In the grand scheme of things, going 14 years without a title of any sort isn't that big of a deal, but when you've been second-best as many times as Roma has over the past decade and a half, 14 years feels interminable. Winning the inaugural Europa Conference League won't bowl over many neutral observers, but if you live and die with the Giallorossi, you probably don't care. The Giallorossi have been so close so many times over the past 20 years, that any measurable sign of progress would be a welcome sight.
And it's against that backdrop that José Mourinho and Roma entered the National Arena in Tirana, Albania to face Dutch side Feyenoord after the Rotterdam-based club reached the final by defeating Marseille in the semifinals. And as one would expect given the weight of this moment, The Special one wasn't messing about, rolling out his A-team including midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was making his first appearance since the second leg of Roma's semifinal matchup against Leicester City on April 28th.
With both sides noticeably apprehensive, the opening 10 minutes weren't exactly bubbling over with action but you got a sense of how each club wanted to proceed in the early stages: Feyenoord attempting to take advantage of Roma's high line by isolating and exploiting the “at-home” defender, while the Giallorossi looked to feed Nicolo Zaniolo and Tammy Abraham early and often.
While I wish I could say things picked up as the first half progressed, not only did Roma fail to register a single shot through the first 15 minutes, they were dealt an early blow when Mkhitaryan appeared to reaggravate the same thigh injury that kept him shelved for the past month. He was able to leave the pitch under his own power but was replaced by Sérgio Oliveira, robbing Roma of one of their creative sparks—something they could ill afford.
Roma would stir from their slumber as the match crept towards the 30-minute mark with Lorenzo Pellegrini coming excruciatingly close to setting up Zaniolo, but the two Italian internationals couldn't link up and the chance went wasted. In fact, through 29 minutes, the two clubs combined for only one actual shot on goal—this match was incredibly even through the opening half an hour.
And based on these early returns, this match felt destined to be decided by penalties. That was, until, The Kid took matters into his own hands...
Nicolo Zaniolo: 32nd Minute (Roma 1, Feyenoord 0)
After receiving a gorgeous long ball from Gianluca Mancini, Zaniolo did well to settle the ball off his chest, keeping his wits about him as the defense and keeper collapsed around him. With precious little time to do anything with the ball, Zaniolo deftly chipped the ball past Feyenoord keeper Justin Bijlow, screaming in delight as it gently trickled over the goal line, sending the Roma fans in the stands (and the players on the bench) into hysterics.
Despite Roma seizing control of the match, they nearly coughed up an equalizer a few minutes later. With Roma content to kill the clock and head into the locker room up one-nil, Feyenoord midfielder Orkun Kökçü nearly caught Rui Patricio napping, sending a swerving effort at the Portuguese keeper from approximately 20 yards out. The shot itself didn't necessarily have a Beckham-like swing to it, but it was clever enough to catch Patricio off-guard, forcing the keeper into a split-second reaction save, denying the Dutch club an equalizer—but make no mistake, this was an extremely close call for the Giallorossi.
But Patricio wasn't done yet, as moments later he was called into action when an out-swinging cross caused a moment's panic at the far right post. Fortunately, Patricio had a beat on the ball, clattering into Roger Ibañez's back as he turned the ball away, saving Roma once more.
The match officials tacked on four minutes to the first half, but neither side was able to take advantage of the added time and the scoreline remained 1-0 to Roma as the clubs headed into the changing room.
With neither side making any changes at the half, it would have been safe to assume it was business as usual for both clubs, but Feyenoord had other ideas, looking more aggressive and self-assured than at any point in the previous 45 minutes—and I do mean aggressive. Within the opening four minutes of the second half, Feyenoord hit the woodwork, nearly drew a PK, and forced Patricio into two saves, including one jaw-dropper where he went parallel to the goal line, parrying the ball away at the last possible second. Feyenoord may not have pulled a goal back, but they definitely had Roma sweating.
Roma nearly snuffed out this Dutch revival when Tammy Abraham got free behind the defense, setting up a veritable one-v-one against Bijlow. With Abraham charging headlong into the box, the defender tugged at his shirt, a transgression the officials completely ignored. Had Tammy taken a dive, this was a clear PK, but at the very least, Roma should have been awarded a free kick.
Undaunted, the Giallorossi pressed on, ratcheting up the pressure in the final third as they sought to put the game beyond doubt as the clock ticked closer and closer to the hour mark. Despite that renewed focus, Feyenoord continued to crash into Patricio's area like so many waves on the beach, creating another golden chance just past the hour mark, only to be denied by a last-ditch intervention from Ibañez, who cleared away the danger, giving Patricio a momentary breather.
Mourinho would press pause on the match in the 66th minute, bringing Leonardo Spinazzola and Jordan Veretout into the fray in place of Nicola Zalewski and Nicolo Zaniolo, respectively. Apart from giving his side a moment's rest, these swaps gave Roma a bit more muscle as they sought to close out this match.
Roma came close to adding a second goal in the 73rd minute when Pellegrini whipped a cross towards the near left post, one that produced a juicy rebound for Veretout, whose one-timed effort required a stretched save from Bijlow. With the Giallorossi struggling in the run of play, relying on Pellegrini's setpiece heroics wasn't the best idea, but at this point in the game, it appeared to be their only idea.
With 15 minutes remaining, the epilogue of this match was written in real-time: Feyenoord was going to throw everything at Roma, who had no choice but to sit back, absorb and hope the likes of Ibañez, Smalling, Mancini, and Patricio could scramble quickly enough to cover all the open spaces—a matter made more difficult with Karsdorp pleading for a sub as he clutched at his left groin.
Roma nearly put the match to bed in the 86th minute when Veretout found Pellegrini darting into the left side of the box. With the ball meeting his diagonal run perfectly, Roma's captain fired a quick shot at Bijlow, only to be denied by the Feyenoord netminder.
In his final time-wasting maneuver, Mourinho made a final double change, inserting Eldor Shomurodv and Matías Viña into the match in place of Abraham and Karsdorp, respectively. With only a few minutes remaining, the names on the shirt didn't matter—Roma just needed fresh legs to close out this match and bring home their first title since 2008.
Thanks to a spate of injuries, substitutions, and fouls, the match officials added five minutes to the end of this title bout. And just like they did to start the half, Feyenoord came right at Roma, lobbing a ball into the box and nearly slotting one past Patricio at the right post as the Feyenoord attacker got behind the defense.
In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and Roma was able to survive the late Feyenoord onslaught, taking home their first trophy since 2008 and their first European title of any sort in over three decades!
Roma are Conference League Champions, baby!
Nothing. Enjoy this and look for our season reviews to kick off next week!
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