Sapped from their late-week Conference League semifinal matchup with Leicester City last Thursday, José Mourinho had no choice but to rotate his Roma squad as the Giallorossi played host to 13th place Bologna this evening. Winners of only two in their past six, the Rossoblu weren’t likely to present much of a challenge for Roma in their finest form, but with key players like Tammy Abraham, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Rick Karsdorp, Chris Smalling, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan either being rested or out with injury, a Roma victory was no safe bet tonight at the Stadio Olimpico.
With Abraham starting this match from the bench, Mourinho let young Felix Afena-Gyan lead the line with Nicolo Zaniolo and Carles Pérez in support, while the seldom-seen Ainsley Maitland-Niles made his return to the starting lineup in place of Rick Karsdorp. The side may have been beleaguered from so many fixtures over the past several weeks, but with tens of thousands of supporters serenading them as they took the pitch, this match had as much juice as any we've seen in 2022.
Over the past few weeks, Roma has seen their share of controversy, which is usually reserved for the dying moments of the game, but the first attacking move of the match saw a controversial handball on Gary Medel go unnoticed by the officials. With Roma working the ball down the right and intent on squaring the ball into the box, Medel dropped to his knees to divert the pass only to see it strike his hand. Despite some rather animated pleas from Roma, the officials let it slide, as they presumably felt the ball struck his chest first.
Despite that early controversy, the opening 10 minutes were rather banal, with Roma looking uncertain how to proceed without Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini on the pitch, instead funneling the ball to Zaniolo at every opportunity; a tactic the Bologna defense picked up on rather quickly.
Roma would turn to the officials once more in the 12th minute when Maitland-Niles burst into the box down the right channel before being tripped up by Aaron Hickey. What initially looked like clear and obvious contact between the two British imports wasn't even given a second thought by the match officials, who deemed it incidental contact, if not Maitland-Niles outright falling over his own feet.
The Giallorossi nearly bungled the match in the 18th minute when Rui Patricio hesitated to come off his line, getting stuck in that awkward no man's land at the edge of the six as Marko Arnautovic came charging into the box. With the ball bounding around the area, Roma were bailed out thanks to Gianluca Mancini, who reacted quick enough to clear the danger before Bologna could capitalize on the loose ball.
With both clubs vying for control of the midfield and the only scoring chances (a term we use loosely) coming via contested penalty calls, this match wasn't exactly brimming with excitement in the opening 20 minutes, so much so that we had to wait until the 22nd minute for the first on-target shot from either club: a tepid long-range attempt from Arnautovic that was easily scooped up by Patricio.
The match would liven up as it crept towards the 30-minute mark, with Zaniolo and Felix nearly teaming up to draw first blood. With Zaniolo receiving a floated cross at the left edge of the box, he immediately tested Skorupski, forcing a quick save from the former Roma keeper. Despite Skorupski's quick reflexes, his rebound control was lacking as he parried the ball to Felix's feet, who was camped out at the far right post. Perhaps caught off guard by the pace of play, Felix wasn't able to redirect the ball into the back of the goal, wasting Roma's best chance to that point.
Roma would continue to struggle in the run of play as the minutes ticked away on the first half but made a bit of noise thanks to Carles Pérez, who unleashed a left-footed stinger at Skorupski from 20 yards out. After creating some space in the middle channel, Pérez whipped a shot towards the far left post, nearly catching Skorupski off guard, but the Bologna keeper flashed some impressive reflexes as he covered nearly the entire span of the goal line in the blink of an eye.
Apart from a spectacular save from Rui Patricio to deny Arnautovic, who was ultimately ruled offside anyway, the first half closed with a whimper rather than a bang. With both clubs turning in 45 uninspiring minutes, the result was anyone's guess.
One thing was certain, however: Roma needed someone to take the wheel. But who?
With no changes at the half for either club, the match picked up where it left off: with both sides struggling in the run of play and relying on setpieces and the referee's discretion to create scoring chances. Roma's first genuine look of the half came via a Jordan Veretout free-kick that, while well-struck, simply didn't dip enough to worry Skorupski, as he watched with delight as Veretout's attempt sailed into stands behind him.
The Giallorossi would tempt fate in the 55th minute when Marash Kumbulla, who was starting in Smalling's spot, tripped up Orsolini from behind. It was a bang-bang play, one that could just have easily produced a red card for a handball on Orosolini as it would have for Kumbulla's foul, but the referee, as he'd done all match, let the kids play.
Watching his club struggle to create chances for the preceding 58 minutes, Mourinho went to the bench, making a quadruple change: Rick Karsdorp for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Lorenzo Pellegrini for Carles Pérez, Tammy Abraham for Felix Afena-Gyan, and Nicola Zalewski for Stephan El Shaarawy.
Despite that overwhelming attacking change, Bologna sprang into action first when Arnautovic was played into the box thanks to a looping right-to-left cross. While he rose up and settled the ball with Zlatan-like precision—sticking his long leg into the air to bring it down—he couldn't quite get the shot off, sparing Roma for the moment.
The intensity would ratchet up after we passed the hour mark, with Arnautovic continuing to be a thorn in Roma's side, while the injection of Pellegrini, Abraham, et al. seemed to inspire the Giallorossi, who were noticeably more energetic and displayed a greater sense of purpose than at any point in the preceding hour.
Roma would continue to knock on Skorupski's door when Kumbulla nearly broke open the match off a corner, squatting down low to head the ball at the near post, producing a juicy rebound in the process. But, much like Felix's first-half rebound miss, Roma couldn't capitalize on the chance.
With 15 minutes remaining in the match, it began to look like Roma would rely on their patented last-ditch heroics. However, not one to leave things to chance, Mourinho used his final substitution to bring Eldor Shomurodov into the mix in place of Veretout, giving the Giallorossi a heavy attacking bent for the final phase of the match.
In the 79th minute, Karsdorp took matters into his own hands, firing a ball to Abraham over the top from 25 yards out. Whether he was caught off guard or had trouble tracking the flight of the ball, Abraham hesitated and failed to make the corresponding run and was visibly upset with himself as he turned his gaze skywards.
Abraham would have another crack in the 81st minute when he darted across the area, dragging Medel with him, before firing a low shot towards the far post. It was a difficult effort, particularly with Medel draped all over him, but credit the Bologna veteran for pushing Abraham out of position, to begin with.
Not to be outdone, Bologna closed out this match with a reinvigorated approach of their own, nearly stealing a goal in the 88th minute when Lorenzo Di Silvestri rose to meet a lofted cross at the far right post. With sufficient space between him and the Roma defense, the match-winner seemed certain until Patricio scrambled to deny the chance, closing off the gap at the near post and making a blink and you'll miss it save, denying Di Silvestri, and removing any follow-up attempt thanks to his positioning.
Roma had another crack at goal in the 90th minute when a Shomurodov header went wide of the mark. While it wasn't necessarily a free header, Shomurodov had sufficient time and space to flick the ball into the upper corner of the goal but instead chose to power it past Skorupski; an effort that bore no fruit.
However, with five minutes of added time, the Giallorossi's goose wasn't cooked yet. In fact, they won a corner moments later only to see Skorupksi intercept Pellegrini's in-swinger from the left corner flag.
Pellegrini nearly sent the stadium into hysterics in stoppage time when he attempted to one-time a ball from Abraham past Skorupski for a late match-winner, but he just couldn't get enough dip on the ball as it sailed just over the crossbar. Musso Barrow responded straight away, clanging a ball off Patricio's crossbar that would have, had it gone in, required a VAR review to see if he remained on-side.
Those last-ditch efforts notwithstanding, the referee eventually blew the whistle on a frustrating scoreless draw. It wasn't all bad news, though, as Roma remains in 5th place on the table, though the final three weeks are sure to be a bundle of nerves as the club looks to fend off Lazio in the league while pushing past Leicester City to reach the Conference League finale against the winner of the Feyenoord-Marseille matchup.
This was neither the best nor worst match we've seen from Roma lately, but it was a reminder of one incontrovertible fact: this squad needs a massive talent injection on the bench this summer. While many of Roma's key players remain in their physical primes, even legs as young as Pellegrini's, Abraham's, and even Zalewski's need a break every now and then. With no consistently reliable attacking options off the bench, Mourinho has struggled to keep his players fresh while still fielding a viable team.
But that's a matter for another day. In the wake of this draw, Roma's mission becomes clear: Get into the Europa league by hook or by crook. The Giallorossi should receive a bit of jolt when they host Leicester next week in front of a sell-out crowd, but they'll still have to contend with either Feyenoord or Marseille in the finale, so that path is far from clear. Meanwhile, in the league, Roma still has to contend with Fiorentina and Torino on the road with a home match against relegation-battling Venezia tucked in between.
So which path should Mourinho pursue? Knowing The Special One as we do, he’s not likely to tip his hand, but ending his first season in the capital with a trophy—any trophy—would give his project added momentum as it heads into year two. Plus, after so many years of frustration, a tangible reward could be just what this club needs to get over the hump it's seemingly been stuck on for the past several years.
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