It almost feels like we've started every match review for the past two months by chronicling all the distractions and controversies Paulo Fonseca has had to face while prepping his squad for any given match, but tonight's Europa League semifinal clash against Manchester United may take the cake. Not only did Roma give him the pink slip, but his replacement, José Mourinho, has gobbled up the entire news cycle this week, making for a few awkward press conferences over the past several days.
And on top of that, we have to add Roma's usual litany of injuries and suspensions, not to mention the fact that Fonseca had to scheme a way to dig Roma out of a four-goal deficit against Manchester United. Out of all the long odds Fonseca has faced over the past two years, these may have been the most extreme.
There was likely no way Roma was going to overcome that deficit, but pulling off another Romantada and advancing to the Europa League finals would have been a fairytale ending for a rather tumultuous two years in the capital for Fonseca.
Faced with that overwhelming deficit and a spate of injuries, Paulo Fonseca turned back the clock to 2019, rolling out an attack-heavy 4-2-3-1. With Pau Lopez out for the season, Antonio Mirante anchored the back with Karsdorp, Peres, Smalling, and Ibañez keeping house in front of him. In the forward reaches of the formation, we saw Edin Dzeko up top supported by Pedro, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan while Gianluca Mancini and Bryan Cristante sat in the middle.
And this new fangled lineup actually looked surprisingly fluid and effective in the early phases of this match, generating three or four chances in the first 15 to 20 minutes. Moments after the opening whistle, Gianluca Mancini found himself with a rather unexpected chance when a bouncing ball in the box came his way, however, Roma's makeshift midfielder's desperate attempt was turned away by David De Gea.
Cristante, Mkhitaryan, Pellegrini, and Pedro would each have a crack at De Gea over the next 10 minutes, with Pedro lashing a header into the side netting, Pellegrini driving a left-footed attempt wide of the mark, and Pedro, who somehow managed to muscle Paul Pogba off the ball, driving right at De Gea only to see his attempt fly over the crossbar.
Down 6-2 on aggregate, Roma wasn't leaving anything to chance and seemed prime to steal an early goal at the Olimpico. But, as you probably expected, it was only a matter of time before United tilted the pitch the other way. And, as you also probably could have expected, Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba, and Bruno Fernandes did most of the heavy lifting for United.
And much like he did last week, Cavani had no issue carving up Roma's backline, twisting and turning his way through the Giallorossi defense or leaving Smalling in the dust with his well-timed runs through the back. He didn't find the back of the net quite yet but you knew it was coming.
Through the opening 25 to 30 minutes, Roma looked surprisingly sprightly and was able to expose United's backline with some rather clever interplay between Mkhitaryan, Pellegrini, Pedro, and Dzeko, with the Bosnian doing well to hold up play from 20-30 yards out, giving Pedro, Mkhitaryan and even Rick Karsdorp ample time to join the attack and/or overlap out wide.
Things quickly turned sour for Roma, though. In the 29th minute, Chris Smalling pulled up with an apparent leg injury and had to be removed from the game. Initially, Marash Kumbulla tore off his warmups and seemed poised to enter the match but Fonseca had a last-second change of heart and brought on young Ebrima Darboe, putting the young Gambian into midfield and pulling Mancini back into defense.
Undaunted by the injury, Roma continued to funnel their attack through the middle of United's defense and managed another clean look at goal in the 34th minute when Mkhitaryan flashed a header at the far post after Dzeko and Pedro teamed up to spring the Armenian into space on the right.
This trio would continue to flex their attacking muscles and forced De Gea into another save moments later when Dzeko, who once again ran into a crowded defense with his head down—ignoring options to his left and right—nearly squandered a chance. Dzeko was quickly dispossessed in the box but the rebound eventually fell to Pellegrini, who fired a shot at De Gea only to be denied.
Roma didn't manage to find the back of the net in the first half, but they were playing with more energy and enthusiasm than probably most pundits expected given all the off the pitch distractions they faced late this week.
Despite all that good work, Roma's luck ran out just before the stroke of halftime
Edinson Cavani: 39th Minute (Roma 0, Manchester United 1)
Cavani opens the scoring pic.twitter.com/xernHonDtW— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) May 6, 2021
Let's give credit where it's due, this was a gorgeous team goal from United. Starting with some patient buildup in the back, spurred on by a beautiful flick to Fred in transition and punctuated by a rifled shot from Cavani that swerved just past Mirante.
Roma definitely showed up to play in the first half, creating a few half-chances, but their failure to convert and their inability to contain Cavani was their undoing.
Would their fortunes change in the second half?
In a sign of things to come, the second half started off with a bit of controversy, a blink and you'd miss it moment that kicked off an incredibly exciting 45 minutes of European football. With Pedro firing a shot from the right flank, United defender and captain Harry Maguire flicked the shot up with the side of his boot, inadvertently redirecting the ball right towards his hand. While Roma pleaded for a call, the referee quickly deemed the touch accidental.
Roma and United would trade barbs for the next 10 minutes, with the Giallorossi forcing de Gea into multiple saves before the Bosnian Batistuta put Roma on the scoreboard.
Edin Dzeko: 57th Minute (Roma 1, Manchester United 1)
Dzeko loves scoring against Man Utd pic.twitter.com/HUzfGFDhNt— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) May 6, 2021
For the first time all evening long, Roma's composure paid off. With the men in maroon pinging the ball around the edge of the box, Pedro managed to pull off a clever skipped shot/cross towards the middle of the box, bouncing the ball off the pitch right to Dzeko's forward for an equalizer.
This goal would have meant a lot more had they not conceded to Cavani just before the end of the first half, but Dzeko's header precipitated one of the most manic sequences we've seen from Roma, one in which they forced de Gea into three or four saves in a 60-75 second span, in addition to scoring their second of the night.
Bryan Cristante: 60th Minute (Roma 2, Manchester United 1)
This first time finish by Bryan Cristante pic.twitter.com/tprVwjRUnf— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) May 6, 2021
After some pinball-esque action in United's area, Pellegrini and Edin Dzeko managed a quick give and go on the right side, only to see the ball quickly reversed back to the edge of the area. After another mini-scrum, Pellegrini once again got his foot to the ball, dispossessing Fred and finding Cristante in the box all in one motion. From there, Cristante turned and fired, beating de Gea to the left with a thunderous shot.
As we just mentioned, these two goals kicked off a two-minute span in which Roma forced de Gea into multiple saves, with Pedro, Mkhitaryan, and Pellegrini each threatening the United goal. With a 2-1 lead and over 30 minutes left to play, visions of another Romantada started dancing through our heads.
If Roma were going to manage the unthinkable, it was going to happen now. Roma was playing with purpose and intent, flying to every loose ball, firing shots with vigor, and doing their best to contain Cavani and Fernandes...but it wouldn't last.
Edinson Cavani: 68th Minute (Roma 2, Manchester United 2)
Bruno ➡️ Cavani ➡️ ⚽. Again. pic.twitter.com/EjEYP8HxwP— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) May 6, 2021
More patient buildup play from United resulted in another Fernades to Cavani goal, with the former Palermo and Napoli striker bursting into the box to head home Fernandes’ chipped entry pass.
And that was that; Roma continued their desperate attempts to conjure a miracle out of thin air—and managed a late goal from European debutant Nicola Zalewski in the 83rd minute—but it was the classic too little too late as they left the pitch on the downside of an 8-5 aggregate scoreline.
ROMA SCORE THE 13TH❗ GOAL IN THIS TIE pic.twitter.com/CVvwk5ljeB— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) May 6, 2021
Well, nothing miraculous occurred at the Stadio Olimpico tonight but Paulo Fonseca and Roma fans everywhere should be proud of the spirit and effort the Giallorossi showed tonight. There was a brief spell around the hour mark in which it really felt like the unthinkable might come to pass but, just as they did last week, Cavani and Fernandes put an end to that nonsense—quickly and completely.
Roma runs it back in Serie A on Sunday against Crotone.
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