Donning their bright yellow kits, Roma took to the pitch at the Stadio Picco just as dusk was settling in, making for a dramatic start to this round 27 fixture. Adding to the melodrama of the evening, Roma entered this match minus manager José Mourinho, who was suspended following his actions (kicking the ball and generally being a...curmudgeon) in last weekend's draw against Verona. In his place was assistant manager Salvatore Foti, who stood in for The Special One in this critical domestic fixture.
Whether it was at his behest or not, Foti's first official lineup as Roma's manager featured a few surprises, namely young Nicola Zalewski starting at left wing-back, one of four changes for the Giallorossi on the day. Henrikh Mkhitaryan made a late-week recovery to earn the start alongside Lorenzo Pellegrini in support of Tammy Abraham up top. At the back, Foti and Mourinho rolled with a three-man backline featuring Gianluca Mancini, Chris Smalling, and Marash Kumbulla, while Rick Karsdorp, Bryan Cristante, and Jordan Veretout rounded out the remainder of Foti's starting eleven.
Roma's new-look lineup got straight to work, unleashing Karsdorp down the right flank on the Giallorossi's first attacking move. And while the Dutchman played a pitiful ball into the box, it was good enough to win an early corner, one that Mancini nearly converted into a goal with a quick, snapped header at the near right post, but Spezia keeper Ivan Provedel flashed some impressive reflexes, denying Mancini a would-be goal in the opening minutes of the match.
Karsdorp would continue to hear his name called in the opening stages of this match, and in the 8th minute, he combined with Henrikh Mkhitaryan to create Roma's first genuine scoring chance of the match (in the run of play). With Mkhitaryan controlling possession at the right edge of the box and doing his best to evade four Spezia defenders, Karsdorp pulled off a cleverly disguised overlap, receiving the ball down the right flank before pinging it back to Lorenzo Pellegrini at the point, but the Roma captain couldn't get a clean look on it, finessing a shot to the far left post, catching Provedel slightly off guard but not nearly enough to break the deadlock.
Spezia would find a bit of space in Roma's end in the 17th minute when (surprise, surprise) former Giallorossi player Daniele Verde waltzed around Zalewski deep in the final third before cutting in and firing an incredibly tight-angled effort that almost tucked inside the upper left-hand corner of Rui Patricio's goal.
Roma would jab right back when Pellegrini unfurled a long-range effort, firing a shot at the left post—one that seemed destined to tuck in the back of the net as Provedel mistimed his dive—but, in keeping with this season's theme, Pellegrini was denied by the woodwork. And with the ball lingering in no man's land, Tammy Abraham had a split second chance to poke home the rebound only to be denied by Provedel again, who at this point looked like a 28-year-old Gianluigi Buffon.
Undeterred by Provedel's heroics, Roma would pepper the 27-year-old Italian keeper with a flurry of attempts, with Abraham, Mkhitaryan, and Veretout each having a go at the Spezia keeper, only to be denied or caught offside. All told, Roma pumped seven shots at Spezia in the first 20 minutes alone.
The match hit a bit of a lull after a furious 20-minute opening, but, as he tends to do against his former club, Verde was at it again and created a scoring chance in the 29th minute when he played Simone Bastoni towards the near right post on a play resembling a classic, basketball-style back-door screen. Fortunately for Roma, they scrambled quickly enough to block the shot before it troubled Patricio.
Pellegrini came close to breaking the deadlock in the 32nd minute when he once again curled a beautiful shot from the left edge of the area, and while the ball sailed just a tad too high, it was an exquisite attempt from Roma's number seven, though the play was whistled dead for offside anyway.
The final 10 to 15 minutes played on without issue. Spezia were awarded a free-kick from the left edge of the box in the waning moments after Chris Smalling committed a foul, but Verde's ensuing effort missed the mark; it was a well-struck and had the dip portion down pat but lacked the lateral swerve to land safely in the back of the goal.
Roma caught a big break in the 45th minute when Kelvin Amian was booked twice in a five-minute span to close out the first half, putting Spezia at a disadvantage for the remainder of the match—not that a one-man advantage always plays into Roma's favor, mind you.
Nevertheless, it was an auspicious end to the first half for a Giallorossi side that, while dominating possession and heaping pressure on Provedel, couldn't find that critical breakthrough in the opening 45 minutes.
With Mancini continuing to collect yellow cards like 90s kids collected Pogs, Foti decided to make an attacking change, pulling out Mancini in favor of The Kid himself, Nicolo Zaniolo. While Zaniolo played no part in it, Roma continued to pepper Provedel to start the second half, with Pellegrini picking out Abraham at the far left post with a tidy little cross. With nary a defender in sight, Tammy crouched down to greet the ball's low trajectory only to watch in dismay as his effort sailed harmlessly wide of the mark.
Undaunted, Roma continued to keep Provedel on his toes, launching another series of shots at the Spezia keeper. However, just as he did for the previous 45 minutes, the 27-year-old keeper continued to frustrate the Giallorossi—while he continued to receive a helping hand from the woodwork. With the ball bounding his way at the edge of the box, Bryan Cristante popped a one-timed effort straight back towards the right post, only to see it strike the very bottom of the right upright in the 49th minute. Provedel's heroics continued in the very next second, as he denied a Pellegrini's low and to the left follow-up effort. Between Provedel's herculean efforts and the posts seemingly getting wider with each passing moment, Roma were frustrated at every turn.
Despite the lack of a payoff, Roma continued to work their one-man advantage for everything it's worth, firing four shots at Spezia in the opening eight to ten minutes of the second half. Spezia made some noise in the 56th minute when Kevin Agudelo beat Zalewski down the flank, forcing Rui Patricio into a leaping save—his first genuine action of the match.
Roma continued to crash the Spezia box in the 57th minute with Zaniolo finding Veretout on the left side of the box, but the Frenchman's finessed effort sliced harmlessly through the Spezia sky, landing in the stands rather than the back of the net.
The two sides would trade barbs for the ensuing 10 minutes, with synchronous, open play replaced by clutching, grabbing, and all manner of bodies colliding into one another, setting the stage for a tense finish. Foti would respond to this static by making another change, swapping out Veretout for Stephan El Shaarawy in the 68th minute.
With 20 minutes remaining and staring down the barrel of a fourth consecutive draw, Roma needed to pull out all the stops to escape with three points. For his part, Pellegrini attempted to shoulder the load, testing Provedel again in the 70th minute with a tight effort at the far right post, only to see Provedel make a parallel-to-the-ground leaping save.
Pellegrini would come close again in the 74th minute when he camped out in the middle of the box waiting for a square ball from Abraham, and while the Englishman eventually picked out Pellegrini, his pass was so easily diagnosed, it was almost comically turned away by the Spezia defense. Zaniolo would strike next, testing Provedel in the very next turn only to be stymied...again.
With their frustration mounting, Roma turned to the bench once more in the 80th minute, bringing on Eldor Shomurodov in a desperate attempt to break the deadlock. But rather than the fresh sub, Abraham had the next crack at goal. After watching Zaniolo weave his way from the right flank, cutting across the face of goal and dragging the defense with him, he found Abraham at the right post with a pocket pass. And rather than testing Provedel with a quick snapped shot, Abraham could only muster a weak effort directly at Provedel's feet.
Roma had another clean look at goal in the 87th minute via a Lorenzo Pellegrini free-kick from 20 yards out, and while it had a nice swerve on it, he wasn't able to steer it home, watching helplessly as it tailed away from the goal from and clanged into the ad boards behind the goal.
Spezia would catch Roma napping moments later, with Maggiore bursting through the middle of the pitch on a potential game-winning counterattack. With Roma's defense at sixes and sevens, the Giallorossi somehow managed to avert disaster, hastily blocking Agudelo's shot on goal.
With only three minutes of stoppage time tacked on, Roma didn't have a moment to waste and had another golden chance after Mkhitaryan flashed a ball across the face of goal. Its intended target, Lorenzo Pellegrini, couldn't corral the in-between bounce, which, by that point, was practically at his navel. And with the ball bouncing around the area, in and amongst at least eight players, Roma couldn't muster a clean look at the goal, with Tammy Abraham only able to manage a toe-poke at the ball.
But what came next was truly insane and nearly the most excruciating exhibition of Roma Happened we've witnessed in years. After that scrum in the box, Roma saw a Shomurodov attempt picked off the line and Cristante err on a header from a corner. With the clock ticking away, and already well past the initial three minutes of stoppage time, Roma seemed destined to leave the Stadio Picco disappointed.
But then things got truly chaotic. In the final play of the match (more or less), Roma won their seventh corner of the evening and nearly scored a dramatic match-winner when Zaniolo's diving header struck the crossbar not once but twice. And somehow, lost amidst the chaos, the referee missed a blatant kick to Zaniolo's face, one that split open the bridge of his nose.
After some initial controversy—as well as players from both squads furiously barking in referee Michael Fabbri's ear—VAR awarded Roma with a 98th-minute penalty. After the usual pre-penalty histrionics, Abraham stepped up to the spot and narrowly beat Provedel—who guessed correctly and was a split second late—to seal three sorely needed points.
Despite the final score, it’s difficult to feel satisfied with Roma's performance tonight. Facing a 10-man squad for the entire second half, Roma bombarded Provedel with 31 shots, putting 10 on target, watching 14 sail wide of the mark, while seven additional shots were summarily blocked by the Spezia defense. So, while we should be impressed with the sheer volume of those chances, Roma were as profligate as we've seen all season, though Provedel's performance tonight cannot be discounted—he was sensational and nearly stopped Abraham's penalty.
However, as we so often say, a win is a win. And after leaving dissatisfied in their past four matches, Roma finally gutted out their first win of February—but just barely. Thanks to today's victory, Roma jumps temporarily back into sixth place, six points adrift of Juventus for the league's final Champions League spot.
Roma hosts Atalanta on March 5th