Roma rebounded nicely from their early September malaise by squeaking past Empoli in a tight 2-1 match before wiping the floor with HJK Helsinki on Thursday evening. After a sluggish first-half performance, the Giallorossi, inspired once again by Paulo Dybala, made quick work of their Finnish guests in a 3-0 rout, setting the stage for today's match against Atalanta, the final stop in a three-matches-in-six-day span for José Mourinho and Roma.
Despite that bounce-back performance, it wasn't all good news for the Giallorossi, as right-back Rick Karsdorp suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee, an injury that will likely keep him out through November. In his place, Zeki Celik got the nod at right wing-back, playing opposite Leonardo Spinazzola, while Chris Smalling, Gianluca Mancini, and Roger Ibañez comprised the remainder of the defense in front of Rui Patricio.
Roma received another dose of bad news moments before kickoff when Dybala was removed from the starting lineup due to a muscle injury he sustained in warmups. With Nemanja Matic taking his place, Lorenzo Pellegrini—who was originally in the double pivot alongside Bryan Cristante—moved into a more advanced position.
Never a dull moment in Roma, eh?
Despite the unexpected loss of Dybala, the Stadio Olimpico was rocking as the Giallorossi took the pitch, with sixty-thousand strong serenading the club and painting the stands with yellow and red placards that were gleaming under the setting sun as Lorenzo Pellegrini led his club into battle.
The opening five minutes of the match, which was choppy enough already, was interrupted when Atalanta keeper Juan Musso was forced out in only the 6th minute after colliding with his teammate Merih Demiral while attempting to clear a high ball. While he tried in vain to convince the trainers to let him soldier on, the sight of his rapidly swelling eye socket was enough to end his afternoon.
Whether it was that unexpected break in play or simply two sides seemingly uncertain how to proceed, through the opening 18 minutes, Roma and Atalanta combined for only one shot on goal—a first-minute Chris Smalling header.
Sadly, the pace of play didn't pick up, though Roma enjoyed a few nice passages of play around the 30-minute mark, with Abraham, Zaniolo, and Bryan Cristante teaming up on a three-touch move that resulted in Cristante firing wide from 20+ yards out. Roger Ibañez then teed one up from 30+ yards out straight into Marco Sportiello's waiting hands.
With three combined shots in the first 35 minutes, this wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for Serie A, as neither club could seem to unpack the midfield, resulting in speculative balls over the top, hasty counterattacks, and more frustrated looks than the camera could catch.
And, as if we needed further evidence that this just wasn't Roma's day, Atalanta scored on their first attempt of the match after Giorginio Scalvini—a teenage center-back—beat Rui Patricio from the point giving the visitors a 1-0 lead with 10 minutes to play in the half.
18-YEAR OLD GIORGIO SCALVINI WITH A BEAUTIFUL FINISH.— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) September 18, 2022
HE IS A CENTERBACK. pic.twitter.com/IWWiaz6yq1
Roma came excruciatingly close to leveling moments later when Tammy Abraham got loose behind the final defender, setting up a one-v-one against Sportiello. However, rather than chipping the ball over the keeper, Abraham tried to gently tuck it inside the left post but missed the goal by a matter of inches, watching in frustration as the ball slowly curved wide of the mark.
That’s ugly from Abraham. Schick vs Juve kind of bad.— DeRossi’s Tattoo (@RomaThings) September 18, 2022
Sub him until he is back in form please pic.twitter.com/rOnp8Miiq6
Tammy had another close call in the 45th minute when Nemanja Matic, who was making an impressive wheeling run around the left edge of the box, played the ball to Abraham at the near left post. It was a bang-bang play, and Abraham seemed likely to score, but Sportiello had the near post covered like a glove.
Despite three added minutes, the score remained one-nil to Atalanta at halftime.
Unlike last week's match against Helsinki, where his side suffered through similar synchronicity issues, Mourinho didn’t make any changes to start the new half, though his side did look more aggressive in the first few minutes, making multiple runs through the heart of the Atalanta defense.
With Roma struggling in the run of play, their early chances came via setpiece, with Pellegrini whipping a 53rd-minute free-kick into Gianluca Mancini, who was relatively clear but saw the ball glance off the top of his head and sail out of play.
Moments later, Nicolo Zaniolo was taken down in the box by the Udinese defense. Even though the contact was clearly initiated outside of the box, referee Daniele Chiffi was immediately swarmed by Roma players pleading for a penalty call, or at the very least, a VAR review. While Chiffi remained calm, Mourinho was apoplectic on the touchline, screaming and gesturing wildly at Chiffi, who was quick to show The Special One a straight red for insubordination.
Jose Mourinho is shown a straight red card. pic.twitter.com/Sxm3tj9xGM— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) September 18, 2022
And once play resumed, Zaniolo went down in the box again. And while this was slightly closer to an actual foul, Chiffi wasn’t buying it, and play resumed, despite Zaniolo's exasperated look.
While all this was going on, and with the crowd growing more hostile by the minute, Atalanta nearly bagged another goal, only to be denied by a Tammy Abraham goal-line clearance in the 61st minute.
With approximately 20 minutes remaining and Roma desperately chasing an equalizer, Mourinho (or his deputy by proxy) brought Andrea Belotti into the fray in place of Matic, giving the Giallorossi two strikers for the final push. And Roma nearly converted as Roger Ibañez flashed a near post header off a corner kick, missing by no more than a foot.
And in the very next passage of play, Belotti nearly created something out of nothing after he intercepted a pass deep in the attacking third, creating an indirect scoring chance for Pellegrini in the process, who received a backpass from Abraham only to fire an 18-yarder right into Sportiello's gloves.
Tammy tested Sportiello in the 73rd minute, cutting in from the left and unfurling a well-hit ball from 20+ yards out. It was a good look from the Englishman, but the ball fell right into Sportiello's hands, who was playing well despite coming off the bench early in the first half.
With 10 minutes left to play and Roma still hunting for a goal, Eldor Shomurodov joined the party in place of Abraham, who had another frustrating early-season performance. The Giallorossi would go to the bench again in the 87th minute, swapping out Mancini for Nicola Zalewski.
And in nearly the same breath, Shomurodov had one point in his hand, staring in disbelief as he missed a wide-open header at the far left post—a feat he'd repeat moments later with a shot from the edge of the area that also skirted wide of the goal.
Shomurdov saw his name called again in stoppage time after Zalewski played a beautiful ball from midfield, sending the Uzbek striker into the left channel. With Belotti mirroring his run on the right, Shomurodov could have taken a tight-angled attempt of his own or squared it to Belotti for a tap-in goal. Shomurodov, to his credit, played a great ball to Belotti, but Demiral intervened, turning the ball away at the last moment.
But that was all she wrote. Despite five minutes of stoppage time, Roma couldn't find the breakthrough that eluded them for the previous 90 minutes, dropping a crucial early-season match and heading into the international break on a dour note.
This was probably the worst-case scenario for today's match. There’s certainly no shame in falling to Atalanta, but with 56% possession and 21 attempts at goal (to Atalanta's four), Roma did so while looking ineffective, inefficient, and uninspired. There were no excuses today, this was an ugly performance from the Giallorossi, who now sit in sixth place on 13 points as we head into the break.
We're barely 20% of the way into the season, so there is plenty of time for Mourinho to turn this around, but with two defeats in their last three league matches, Roma are digging themselves a hole, so he better act quickly before it gets too deep.
The international break. Play resumes on October 1 when Roma travels north to face Inter Milan.