While opening day is always exciting for Roma fans, followers of the Giallorossi eagerly anticipated today's matchup against Salernitana for one very simple reason: Paulo Dybala. Fans and pundits alike were expecting Roma to improve in their second year under José Mourinho, but adding a world-class talent like Dybala, and following that up with the addition of Georginio Wijnaldum, has Giallorossi fans dreaming big.
And after Roma waxed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 in last weekend's friendly, those expectations reached a near fever pitch. And with Roma kicking off the season against lowly Salernitana, many fans were dreaming of a similarly lopsided scoreline to start the new Serie A campaign—anything less may have felt like a failure.
After weeks of speculating how Mourinho would balance the presence of Dybala, club captain Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolo Zaniolo, and Tammy Abraham, The Special One rendered the debate moot by rolling out his Fab Four from the word go.
After a slow start to the match, Salernitana committed a potentially costly error in the middle of the park as Lassana Coulibaly's square ball was intercepted/passed right to Zaniolo. And with nothing but space in front of him, Zaniolo charged headlong at Luigi Sepe's goal. However, rather than burying the ball in the back of the net, the 23-year-old forward hesitated for a split second, ultimately pushing his shot wide of the mark.
Zaniolo would get a second look at the goal in the 10th minute after Gianluca Mancini played a spectacular long ball from beyond the midfield stripe. Zaniolo did incredibly well to settle the ball with his left foot but couldn't beat Sepe, who barely managed to parry the ball away. Roger Ibañez had a semi-clean look on the ensuing corner kick but wasn't able to steer his header past Sepe.
Despite the early misses, Roma controlled this match through the opening 15 minutes. However, it must be said that Salernitana's defense was remarkably composed against Roma's bevy of attacking options.
With the match creeping towards the 20-minute mark, Salernitana found some life as Federico Bonazzoli nearly beat Rui Patricio with a knuckled effort from 20 yards out. Patricio had the ball played perfectly until it took an unexpected swerve at the end, almost sneaking under his right arm. Fortunately for the Giallorossi, Patricio found his bearings and corraled the ball before Salernitana could pounce on the rebound.
Roma's next chance would come via the setpiece. With Zaniolo dragging the ball (and, like, three defenders) from right to left, he was taken down, drawing a free kick in the process. Pellegrini and Dybala were licking their lips with the ball set up roughly 20 yards out and right of center. In the end, Dybala's left-footed curler didn't drop quickly enough, and the chance went wasted.
Hey, speaking of wasted chances! Roma saw another effort skirt wide of the mark when Abraham played Zaniolo into the box. It was a bang-bang play, but Zaniolo's low effort rolled harmlessly wide of the post and over the end line.
After 30 minutes, Roma held nearly 60% of the ball and fired five attempts Sepe's way but was continually frustrated by their age-old nemesis: poor finishing. The Giallorossi won another free-kick after Spinazzola was slapped in the face by Candreva, but Pellegrini's direct line at the goal was deflected by Grigoris Kastanos, who turned the ball way the near post.
Roma wouldn't have to wait much longer to find pay dirt...
Bryan Cristante: 33rd Minute (Salernitana 0, Roma 1)
Bryan Cristante gets space and opens the scoring for Roma! pic.twitter.com/fgfgQvjG15— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 14, 2022
With Salernitana struggling to clear the box after a Spinazzola throw-in, Tammy Abraham—from the seat of his pants—lashed a right-footed effort at Sepe, which was quickly turned away by the defense. Unfortunately for the hosts, the ball fell straight to an awaiting Cristante, who quickly settled the ball before firing a left-footer towards the far post. While he received a helping hand (or leg, as it were) from Coulibaly, Cristante's effort finally put Roma on top.
After some back and forth for the ensuing 10 minutes, Roma flexed their attacking muscles in the waning moments of the half, with Zaniolo again bursting through the Salernitana defense. This time, he played Dybala into space rather than hunting for his own goal. After taking a touch and drifting slightly to his left, Dybala deftly played the ball towards the far right post, missing a goal by a matter of inches.
And that was all she wrote for the first half. Roma could have easily piled three or four goals on Salernitana, but thanks to Cristante's heads-up play, the Giallorossi entered the dressing room on top.
Despite being on the wrong end of the scoreboard, Salernitana came out swinging to start the second half, playing with more aggression and purpose in the opening two minutes of the half than at any point in the prior 45 minutes. The Seahorses' persistence paid off in the 48th minute when Chris Smalling was booked after taking Erik Botheim down, giving the hosts a free kick from 25 yards out. Roma's wall held firm, turning away Candreva's thunderous effort.
Salernitana continued their refreshed approach, repeatedly picking on Rick Karsdorp down the right flank. Pasquale Mazzochi nearly drew a penalty after the Dutch defender appeared to drag him down in the box. However, the referee correctly judged that Karsdorp played the ball, not the man. Nevertheless, Salernitana saw something they wished to exploit down Roma's right flank.
Roma's next turn at bat came in the 57th minute when Spinazzola sprang Dybala into the box with an inch-perfect pass from at least 30 yards out. However, with the defender draped on him and Sepe quick off his line, Dybala had precious little time to convert the tight-angle shot but still came excruciatingly close to his first official Roma goal.
Salernitana would win another free kick from an advantageous position in the 61st minute after an Ibañez foul, preceded by a poor Cristante clearance. And just like they did to begin the half, Roma's wall stood firm, turning away Bonazzoli's effort. Still, Roma was tempting fate with some lackadaisical defending and rash challenges in their area.
Zaniolo's frustrations in front of goal continued in the 67th minute when he cut in from the flank and fired a left-footed effort at the near post, missing by a matter of inches. Despite his profligacy in the area, Zaniolo had his way with the Salernitana defense, cutting through them like a hot knife through butter.
Mourinho's first swap would see Nemanja Matic make his club debut, coming on for Abraham in the 69th minute, precipitating a slight change of formation in the process. Matic didn't take long to mix it up either, giving away a free kick after tripping up Coulibaly, earning his first Roma card in the process.
Roma would go to the bench again in the 79th minute, bringing off the noticeably tired Zaniolo for another debutant, Georginio Wijnaldum. With only 10 minutes remaining, as much as Mourinho decried Roma's ability to finish matches last season, he was in full lockdown mode.
Despite the static tactical approach, Wijnaldum nearly put the nail in the coffin in the 87th minute after Dybala squared a ball to him in the box. However, the Dutch midfielder was just a bit too anxious and was narrowly caught offside, canceling out his gimme goal.
Mourinho would kill the match by replacing Dybala with Stephan El Sharaawy in the 89th minute, and SES nearly set up Wijnaldum again, whose effort was thwarted by a last-ditch effort from the defense.
Thanks to a spate of substitutions and several free-kicks, the officials tacked on four minutes of stoppage time, but Roma managed to keep Salernitana under their thumb, taking all three points to start the new season on the right note.
No, it wasn't the 5-0 laugher we first envisioned, but Roma held serve for most of the match, doing just enough to claim three points. Admittedly, had Zaniolo been sharper in front of goal, this match would have been over before it began—and even Dybala saw a couple of efforts go wide of the mark—but Roma were the better side tonight. And you suspect that the goals will come relatively easily once they can iron out these wrinkles.
Despite the missed chances, there were plenty of causes for optimism. Even though they ultimately ceded possession to Salernitana, Roma still fired 20 shots on goal, and Zaniolo ran roughshod through the midfield. At the same time, the combination of Pellegrini and Dybala allowed Roma to dictate the pace of play and take the sting out of the match when necessary.
While a complete vivisection of the Seahorses would have produced more flowery praise, Roma proved they could win dirty if nothing else. And for the first match of the season, and with the club facing the weight of expectations, three points were all that mattered.
Roma welcomes Cremonese to the Olimpico next Monday.
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