Thanks to the now standard raft of injuries and suspensions Roma faces seemingly every week, José Mourinho had to dig deep into his bag of tricks for tonight's Europa League encounter with HJK Helsinki. With Paulo Dybala and Nicolo Zaniolo not available for this fixture, The Special One trotted out the seldom-seen 4-3-3, but the formation itself wasn't the surprise. Without his usual standouts in attack, Mourinho gave rare starts to Stephan El Shaarawy and young Cristian Volpato, who flanked Tammy Abraham along the frontline.
Rounding out Mourinho's starting eleven were Nicola Zalewski, Gianluca Mancini, Chris Smalling, and Matías Viña along the backline, while Mady Camara and Bryan Cristante joined Pellegrini in the midfield.
Lineup changes or not, through the opening 15 minutes, Roma were bewitched by the same old devils we've seen over the past few matches: a lack of fluidity in the attacking phases and little to no punch up top. Roma came close in the 24th minute when Volpato flicked a ball into the box for Pellegrini, who was crashing into the box from the edge of the 18, but the captain couldn't get a clean look at it, and the chance went wasted.
However, as has so often been the case this season, Roma's saving grace came via the setpiece... or so it seemed. After Pellegrini whipped an inswinging corner towards the left post, Bryan Cristante headed the ball back towards the opposite post, narrowly avoiding Conor Hazard's outstretched gloves, giving Roma a goal they so desperately needed.
While Roma was busy celebrating its success, VAR quickly rained on the Giallorossi's parade. After a quick appeal to the replay officials, Cristian Volpato was ruled offside for essentially sitting in Hazard's lap as Pellegrini's ball found Cristante's head—an unfortunate ending to what was otherwise a tidy little setpiece.
The video officials would hear their name called several minutes later when Stephan El Shaarawy stole the ball deep in the attacking third. After quickly shaking loose from the defense, El Shaarawy slipped the ball to Tammy Abraham at the edge of the six. With only one man to beat, Abraham attempted to bait the ref into a penalty after the HJK defense upended him, but VAR quickly ruled he was offside... by quite a bit.
But Tammy would soon get his revenge.
Tammy Abraham: 41st Minute (HJK Helsinki 0, Roma 1)
Tammy Abraham scores his first European goal of the season pic.twitter.com/D3tvCibPYp— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 27, 2022
In a scene ripped straight from Roma's 2021 highlight reel, Lorenzo Pellegrini picked out Tammy Abraham with a sensational free-kick from some 40 yards out. With the captain's ball gliding gently through the air, Abraham left little doubt as he towered over the defense, whipping the ball past a hapless Hazard to finally give Roma the first-half lead they'd been desperately chasing.
It wasn't a pretty half of football, but credit to the Giallorossi for not hanging their heads after Cristante's disallowed goal. With the play running stagnant, Roma once again found success via the setpiece, but would it be enough to put this game away?
While Roma wasn't exactly buzzing to start the new half, they nearly stole a chance in the 50th minute when Abraham scooped up a loose ball deep in Helsinki territory. After wheeling around at the right edge of the area, Abraham tried to curl a ball into the near post, missing by a matter of inches.
And, as you probably could have guessed, Roma would soon rue that miss. Moments later, HJK struck back with an excellent four or five-pass move, capped off by Perparim Hetemaj, who fired from the middle of the area, barely avoiding Gianluca Mancini's outstretched leg before catching Rui Patricio in no man's land.
With more than 30 minutes left to play, Roma had ample time to salvage a victory tonight, but they couldn't afford to waste time in what was essentially a win-or-go-home affair.
Fortune would finally look Roma's way several minutes later. After Pellegrini and Abraham started the sequence down the right channel, play eventually switched to SES on the opposite flank. With El Shaarawy ready to whip the ball in, Abraham made a diagonal run toward the near left post. While Hazard had the spot covered, El Shaarawy's pass/shot deflected off Arttu Hoskonen and into the back of the net, giving Roma an inadvertent but much-appreciated goal.
With a 2-1 lead in their pocket and roughly 30 minutes left to play, Roma searched for a third goal and nearly found one in the 63rd when Pellegrini drove a left-footed effort into the area that would have doubled the Giallorossi's lead. Pellegrini had another crack at goal in the 70th minute but was once again denied by Hazard.
Not to be outdone, Helsinki heaped pressure on Rui Patricio as the clock ticked away, nearly beating the Portuguese keeper in the 76th minute when Nassim Boujellab almost tucked one underneath Patricio's arms in what would have been a howler to end all howlers.
With roughly 15 minutes remaining, Mourinho made a triple change, bringing Edoardo Bove, Eldor Shomurodov, and Giacomo Faticanti (who was making his professional debut) into the fray in place of Pellegrini, Camara, and Volpato.
While I wish we could say that was all she wrote, Helsinki stunned the crowd in the 80th minute. Following an HJK corner, Roma was able to clear the initial danger thanks to a headed clearance from Tammy Abraham, the ball quickly found its way to David Brown some 40 yards away from goal, and with one fell swoop of his leg, Brown buried the goal in the upper right-hand corner—a sensational goal any way you slice it.
And while Roma was disappointed, they had a legitimate gripe, claiming that Cristante was fouled in the goal line scrum—a claim quickly verified by VAR, which disallowed Brown's wonder goal. Cristante, feeling the effects of that foul, was subbed off for Marash Kumbulla, giving Roma additional defensive grit to close out this match.
Mourinho would make one last change before the final whistle, swapping out El Shaarawy for Leonardo Spinazzola. With five added minutes, Roma had to remain on guard but did well to snuff out whatever life remained in the HJK lineup.
José Mourinho demanded a win, and that's exactly what he got. It was far from a clean victory, and Roma was both hard done and saved by VAR, but it was three points all the same—three points that will keep Roma's hopes of advancing to the knockout rounds alive and well.
Despite the somewhat uneven nature of the match, Roma did receive standout performances from Abraham and Pellegrini, while El Shaarawy and Cristante had a few moments in the sun, but by and large, tonight's performance will do little to silence the doubters.
Roma hits the road to face Verona on Halloween night.