With the Nicolo Zaniolo affair firmly in the past, Roma is now free to focus on more consequential matters, like improving their place in Serie A's top four, among others. With a spot in the Champions League likely deciding whether or not they keep José Mourinho and Paulo Dybala, Roma could ill afford a slip-up against 14th-place Lecce.
Despite that low spot on the standings, Roma's red and yellow twins have notched a few upsets this season, including wins over Lazio and Atalanta. With 17 matches left to play, every point counts as Mourinho’s men look to secure a place in the next season's Champions League. So in that light, Lecce are just as fearsome a foe as Napoli or Inter Milan—Roma just needed a W, full stop.
Given the importance of this match, Mourinho rolled out the same starting lineup that defeated Empoli 2-0 last weekend, highlighted by Tammy Abraham in attack supported by Paulo Dybala, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Stephan El Shaarawy with Chris Smalling anchoring the defense in front of Rui Patricio in goal.
And things got off to a promising start for Roma as they stole the opening kickoff away from Lecce and won a corner after only 29 seconds, and quickly won another...and another after Dybala's first two attempts were turned away. If you're counting at home, that's three corners in the span of maybe 15 seconds—and Roma whiffed on all three, a far cry from their performance in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, Roma was playing fast and loose to begin this match and seemed determined to break the deadlock before the clock even reached double digits. Despite their best efforts going forward, Lecce actually fired the first genuine shot on frame, forcing Rui Patricio to parry the ball over the bar in the 6th minute, winning a corner in the process.
And that's where things got ugly.
Roger Ibañez (OG): 7th Minute (Lecce 1, Roma 0)
Two goals in two weeks for Federico Baschirotto.— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 11, 2023
Lecce stun Roma 6 minutes into the match. pic.twitter.com/vlCKwyEEq4
After tracking down a lovely out-swinging cross, Lecce defender Federico Baschirotti found a tiny crevice of space between Chris Smalling and Roger Ibañez. It was a collision of three massive defenders, but Baschirotti somehow managed a glancing header and beat Patricio at the right post, though it may have been an own goal off Ibañez, who took a glancing blow of his own, falling to the pitch after colliding with Smalling and Baschirotti.
(This was, in fact, later deemed an own goal on Ibañez.)
With the cannons booming and smoke from the flares descending on the pitch, Roma were up against the proverbial it as they chased a one-nil deficit early in this match. The capital came close to leveling in the 15th minute when El Shaarawy nearly beat Falcone after taking a back-heel flick from Tammy, but he couldn't quite wrap his foot around it, missing semi clear-cut chance.
Roma would catch a break in the very next breath when they won a penalty kick after a Lecce handball in the box, one Paulo Dybala converted with ease, stutter-stepping his way into an easy goal in the lower right-hand corner.
We didn't expect Lecce to simply faint at the sight of Roma, but I'm not sure anyone expected such a chaotic start to this fixture. Fortunately, things settled down as the match wound its way towards the half-hour mark, though Roma were struggling to break down a surprisingly resolute Lecce defense.
The final quarter hour wasn't any kinder to Roma, as the Lecce defense continued to give them fits, hacking, chopping, and grabbing at any Roma ball carrier with impunity since the officials decided to eat their whistles.
Between the quiet officials, the stout Lecce defense, and their own shortcomings in the run of play, Roma walked into the dressing room at halftime dispirited but not defeated. But what could Mourinho do to inspire his squad ahead of the second half?
With neither side making changes to start the second half, it was business as usual: Lecce doing their level best to disrupt Mourinho's orchestra as they attempted to find some sort of rhythm in the second 45.
Roma's first look of the second half came via the set-piece after Pellegrini found Abraham with an out-swinger towards the far left post. Tammy got a clean header on the ball only to be denied by Falcone, who dove quickly to his right, parrying Abraham's header away from harm. Tammy did everything perfectly here, but Falcone made a miraculous save on the shot.
The Giallorossi's next look would come thanks to another free kick, this one dead center from roughly 25 yards away. Pellegrini went straight for goal this time, missing wide right by approximately three feet. This wasn't necessarily a bad effort under the circumstances, but he couldn't quite get enough swerve on the ball to settle in the upper right-hand corner of the goal.
Roma would have additional setpiece chances in the ensuing block of time but remained frustrated by their inability to break down the Lecce defense as the match approached the hour mark. A matter made worse when Pellegrini skied an open look well over the bar in the 65th minute from the edge of the box.
And that's how it went for the ensuing 15 minutes. Roma moved the ball well enough but couldn't penetrate the last line of Lecce's defense, and with Mourinho seemingly content to sit on all five of his subs, there was no lifeline coming from the bench.
Mourinho would finally go to the bench in the 83rd minute, swapping out Abraham for Andrea Belotti and Nemanja Matic for Georginio Wijnaldum, respectively. The Special One would turn to the bench once more in the 88th, bringing Ola Solbakken into the fray in place of Lorenzo Pellegrini.
In the end, it mattered little as Mourinho's men failed to make a dent in the Lecce backline in the closing phases of this match, including five added minutes. A draw is surely better than a loss, but this puts Roma in a precarious position as they'll be forced to wait and hope Lazio and Atalanta draw; otherwise, they risk falling out of the top four.
Missed chances, horrible officiating, and the opposing keeper playing out of his mind. This match had all the trappings of a classic Roma Happened match. At the very least, they didn't concede a stoppage-time winner to Lecce, but it's hard to walk away from this match feeling upbeat.
After winning two of their previous three matches, it finally felt like Roma was turning things around, only to be waylaid by a tough but decidedly less talented Lecce side, who can now add Roma to their list of 2022-2023 conquests.
All Roma can do now is hope that Lazio and Atalanta draw later today, sparing Roma's top-four hopes for another week.
Roma returns to the Europa League as they face Salzburg in the first leg of the quarterfinals on Thursday in Austria.