As we cautioned all week, given Roma's recent turn of form in Serie A, a dip that has seen them drop matches to relegation-batling clubs like Torino and Cagliari, the odds (if not the footballing fates) seemed to be conspiring against the Giallorossi. Throw in the increasing rumors about Paulo Fonseca's future with the club and it felt like outside forces were plotting against Roma as they traveled to Manchester this evening to face United in the first leg of the Europa League Semifinals at Old Trafford.
However, with nearly a full squad at his disposal this evening, Fonseca had plenty of options to counter the United threat, but things started off horrendously for Roma. In only the fourth minute of play, Jordan Veretout pulled up with a non-contact injury, clutching at his right thigh after taking a few simple touches of the ball. Veretout soldiered on bravely for a minute before being subbed out for Gonzalo Villar.
It was a rather inauspicious start but it would quickly get worse. So much worse.
Bruno Fernandes: 9th Minute (United 1, Roma 0)
Bruno Fernandes strikes first— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
The first time pass from Cavani though pic.twitter.com/BIWPLKb01f
Paul Pogba was a brevity-based exclusion from our look at United’s best players earlier this week, and boy, do I have egg on my face now. While the former Juventus wünderkind didn't score this goal, his incisive drive through the heart of Roma's defense was the first domino in a beautiful team goal for United. Not to be outdone, Edinson Cavani played a sensational diagonal ball towards Fernandes in the left edge of the area, pulling Pau Lopez off his line and keeping Roma's defenders at sixes and sevens in one fell swoop.
To run it back: in less than 10 minutes, Roma was forced into a change and was then summarily eviscerated by United's quick passing and moving. It was only 1-0 but you couldn't escape visions of the infamous 7-1 defeat from nearly 15 years ago.
Things were looking incredibly bleak but luck would swing Roma's way several minutes later. With Rick Karsdorp charging down United's flank and Pogba nipping at his heels, Karsdorp was forced into a somewhat hasty sliding cross. It was far from ideal and probably had zero chance of reaching its intended target but in his attempt to keep pace with Karsdorp, Pogba went to the pitch a split second after Karsdorp (feet first, almost like a baseball player stealing second base) but in the process of going to the ground, Pogba's hands rose up and struck the ball.
After a quick VAR check, the penalty was given to Roma with Lorenzo Pellegrini blasting it past a helpless David de Gea to level the match at one goal each.
Lorenzo Pellegrini: 15th Minute (United 1, Roma 1)
9': Man Utd 1-0 Roma— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
15': Man Utd 1-1 Roma
That penalty took the sting out of United's attack for the next 10 to 15 minutes, with the home club looking to attack and counter at a moment's notice with Roma favoring a slightly more passive approach. The match may have been tied, but one got the feeling that would change rather dramatically unless Roma got their act together quickly.
Roma would be forced into another injury-induced change in the 27th minute after Pau Lopez made a spectacular leaping save on a Paul Pogba effort from distance. With his body practically parallel to the pitch, Lopez thwarted Pogba's shot but he immediately grasped at his left shoulder, which bore the brunt of his descent to the pitch. After receiving medical attention and trying to loosen up his shoulder behind the end line, Lopez eventually made way for Antonio Mirante.
At this point, we were less than 30 minutes into the game and Roma lost two players but somehow managed to remain in a match they had no business sniffing. But things were about to get even crazier.
Edin Dzeko: 33rd Minute (United 1, Roma 2)
IT HAD TO BE EDIN DZEKO pic.twitter.com/kEc6Hees8u— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
This goal was 99% skill and 1% pure, unadulterated luck. Roma were just fortunate that the last part of the equation came at precisely the right moment. With Leonardo Spinazzola working the ball down the left flank (and actually losing it momentarily), he quickly found Henrikh Mkhitaryan waiting at the left edge of the box. From there, Roma's number seventy-seven found Lorenzo Pellegrini making a late diagonal run towards the near post, who quickly centered the ball to Dzeko in the middle of the box.
Now here is where lucky enters the fray. Watch that clip all the way through and pay special attention to Dzeko's right leg—he actually flubbed the shot completely but somehow the ball fell right to his trailing leg, hit his knee cap, and squirted past de Gea. Simply amazing. And with that goal, Dzeko became the first player to ever score against United in three consecutive decades—#TheMoreYouKnow
Full props and respect to Spinazzola, Mkhitaryan, and Pellegrini, who pulled off a gorgeous three-touch pass-and-move sequence, but all of that good work nearly became another missed sitter from Dzeko. Lady luck was on Roma's side—or was it?
In the 37th minute, for the THIRD TIME in the first half, Roma were forced into an injury substitution when Spinazzola gave way to Bruno Peres after pulling up with a leg issue of his own.
Thanks to all the stoppage time and the VAR check, the half ended with five minutes of stoppage time, but fortunately, Roma weathered that storm.
But that would be the last bit of good news for Roma fans.
While it wasn't a carbon copy of the first half, the second frame started off almost as disastrously for Roma, as they fell victim to a well-orchestrated counterattack in the opening moments of the new half.
Edinson Cavani: 48th Minute (United 2, Roma 2)
EDINSON CAVANI pic.twitter.com/PyUG28YhXA— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
Once again, Paul Pogba flashed his almost peerless deep-playmaking abilities, finding Cavani in the middle of the park, dropping a pass on a plate while three Roma defenders stared at him in slack-jawed amazement. From there, Cavani and Fernades pulled off a give-and-go with the Uruguayan forward finishing off the move by burying a one-timed effort right into the upper right-hand corner, giving Mirante less than no chance of saving it.
Roma managed a brief interlude in United's defensive third when Karsdorp played Pellegrini into the box with a jaw-dropping through ball from the midfield stripe but Pellegrini hesitated and rather than shooting it himself crossed it to Dzeko in the box where it was easily turned away by the United defense.
Roma would soon rue that miss...
Edinson Cavani: 64th Minute (United 3, Roma 2)
HT: Man Utd 1-2 Roma— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
48': Cavani ⚽
64': Cavani ⚽
Another one of our now infamous United players to watch, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, forced the issue here, firing a stinging shot at Antonio Mirante. And while Mirante did well to read Bissaka's movement and shot, his technique was simply dreadful, parrying the ball right in front of goal where Cavani was waiting to tap it home.
And as if all that wasn't bad enough, watch the entire clip and you'll see Roma swarming United every time they touched the ball only to have Luke Shaw, Pogba and Fernandes escape the pressure without batting an eye—incredibly impressive stuff from United, Mirante gaffe or not.
Unbelievably, misery would continue to follow Roma at every turn. In the 71st minute, Chris Smalling, who had a horror show of an evening in his return to Old Trafford, was cited for a penalty on Cavani. With the two men chasing down the ball, Smalling inadvertently tripped Cavani as he himself fell to the pitch, rolling onto his backside and taking Cavani down in the process.
It seemed inadvertent, but the referee's decision withstood the VAR check, and Fernandes converted from the spot with ease.
Bruno Fernandes: 71st Minute (United 4, Roma 2)
another one pic.twitter.com/K1lokBU6J7— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
But incredibly the hits keep coming for Manchester...
Paul Pogba: 75th Minute (United 5, Roma 2)
Once again, Pogba and Fernandes made mincemeat of Roma's defense, this time teaming up on a short corner to extend United's lead to three. After playing the corner directly to Fernandes deep on the right-hand side of the pitch, the Portuguese sensation played a simple little chip to Pogba in the box with the Frenchman quickly redirecting it into the back of the net. And, yet again, the replay shows another Roma mistake: a miss-timed jump from Chris Smalling, who, instead of turning away the cross, watched it sail helplessly over his head.
Hang on, we're almost done...
Mason Greenwood: 86th Minute (United 6, Roma 2)
MASON GREENWOOD MAKES IT 6 pic.twitter.com/7BxruIrGti— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) April 29, 2021
With Roma completely dispirited, Manchester decided to make it a cool half dozen goals for the evening, and with a subtle flick of his foot, Cavani bypassed several Roma defenders to pick out Greenwood on the right. From there, the young Englishman dribbled right into Roma's box, avoided the defense and beat Mirante at the near post.
And that—mercifully—was all she wrote.
In the immediate wake of this defeat, Roma Twitter was alight with cries of a collapse. And while I certainly understand and appreciate that sentiment, a collapse implies that you had control in the first place, which Roma certainly did not. While Roma did well not to hang their heads after conceding the opening goal, the sum total of their efforts came from a penalty call (which was kinda soft—Pogba’s arms were in a natural enough position considering he was sliding feet first) and Dzeko quite literally missing and then stumbling into a goal in a matter of two steps.
It will be interesting to see how Fonseca explains away this defeat, but barring an obscene miracle, this will likely put Roma's Europa League dreams to bed—a damp, urine-soaked bed sitting directly on the hardwood.
Roma faces Sampdoria on the road this Sunday. Don't miss it but maybe consult your physician ahead of time.