Roma's nine-match domestic win streak came to a halt in last week's frustrating 1-1 draw against Juventus, but thanks to Paloma Lázaro's 61st-minute strike, for only the second time ever, the Giallorosse managed a positive result against an Old Lady side that has owned Serie A Femminile since they entered the league in 2017. With a ten-match unbeaten streak still alive and well, the women of Roma turn their attention back to the Coppa Italia, where they'll square off with Empoli for the honor of facing Juventus in the finale, who, after this morning's 6-1 route over AC Milan (that’s six away goals), can rest easy knowing they'll waltz into the title-decider later this spring.
The Giallorosse may have failed in their attempt to defeat Juventus last weekend, which would have put them even with Juve at the top of the table, but the product on the pitch proved one thing definitively: these teams are on increasingly level playing ground, meaning Roma are now among the league's glitterati.
And when you're part of the league's ultra-elite, you have to make mincemeat out of clubs like Empoli, who have struggled mightily in their first year without manager Alessandro Spugna and up and comer Benedetta Glionna, both of whom signed with Roma last summer.
If Roma can tear a page out of Juve's playbook and put Empoli out of their misery early, then the April 29th return fixture in the capital will be a cakewalk. However, before we make too many assumptions, let's map out a few paths for a Roma win on Sunday.
But first, a quick look back last time these two sides met.
January 15, 2022: Roma 2, Empoli 1
After an incredibly strange match on opening day, one in which Roma toppled Empoli 3-0 without scoring a single goal of their own, we weren't quite sure what to expect from this mid-January match. Sure, Roma won the first fixture thanks to three Empoli own goals, but those weren't completely flukey OGs. Thanks to their pace, power, and aggression, Roma forced Empoli into those errors and likely could have walked away 5-0 winners if the ball took a couple of different bounces.
So when Roma found themselves down 1-0 with roughly five minutes left to play in the second fixture, it seemed like Empoli were primed to exact some sort of strange revenge on their former manager. However, thanks to a goal from seldom-seen youngster Mina Bergersen (assisted by the sublime Emilie Haavi) and a dramatic 98th-minute penalty by Elena Linari, the Giallorosse emerged with three crucial points.
But what will tomorrow hold? Will Roma romp over Empoli or are we looking at another nail-biter?
Keep An Eye On
Roma's Mental Approach
Admittedly, this is nearly impossible to quantify, but as much as we should hold Roma to a higher standard and assume they can handle Empoli without breaking a sweat, we definitely know better, and so does Spugna...
“E’ una semifinale e non dobbiamo commettere l’errore di sottovalutare un impegno molto complicato. Deve esserci la giusta tensione per una partita importante”.— AS Roma Femminile (@ASRomaFemminile) March 12, 2022
Alessandro Spugna alla vigilia della sfida di Coppa Italia contro l’Empoli.#ASRomaFemminile pic.twitter.com/Uu0mZEqy2W
Speaking to Roma TV after Saturday's training session, Spugna preached respect for his former club:
We must not make the mistake of underestimating tomorrow’s commitment, which is very complicated and important. It will be a semi-final and must be faced as such. There are 180 minutes, but we will go to Empoli to play a great match. There must be the right tension. to play an important match
A team that, despite the standings, is one of those that play better. It has good players in the middle of the field and in attack. We have to be careful and we have to play our best to bring it home
While that's pretty standard PC coach-speak, given the disparate results/performances from their two league matches, we simply have no idea how this match will play out, so Spugna is right to play things close to the vest. Having said that, we're still talking about an Empoli side that reached the semifinals without winning a single match. Thanks to four consecutive draws against Verona, Napoli, and two ties against Fiorentina, Empoli have essentially backed their way into the semis.
So while Roma shouldn’t make any assumptions, Empoli haven't exactly been rewriting the history of the sport lately, but they two have a couple of things going for them.
Can Roma's Back Line Bottle Up Bragonzi & Dompig?
With 21 goals scored in 16 league matches, Empoli's attack is decidedly mediocre, but there's no mistaking who the real danger women are: forwards Asia Bragonzi and Chante Dompig. The pair of 21-year-olds have accounted for 10 of Empoli's 21 league goals, with Bragonzi bagging a half dozen and Dompig adding four of her own to go along with six assists—the second-highest mark in the league. And Dompig has been particularly hot lately, having a hand in Empoli's four most recent goals: scoring two and setting up two more.
Fortunately for Roma, they boast one of the league's stingiest defenses. Led by the inimitable Linari, the Giallorosse backline has only been breached 14 times in 16 league matches, trailing only Juve for the league lead. Thanks to Linari's all-around excellent play, a pair of lightning-fast full-backs in Elisa Bartoli and Lucia Di Guglielmo, and the safe hands of Camelia Ceasar at the back, Roma has enough resolve to contain Empoli's two budding stars.
There is, however, one area in which Roma must be extra careful on Sunday: set-pieces. With nine of their 21 goals coming via the setpiece, Empoli can turn this match on its head with one well-struck free-kick or chaotic corner, so Roma would do well to limit those opportunities, to begin with.
Can Paloma Propel Roma to the Finale?
After signing Valeria Pirone from Sassuolo last summer, Roma thought they solved their striker riddle. While she's in the latter stages of her career, Pirone still bagged 10 goals for the Neroverde last season and seemed poised to push past that number with Manuela Giugliano and Andressa feeding her all season long.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: Paloma Lázaro found her shooting boots, pushing Pirone to the periphery in the process. After an up and down debut season with the Giallorosse last year, Lázaro has staked her claim to lead Roma's line, scoring eight goals in 17 appearances in all competitions this season, including five in the club's last five matches.
While she's not as swift or as subtle in her movements as Pirone, Lázaro offers a presence in the box Roma hasn't had since...well, ever. Through their first three seasons, Roma relied more on pace than power up top, and while she's not exactly running in quicksand, Lázaro is most effective when she’s planted firmly in the box, so look for Roma's supply line to seek out the Spainard early and often tomorrow.
With two legs to contest, Roma doesn’t necessarily have to blow the doors off the place tomorrow, but a resounding win would make what is sure to be a hectic race to the finish slightly more manageable for the Giallorosse.