After watching in horror as their 3-1 lead over Juventus quickly became a 4-3 defeat two weeks ago, Roma has rebounded nicely, winning two straight matches: a 1-0 win over Cagliari last weekend and a midweek 3-1 victory over Lecce in the Coppa Italia Round of 16. While they haven't ironed out all the wrinkles from that embarrassing defeat to Juventus, the past two matches have given Roma fans hope, and when combined with Fiorentina and Lazio dropping points earlier in the round, José Mourinho and the Giallorossi had a chance to resuscitate their Champions League hopes with a victory over Empoli today.
With his side as fit as they've been in weeks, and deeper thanks to the recent additions of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sérgio Oliveira, Mourinho actually had a few lineup options at his disposal. Despite the deeper bench, The Special One decided not to mess with success and stuck with the de rigueur 3-5-2, with Tammy Abraham and Nicolo Zaniolo pairing up top, supported by Oliveira, Bryan Cristante, Henrikh Mkhitaryan in midfield with Rick Karsdorp and Maitland-Niles manning the wing-back spots. At the back, Roger Ibañez, Chris Smalling, and Gianluca Mancini were tasked with protecting Rui Patricio in goal.
Mourinho's lineup continuity was met with equal consistency from the match officials, who, in the game's opening moments, chose to ignore a blatant foul on Zaniolo, who was barreled over in the box by Riccardo Fiamozzi and was met with little more than an ambivalent shrug from referee Michael Fabbri.
Rather than relying on the referee, Roma nearly made their own luck moments later when Mkhitaryan almost pressed Empoli keeper Guglielmo Vicaro into a costly error as he was attempting to handle a back pass. It didn't amount to much in the end, but it was nice to see Roma be aggressive in the early phases of the match.
Empoli would find their own bit of space in the attacking end, forcing Rui Patricio into an early save in the sixth minute when Filippo Bandinelli's left-footer missed the mark. The match hit an earlier than expected lull after the opening ten minutes or so, with both clubs struggling to find any attacking fluidity, but the match gained new life as we passed the quarter-hour mark.
In the 20th minute, Empoli nearly flipped the game on its head thanks to a cleverly orchestrated corner kick routine. After receiving in an outswinger from the right corner flag, Nedim Bajrami had a clear-cut chance in the middle of the box but couldn't quite wrap his foot around the ball, watching his wide-open effort sail over the crossbar and into the stands.
Zaniolo would have his number called next, getting his own clear-cut chance in the middle of the box, but rather than being done in by a flaw in technique like Bajrami, Zaniolo's left-footed effort—one that seemed destined to beat Vicario—was turned away by a headed block from Ardian Ismaji.
But you can only keep a good team down so long...
Tammy Abraham: 24th Minute (Empoli 0, Roma 1)
Tammy Abraham scores Roma's opener! pic.twitter.com/ceesBrLtH5— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 23, 2022
This may have started as a shot, but Sérgio Oliveira's ball into the box—whether it was a genuine attempt or a cleverly disguised pass—was right on the money, settling right at Tammy Abraham's feet. From there, Tammy knew what to do: calmly slotting the ball past Vicario to give Roma a deserved lead.
The Giallorossi would keep the pressure on their hosts several minutes later when Zaniolo led the charge on a fast break. However, rather than attempting a tightly-contested shot as he wove across the face of the goal, Zaniolo laid the ball off to Maitland-Niles on the left, but the Englishman's attempt—a weak side footer—wasn't up to the task, giving Vicario his easiest save of the night.
Maitland-Niles may have been off the mark, but Roma were about to bury Empoli.
Tammy Abraham: 33rd Minute (Empoli 0, Roma 2)
Tammy Abraham or Gianluca Mancini?— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 23, 2022
Roma do not care, they are up 2! pic.twitter.com/SQVZR7rpcg
After inadvertently setting up Abraham's first goal, Oliveira was more direct with his help this time, whipping a cross towards the far post. Gianluca Mancini made the first touch on the ball, heading it back towards Abraham at the near post, and while Tammy's right-footed attempt actually broke the plane of the goal line, Mancini left nothing to chance, poking the ball into the back of the net after Vicario appeared to deny Abraham. The goal was eventually awarded to Abraham, but you have to appreciate Mancini’s effort.
But Roma weren't done...not by a long shot.
Sérgio Oliveira: 35th Minute (Empoli 0, Roma 3)
Bueno, no me dan tiempo. Oliveira, una llegada clave al equipo y al área, casi de 9. El tercer gol de Roma. pic.twitter.com/UltoKCS54j— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) January 23, 2022
This passage of play was a bit more disjointed than Roma's other goals but Oliveira's finish was pure class. With Karsdorp bursting down the right flank and firing the ball to Abraham in the middle of the box, it seemed like Roma's lanky number nine was primed to bag a first-half hat trick, but rather than trophy hunting, he decided to let the ball run through to Zaniolo, who was camped out at the penalty spot. While Zaniolo seemed caught between two minds (shoot or dummy it), he kind of opted for the latter, inadvertently deflecting the ball to Sérgio, who did extraordinarily well to park the ball in the upper right-hand corner with the outside of his boot—remarkable effort from the new guy.
Remarkably, Roma still weren't done scoring...
Nicolo Zanolo: 37th Minute (Empoli 0, Roma 4)
It's raining goals!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 23, 2022
Nicolo Zaniolo adds Roma's 4th. pic.twitter.com/arcmUw7ewV
Who doesn't love a fast-break goal? After seizing control of the ball deep in Roma's defensive third, Chris Smalling quickly fired the ball up the left channel to Abraham. And without skipping a beat, Abraham flicked the ball up the pitch with his back heel, into a void of space that was quickly and seamlessly filled by Mkhitaryan. From there, the Armenian maestro charged down the left flank, carrying the ball from the center stripe all the way to the edge of the area before picking out Zaniolo on the right, giving The Kid a chance to score a beautiful one-timed goal with his left boot.
Roma may have struggled coming out of the gate, but they put six of 12 attempts on target converting four of them into goals. There was no messing about today, no leaving things to chance, and no rueing missed opportunities; Roma were fast, efficient, and clinical in the first half, essentially winning the match in a four-minute span.
Beautiful stuff. But what would the second half have in store for Roma fans?
With a four-nil lead padding his pockets, Mourinho decided to leave nothing to chance, keeping all eleven starters on the pitch despite the lopsided scoreline. Given how much Mourinho has stressed a winning mentality and finishing matches as strong as they start them, this came as little surprise.
And when Mkhitaryan got loose in the box in the 49th minute, testing Vicario with a high attempt from outside of the box, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Giallorossi found their fifth goal of the match.
However, as we've seen far too often this season, Roma began to relent at the worst possible moments. Starting in the 50th minute, little by little Empoli began to crawl their way back into the match. After winning a corner in the 54th minute, the Azzurri started to make a bit of noise, testing Patricio through Baldinelli and Andrea Pinamonti's attempts.
While Roma were up to the task, Empoli’s resolve would pay off moments later.
Andrea Pinamonti: 56th Minute (Roma 4, Empoli 1)
With Roma struggling to clear the ball, punctuated by Mancini's poor clearance up the middle, Empoli unexpectedly found themselves in scoring position. After securing possession and redirecting play straight back at Roma, Andrea Pinamonti's initial attempt was turned away and quickly settled by Baldinelli, who then did exceptionally well to fend off multiple Roma defenders before picking out Pinamonti in the middle of the box. Credit to Pinamonti for shadowing Baldinelli's movements and subtly drifting away from the goal and towards the edge of the six-yard box, giving himself a clean look at the goal.
Empoli continued to ratchet up the pressure on Roma, slicing the Giallorossi's lead in half...
Nedim Bajrami: 72nd Minute (Empoli 2, Roma 4)
Roma Happened was starting to descend on the Stadio Castellani, but the Giallorossi managed to stem the tide for the next chunk of time, but Empoli would pull another one back in the 72nd minute when Nedim Bajrami was set up by Liam Henderson, beating Patricio low and to the right to cut Roma’s lead in half, though to be fair, the ball deflected off Mancini, making an already difficult task nearly impossible for Patricio.
The Giallorossi had a chance to push the advantage back to three goals moments later when Roger Ibañez found space in the area, but his free header sailed agonizingly wide of the mark.
Mourinho would respond with a trio of changes as the match limped towards the 80th minute: Matías Viña in place of Maitland-Niles, Jordan Veretout for Mkhitaryan, and Felix Afena-Gyan for Zaniolo.
Despite the nervy ending, Roma's first-half onslaught was enough to win the day, though Empoli almost made things even dicier late in the match when Andrea Pinamonti lashed a surprisingly pacey header at Patricio, who had to react instantly to snare the ball out of thin air.
In the end, Roma's first-half lead compensated for the mental lapses that nearly opened the door for an Empoli upset.
I have no doubt Mourinho will lament his team's inability to truly close out a match like this, and while that's part of his job as Roma's manager, there's no debating it: Roma were incredibly impressive in the first half, beating Empoli back with quick passages of play, smart passes, intuitive off-the-ball movement and, of course, top-class finishing.
There were certainly some second-half blemishes, but let's not discount Empoli's efforts either; there was no quitting in Andreazzoli's side tonight, with players like Pinamonti, Bajrami and Henderson turning in solid performances for Empoli.
A day may come when Roma will be able to finish off matches like these without giving the opposition unwarranted hope, but the goodwill they accrued early in the match was more than enough to win the day.
The dreaded international break. Do some chores, see your loved ones and stay safe! We'll see you in early February when Roma hosts Genoa on the 6th.
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