Roma was dealt a tough hand in their final training session before today's match, losing midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum to a fractured right tibia, giving them a built-in excuse to be distracted. However, the Giallorossi quickly dispelled that notion, rushing onto the pitch for pre-match warmups sporting shirts with "Forza Gini" scrawled across their chests as a jam-packed Olimpico waited in anticipation for the opening whistle.
And while we'll never know if José Mourinho planned on giving Wijnaldum the starting nod over Bryan Cristante in midfield, the Portuguese tactician opted for lineup continuity in the club's second match, rolling out the same lineup that dispatched Salernitana last weekend. With Paulo Dybala, Tammy Abraham, Nicolo Zaniolo, and club captain Lorenzo Pellegrini each starting from the word go, Roma had more than enough firepower to quell Cremonese.
Just like they did last weekend, Roma relied on Zaniolo for offensive inspiration, as the 23-year-old forward sliced through the midfield in the 3rd minute. With room to run and options on his left and right, Zaniolo played the ball to Abraham on the right, who quickly flashed the ball across the face of the goal to Pellegrini at the left post. Unfortunately, the ball drifted wide as it swept across the six-yard box, leaving Pellegrini no other option than a desperate stretched effort that had little chance of beating the keeper.
Roma continued to probe for an opener in the 9th minute when Dybala, working out wide on the left, whipped the ball across the goal mouth towards Tammy Abraham, who made a perfect corresponding run. However, to their credit, the Cremonese defense had it covered, doing just enough to alter Abraham's shot, which looped over the crossbar.
The first 15 minutes of this match were eerily similar to last weekend's trip to Salerno, where Roma ran roughshod through the midfield, finding and exploiting seams thanks to Zaniolo's aggression and Dybala's creativity, only to be left frustrated by poor finishing and missed chances in the final third. And credit once again to the supposedly inferior opponents, who remained calm and organized against their pricier Roman opponents.
The Giallorossi's frustrations continued in the 18th minute when Cremonese keeper Ionut Radu pulled off a sensational double save, denying Zaniolo and Dybala in quick succession, thwarting Zaniolo's stinging effort with a diving parry before turning away Dybala's rebound attempt.
And so it went for the ensuing 10 to 15 minutes. While lacking some of their earlier aggression, Roma still managed to create chances at the ready, with Leonardo Spinazzola missing an excellent opportunity in the area in the 25th minute after a superb low cross from Rick Karsdorp.
Next up, it was Zaniolo's turn to be denied by Cremonese. After Dybala sprung a counter-attack by picking out Pellegrini at the midfield stripe, Roma's captain quickly shuffled the ball to Zaniolo near the edge of the 18-yard box. With Zaniolo locked and loaded, Vlad Chiriches entered the frame, snuffing out Zaniolo's attempt with a sliding block in the 31st minute.
Zaniolo had another great look at goal in the 42nd minute, bursting through the midfield again before being upended by Luka Lochoshvili, who did well to break up the would-be goal with a hard slide tackle, one that kept Zaniolo on the pitch for several minutes as the trainers tended to his left shoulder. While he got off the pitch under his own power, he was ultimately carted off the pitch clutching his shoulder and looking in considerable pain as he was taken to the locker room.
With Zaniolo out of the match, Mourinho turned to Stephan El Shaarawy, who joined the fray in the 45th minute and even managed an attempt on goal during stoppage time, a dainty effort from 25 yards out that didn't trouble Radu.
After four minutes of stoppage time, the halftime whistle sounded with Roma pumping 14 shots at Radu with nothing to show for their efforts.
While Mourinho was forced into a substitution following Zaniolo's injury late in the first half, the rest of his lineup remained the same to start the new half, as did the results, as Roma saw their first two efforts denied by the Cremonese defense. At the same time, at the other end of the pitch, Cyriel Dessers nearly silenced the 60,000 Roma fans who watched in horror as his shot glided towards the top of Rui Patricio's goal, only to be denied by the crossbar.
But that wasn't the last we'd hear from the goal apparatus.
Stephan El Shaarawy hits the crossbar! Roma also come close to opening the scoring. pic.twitter.com/4R0b2zJ7x8— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 22, 2022
With the match deadlocked and the clock ticking away, El Shaarawy nearly found his moment, taking the back pass from Abraham and quickly one-timing the ball at Radu, who barely managed to get a finger on it yet somehow redirected it off the crossbar. But Roma's misery wasn't over yet as Paulo Dybala’s rebounded effort swerved wide of the mark, compounding Roma's finishing frustrations.
The Giallorossi faithful wouldn't have to wait much longer for the momentum to shift.
Chris Smalling: 65th Minute (Roma 1, Cremonese 0)
Chris Smalling opens the scoring with a header! pic.twitter.com/Dzd3ENLpGC— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 22, 2022
In a moment fitting the match, where Roma couldn't find a breakthrough in the run of play, the Giallorossi drew first blood thanks to a sublime setpiece from Pellegrini and Chris Smalling. With the captain whipping in an in-swinger from the left corner flag, Smalling rose to the occasion at the far post, steering the ball in the opposite direction with an expert header.
Cremonese nearly leveled the match moments later when Lochoshvili tested Patricio, pulling the Portuguese keeper off his line in the 68th minute with a lashed effort from the left flank. The visitors created two half-chances moments later, sending shivers down Roma's spine off a setpiece of their own while Emanuele Valeri spun his way into and out of a chance at the near left post.
After Tammy Abraham tested Radu with a stinging turn and fire in the middle of the box, Mourinho went to the bench, bringing on Nemanja Matic and Nicola Zalewski in place of Dybala and Spinazzola, respectively. With approximately 20 minutes to play, Mourinho's intent was clear: kill this match off, collect the points and call it a day.
Despite Mourinho's best efforts to drain the match of any attacking intent, Cremonese kept coming at the Giallorossi and came excruciatingly close to leveling the match after Cristian Buonaiuto's free-kick nearly beat Rui Patricio at the near left post, skimming across the top netting after missing the frame by a matter of inches.
Mourinho would turn to the bench down the stretch, swapping out Karsdorp for Zeki Celik in the 86th minute, giving the Turkish full-back his club debut in front of a sold-out Stadio Olimpico ready to burst before the final whistle.
With four minutes of added time, Roma still had plenty of work to do, and Cremonese wasn't done scaring us yet. In the 90th minute, midfielder Charles Pickel came centimeters away from stealing a point at the death, watching in disbelief as his shot sailed just wide of the left upright.
Eventually, Roma walked away victorious, but this one was definitely too close for comfort.
In a near carbon copy of their victory over Salernitana last week, Roma did just enough to overcome their poor marksmanship in the final third, being carried to victory again by an unlikely source, with Chris Smalling replacing last week's hero, Bryan Cristante.
Taken together, these results are as uplifting as they are dispiriting. On the one hand, a team with this much talent in attack shouldn't struggle to put away likely relegation battlers like Salernitana and Cremonese. However, on the other hand, you must admire Roma's resolve—they capitalized when it mattered most, and in the end, that's all that counts.
No rest for the weary as Roma travels north to face Juventus on Saturday.