With five matches left to play and five points standing between them and fourth place, every match, every minute, and every touch of the ball is worth its weight in gold for Roma as they desperately seek to return to the Champions League next season. Despite those potential spoils, Roma didn't need much added motivation when they faced Inter Milan on the road today. With the Nerazzurri chasing their city rivals Milan at the top of the table, Roma could play the role of spoiler today, sinking Inter's title hopes, particularly if Napoli can handle their business against Empoli on Sunday, potentially leapfrogging Inter into second place.
Of course, this being Roma and all, nothing was going to come easy—and this was undoubtedly the toughest test in the club's current unbeaten run. With his squad down key players Nicolo Zaniolo and Bryan Cristante, José Mourinho had to make a couple of last-minute tweaks, inserting Henrikh Mkhitaryan and last week's hero Stephan El Shaarawy back into the starting lineup, while the rest of the eleven remained unchanged from last week's draw with Napoli.
With so many familiar faces meeting again and both clubs vying for serious prizes, you would have expected fireworks to start this match. However, rather than trying to bust open the match after the opening whistle, José Mourinho and Simone Inzaghi engaged in a subtle chess match, with both clubs methodically trying to probe for any cracks at the back, hoping to catch a glimpse of one another's gameplan. It didn't make for great viewing for natural observers, but if you're a fan of the shadow aspects of the sport, you were likely enraptured by this early tactical battle.
This understated back and forth continued as the match crept towards the quarter-hour mark, with the two bitter rivals combining for only one shot through the opening 15 minutes. Inter did well to press Roma deep in the attacking third, blunting Roma's ability to build from the back, while Chris Smalling and the Giallorossi backline effectively removed Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez from the early action at the San Siro.
Rui Patricio denies Hakan Çalhanoğlu. ❌ pic.twitter.com/8hTz1YNm7L— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 23, 2022
Hakan Calhanoglu nearly stirred the San Siro from its slumber in the 19th minute when the Turkish playmaker fired a shot from deep, nearly tearing a hole in the back of the net as his shot rocketed towards the upper left-hand corner of the goal. However, despite sitting on his heels and waiting for nearly 20 minutes, Rui Patricio sprang into action, leaping into the air to parry the ball away from harm.
Roma would catch a bit of break in the 28th minute when Lorenzo Pellegrini earned a free-kick after being clipped at the right edge of the 18-yard box; Roma's first genuine attacking threat of the match. With Pellegrini taking his time to consider his options, he eventually floated a cross towards the near right post, and with Gianluca Mancini making the corresponding run, Roma seemed destined to break the deadlock. That was, until, Mancini flubbed the header, pushing it wide of the mark—a trend we've seen far too often from him this season.
Denzel Dumfries: 30th Minute (Inter 1, Roma 0)
INTER SPLIT ROMA'S DEFENSE AND DENZEL DUMFRIES FINISHES OFF THE MOVE. pic.twitter.com/rTwVe50FRf— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 23, 2022
And, as any hardened Roma fan would expect, Inter immediately made them pay, with Denzel Dumfries getting free behind the defense and beating Patricio on a one-v-one to give Inter a one-nil lead. It was a bang-bang play in a way—Calhangolu sprung Dumfries into space with a beautifully weighted ball—but it would have been blown dead if Nicola Zalewski hadn't inadvertently kept Dumfries on-side. This was a tough break as Roma were standing toe-to-toe with Inter to that point.
There was plenty of time left to score an equalizer, but with only two shots through 40 minutes, Roma weren't exactly making Inter quake in their boots...but things were about to get so much worse for Roma.
Marcelo Brozovic: 40th Mintue (Inter 2, Roma 0)
A COUNTERATTACKING CLINIC!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 23, 2022
MARCELO BROZOVIĆ FINDS TOP BINS! pic.twitter.com/MqlfxkdKmZ
As the saying goes, no lead in football is as tenuous as one-nil. And, just as they did 10 minutes earlier, Inter tore Roma's backline to shreds with a series of incisive passes capped off by a sublime effort from Marcelo Brozovic, who teamed up with Ivan Perisic to double Inter's delight. While the initial ball over the top from Federico Dimarco was once again perfect and Perisic did well to settle the ball and peel away from the defense before picking out his countryman, we have to give credit where it's due: Brozovic toyed with Roma's defense, driving the ball towards the end line before cutting back in and shaking free from three defenders before firing the ball into the top corner at the far post—just an exceptional effort here from Brozovic.
While Roma were able to subdue the Inter threat for the opening 20 minutes or so, the Nerazzurri's class eventually won out, as the homeside pinned Roma back with two perfectly executed counter-attacks punctuated by incredible individual efforts. Inter were far and away the toughest test for the Giallorossi during their 12-game unbeaten streak and the opening 45 minutes proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
With his side down two-nil with 45 minutes to catch up, Mourinho opted for continuity to start the new half. While that's all well and good, Roma had to improve on a first-half performance that saw only three touches in the Inter box despite holding nearly 60% possession.
To their credit, Roma started the second half by going right at Inter's defense, with Pellegrini winning an early corner after nearly picking out SES in the middle of the box. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the next man up, misfiring a snapshot from 16-yards out. The end product was lacking but for the first time all match, Roma looked confident and self-assured—they just had to capitalize on whatever meager chances the Inter defense would allow.
Despite those good intentions, Inter would put this match beyond all doubt in the 51st minute thanks to Lautaro Martinez, who spent much of the preceding 50 minutes on the periphery. After getting loose down the right flank, Martinez fired a quick shot at the near post only to be denied by Rui Patricio. However, with the ball deflecting over the end line, Inter won their fourth corner of the match—an opportunity they would not squander.
Lautaro Martinez: 52nd Minute (Inter 3, Roma 0)
HEADS UP!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 23, 2022
LAUTARO MARTÍNEZ WITH A PINPOINT HEADER. pic.twitter.com/2tmZ1QtGid
Hakan Calhanoglu notched his second assist of the game when he found Martinez with an out-swinging corner. Sandwiched in between multiple defenders, none of whom seemed quite certain who to mark, Martinez found a bit of space behind the leaping Roma players and buried a header past the hapless Patricio, putting this match to bed for all intents and purposes. It was an emphatic finish and proof positive that these two clubs are simply on different planes of existence at the moment.
Unfortunately for Roma fans, we still had to endure over 40 minutes of this horrorshow. In an effort to get anything out of this match, José Mourinho would make his first changes in the 64th minute, bringing on Jordan Veretout and Carles Pérez in place of Lorenzo Pellegrini and Stephan El Shaarawy, respectively. It didn't change the complexion of the team all that much, but in situations like these, tinkering has value in and of itself; Mourinho had to do something to shake up his squad.
Mourinho would continue to go to the bench as the second half wore on, bringing Matías Viña, Eldor Shomurodov, and Edoardo Bove into the mix for the final 10 to 15 minutes, which were mostly ceremonial as Inter sewed up this victory in the first half.
The Giallorossi would save a bit of face in the 86th minute when Shomurodov burst down the flank, squaring a ball to Mkhitaryan (with a clever dummy from Rick Karsdorp in between) to pull a goal back, but it was little more than an academic affair given the time on the clock and the two-goal deficit.
If we remember that Roma entered this match on a 12-game heater, things don't look quite as bad; not great but certainly not a damning defeat. Add to that a frank assessment of the current developmental state of these two clubs, and this loss looks slightly less demoralizing. Inter Milan are just better than Roma—plain and simple. And there's no shame in that, but given time and a few shrewd signings this summer, a day will come when Roma can run with the top clubs in Italy. But, to borrow a phrase from Aragorn son of Arathorn, it is not this day.
Despite a few intermittent hiccups this season, José Mourinho has imprinted himself on AS Roma, embuing the club with a sense of confidence, determination, and grit we haven't seen in several years. At a minimum, Roma's Mourinho Makeover is a three-year rebuild, and in its first 12 months, The Special One has stripped the club down to its studs, finally revealing what the team is made of. And now that the demolition is nearly complete, it's time for the real work to begin this summer.
Don't dwell on this loss, but instead try to view it as perhaps the final hiccup in the club's turnaround.
Roma travels to England to face Leicester City in the first leg of the Europa Conference League semifinals on Thursday!