The international break never seems to come at an opportune time for Roma. After a rough stretch to close out 2021, a span in which the Giallorossi dropped points in three straight matches, including bitter defeats to Milan and Juventus, José Mourinho's men rebounded before the break, ripping off three consecutive wins over Cagliari, Lecce, and Empoli. Admittedly, that's not a Murderer's Row of Italian football, but Roma handled their business without any issue, defeating that trio of opponents by a collective 8-3 scoreline, perhaps indicating that The Special One's methods were finally taking root.
Then, of course, the league went on pause for two weeks, and that tide of good feelings was replaced by anxiety and transfer-induced regrets. But none of that mattered today as Roma welcomed the Genoa Cricket and Football Club to the Stadio Olimpico in this crucial round 24 match.
With his side as fit as they've been in weeks, Mourinho continued to rely on the three-man backline, rolling out Chris Smalling, Roger Ibañez, and Gianluca Mancini in front of Rui Patricio in goal, with Rick Karsdorp and Ainsley Maitland-Niles manning the wing-back positions. Mourinho's midfield was comprised of Sérgio Oliveira, who looked to continue the hot start to his Roma career, with Bryan Cristante and Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing alongside their new Portuguese teammate, while Tammy Abraham and Nicolo Zaniolo lead the line up top.
Despite the health and lineup continuity, Roma struggled to break the Genoa press early in this match. With the likes of Mattia Destro, Manolo Portanova, and Kelvin Yeboah harassing Roma's back three, the Giallorossi struggled to establish any sense of attacking fluidity in the game's earliest moments. With their usual supply line cut off, the Giallorossi had no choice but to take the first available passing lane, which more often than not was a hastily sprayed ball up the middle, which found Abraham or Zaniolo completely isolated, compounding Roma's lack of fluidity and making every attacking touch an anxiety-inducing nightmare.
They nearly broke that spell in the 13th minute when Maitland-Niles pounced on a loose ball and quickly cut in from the left, barely maintaining his balance while slipping a ball into the box for Abraham. Unfortunately, given the angle of the pass and the duress under which it was played, neither AMN nor Tammy was able to truly get a clean touch on the ball, but it was a brilliant bit of quick thinking from the two Englishman.
And so it went for the ensuing 20 minutes: Roma was confounded by Genoa's counter-pressing but was spared by the Griffins' inability to make any noise in the attacking third. There were certainly good looks from either side—Genoa would intermittently send a midfielder crashing into the box to chase a through ball, while the Giallorossi caused a bit of chaos with a free kick in the 25th minute—but neither keeper exactly feared for their job; it was a rather inert opening half-hour in the Italian capital.
Roma would come to life once the match pushed past the 30-minute mark, with Sérgio Oliveira nearly creating two scoring chances: a chipped ball over the top to Zaniolo that run just a bit too far laterally—making it nearly impossible for Zaniolo to escape the defense—and a layoff to Mkhitaryan on the right edge of the box that was blocked by a Genoa defender.
Despite those frustrations, Roma was finally finding a way around Genoa's heavy pressing and it only seemed like a matter of time before the visitors tired themselves out, paving the way for Mourinho's counter to make hay.
Oliveira would take the reins again in the 34th minute, lashing a deep free-kick right at Sirigu's goal, nearly beating the veteran keeper at the right post, proving once again how important he's already become to Mourinho's machinations.
Roma's fortunes nearly reversed in the 35th minute when Zaniolo sliced through the left side of the defense, laying the ball off to Oliveira, who then turned it back to Maitland-Niles at the edge of the box. It looked like a bang-bang play in the making, but Maitland-Niles’ attempt was a split second late, giving the defense enough time to block yet another shot.
Zaniolo continued to create chances down the stretch, pitching out Maitland-Niles again, who was a hair offside before squaring the ball to Abraham in the middle. Zaniolo continued to carve his way through the Genoa defense moments later, dribbling around and in-between the defense before picking out Oliveira in the left channel, but the Portuguese midfielder wasn't able to convert an admittedly tight-angled attempt at the left post.
And that was really all she wrote for the first half. Genoa played the first 45 minutes perfectly—at least from a defense/pressing perspective—and was really only let down by their own attacking ineptitude. Roma showed some signs of life down the stretch thanks largely to Zaniolo's dribbling and strength on the ball but, much like Genoa, couldn't conjure any clear-cut chances out of thin air.
The first half wasn't exactly a stalemate but neither club looked truly locked in, setting the stage for a potentially fraught second half.
It would have been great if Roma came out and immediately changed the narrative of this match, but the script remained intact: Genoa continued to frustrate Roma to no end with their high press approach, leaving the Giallorossi to survive on scraps in the attacking end.
Considering that, it was no shock that Roma's best chance of the match came (indirectly) via a set-piece. After playing a short corner in the 55th minute, the ball eventually found its way to Rick Karsdorp deep in the right channel, with the Dutchman picking out Chris Smalling at the far left post. With enough time and space to flip the match on its head, Smalling watched in horror as his header barely sailed over the bar.
Sensing a need for fresh blood, Mourinho swapped hyphens, pulling out Maitland-Niles for Felix Afena-Gyan while Oliveira made way for Stephan El Shaarawy's triumphant return from injury, who almost immediately setup Zaniolo for a potential match-winner, but his one-timed effort rocketed over the bar.
Roma saw another effort misfire minutes later after Roger Ibañez went on a wild run down the left flank, momentarily losing the ball before regaining it thanks to Abraham. And with the Genoa defense quickly reassembling, Ibañez found Felix streaking down the right side of the box but the young striker wasn't able to fully wrap his foot around the ball and his effort pushed well wide of the goal.
The almosts and yeah-buts continued in the 67th minute when Tammy Abraham and Rick Karsdorp pulled off a rather drawn-out give-and-go, with the return pass finding Tammy in the heart of the box with a clean look at goal, only to see his shot turned away by a last-ditch block from Leo Østigard—who subsequently saw red in the 69th minute after he literally grabbed Felix by the throat and dragged him down, denying a clear path to the goal.
Unfortunately, Roma couldn't capitalize on the ensuing free-kick from the edge of the area, as El Shaarawy's ball didn't curl quickly enough, sailing over the crossbar rather than tucking under it. Mourinho would respond with more changes, pulling out Karsdorp in favor of Jordan Veretout.
With 20 minutes remaining and a one-man advantage, Roma had no remaining excuses; they had to win this match. And in the 74th minute, they had another golden chance when Zaniolo teed up a parallel-to-the-goal line free-kick, finding Smalling at the far left post, but once again, his headed effort was off the mark.
Roma's next best chance came in the 86th minute when El Shaarawy led a 40-meter charge up the pitch, taking advantage of one of Genoa's rare rushes forward to ignite a quick counter-attack in the opposite direction. With acres of space ahead of him and Felix making a diagonal run as SES began to cut in, El Shaarawy opted for his own chance, continuing his run to the middle of the box, thus allowing the defense to coalesce around him and force him into a hasty attempt.
With the clock ticking away and the dread of a scoreless draw (and one in which they had a man advantage for over 20 minutes) hanging over their heads, Roma had one last gasp in them, and what a gasp it was...
After receiving the ball from Mkhitaryan, Zaniolo essentially posted up at the right edge of the box, effectively shielding the ball from the defense. From there, Zaniolo flexed his muscles, holding off the defense as he drifted laterally across the 18-yard-box, subtly and cleverly pulling the defense to the left before quickly firing a shot in the opposite direction, beating a lunging Salvatore Sirigu at the right post, sending the Stadio Olimpico into hysterics in the process...but it wouldn't last.
In the midst of the celebrations, the referees were suspiciously quiet, and with good reason; they were in the process of nullifying Zaniolo's effort thanks to a foul (a term we use loosely) committed by Tammy Abraham in the build-up, who inadvertently clipped Johan Vazquez's leg on what appeared to be a benign challenge, or, as one of our closest followers put it:
How can that be a foul. Tammy had the ball. He made a dribble forward and stepped toward the ball. A defender jammed his foot into the path underneath his ordinary running motion. This is such a joke.— Nick Mercadante (@NMercad) February 5, 2022
Needless to say, this did not go over well with Roma, and Zaniolo in particular, who received a straight red for dissent:
What an ending to the Roma vs. Genoa match.— Watch Inter vs. AC Milan on Paramount+ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 5, 2022
Nicolò Zaniolo’s goal is called back via VAR. He is sent off for dissent and will miss Roma's next Serie A match. pic.twitter.com/0aylxCSLup
Zaniolo continued to voice his displeasure as he made his way into the dugout, and was even held back by Roma's coaching staff as he continued to wildly gesticulate towards the match officials.
At this point, the match became completely unglued, with Roma visibly shaken by the VAR call while Genoa was doing all they could to kill the clock, which they managed to do successfully, even with the clocking winding well past the 95-minute mark.
In the end, Roma's inability to crack the Genoa code cost them dearly, but they had the match in their hands and were once again hard-done by Serie A officiating.
I have nothing insightful to add; Roma Happened...and in the worst possible way.
Roma's Coppa Italia campaign continues on Tuesday against Inter Milan.