With their Europa League prospects and a spot in Serie A's top four hanging by a thread, José Mourinho and Roma needed a no-doubter today. No deflected goals, no lucky free kicks, and no own goals. The Giallorossi needed a decisive victory today, the kind where they blow the doors off before the 20-minute mark.
Fortunately for us, the schedule makers dropped the perfect opponent in Roma's lap: 19th-place Hellas Verona. Not only were the Mastiffs bringing up the rear, but the Verona-based club was also in absolute free fall, losing six straight matches dating back to September 11th. With only a single win this season (and only three positive results), newly-promoted Cremonese (who haven't won a single game) was the only thing sparing Verona the shame of being dead last.
And for a minute, it looked like Roma would make quick work of their canine compatriots as Nicolo Zaniolo sliced through the heart of the defense in the opening minute, nearly playing Lorenzo Pellegrini into the box with a through ball down the left channel. Unfortunately, Zaniolo's pass was a tad too heavy, and the chance went for naught—a theme for most of the evening.
Roma soldiered on through the first half, seemingly more content to retain possession than threaten Lorenzo Montipo's goal, but the worm started to turn around the 20th minute. After being played into the box by Zaniolo and Rick Karsdorp, Tammy Abraham had the game in his hands as he skirted around the keeper but watched in horror as his shot struck the right post rather than tucking inside the wide-open goal, much to Mourinho's chagrin.
Tammy would have his number called again two minutes later when he bravely threw his head in the middle of a scrum, lashing the ball towards the post only to see it skirt wide of the mark. And that was kind of that for the first half—despite seeing nearly 60% of the ball, Roma mustered only four attempts on goal.
And then disaster struck. In the 27th minute, Verona made Roma pay for their profligacy in front of goal as Pawel Dawidowicz found pay dirt off a set piece, redirecting a Marco Faraoni shot from distance. Given the sheer amount of bodies in the way, there was very little Rui Patricio could do, but Verona ripped this one straight from the training ground; job well done by them.
After trodding through the proverbial mud for the next 20 minutes, Roma finally caught a break after Tammy Abraham (again) hit the woodwork, only this time, the ball fell right to Zaniolo at the right post, who was more than happy for the gimme goal, leveling the match moments before the halftime whistle. If this were some sort of trick shot competition, we could say that Abraham essentially alley-ooped the ball to Zaniolo off the post, but, well, he didn't—Roma got very lucky here.
Not one to leave things to chance, Mourinho made several attacking changes in the second half, bringing on Stephan El Shaarawy to start in place of an ineffective Bryan Cristante, while The Special One introduced Cristian Volpato, Andrea Belotti, Eldor Shomurodov, and Nemanja Matic before the final whistle blew.
Despite a bright start to the second frame, Roma soon found themselves frustrated by Verona's compact defense—who were down a man the entire second half after Pawel Dawidowicz saw a straight red in the 36th minute after kicking Zaniolo in the thigh—unable to capitalize on their numerical superiority.
With the clock ticking away and Verona stalling every chance they got, it seemed like Roma was destined to walk away disappointed, sharing the spoils with an inferior, under-manned opponent. But things would soon change for the Giallorossi, with two unlikely men playing the role of hero.
Holding possession deep down the left flank, Matic made for an awkward attacking winger, but thanks to his poise and patience, he was able to hold the defense off long enough to ping the ball to the point of the 18, where Volpato was unmarked and waiting for his chance to shine—and shine he did. With one clever swing of his foot, Volpato steered the ball past a hapless Montipo, sending the away fans into hysterics, but he wasn't done just yet.
Roma was on top 2-1, but with five minutes of added time, victory was far from assured. With the 18-year-old Australian leading the charge from some 40-yards out, the Giallorossi had Verona on the back heel, leaving Volpato with multiple options to end the Mastiff's misery.
With Shomurodov to his left and Abraham to his right, Volpato slowed down as he approached the 18-yard-box, giving El Shaarawy enough time to overlap him on the left, sneaking in behind Shomurodov, who was acting as a de facto shield. From there, it was vintage SES: he dragged the ball just enough to bait the keeper out of position before gently poking it past the diving defender.
Job done. Three-points secured. Onto the derby! If you missed any of the match, please enjoy the highlights below or even the extended version here.
Man of the match?
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Stephan El Shaarawy