Last week's defeat to Bodø/Glimt in the Europa Conference League wasn't entirely shocking considering the recent history between the two clubs, but I'm not sure anyone imagined the match ending with Bodø’s manager Kjetil Knutsen and Roma assistant coach Nuno Santos allegedly fighting in the tunnel after the match. While the powers that be sort through that mess, that rather unusual bit of controversy galvanized support around the club, so much so that today's match against lowly Salernitana sold out in relatively short order, with sixty-thousand strong backing Mourinho's men as they sought to extend their unbeaten Serie A run to 11 consecutive matches.
None of that is to suggest that Mourinho and Roma were ignoring the looming Bodø threat, particularly since The Special one saw fit to reintroduce players like Felix Afena-Gyan and Stephan El Shaarawy to the starting lineup (providing rest for his nominal starters), while injuries and suspensions forced Mourinho's hand in defense, where Roger Ibañez, Chris Smalling and Marash Kumbulla joined forces in front of Rui Patricio. And with captain Lorenzo Pellegrini suspended for this match, Mourinho rolled with Henrikh Mkhitaryan in a slightly more advanced role in support of Tammy Abraham up top.
With the sun beaming down and over 60,000 fans in the stands, Roma were ready to embarrass a Salernitana side that hadn't won since January 9th when they squeaked past Verona in a 1-0 match. So ready, in fact, that Roma got straight down to business, with Felix bursting into the Salernitana box off the opening kickoff, ultimately bungling the ball away in haste; a wasted opportunity but the young forward did manage to win an early corner for his club.
Roma would continue their assault on the Salernitana end early in the match, winning another corner in the 5th minute, one that Sérgio Oliveira served up to Chris Smalling at the near post, but Roma's number six couldn't get a clean look at it and the ball looped wide of the mark. Despite that miss, Roma were piling the pressure on Salernitana at every opportunity.
Salernitana would finally wake up from their slumber, trying Rui Patricio in the 12th minute thanks to a quick snapshot from Éderson, who tested the Portuguese keeper from roughly 20 yards out, winning a corner kick in the process. Éderson would continue to pester the Roma defense seconds later, teaming up with Franck Ribery on a Roma turnover, only to be denied by a last-ditch tackle by Roger Ibañez.
While Roma dominated the opening 10 to 12 minutes, they left just enough space and were just sloppy enough to invite Salernitana back in the match, who were more than happy to oblige through the combined powers of Éderson, Ribery, and Joel Obi. Roma didn't concede (not yet at least) but the club's presumed blowout suddenly looked in jeopardy.
Roma's counterattack resurfaced in the 20th minute when El Shaarawy bounded through the middle of the pitch, pulling the defense off its moorings before laying the ball off to Mkhitaryan on the right. With the defense quickly finding its footing, Mkhitaryan had no choice but to finesse a shot towards the right post, and while his technique was practically flawless, he watched helplessly as the ball sliced past the post, rolling over the end line rather than settling in the back of the net.
And, as fate would have it, Salernitana would make Roma pay when they drew first blood thanks to an incredible free-kick from a man who hadn't scored in nearly four years.
Ivan Radovanovic: 22nd Minute (Roma 0, Salernitana 1)
IVAN RADOVANOVIC HIT THAT pic.twitter.com/HwMxnGWQBS— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 10, 2022
Sometimes you just have to tip your cap. Radovanovic absolutely nailed this one, burying the ball into the top corner, leaving Patricio absolutely no chance to stop this shot. Nevertheless, this was a nightmare scenario for Roma, who desperately needed to exorcise Thursday's demons with a clean and convincing win over 20th place Salernitana.
Roma were off the mark once again in the 28th minute when El Shaarawy lost control of the ball while carving his way into the box, misfiring on a tight-angled attempt. And as if that weren't bad enough, the subsequent corner saw an out-swinging cross go directly to the Salernitana defense with no Roma player in touching distance of the ball.
With the Giallorossi desperately searching a first-half equalizer, fate seemed on Roma's side when Mkhitaryan was bowled over from behind in the penalty area. What looked like a clear and evident error required a rather lengthy VAR review, one that unfortunately didn't go the Giallorossi's way, much to Mourinho's chagrin—and running counter to basic logic and common sense, not to mention the rules of the sport.
After some pretty dodgy officiating (if we're being honest), Roma appeared to finally catch a break in the 41st minute when former Giallorossi defender Norbert Gyomber tripped Felix as he raced into the box. And what seemed like a pretty blatant call was once again subject to a VAR review, which ultimately deemed to foul occurred outside of the box (it did), turning a potential game-tying PK into a harmless free-kick attempt. And while Oliveira's attempt was well stung, it was easily snared by Sepe, who kept Salernitana in front.
The referees, being the sadists they are, decided to tack on four additional minutes to the first half, though they mattered little as neither side was able to make hay in stoppage time. It was safe to say this was Roma's worst-case scenario for the opening 45 minutes, but how would they respond?
Well, in a strange twist, they'd have to wait. With Mourinho scowling from his perch in Roma's dugout, and his players chomping at the bit, the Salernitana squad was nowhere to be seen—they apparently didn't get the “hey, it's time to play” call from the officials, who continued their horrendous performance this afternoon in the Eternal City.
But once the second half finally began, Roma fans got a glimpse of Nicolo Zaniolo, who returned to action after nearly a month on the sidelines. And, in keeping with the theme of his season, he was immediately fouled by the defense, but Zaniolo's strength and aggression were precisely what Roma needed to get back into this match.
The Giallorossi created the second half's first genuine chance when Sérgio dropped a ball in Abraham's lap from deep in midfield, but the English striker couldn't quite corral the ball and ran out of space before Sepe came off his line to claim the ball, denying Abraham a chance to toe-poke it over him.
Roma came right back at it when Zaniolo attempted to bully his way into the box but the Salernitanta defense held its ground and denied the 22-year-old bruising attacker his chance at glory. Not long after that attempt, Mkhitaryan found Felix at the edge of the 18, and while he was draped by defenders, he had a small window in which to test Sepe but failed to even attempt a shot, heaping further pressure on the Giallorossi attack in the process.
Zaniolo continued to press the issue in the 58th minute, lashing a left-footed attempt towards the near right post, dragging the shot maybe a foot off the mark. He'd only been in the match 12 minutes to this point, but he was immediately making his presence felt, demanding the ball and taking on all comers.
Roma continued to knock on the door in the 61st minute when Felix had a clear header inside the box. While he steadied himself, stooped down to meet the ball, and did everything correctly, his technique let him down and he watched in horror as the ball drifted wide to the right—another opportunity wasted for the men in red.
Zaniolo continued to flex his muscles, creating two shots seemingly out of nothing as the match wound its way past the hour mark, first cutting in and firing from 20 yards out, barely missing at the near post, and then repeating the feat towards the opposite post moments later—missing an equalizer by a matter of inches.
Sensing the evening getting away from him, Mourinho made a series of changes just shy of the 70th minute, bringing Eldor Shomurodov, Nicola Zalewski, and Carles Pérez into the fray in place of Felix, El Shaarawy, and Sérgio Oliveria. With roughly 20 minutes remaining, Mourinho had no choice but to emphasize the attack, but with so many chances going wasted, it was fair to question whether or not this was Roma’s night, to begin with.
But rather than Roma creating a clear-cut scoring chance, Salernitana had a gimme goal right on Roma's doorstep when Grigoris Kastanos fired a point-blank attempt at Patricio, but Serie A's leader in clean-sheets was up to the task (twice in fact), denying Salernitana's killing blow.
Mourinho's fifth and final sub would see Jordan Veretout enter the match in place of Bryan Cristante, giving Roma a slightly more attacking bent as they chased an equalizer in the final 15 minutes plus stoppage—and, at long last, the breakthrough finally came. Just as Salernitana struck thanks to a forgotten player (or at the very least an unlikely scorer), Roma found their own unlikely source of inspiration.
Carles Pérez: 81st Minute (Roma 1, Salernitana 1)
Carlos Perez— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 10, 2022
What a way to score your first goal of the season. pic.twitter.com/BnGgLFaYQr
After taking the layoff from Mkhitaryan, Pérez wisely kept his wits about him, settling the ball and carving out just a tiny bit of extra space before swinging his left foot through the ball, dropping it gently into the back of the net with a lovely curled effort—the Spaniard's first goal of the season. Also, run that back and watch how Perez shrewdly positions himself a touch further away from the goal just as Mkhitaryan receives the ball—subtle but brilliant.
But they weren't done yet...
Chris Smalling: 85th Minute (Roma 2, Salernitana 1)
And just like that Roma complete the comeback! pic.twitter.com/B2oA18LD3p— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 10, 2022
Once again, Mourinho's substitutions were spot on, as Jordan Veretout dropped a dime for Chris Smalling here, picking out the tall center-back at the far post with a sublime ball, one that caught Smalling in stride for an easy tap-in goal, finally giving Roma the lead they deserved on paper.
With three minutes of stoppage time added to the match, Roma still had a bit of frenetic defending to do in order to claim all three points. And while Zaniolo missed a clear-cut chance to make it 3-1 with minutes to play, Salernitana wasted a chance of their own as Éderson skied a potential equalizer at the death.
After some time-honored time-wasting, the final whistle blew and Roma walked away with a nervy three points, but three points all the same.
Oof, this could have been a disaster of epic proportions. It's one thing to lose to the 20th ranked team in the league, but it's an entirely different matter to do so at home...in front of more than 60,000 fans to boot. And for the first 80 minutes, we were staring that reality in the face but thanks to a handful of shrewd substitutions from Mourinho, a clever little play from Pérez, and a sensational free-kick and finish from Veretout and Smalling, Roma not only averted disaster but they managed to keep the heat on fourth-place Juventus while also keeping a bit of distance over sixth place Lazio.
You don't need me to tell you, but Roma welcomes Bodø/Glimt back to the Olimpico on Thursday. Expect fireworks...and probably more than a few cards. It's going to be epic.
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