Roma held the distinct honor of being the last remaining Italian team in European competition today when they strode upon the pitch at the cavernous Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal against Ajax, who are currently leading the Dutch league by a healthy 11 point margin.
Speaking of healthy, Roma weren't healthy entering this match and somehow their injury issues got even worse—more on that in a moment. The Giallorossi came out firing on all cylinders in the opening moments of this match, stringing together a great chance in only the third minute when Edin Dzeko played a ball to Lorenzo Pellegrini, but Roma's captain wasn't able to convert the chance. Nevertheless, it was a signal of intent from a club that has struggled in the run of play recently.
Ajax would make their own early moves, winning two corners in the first 10 minutes of the match, while also forcing Pau Lopez into an early save and bringing Jordan Veretout into the mix, who threw his body in front of a shot in the ninth minute.
It was pretty standard fare for the opening 10 to 15 minutes, just two clubs delicately trying to get a feel of one another, hoping to find some inefficiency to exploit later in the match. Dzeko, who was a somewhat surprise starter given Borja Mayoral's record in this competition, made his presence felt during this phase of the match, firing a low, skimming effort wide of the left post and then, moments later, slipping past the defense to run onto a looping header at the right post only to be crowded out by the Ajax defense.
Roma's best chance of the first half came in the 17th minute when Roma forced a rather harried clearance from the Ajax defense. With the ball worming its way out to Bryan Cristante, Roma's number four blasted a shot from 25 yards out, forcing Ajax keeper Kjell Scherpen into a stretched save—and I mean stretched; he was completely parallel to the ground.
Okay, back to the injuries. In the 23rd minute, with Leonardo Spinazzola dribbling down the left flank, Edin Dzeko slipped into the center channel, giving Spinazzola a target clear as day to feed the Bosnian into a one-v-one with Scherpen but Spinazzola hesitated and the chance went wasted.
In the run of play, it was tough to tell why Spinazzola hesitated, but it soon became clear when Spinazzola pulled up lame seconds later, clutching at his hamstrings. After receiving treatment on the touchline for a few minutes, Spinazzola gave it the old college try but simply couldn't solider on and was replaced by Riccardo Calafiori in the 29th minute.
The ensuing 10 minutes were pretty even, but let's get to the real point of interest from the first half...
Davvy Klassen: 40th Minute (Ajax 1, Roma 0)
If you have difficultly dissecting a play and/or assigning blame, avert your gaze because this sequence was a nightmare. With Roma struggling to hem in Ajax's slow building attack, while somehow also struggling to evade their counter pressure, Amadou Diawara made what seemed like a pretty standard/benign backwards pass to Gianluca Mancini. Only, in this instance, the ball drifted, giving Klaassen a clean look at goal.
Now, this is where it gets controversial.
If you side with Diawara, you likely believe that Mancini didn't do enough to attack the loose ball, giving Klaassen a veritable free pass toward the goal. If, however, you're on Team Mancini, you lay the blame and Diawara's feet for hanging him out to dry with such a listless pass in the first place; he either needed to hit it harder towards Mancini or not hit it at all. And if Mancini rushed towards the loose ball, he could have potentially given Klaassen room to dribble past him.
But, like most things, there was blame to be shared all around. What made this a particularly bitter pill to swallow was the simple fact that we've seen this exact scenario several times this season.
Things would swing back Roma's way in the second half, even if it didn't feel like it in that moment.
Things...didn't start great for Roma in the second half. In the 53rd minute, with Ajax looking to pad their lead and put this quarterfinal to bed before they traveled to Italy, disaster struck for Roma. With Tadic charging towards the penalty area, Roger Ibañez took down Ajax's leading man, gifting the home side a potentially devastating penalty in the process.
With Tadic stepping up to the spot, Lopez looked oddly stoic as the Serbian playmaker tried to shake Lopez from his moorings. We can only speculate of course, but it seemed like Tadic wanted Lopez to dive to his left (Tadic's right), after which he would have fired the ball right into the middle of the net. But Lopez wasn't buying it and didn't move from his spot and Tadic, with his plan foiled, fired the ball chest high right at Lopez, giving the Spaniard an easy but crucial save.
Roma would take full advantage Tadic's failed gamble several minutes later.
Lorenzo Pellegrini: 57th Minute (Ajax 1, Roma 1)
Luck plays apart in nearly every match, and Roma certainly had fate on their side here. While Pellegrini's plan was perfect, his execution wasn't. While he was wise to pick out the far post, his shot was lacking both the speed and swerve to beat Scherpen, and indeed you'll notice how far to his left he shaded, practically picking out Pellegrini's spot. But in an odd twist, the lack of speed on this played into Roma's favor as Scherpen was forced to make a save while his momentum carried him in the opposite direction. And, while he technically made the save, he just...dropped it.
Lopez would continue his personal highlight reel as the match crept towards the 70 minute mark, denying Nicolas Tagliafico and Brian Brobbey in quick succession. Pau would be called into action again in the 73rd minute when a poor clearance from Ibañez yielded an attempt from Antony, which Lopez parried away cool as you like.
Fonseca would respond with a series of changes, bringing on Borja Mayoral for Dzeko and Gonzalo Villar for Veretout, who appeared to limp off the pitch.
With the match knotted at one, and with Roma grabbing the precious away goal, Ajax responded by amping up the pressure in the Roma end, constantly recycling possession around the 18-yard-box, winning corners and keeping Lopez on edge.
While they were weathering the late storm, Roma weren't able to mount a counter attack of their own but they'd find salvation via the set piece shortly before the final whistle.
Roger Ibañez: 87th Minute (Ajax 1, Roma 2)
Golazo! Ibáñez, una revancha personal y un zurdazo lleno de furia. Roma revivió en Ámsterdam y le gana 2-1 al Ajax. Daje! pic.twitter.com/n1PtAjPZmI— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) April 8, 2021
I'm not even going to describe this one. Just sit back and enjoy the show, assuming it hasn't been wiped out by Serie A yet. Great corner, great settle, great finish.
The referee would tack on four added minutes but Roma did enough to neutralize Ajax down the stretch, walking away winners with two away goals worth their weight in gold.
This was a strange match in many ways. While it felt relatively even, the statistics painted an entirely different story. With nearly two-thirds of the possession and twice as many shots as Roma, Ajax were definitely in the driver's seat tonight, but thanks to Pellegrini's set piece wizardry, Lopez's command of the penalty area, and yes, a bit of luck, Roma won the day. And while the second leg won't be a cake walk, those two away goals will give the Giallorossi a tremendous amount of breathing room.
Roma host Bologna on Sunday.
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