Considering how unpredictable Serie A has been this season, it's hard not to wonder what if. What if Roma managed to beat Verona earlier in the season? What if they never blew that 3-1 lead over Juventus in early January, or how might the table look different had they not drawn three straight matches in February?
Those are questions we can't definitively answer, but the league keeps leaving the door open for Roma. After last weekend, one in which a few of the club's direct rivals dropped points, Roma's once-moribund Champions League hopes have found new life as we make our way into March. Thanks to last weekend's results, and the fact that nearly every team above them had a miserable February, Roma entered this round 28 fixture only three points behind fifth-place Atalanta, who have a game in hand over the Giallorossi.
While Roma was missing manager José Mourinho, with their 4-1 beatdown over Atalanta fresh in their memories, Roma had a renewed sense of energy as the opening whistle sounded at the Stadio Olimpico this evening. The Special One may have been missing, but with many of Roma's regulars back in the fold, Salvatore Foti's lineup was perhaps the strongest we've seen in weeks, with Tammy Abraham, Nicolo Zaniolo, and Lorenzo Pellegrini each getting the nod from minute one.
With an uptempo start to the match, Roma looked to put Atalanta on the backfoot before the game had a chance to breathe, with Nicola Zalewski playing Tammy Abraham into space in the opening moments, which was quickly followed by Gianluca Mancini, who tested Juan Musso's reflexes with a snapped header off a third-minute corner. It was nearly identical to the club's close but no cigar approach against Spezia last week, and while those early chances were left wanting, it was nevertheless a signal of aggressive intent from Roma; they weren't leaving anything to chance tonight.
That swift start would grind to a halt as the match approached the quarter-hour mark, with the end-to-end assaults making way for a more measured method featuring calculated passes and deliberate off-the-ball movements rather than a direct, vertical approach.
Roma would make a nice push forward in the 19th minute when Nicola Zalewski picked up a loose ball and charged down the left flank. With Abraham and Zaniolo charging ahead of him, the young winger played a defense-splitting through ball to Zaniolo down the middle, but Nico's left-footed stinger didn't really trouble Musso in the end, who smothered the shot with ease.
The ensuing 10 minutes would see Roma continue to exploit the wide spaces, with Zaniolo making noise on either flank and nearly picking out Zalewski at the far left post with a lofted cross but the ball sailed too wide for the young Polish attacker to redirect it towards Musso's goal. Atalanta, meanwhile, struggled to maintain any sense of attacking fluidity and were stymied by Roma's rearguard, but Gasperini's side is always just one pass away from busting open the flood gates.
Which made what happened next so much sweeter...
Tammy Abraham: 32nd Minute (Roma 1, Atalanta 0)
Tammy Abraham scores his 13th goal of the season! pic.twitter.com/1N86VE8Vlg— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 5, 2022
What a beautiful goal! Starting with Karsdorp dropping the ball on a platter from just beyond midfield to Zaniolo's sublime touch-turn-settle sequence to Tammy's clinical finish, this goal was dripping with class, anticipation, and technique. And you simply cannot say enough about the still-developing chemistry between Zanoilo And Abraham; Roma has to do everything in their power to keep these guys together for the next decade.
Despite the end-to-end pace that dominated most of the first half, the final 15 minutes played on without issue, with the only genuine chance for either side coming off a Lorenzo Pellegrini free-kick deep in the half. After Mkhitaryan wove his way through traffic and was clipped at the edge of the box, Pellegrini stepped up to the plate and delivered a decent free-kick but the Atalanta wall got just enough of it to deflect it over the crossbar, putting an effective end to the first half's action.
It was certainly an encouraging effort from Roma, but one couldn't shake the feeling they'd need just a bit more than one goal to walk away with three points today.
With no changes to begin the new half, Roma picked up right where they left off: pressing the issue deep in Atalanta territory, winning a corner kick in the opening moments of the second half. Roma followed that up with a wonderfully threaded pass from Mkhitaryan, who caught Pellegrini streaking into the box down the left channel, but the ball was just a touch too heavy for Pellegrini to get ahold of, running directly into Juan Musso's waiting arms.
Atalanta would start to wake up from their slumber in the 50th minute, creating a bit of havoc in Roma's end before Rui Patricio was able to deny Remo Freuler with...umm...his groin, shall we say. Brave stuff from Roma's netminder, that's for sure.
With the match stuck in the mire as it crept towards the hour mark, Gasperini went heavy on the attack, bringing on Jeremie Boga and Ruslan Malinovskyi at the 60-minute mark. Couple that with his early inclusion of Luis Muriel, and Atalanta were arming themselves for a late comeback. Foti would respond with a defensive substitute, bringing on Matías Viña in favor of Zalewski, who suffered a pretty heavy knock to his foot/ankle area a few minutes prior to being subbed off.
Roma would continue to work their setpiece advantage and nearly added a second goal in the 64th minute when an out-swinging cross found its way to Mancini in the middle of the box. With nary a defender in sight, Mancini appeared to rush his volley, getting underneath the ball and pushing it well over the bar. It's impossible to say with any certainty but had he waited just a half-second more and gotten on top of the ball, Roma is up two-nil...easily.
The Giallorossi's next chance on goal would also feature a lucky bounce, as a deflected clearance fell to Bryan Cristante roughly 25-yards out, and though he got a clean hit on the ball, Cristante's follow-up effort was deflected in the middle of the box, but there were certainly enough bodies in the way to screen Musso from tracking the flight path, so this was another opportunity missed for Roma.
Atalanta would respond with a couple of sustained bits of possession, with the Goddesses typically starting the ball on the left edge of the box, attempting to drag the Roma defense off their moorings as Boga or Muriel cut across the edge of the box but Roma's backline didn't bite.
Roma's next change would see Zaniolo make way for Jordan Veretout in the 74th minute. Zaniolo did exceptionally well to set up Abraham's goal and was a pretty consistent threat in the final third, even if he didn't find a goal of his own.
Boga would continue to try and shimmy his way into the final third and would have leveled the match in the 75th minute were it not for an almost inadvertent interception by Chris Smalling, who stuck his leg in at the last moment to break up a give and go that would have seen Boga clear through into Patricio's area.
Roma would respond in the 80th minute with a close call of their own. After Lorenzo Pellegrini forced a turnover deep in Atalanta territory, the Roma captain quickly swung the ball to Vereout at the point, but his one-timed effort was deflected away to the left. Fortunately for Roma, Abraham just happened to be waiting in the wings but his shot was well off the mark, skirting over the crossbar and into the ad boards.
Gasperini would continue to lean towards the attack down the stretch, bringing on Berat Djimsiti in the 82nd minute in exchange for defender José Luis Palomino. Foti would respond with a triple change that saw Felix Afena-Gyan, Roger Ibañez, and Sérgio Oliveira enter the fray in place of Tammy Abraham, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Rick Karsdorp, respectively.
And Ibañez and the rest of Roma's defense was put to the test immediately as Atalanta threw nearly all 11 players forward in a desperate attempt to equalize. While it wasn't the prettiest effort in the history of the sport, the Giallorossi defense scrambled like madmen, winning every loose ball and getting a foot in at just the right moment to turn away attempt after attempt—a trend that continued as the officials tacked on five minutes of stoppage time to end the match.
And what a wild five minutes it was. After Marten de Roon upended Oliveira, he was quickly booked for the challenge, which was bad enough, but after chirping at the official, de Roon was booked again and sent off in the 95th minute. But that wouldn't be the final bit of drama as Mkhitaryan was booked for handling the ball on the ground and was sent off for a second yellow.
Despite the nervy ending, when the whistle finally blew, it was Roma who walked away victorious to the sounds of Grazie, Roma filling the evening air.
While a few more goals would have been nice (and kinder to our collective blood pressure), the men in red put forth a tremendous effort against Gasperini's attacking machine. With only seven attempts on goal, Roma effectively blunted Atalanta's vaunted attack; a stat that becomes even more impressive when you consider Atalanta had nearly two-thirds of the possession.
As always, there were a few close calls for Roma; shots that should have gone in, last-ditch blocks, and a few questionable decisions from the referee, but the Giallorossi's frantic defending was indicative of the importance of this match. Roma knew this was a must-win and they treated it like one, flying to every loose ball, getting stuck in on tackles, and making the most of their meager possession, nearly doubling Atalanta's shot output despite only maintaining a 35% possession rate.
It wasn’t pretty but we should be damn proud of Roma's effort tonight. Thanks to this victory, Roma are now even on points with Atalanta and temporarily only three points behind Juventus for Italy's fourth and final Champions League place next season.
Roma returns to European action when they face Vitesse in the Europa Conference League on Thursday.
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