While it may have lacked the glitz and glamor of that other European miracle, I have a feeling we won't soon forget Roma's come-from-behind win over Ludogorets at the Stadio Olimpico. Facing a win-or-go-home match against their Bulgarian foes, who bested the Giallorossi on Matchday One, Roma's Europa League lifeline was hanging by a thread.
Making matters worse, Roma's frustrating finishing reared its ugly head in the first half, as José Mourinho's men fired 10 shots at Ludogorets in the first half. The problem, as you likely could have guessed by now, was the location and quality of the shots. At first blush, Roma's 10 shots and 55% possession rate portended a blowout, but with seven of those shots coming outside of the area and only one shot hitting its mark, there wasn't much bite behind Roma's bark.
While there's some value in the threat of a shot coming at a moment's notice from any angle or distance, more often than not, the Giallorossi seemed to settle for what Ludogorets gave them rather than dictating terms to their visitors.
And just when it felt like Mourinho's men would, at the very least, head into the dressing room on level pegging, disaster struck in the form of a man named Rick, who sliced his way through Roma's midfield before burying a 25-yard screamer past Rui Patricio to put Ludogorets on top before the halftime whistle, temporarily putting the Bulgarian side in the driver's seat for a place in the knockout stages.
So swift and cruel was the blow, the Romaverse quickly became a bleak place—and yes, we contributed to that vibe. My bad. But Roma would soon turn this match on its ear.
Not one to leave things to chance, Mourinho made the rare triple swap to start the new half, pulling off the ineffective Andrea Belotti, Mady Camara, and Rick Karsdorp for Bryan Cristante, Nicolo Zaniolo, and last weekend's hero, Cristian Volpato.
And to say this trio paid rewarded Mourinho's faith would be selling them short. While they didn't find the back of the net immediately, the combined pace, creativity, and aggression flashed by Zaniolo and Volpato had an appreciable effect on Roma, who were playing with a flair and a sense of purpose we hadn't seen in weeks, if not months.
From Volpato's nimble feet to Zaniolo's aggressive runs into the box and even a few nicely placed balls from Cristante, Roma was decisive, determined, and seemingly destined to equalize. And while they needed a bit of luck, Roma wrested control from this match thanks to Zaniolo, who drew two penalties in a matter of nine minutes to draw level and take the lead.
In each instance (the 56th and 65th minutes, respectively), Zaniolo's short-range speed and aggression led to hasty challenges from the Ludogorets defensive, leading to no-doubt penalty calls from the referee. And both times, club captain Lorenzo Pellegrini exuded poise and confidence, beating Sergio Padt to the right and then the left—not an easy feat, beating a keeper from the penalty spot twice in quick succession.
Lady luck would look Roma's way once more in the 79th minute. After nearly breaking Roma's back with a shot that deflected off Matías Viñas's rear end, falling right to Gustavo Nonato at the near post, who slammed it past Patricio with ease, the Giallorossi caught a massive break.
As the Roma hung their collective heads in disgust, referee Nikola Dabanovic and the VAR officials gave the Giallorossi a lifeline: there was a foul in the build-up... and we do mean the build-up. Some 40 yards upfield, Rick, the man who nearly sent Roma packing back to the Conference League at the stroke of halftime, inadvertently caught Roger Ibañez's face with the back of his hand; a transgression VAR deemed sufficient enough to disallow the goal.
If we're being honest, Ludogorets were a bit hard-done by the call, but it gave Roma the extra incentive they needed to close out this match, with the killing blow delivered by none other than Nicolo Zaniolo. With time winding down, The Kid ran onto a lovely chipped ball from Cristante before barging his way through multiple defenders, splitting the final two, before slotting the ball home to put Roma through to the group stages.
It will never match the stakes of the Manolas Miracle, but tonight's victory should give us all plenty of reasons to smile for the foreseeable future.
If you missed a minute of the action, feast your eyes on the highlights.