the Giallorossi's Europa League semifinal against Manchester United looming on Thursday, Fonseca's lineup choices would give us some indication of who he'll trust at Old Trafford next week.
On the positive side of things, Roma welcomed Stephan El Shaarawy, Marash Kumbulla, and Chris Smalling back into action this week, giving Fonseca a few more lineup permutations to consider between today and Thursday. When the lineup cards came out, it was a bit of a mixed bag from Fonseca. While he started Lorenzo Pellegrini and Pau Lopez for lack of other options, he did give rare starts to Davide Santon and Federico Fazio.
And Santon almost rewarded Fonseca's faith immediately, playing a cross into Lorenzo Pellegrini in only the third minute. It was a good hit from Santon, but judging by Pellegrini's delayed reaction, he likely wasn't expecting the ball to be played that soon—perhaps a byproduct of the two seldom sharing the pitch.
While that wasn't necessarily a horrific miss, Cagliari would punish Roma all the same a minute later.
Charalampos Lykogiannis: 4th Minute (Cagliari 1, Roma 0)
With Pau López and the rest of Roma's rearguard taking their time clearing the ball from the back, Cagliari set up a wonderful team press, closing the gaps on Roma down the right and through the middle of the defensive third. Thanks to their insistence, Cagliari was able to force a turnover off a sloppy Diawara pass before threading the ball to Nahitan Nández on the right. After deking Diawara out of his boots, Nández avoided Federico Fazio before centering the ball to Joao Pedro, who, with a subtle flick, found Lykogiannis waiting at the opposite post to give Cagliari an early lead.
What ensued were 10 to 12 minutes of the most uninspiring football we've seen from Roma this season, so much so that the ESPN crew struggled to inject any life of their own into the broadcast. Roma would start to loosen up as the match crawled towards the 20-minute mark, thanks in large part to the speed and aggression of Carles Pérez, who took matters into his own hands multiple times late in the half, bringing Cagliari keeper Gugliemo Vicario into the match for the first time.
And Peréz's persistence would soon pay off.
Carles Pérez: 27th Minute (Cagliari 1, Roma 1)
Nice work from Lorenzo Pellegrini to soak up the defense through the middle, giving them enough reason to hesitate thinking Pellegrini was going to shoot before he slipped the ball to Pérez on the right. Pérez wasted no time, driving and firing immediately, but he showed remarkable awareness to snap up his own rebound off the post and beat Vicario to level the match. And watching it again, this was the closest thing you'll ever see in football to a pick-and-roll; Pellegrini drifted slightly to his right, pulling up the defense in the process and giving Pérez a tiny seam in which to run—brilliantly executed goal from Pellegrini and Pérez.
The two clubs would trade blows for the ensuing 20 minutes, with Cagliari coming close off a Joao Pedro effort from distance that forced López into a stretched save. López couldn't get a clean parry on the ball and left a slow-rolling rebound just begging for a second-chance but thankfully no Cagliari players were in sight.
Pellegrini nearly set up another goal when he played a free-kick from roughly 30 yards and found Fazio waiting at the far post. Fazio's header was inch-perfect and would have found the back of the net if Vicario wasn't up to the task, hurling himself at the ball and barely pushing it over the crossbar.
It was an ugly start to the half from Roma, but they did well to take their opportunities when they came.
Fonseca opted for one change early in the half, pulling off Bruno Peres for Leonardo Spinazzola, presumably hoping that having a natural left wing-back would aid Roma's cause in Sardinia. It was the first of many changes for both sides in what proved to be an action-packed second half.
While the goals eventually started flowing in the second 45 minutes, the half started with a mini-controversy when Leonardo Pavoletti got behind Chris Smalling to chase down a long ball over the top. With Smalling a half-step behind the Cagliari forward, he resorted to knocking over Pavoletti with his forearm, sending the Italian striker to the pitch in a crumpled heap. It was a pretty blatant shove from Smalling and Roma was lucky it went unnoticed.
Roma continued to probe for a lead via the Carles Pérez route, with the young Spanish winger taking every opportunity to showcase his quick-twitch muscles and his uncanny stop-and-start ability. And in the 52nd minute, he very nearly produced a goal for his countryman Borja Mayoral, as the two set up a quick give and go at the edge of the box but Vicario was right there to deny them again,.
And, as you may have guessed, Roma's misfortune would soon be Cagliari's gain.
Razvan Marin: 57th Minute (Cagliari 2, Roma 1)
Just look at the intensity with which Roma are building from the back! You can hardly contain yourself, right? Cagliari were the beneficiaries of another piece of slow and sloppy build-up from the back as Gianluca Mancini's attempted clearance up the middle was picked off/redirected by Alessandro Deiola. From there, the ball fell right to Simeone, who did well to shake off the defense before laying it off to Marin, who unleashed a thunderbolt past a helpless Pau López to regain the lead for the home club.
Fonseca would respond by emptying his bench, bringing on Rick Karsdorp, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Bryan Cristante for Santon, Pellegrini, and Smalling, respectively.
With Roma bringing their heavy hitters on, Cagliari continued to hunt for an insurance goal, something to ease the tension down the stretch and it came from a man who has grown quite accustomed to scoring against the Giallorossi.
Joao Pedro: 64th Minute (Cagliari 3, Roma 1)
Marin would serve as the playmaker here, whipping in a corner kick towards the near post where it met an unmarked Pedro. Now, to be fair to Roma, this was just a brilliantly placed ball from Marin, who actually led Pedro a few steps away from the goal where there were no defenders. Either way, great technique from Pedro to attack the ball and tuck it home, leaving López practically no chance to stop it.
Not to be outdone, Roma would flex their set-piece muscles five minutes later.
Federico Fazio: 69th Minute (Cagliari 3, Roma 2)
Similar to the Marin-Pedro connection, Pérez swung in a similarly-weighted ball to Fazio at the near post, leading the massive Argentine off the ball just enough to avoid the defense. This was practically the mirror image of Cagliari's goal, so top marks to Pérez for the pass and just a fantastic bit of technique from Fazio to get a head to it while his momentum was going in almost the opposite direction.
Cagliari would respond with a wave of changes of their own and while Roma mounted a few late challenges, with Pérez, Villar, and Cristante each getting looks down the stretch, the Islanders managed to kill off four minutes of stoppage time to walk away with three sorely needed points.
For the second time in three league matches, Roma came smack up against a surprising relegation candidate. Two rounds ago, it was Andrea Belotti and Torino turning the tables on Roma in a 3-1 victory, and today it was Cagliari's turn. The ESPN announcers correctly pointed out that, had Cagliari changed managers earlier in the season, then perhaps they wouldn't have been relegation candidates, to begin with—they're simply too talented to be this low—but they certainly didn't play like bottom feeders today.
Roma did well to scratch and claw their way back into the match and received solid shifts from players like Carles Pérez and Federico Fazio, but this was just another piece of mounting evidence that this squad, as presently constructed, just isn't good enough.
Manchester United on Thursday at Old Trafford. Need we say anymore?