After watching their 3-1 lead over Juventus disappear in a six-minute span last weekend, José Mourinho and Roma didn't need to just defeat Cagliari today, they needed to beat them convincingly; we're talking a blowout of epic proportions, the kind that makes you think Caligari owed Mourinho money or maybe made disparaging remarks about his family in the tunnel pre-match. That's much easier said than done, of course, but Roma's quest for a resounding victory was dealt a swift blow before the opening whistle even blew, as Lorenzo Pellegrini was forced out of the lineup due to a last-minute injury.
Certainly an inauspicious start for a club chasing its first win since mid-December, but without his captain, Mourinho was forced to reinsert Jordan Veretout into the lineup, alongside new signing Sergio Oliveira in Roma's midfield; not the worst circumstances we've ever endured, but we know all too well what happens when Roma's creative sparkplug is pulled from the lineup.
With Pellegrini absent, Nicolo Zaniolo seized the early initiative today, barrelling into the box in the opening moments. And with Andrea Carboni hot on his heels, the Cagliari defender appeared to upend Zaniolo, leading to an early penalty appeal from the Giallorossi. While there appeared to be clear contact between the two Italians, VAR ultimately saw nothing dodgy about this sequence, and Cagliari manager Walter Mazzarri's claims of “la palla, la palla” (the ball, the ball) were proven correct.
Undaunted, Roma continued their early assault in the sixth minute when Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Tammy Abraham, and Felix Afena-Gyan started an odd-man rush in midfield. With a numerical advantage, a Roma goal seemed like a formality but after receiving the ball on the left, Felix opted for his own shot—a tight angled effort at the near post—rather than squaring the ball back to either Mkhitaryan or Abraham. While the end product was lacking, this simple passage of play provided a glimpse into the mind of Mourinho: Roma were going to break/counter at a moment's notice, flexing the combined speed and passing of Mkhitaryan and Felix to subdue the Cagliari defense.
The match paused for another VAR appeal in the 12th minute when Ainsley Maitland-Niles appeared to touch the ball with his hand while making a diving stop. Once again VAR saw nothing untoward but Cagliari had a golden chance to draw first blood with a free kick deep in Roma territory. Fortunately, Pavoletti's effort sailed wide of the mark, sparing Roma for the moment.
The Giallorossi would continue to hunt for an early goal when Maitland-Niles flashed his athleticism, blazing past the defense down the right flank thanks to a clever stall-and-go move, before firing a cross to Tammy Abraham in the middle of the box. With Cragno tracking the flight to the ball, Abraham wisely decided to flick his header in the opposite direction, catching Cragno off-guard, but he just couldn't get enough of his head on the ball to power it past the Cagliari keeper.
The match would hit a lull after twenty minutes or so, but fortune finally smiled on Roma once the match crept past the half-hour mark. With Mkhitaryan leading another fast break through the heart of the Cagliari defense, the Armenian maestro laid the ball off to Sérgio Oliveira at the right edge of the box. With the defense quickly collapsing on him, Sérgio had no choice but to fire a one-timed effort at Cragno, only to see his shot blocked by Dalbert.
Sérgio Oliveira: 33rd Minute (Roma 1, Cagliari 0)
A debut goal for Sérgio Oliveira pic.twitter.com/SIe0Kd2o35— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 16, 2022
In real-time, it looked like a clever play from Dalbert, but upon further review, VAR found that Dalbert actually blocked the shot with his hand, and after a quick check, Roma were awarded a penalty, which Oliveira converted with ease, beating Cragno to his left.
Given how quickly Roma were marching up the pitch, it's a shame they couldn't score in the run of play, but this was a clear and obvious penalty and Oliveira converted it without batting an eye, so you won't catch us complaining.
Roma's impressive transition play continued down the stretch, this time with young Felix darting down the left flank before cutting into the middle. With Felix pulling the defense off its moorings, Zaniolo seemingly had time and space to make some noise on the right, but he couldn't manage to corral Felix's pass, giving the defense that extra split second to reorganize and snuff out the chance.
The referee tacked on three minutes of stoppage time, but neither side managed to make hay in those 180 bonus seconds, setting the stage for a potentially anxiety-inducing second half.
With a one-nil lead to protect and the visions of last week's disaster fresh in his mind, Mourinho opted for no changes to start the new half, both in personnel and approach. Almost immediately, Roma went right back to the well: springing Felix down the flanks on a fast break. With the young Ghanian outracing the defense, the Giallorossi once again had Cagliari's defense off-kilter, but the final product was (once again) lacking, as Felix's long-range shot petered out on the grass before settling into Cragno's arms.
Felix would have another pop at goal moments later after taking the feed from Zaniolo, but his tight-angled effort was thwarted once more by Cragno. Mkhitaryan would have his number called next, receiving the ball from Zaniolo at the edge of the box, but his long-distance shot sailed wide and to the left.
It was Felix time again in the 58th minute (are you sensing a theme here?) when the young winger was sprung into space via a lovely long ball from Tammy Abraham. With no one between him and the keeper, Felix was likely salivating at the thought of tucking one home, but Cragno came off his line in a shot, denying Felix a would-be goal. But once again, this was a dramatic signal of intent from Roma, who bypassed Cagliari's defense completely in this instance, lapping the field thanks to Abraham's picture-perfect ball over the top.
Whether they were relying on long passes over the top or biding their time waiting to pounce on the counter, Roma were running roughshod over Cagliari, particularly in transition play where Felix's speed proved a vital asset for Mourinho's men.
Despite not scoring in the run of play, Roma were having their way with the Cagliari defense and produced two golden chances just shy of the 70-minute mark: a Jordan Veretout one-timed effort that nearly squeezed past Cragno at the right post, while Tammy Abraham was played into space by Oliveira only to see Cragno once again spring off his line to pluck the ball off a Roma striker's toes.
Zaniolo crafted another chance in the 74th minute, charging into the box down the right flank before firing a low effort towards the opposite post. While it was properly weighed and measured, Zaniolo's effort barely miss the mark, rolling harmlessly past the post, sparing Cagliari for the moment.
Sensing the impending danger, Mourinho made an attacking switch, bringing on Eldor Shomurodov in place of Felix Afena-Gyan, who put in another solid shift despite not being able to crack the Cragno code. Shomurodov, ironically, was immediately denied by Cragno in much the same way: a soft and low effort meant to tease Cragno out of position, only to trickle harmlessly into his gloves.
With the match careening towards its finish, Roma killer Joao Pedro nearly drew the visitor's level in the 85th minute when he pulled Rui Patricio into the thick of the action, with the Roma keeper redirecting Pedro's shot with the tips of his fingers, though it hit the crossbar and nearly fell back into the box. Roma definitely dodged a bullet there, but kudos to Patricio for reacting as quickly as he did, particularly since Cagliari's attack had been dormant to this point of the match.
After the referee tacked on five minutes of stoppage time, Roma opted to play out the string with a series of sideways, time-wasting passes, rather than put the game to bed. Despite those stalling tactics, Cagliari created something out of nothing down the stretch when Nahitan Nandez found space down the right flank. With the slightest of space in the box, Nandez nearly made the most of it but his final touch (a chested ball) let him down and Patricio pounced on the loose ball, denying Cagliari a late equalizer.
And that was all she wrote. Mourinho emptied the bench in the 95th minute, bringing on Edoardo Bove for Veretout and giving a club debut to Dimitros Keramitsis, who replaced Maitland-Niles to close out the game.
This was the ultimate a win is a win match. Despite moving and passing circles around the Cagliari defense, and despite putting nearly 50% of their shots on target, Roma were continually frustrated by Alessio Cragno, whose poise and athleticism were on full display this evening at the Stadio Olimpico. Controlling the bulk of possession and flexing their athletic advantage all evening, Roma had the looks of a finely tuned machine, but the end product seldom matched the effort required to create those chances in the first place.
Of course, the flip side to that script saw an impressive defensive effort that limited Cagliari to only three on-target attempts, while the Gianluca Mancini and Max Kumbulla pairing did extraordinarily well to effectively remove Joao Pedro from the game, limiting him to only one on-target attempt, which came in dying moments of the match.
But thanks to new signing Sérgio Oliveira's poised penalty, Roma walked away winners for the first time since their mid-December upset over Atalanta.
Roma host Lecce in the Coppa Italia on Thursday before traveling to Empoli next Sunday.
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