Roma's debut in the Champions League last season was so thrilling that we may have glossed over an important fact. Rather than playing their home fixtures in the friendly confines of the Stadio Tre Fontane, which didn't meet UEFA requirements for hosting Champions League matches, the Giallorosse were forced to play their home fixtures some 45 minutes outside of the city, setting up shop at the Stadio Comunale Domenico Francioni in Latina.
While that minor inconvenience didn't derail Roma's progress last year—they won all three matches in Latina—the club made the necessary upgrades to the Stadio Tre Fontane, unveiling the Giallorosse's new and improved home ground earlier this week. And with the newly installed lights bathing the pitch in an LED glow and a standing-room-only crowd behind them, Roma welcomed Ajax to the capital for today's Champions League group stage fixture.
After dispatching PSG 1-0 last week, the reigning Dutch champions entered today's match with a slim two-point lead atop Group C. Their roster may not be packed with household names, but Ajax is dripping with talent, winning nine of their first eleven fixtures this season.
However, if you're familiar with Alessandro Spugna's side, you know they're not likely to be intimidated by anyone, no matter their reputation. A big part of Roma's pluck is their penchant for attacking early, seizing the initiative before their opponents can establish any rhythm or fluidity, and tonight was no exception. Rather than deviating from that plan and waiting for the match to settle into a groove, Roma immediately took matters into their own hands, winning a corner in the 5th minute.
With Manuela Giugliano's in-swinger taking an unexpectedly sharp turn towards the near post, Ajax keeper Regina van Eijk did well to parry the ball away, but in her haste, she inadvertently redirected the ball to Valentina Giacinti, who waited patiently for the ball to drop before pinging it back into the goal with a picture-perfect volley.
Sensing a chance to bury the match early, Roma continued to force the issue deep in Ajax territory, winning another corner in the 7th minute. This time, Giugliano's ball drifted towards the far post, but Roma caught a break when the deflection found Moeka Minami near the left post. And while she rose high and hit the ball dead-on, it skirted just wide of the right post, denying the Giallosse a second goal.
In keeping with the corner kick theme, Ajax nearly leveled the match in the 12th minute when Romée Leuchter managed to hold off Minami, snapping a header at the near post, only to be denied by Camelia Ceasar, who sprang into action to parry the ball away from harm.
Despite the one-goal lead, Roma didn't rest on their laurels, but they caught a massive break in the 14th minute when van Ejik committed the cardinal sin of goalkeeping: bobbling a back pass. After surviving another Roma onslaught, Ajax attempted to reorganize, but disaster struck when Isa Kardinaal played the ball back to van Ejik. The problem, at least as far as Ajax is concerned, is that van Ejik glanced up the pitch at the exact moment Kardinaal was playing the ball back toward the goal, losing sight of the ball as it rolled gently towards the near post.
And that momentary lapse in concentration was all it took for Giacinti to pounce on the ball, tapping it home before van Ejik could recover. While this was a horrific gaffe from van Ejik, let's not discredit Giacinti's effort here—she darted right for the six-yard box the second Kardinaal played the ball back to the keeper.
While there would be a few close calls on either end of the pitch, Roma put the match to bed in the 47th minute, grabbing another goal thanks to their relentless pressure, presence of mind, and execution. After seeing a promising attacking move turned away by a Kardinaal interception, Roma's forwards immediately flipped into disruptors, with Giacinti and Giugliano forcing a turnover in the penalty area, eventually swinging the ball out wide to Emilie Haavi.
With the reigning league MVP driving toward the end-line, Giugliano drifted toward the near post, hitting an exquisite one-time volley, beating van Ejik easily before hitting the crowd with a Paulo Dybala-style celebration.
And that was all she wrote. It only took five minutes for Roma to win the match, but what unfolded afterward may have established the Giallorosse as the prohibitive Group C favorites. As it stands now, after two matches, Roma is even with Bayern Munich on four points but holds the group lead on goal differential.
If you were too busy gorging yourself on turkey, feast your eyes on the highlights.